RPE & Power on climbs vs flats

Hi! I have noticed that it is harder for me to sustain the same WATTS on a flat road vs a climb. Theoretically this should be the same and perceived as the same type of effort but apparently it is not.

Does anyone know if there is science behind this or just a perception thing due to the fact that I like climbg more??


Read this:


As above, it essentially relates to rolling inertia and how our bodies react to the difference of applying power in high or low inertia situations.


The link above is spot on, but I have another theory for why I have experienced this in the past. My bike fit wasn’t great before, and I think on climbs I actually settled into a position that made glute activation a little easier and consequently my stroke became a little more powerful. Since getting a proper fit and changing my saddle, I am wondering if the power disparity will be less noticeable once I start riding outside again.



It may also depend on how you are riding on the flats, and the amount of wind. I do majority of riding on flat roads into a head wind where riding “fast” usually feels the same as climbing. It is not unusual to be putting out 110% power in the drops, and only doing 15-17mph. The big difference for me - not grinding uphill, power near ftp - is that sweat evaporates at 20+mph versus climbing where the sweat drips down face, into sunglasses, and onto bike. Of course on steeper pitches at my weight and low W/kg it is completely different grinding at 3-5mph. Another clydesdale I ride with jokes about his Garmin going into auto-pause when it gets steep and he can’t put out enough power. But a nice 4-6% grade at 80-90rpm? In my experience is actually quite similar to ‘working hard’ on a flat road.

With all due respect to the CyclingTips article, I’m in a club where most people live near the foothills and love to climb. They hate riding on flats, and hate riding into the wind. They hate coming out to our flat and windy rides. If you don’t train on the flats then you won’t be good at it. And I’ve seen plenty of people get defeated by the wind. As a heavier rider it is pretty common to watch people with higher W/kg climb right past me, but on the flats I drop them on long hard pushes, or I turn in better Merckx class 10 mile time trials (Merckx = no aerobars, no skinsuit, no teardrops helmet, no disk wheels, etc).

From where I sit there is a good bit of psychology involved too. Don’t be too quick to write it off to other stuff.

edit: p.s. I found the comment section of the CyclingTips article to be better than the article itself. Like this one:

It’s my understanding from measurements of actual crank velocity that the differences exist between climbing and flat terrain but are insufficient to explain a large difference in climbing vs flat terrain power output.

I recall some measurements made by Eric Lin several years back which plotted the instantaneous crank velocity for each scenario. The difference between highest and lowest crank velocity during a pedal stroke was double on a climb than the flat but relative to average crank velocity these differences were pretty small fry.

In general, people simply need to learn to get the power down on the flats, it takes a higher level of concentration than on a climb where the feedback for dropping power output is more instantaneous than on flat terrain (due partly to the difference in kinetic energy but primarily because of the significant difference in relative resistance forces that dominate in each scenario and their effect on speed - as Raoul says - you slow down faster on a climb than on the flat).

It just takes practice. Lots of people are crystal crankers on flatter terrain.

Bike position can also play a role.


With due respect, I tend to agree more with the article.

I find I am able to put more power when in the flats. This is consistent with what I experience on the indoor trainer - i.e., more power when using the big chainring vs. small chainring (ERG Mode). It’s been discussed in other posts but essentially the big chainring replicates riding in the flats and the small chainring replicates climbs (because of the flywheel inertia).

Because my experience is consistent on the indoor trainer (using the same bike), I attribute the difference in power mostly to how my body deals with kinetic energy. Emphasis on “mostly” because I wouldn’t be surprised if the other factors do contribute as well.

Noting: (1) crank length is the same, (2) bike fit/hip angle is unchanged, (3) speed isn’t a factor, (4) same fan for cooling.

Just thought my experience might add something. Hope it helps!

When riding on flat terrain I notice that I reach a power threshold whereby I am unable to produce any more power while my HR is nowhere near my max HR. I find that I just cant push any harder and my legs fail before my lungs do. Anyone else have these issues or thoughts? Is it purely a strength problem? When climbing I can easily elevate my HR and can seem to apply more power

Riding uphill provides more natural resistance, which in-turn recruits more muscle to turn over the pedals. It’s not a strength “problem” it’s just a muscle recruitment problem. The best way to learn is to do long rides with a focus on more constant pressure. Maybe you ride at 200 watts on the flats and try to hold the same wattage going downhill as well. Eventually your ability to recruit more muscle in a variety of terrains will become easier though it may never feel 1:1. You can get pretty close though with enough time in the saddle.

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I posted the link ^^^ and unlike 99% of riders I do way better on the flats. With that said, for me to hold 300W for example climbing I need to focus really hard to not let my cadence bog down. To hold 300W on the flats I need to focus on not letting cadence get too quick. I have years of data and I bet to hold the same watts up, down or flats I use very similar cadence. It’s just that I have to stay on top of the gear but, in different ways depending on the grade.

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I’m the same as you. I can probably hold 20-30W higher on flat, than I can on the climb (I should preface it with anything over 7%, I can do well at 3%). I’m also not able to really hold high cadence, but on climbs, my cadence is in the 60-70 range, vs flat I’m in the 75-85 range.

For climbing, I have a similar feeling. I have to stay on top of the gear, but it’s really hard to do, also that I can’t hit the same wattage I can on flat, at the same HR and RPE. I also can’t kick the same way. On flat, I can kick into a sprint, and on a climb, I just can’t really do it. I can surge a few hundred watts, but I can’t get the 5-6x kick I can on flat. It’s probably practice, it could also be my pedal circle.

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We are definitely similar. File this under anecdotal…It’s interesting to me that when I transitioned to road from mountain back in '04 I was way better climbing. Fast forward to this spring…I’m riding close to a 1/3 of my time on a gravel bike but, not really on gravel. Trails used for mountain bikes. Very rocky, steep, single track stuff. Point is, I’m essentially doing low low cadence high power efforts. Just grinding up stuff ala mountain bike days. Climbing is better and I do think it has been an integral part of why I just did an all time high for the 20 minute test (on a tt bike). I just have more power over the top which is critical for climbing IMO.

Maybe some low cadence high power drills would help you to improve climbing. I’d be interested to read what you think as this is just my opinion.

same here (except for the 300W part, someday…)

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Yeah I just picked 300 out of the air. I default to sweet spot for my climbing it seems. So, I just feel good at around 90% FTP.

Did you read the article linked above?

I merged it from his OP that was a separate post, so he may not have had a chance to read the related parts from this older thread.


I found this thread while just about to post my own “Why can i go harder uphill…” thread.

I too can hold 300W on the flat but 330 going uphill.

I am wondering what sort of results i would get doing a 20min FTP test if i pointed the bike uphill on Alpe du Zwift. In theory this should have no effect on the test, but i strongly suspect i’d squeeze a few more watts out of myself.

Assuming you are geared such that you can keep a comfortable cadence, I always thought it was just body position. Something like this:

FTP adjusted for position
Climbing position: FTP+10%
Regular position: FTP+0%
Aero position: FTP-10%

When riding hard on a flat road, I typically find myself trying to get as aero as possible. In my case, this is probably not that aero but it is definitely making it harder to keep pressure on the pedals as compared to my more upright climbing position.

10% sounds like a bit much.
You might want to to put in some time in the aero position to make it more sustainable.
~10% is more what you expect to lose in the most aggressive position possible on a tt bike.

I think you are absolutely right! I do suck at the aero position (I blame it on all the mountains around me and being a CX enthusiast :wink:).