Climbing Basics 101 (or, climbing can't really be this hard, can it?)

Hey, everyone. A little help, please…

I’m a “beginner” recreational cyclist at 110kg and 160W FTP (1.46 W/kg). I recently moved from flat-as-a-pancake Miami FL to Tenafly NJ and discovered that most/all hills require 300W+ for me to make any progress, however slowly.

The two hills I care about ascend 500 and 1300 vertical feet and are both 6-8% grade. Obviously I can put out 3W/kg for just 1-2 minutes and I can’t climb either one without stopping to walk the bike! So two questions:

  1. I can’t imagine the kids and grandpas in my neighborhood regularly put out 3W/kg to climb a hill, so… am I possibly doing something wrong in terms of technique that I need so much power to climb? How much power should (for example) 5% and 10% grades reasonably require?

  2. What should my training focus be to improve my nonexistent climbing ability? Just try like hell to raise my FTP, or what?

For whatever it’s worth, my usual cadence is 90 rpm and my lowest gear is 31x36 (0.86). My chainrings are Rotor 48-31 and my cassette is the SRAM 10-36.

ANY advice on learning to climb is appreciated. :smile:

Thanks in advance!

Practice staying in the seat, grinding a really low cadence and balancing. There is no hurry to get up a hill, I can stay in the seat at less that 50rpm and crawl up that hill if I want to.

Whilst most cyclists think hills are all about going as hard as you can then resting at the top and/or coasting the downhills, it’s much more efficient and effective to pace yourself then keep the power on over the crest into the downhill.

Good luck.

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I’m not up to date on road tech, but I’ve got a feeling there’s a 10-42 cassette available or something similar? If you can afford/find one that might improve your climbing experience a fair bit.

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Ultimately it’s just practice. If you haven’t done many (any) hills then it’s just going to take time to get used to them. 6-8% is reasonably steep (it’s a typical grade for a Tour de France mountain climb for example though there’ll be some steeper bits) so settle into a steady cadence in the 60-70rpm range and see how far you get. Then return to the bottom and repeat. You’ll slowly build up the muscles needed - the position in climbing is slightly different to on the flat so it’s not quite the same stresses.

Get a wider range cassette if your rear mech can cope with it - I don’t know SRAM kit so can’t comment on it.

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31 front and 36 back is pretty decent gearing for climbing on a road bike. That is getting into mountain bike territory. You should be able to spin pretty fast on that? I’m a bigger guy and I can tell you: W/Kg is everything in climbing. I’m at around 2.2 W/Kg and I get destroyed when climbing with my smaller friends. I think that your bike gearing is probably fine. Climbing will improve if you can increase your FTP with training and/or shed some weight.

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I was 100kg about a year ago, with ftp around 260 so 2.6W/kg. A shortish 9.5% local climb is about 10 minutes at 225-240W. Its totally possible to do 3-4mph at 2W/kg on reasonable grades when doing endurance.

The obvious answers are: a) raising threshold (W/kg), b) cutting weight (W/kg), and the out of box thinking to improve W/kg is c) buying an e-bike because we rented some last month for my wife and daughters, and they dropped me on the climbs.

If you work on FTP you don’t need to practice climbing to get faster. I’m often grinding at 50rpm on the steeper climbs. Several ways to work on muscle endurance, assuming your knees are ok doing low cadence. Otherwise you really need to look at gearing.

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If you can shed any of that 110kg (increase your w/kg) you’ve got good gears for spinning up hills. That could be the easiest way to improve. You can maybe increase your ftp too but its harder to do both (lose weight and increase power), but not impossible. Kids at least can shoot up hills at a low power because they also have a low weight. Its mostly about w/kg in hills. Their grandpas are probably also lighter.

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I can tell you that your gearing is fine. You need to lose the weight. I can tell a difference in climbing by just losing 10lbs. I was 90kg in 2018 and climbing was great. As I gained weight up to 105kg and the difference was striking. I’m not even going to talk about what it was like to try and “climb” at 115kg as I weighed late last year.

