I have two fears when faced with steep hills: rolling backwards or going so slowly that I just stall out and fall over. Thank goodness I have only partially experienced the two. Both occurred on our first Fort Davis Cyclefest, a 75.5 mile ride through the Davis Mountains.
Rolling Hills Before the Mountains
Before hitting the mountains, I was going up a steep hill very slowly. I have a bad habit of lowering my head and plowing up a hill. Well, Christine had beaten me up the hill, was stopped, and was taking pictures of the scenery. I had my head down and plowed into her, well, bumped anyway since I was going so slowly. I applied my brakes and just fell over. Skinned my ankle, was bleeding, was humiliated, and angry for not looking where I was going. Now to make it worse, if it could get worse, near the top of the hill I had passed two bikers who were walking their bikes up the hill. As I was still on the ground assessing my bleeding, the first guy walked by and asked Christine “Did you get a picture of that”? Cheeky guy. But to serve them right, since they walked up a hill before we ever got to the mountains, they sagged before we hit Bear Mountain and we never saw them again. So, tip #1, when grunting and straining to get up a hill, look up every once in a while to see where you are going and what is ahead of you. If I had followed that advice, I would have one less scar.
Rolling backwards. Now that is scary. When we were grinding away trying to get up Bear Mountain, we would watch the odometers, and when we would go less than 4 miles an hour, we would stop and rest. On one such stop, I didn’t fully recover. As I would pedal off with one foot, I wouldn’t get my other foot on the other pedal fast enough to keep me going. The bike would stop, roll back a little before I could get my unclipped foot down to the ground to stop me. Very disconcerting to say the least. So if you have to rest while going up a hill, do so. At least rest long enough so that your breathing becomes normal.
Long hills such as this one can wear you down. Our philosophy is that it is better to stop and rest than try to be a hero and not make it up a hill.
Another non-scientific tidbit. When going up a very steep hill stay seated. It is extremely difficult to unclip while standing. Use all of your leg muscles. Most of us old timers were just able to push down on a pedal. With clipless pedals, while pushing down, PULL UP with the other leg. Push/pull will double your power. And if you still slow down to a dangerous speed, with each down stroke, consider whether you should unclip to prepare to stop. If you haven’t learned yet, the moment the bike stops is not the time to start thinking about unclipping. You will find yourself still thinking about unclipping while lying on the ground.
And one more non-scientific tidbit. Work on balance. I have found that if you keep moving forward, you can get down to 2.9 miles per hour and still stay upright. I did this at Stonewall.
The start of the infamous "Wall" on Willow Loop, Stonewall, where I hit 2.9 mph.
Non-scientific tidbit #3. Let me contradict myself if anyone thinks that I advocate never standing while climbing a hill. Sometimes standing is the only way I can get to the top of some hills. But what I said about its being very hard to unclip while standing is correct. So, don’t go into a hill in the big chain ring on the smallest cog and plan to make it up the hill. You will stall out--at least I will because I don’t have the strength to pedal up a steep incline in the big chain ring. It is very scary to be standing on the pedal, pulling up on the handle bars as hard as I can, and the pedal will not go down. (That is when you plop back into the seat, unclip the lower pedal, step to the ground to stop/balance—all at the speed of Superman—or guess what). So, here is what I do. Know your capabilities. I look at the hill to try to determine if it is going to be a middle chain ring or a small chain ring. Go into the hill with as much speed as you can muster with as large a gear ratio as you can, but just as the pedaling gets hard, shift to a lower gear. Shift gears BEFORE you really have to. About two cogs out from the easiest, shift into the next smaller chain ring. When you are in the smallest gear that is comfortable and you still have some hill left, click up about two cogs since you will have more power (theoretically) and stand BEFORE it is really necessary to get up the hill. I emphasized “before necessary” twice. I have the problem that if I wait until I have to shift, many times I pop my chain off and have to stop to put it back on the ring. I even bent a chain ring once when I waited too long to shift. If you wait until you HAVE to stand up or stop, you have waited too long and you probably will stop—just not as you would have desired.
I know the above paragraph is too long and therefore hard to follow. What was said was: shift down before you have to in order to keep pedaling faster and not let your speed go down to a dangerous level. If you are going to stand, do so before you have to. By waiting too long gravity, speed, and everything else will be against you.
The above are hints and experiences of a beginner. I have read articles by the experts about how to climb hills and their advice sounds so much more manly than mine. If you wish to find out more, two good articles on the topic can be found at:
Have fun. Two things you can’t escape in Texas are hills and wind. Since they are ever present, all we can do is try to learn to deal with them.