Climbing 101: When to shift and other wisdom

Climbing 101 (and shifting, and riding style, and a whole bunch of other stuff that just crossed my mind while riding with my daughter on Wednesday)

This is for all of you, no matter how good you think you are on the hills.
First, let’s talk about cadence, the number of revolutions your cranks turn per minute. Just a crude rule of thumb: subtract half your age from 110. If you’re 40 and healthy, and you’re riding on the flats, you should be stroking your pedals at a rate of approximately 90 revolutions per minute. If you’re not, shift down a gear or two and pick up your cadence. I don’t want you bouncing on the saddle, so work to be smooth. If you’ve been grinding along at 70 rpm for the last several years, it may take you a while to work up to a reasonable cadence. Be patient, be smooth, and pedal a bit faster with each ride. You will think this makes you slower, using lower gears. Before long, you may be surprised to learn that you will be faster, you will recover from the efforts of accelerations and hill climbing faster, and you will have more endurance.
Now, on to climbing, which feeds off the information you just learned. First, I’ll talk about rollers, those little rises and falls we seem to have a lot of in Yamhill County. As you reach the bottom of a small descent, you should be pedaling pretty fast. As you begin to rise, just as you feel your cadence begin to slow, shift down. This will keep your rpm’s high and efficient. The rise is maybe 100 feet, and you feel your cadence slow again. Shift down again. This won’t mean you’re less of a man or a woman to shift down. The idea is to keep your pedal rate high, surge over the top of the roller, and shift up as you begin to accelerate down. Your momentum will carry you part of the way up the next rise, but don’t DO NOT try to power over the rise at a low cadence, because all you will do is slow down, unnecessarily fatigue your muscles, and look like a hack. If you have the power to push that big gear over the top without losing form, that’s different.
About form. If your wheels are weaving back and forth on the road to a width greater than that of your cranks (minus your pedals!) your form is not so good. You’re riding farther than you need to, you’re wasting energy that is not making you faster, and you are wreaking havoc on your chain, cogs and cranks. Ideally, you would ride a perfectly straight line. While that is pretty much impossible, there’s not reason not to aspire to that. You become more trustworthy in a paceline, and you are safer in traffic.
The real climb. The one that gives you self-worth, a sense of accomplishment, that makes you stronger, and reminds you of why you ride in the first place. Let’s make this climb a short one, with a false flat, and steeper rise at the top, 3 miles in length. You hit the base at 17 miles per hour and you ATTACK! Your bike weaves back and forth, your tires squirm on the road, your lungs start foaming out of your nose! If this is you, stop now, get off your bike, and eat some of those blackberries growing alongside the road. Erase what you think you know about climbing. Climbing, more than any other aspect of cycling, requires you to ride within yourself. Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point now applies, but is even more important because you will be climbing for maybe 15 to 20 minutes. If you blow your lungs up in the first 3 minutes, this will be a lousy ride. You’ll never recover enough to be safe on the blistering downhill, or to enjoy that 10 mile flat with the wind at your back. You will be MESSED UP. Ride this hill just like you would the rollers. Shift before your cadence begins to slow. Shift again as you feel the strain. Shift again, and again, and again. If you reach your lowest gear, realize now you have to work a little harder to maintain cadence, to be smooth, to be efficient. Your cadence will drop from its higher levels when climbing. That’s okay. But strive to be smooth, to not weave back and forth, to keep breathing at a rate that won’t have the EMT’s worried about you. If you’re slower than your riding companions, SO BE IT. When you come to the false flat—false because it’s not really flat, and really isn’t much of a break. You can accelerate here, or if you need, recover by not shifting up so many gears but by increasing your spin rate and going easy—relax. Enjoy, because the next mile of climbing is going to be painful. It’s steeper than your fearless friends told you. As the road rises, shift as before, always before your cadence slows. At low gear, settle into a cadence you can maintain. I’m not a huge proponent of standing, because it unsettles your rhythm, but it can help you surge over the steeper humps in the road. But even if you stand, try to be as smooth as possible. Oftentimes, it’s advisable to shift up a gear before you stand, because you tend to work at a much slower cadence out of the saddle than in, unless you’re Lance Armstrong. But rhythm is most important throughout this climb.
At the top, spin for a bit before allowing yourself to shift up and accelerate.
Depending on your condition and experience, some of this may be intuitive. If you ride at a relatively high level, you may blanch at some of these suggestions, but maintaining cadence and smoothness over a long ride will be traits you recognize are necessary to recovering from a strenuous climb—so you can continue to ride.
If all this seems confusing or unnecessarily complex, remember to shift early, be smooth. Always.

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