Almost made me quit.

I’ve lost 27lbs since then, so I’m sitting at 103kg which is still way too high. But again, even 10lbs makes a remarkable difference in how it “feels” to climb to make no mention of the increase in speed.

At our weight (too much) we’ll see faster and bigger gains with weight loss than we will from increasing FTP.

Good luck, climbing a nice road when you’re feeling good and the elation of getting to the top and maybe getting a PR is about the best feeling on a bike IMHO.

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I don’t know if this is your usual cadence when riding these hills, but if it is, it’s too high

This. Slow your cadence way down. Don’t try spin up the hill. On one of your rides, see how slow you can ride up the hill in your 31-36. Do this solo, not in a group.

I have a segment on a local hill. Half mile at 16% average grade. In my fatbike on snow, I’ll sometimes average 2mph. My cadence is maybe 30-40 rpm.

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I’m 10 kg heavier than you and have, compared to you, a lot of experience on hills similar to what you are dealing with in your new location. In my opinion you have the gearing to get up the hills. What you lack is the oomph and stamina to get up them. As others have noted you need to slow down and pace yourself.
Get into your lowest gear and ride slowly up the hill. I have gone up many a hill at 1.2 miles per hour.
If you have to stop on the hill that is ok. Simply stop and rest a few minutes then start pedaling again. Keep this up until you reach the top and then keep on going. Over time you will increase both your muscular strength and your muscular endurance.
During this time of developing strength and endurance work on losing whatever weight you can manage; 4 to 5 lbs per month.
Stay consistent with this and you will succeed.

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  1. Weight. Try a calorie counting app. It will help portion size; track macros; and keep you honest about what you consume. Eventually/hopefully you will lose fat.

  2. Strength training in general. Increased lean muscle mass; more stabile core; increased strength. Eventually/hopefully you will increase power on the bike and help lose more fat.

  3. On the bike work. Lots of different ways to skin this cat. I really think new riders (modern times) focus way too much on hiit. Not that it’s bad but, it burns them out as they do way too much too quick. Just beware. It’s ok to ride easier than you think especially at first. IMO your goal, at first, should be riding to add to a calorie deficit each day. A variety of intensity is fine but, I think easy enough that your legs are not too sore the next day. The goal is to be more consistent day to day and not burn out. Small increases in time/Kj’s/calories/etc…each week.

  4. If you are older, keep moving. IMO older people gain weight not because of metabolism but, lifestyle. They don’t stay active all day like when younger. Projects around the house can really help keep you away from food and keep the calories burning.

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Climbing is as much a mental challenge, as it is physical. Look at all of the factors.

When you attempt these climbs, how much riding have you done prior to hitting the bottom? Are you warmed up or have you been on the bike for two hours? Could be that you need 30+ minutes to feel ready to accept the challenge or maybe you’re arriving too late in the ride to have the power in the legs. Only you will know this.

Once you hit the bottom, don’t bail all of your gears. Leave yourself one, known as ‘The Dead Mans Click’. Knowing that you have this can give you such a mental boost. You can make things easier, if you really need to.

Start of slow. Really slow. You’re just turning over. Yes, your heart rate will rise but it shouldn’t rocket. Be mindful of your breathing, focusing on the exhale. Also look at your grip on the bars. Keep your hands loose. This will help to reduce tension in your upper body.

Then break the climb down. Pick markers. Those are your goals. The top is the ultimate goal but breaking a climb down into sections will enable you to objectively gauge progress.

Don’t give up :+1:

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Yes, this is what it is likely to be a very slow cyclist (I speak from experience, except I was bigger).
The dominator in your power/weight equation is simply too large to go fast at your FTP.

The kids and grandpas don’t need to anywhere near 3.0 watts/kg to leave you in their dust. This is basically the difference between a recreational cyclist and a pro.

Also, if you need to do 300 watts to make any progress, your gears are too long.
You probably need something akin to mountain bike gears.

