Fabled 1970s U.S. racer Wayne Stetina wasn’t a climbing specialist, but he often proved that he could climb as well as anyone on “any hill where I can see the top.” These are called “sprinter’s hills” because powerful riders like Stetina, capable of high power outputs for short periods, often do well on them.
But as the time taken to climb a hill stretches from 10 or 15 seconds to more than a minute, the sprinters with their great anaerobic power but short “burn time” take a back seat to powerful but more enduring riders. So Europe’s hilly classics are usually won by an all-around rider who can sprint from a small group but also ride at the front on short, steep pitches.
Short Hill Climbing Tips
Choose the right gear. Many riders tend to climb short hills in a gear that’s too large. They sprint like crazy at the bottom but they’re plodding by the time they reach the top. You can hit the bottom of the hill in a gear that allows your optimum cadence. Then as the real work begins, shift to an easier gear so you don’t bog down.
Know when to stand and when to sit. Really short hills are best done standing because you can produce maximum power out of the saddle. But on longer hills, some riders like to stand at the bottom, sit and “float” in the middle, then get out of the saddle again to go over the top. Try this to see if it works for you.
Pace yourself. Cyclists who excel on short hills know how to apportion their energy. They don’t sprint like mad at the bottom and then blow to the moon halfway up. This skill takes a careful reading of your form on that day and knowledge of just how long and steep the hill is. Again, experience counts.
Finish the hill. This means you should be going as fast over the crest as at the bottom. Try it on your next competitive group ride or with a couple of buddies. Go a bit easier at the bottom. You’ll get gapped at first, but in the last third of the climb you’ll still have something left. That’s the time to accelerate and carry some speed over the top. Time it right and you’ll be amazed at how you’ll pass your fast-starting friends.
Get good position in a group. If you’re approaching a steep hill in a large group of riders, move near the front before the road tilts up. If you hang back around 20th position, you’ll be well off the back of the leaders going over the top because you’ll get stalled by riders who are fumbling with their gears or blowing up. But if you start the climb near the front, you can use the smallest amount of energy needed to stay with the leaders. Then you won’t have to use even more energy to chase back on.
Power accelerations. The key to short hills is the rapid application of power. Here’s a specific workout: After a good warm up, roll at walking pace in a big gear (53×12-15; or 50×11-14). Stay seated and accelerate as hard as possible, using smooth pedal strokes to get that big gear turning. Push for 10-12 seconds, then roll easily for a few minutes to recover. Repeat 3-8 times.
Gut-buster intervals. Find a short, steep hill with a slight downhill leading into it. After a good warm up, roll fast to the base of the hill in a big gear. You should be pedaling slightly too fast when you start the climb. Stand and power to the top. If you chose your gear correctly, your cadence will be down to around 80 rpm by the top. Roll easily for 3-5 minutes to recover, then do it again, this time seated. Repeat 2-4 times.
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Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.