On another note, zig-zagging makes climbing either when you’re out of gears.

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Think you’re going at it too hard. Don’t try and blast it, just take it slow. As others have said, use your gears and ride at a slow cadence.

If you have a powermeter on the bike, try and not go over your FTP.

Are you always stopping at the same points? It could be that the gradient pitches up. See if you can take a different line that has a lower gradient, for example around the outside of a corner. Or you can “cut the gradient” by riding diagonally across the road (if that is safe!).

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To rule out/confirm your questioning of your gearing, borrow a mates MTB and ride up in his 34-36/50-52 depending on what they may have and if you have the same issues, then accpet that your gearing is acceptable (as everyone has relayed, but only you can confirm when doing this), which it is.

As has been stated, climbing hills is a mental challenge and convincing the mind to do something will allow the body to follow, unless it is physiologically impeded by a broken something.

Being lighter in body mass, having a higher FTP-W/kg, a lighter/newer bike, etc are peripherals (and ideals to have) to what and how you condition your body. Start adding in big gear/low and high cadence efforts along with sustained efforts and you will surely start to see a difference. And give your self a decent time frame of transition and then re-evaluate against expectations.

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To be brutally honest: The problem is 2 fold : You are very heavy and you have very low cycling power. You know that that is the problem. Instead of trying to buy new gearing or an e-bike why not take it as a challenge and over the course of the summer lose a load of weight and raise your FTP by 100W. It is not quick but it is fairly easy, or straightforward at least.

Your handle of “agingcannon” suggest that you might not be all that young. Unless you are very very old then that is no excuse. Some people call themselves “old” at 50, others at 60. They can still ride pretty fast.

Full disclosure: I used to be a bike-pushing-up-hills person - I once simply couldn’t see how it was possible to ride up these things. I have also been overweight in the past, a long time ago. I am now over 50 though and can go up hills at a fair clip and really enjoy the effort. Set some goals, start actioning the plan and you’ll get there…

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Is it? I haven’t increased my FTP at all since I got a powermeter 5 years ago.

Also I think this is the wrong way round - I’m pretty sure the OP will increase their FTP, and lose weight, but it’ll come over time with cycling more. Both of it will obviously help climbing hills, but its not as if they can’t do it the way they currently are. There is experience and technique involved, which seems to be the main issue.

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You’re here on the TR forum and let’s be honest your absolute FTP is really low, so you have a lot of potential growth in you especially with structured training. You could probably also lose weight but I would focus on getting stronger first, the weight will follow. Pick a low volume plan and choose a speciality like climbing road race, TT or century to increase your sustainable power for getting up those hills

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It’s physics first, then physical and mental.

At your weight an 8% gradient at 3mph will require 136-140W. Or about 85% of your FTP. Yes that is slow but possible.

Try these calculators:

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I started TR at your W/kg, and my first goal was to make it up a hill near my house that I couldn’t ride up without stopping. Six months later I was at about 2.3 W/kg (and I had the QOM but it was a pretty low-traffic hill).

Don’t worry about these people, but also don’t underestimate little kid strength or old man strength :laughing:

One of the things I love about climbing at normal-human speeds is the simplicity of the physics involved:

image

At your threshold power, you’ll go up a 7% grade at about 6kph.

Don’t worry about the “low” watts, don’t worry about the kids and grandpas who pass you, don’t worry about anything except your own progress.

“Climbing ability” is just W/kg + pacing + masochism. If you stay consistent with your training, you’ll raise your W, and that’ll get you up hills faster. (If you want to start racing up hills you can focus on time to exhaustion at suprathreshold, but that’s a problem for future you.)

Slow waaaaaaay down. Make it a game, see how slowly you can pedal without falling over (or destroying your knees :sweat_smile:). Your current gearing should be fantastic for climbing, so my guess is that trying to maintain 90rpm is what’s killing you.

Don’t stop and walk! Stop and recover, breathe, drink, and then keep riding.

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