When I first started cycling, I hated climbing. As a kid ripping around on my 10 speed bike, I would walk up most hills. In later years, when my folly was mountain biking, I would make every effort to route my rides around big climbs, if at all possible. Looking back at those days, if I had known would I eventually spend my time climbing high mountains on a heavily loaded touring bike, I may have never turned another pedal stroke.
I can honestly say that climbing hills on a loaded bike is still not my favorite thing about bicycle touring, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the game. I’ve even become quite good at it despite my earlier anti-climbing disposition. And honestly, the feeling I get after topping a big climb like the Vršič pass in Slovenia is second to none on the hell-yeah-o-meter! I still hate it at the time, but I love it in the after glow.
How I learned to love climbing or “it’s all in your head (and your legs)”
Eventually I’ve developed a few techniques that help me pedal my heavily laden bike up and over some of the biggest climbs around. Like most obstacles, climbing on a loaded touring bike is as much a mental game as it is physical. Yes, you need a certain level of physical conditioning in order to climb well, and somedays it hurts more than others. But once you’ve gotten your legs and lungs in shape and accepted that it may entail some effort, climbing becomes a mental game. Beat the psychological mountain and you’ll top the physical mountain. You’ve got to get your head right. Then you can climb anything. In order to convince yourself that you can conquer the climb, you need some solid strategies to boost your mental confidence.
Strategies for climbing on a loaded touring bike
1- Set small goals.
Don’t think of a climb as one large obstacle. Break it into small bite sized nuggets. Make it to the next switchback or the tree just ahead, then on to the next goal. It’s easier to mentally convince yourself that you can do it when you’re not thinking of the entire 2000 meters of vertical up ahead. Once you accomplish your goal, mentally congratulate yourself, then move to the next goal. On long steep sections, most times I focus 5 feet in front of my wheel. Constantly trying to achieve this small section just ahead of me…This “rolling goal” let’s me move forward only concerned with the next 2 or 3 pedal strokes.
You can’t do it all at once, so don’t try to plow up the entire climb at full speed. It may sound counterintuitive since you want to get over the climb as fast as possible, right? Wrong. You’re not racing. Relax, take your time or you’ll crack before you reach the top. Pace yourself, but don’t be passive. YOU ARE going to climb the hill. Just make sure you don’t try too hard. If you chill out and regulate your cadence to a level that you can maintain, and even accelerate when needed, you will have the gas to push forward when the gradient tips up into the high teens and even 20%.
3- Carry your momentum.
On a bicycle momentum is your best friend. Especially when climbing, you want carry every bit of momentum you can gather. At first this may seem contrary to the previous point of “relax”, but if you gain and maintain small bits of momentum where possible, then you will be able to balance both practices at once. Utilize even the smallest flat or slight dip in the road to click up a notch or two, even for only a few seconds. Gaining even the tiniest amout of momentum can help keep you moving forward comfortably and efficiently.
4- Select the right gear.
Yes, this is one of those lists that tells you the way to do it right, is in fact to “do it right…” Make sure your gear is low enough to stay “over the gear”, meaning your cadence should be at a level that allows you to pedal through the pace of whatever gear you’re in at the time, while using whatever momentum gained to propel you forward and even into the next highest gear, if only for a moment. This is especially crucial on longer climbs that tend to have sudden steep pitches thrown in with little to no warning. Leave some room to accelerate when needed.
5- Do the “paper boy”
Many times on long steep sections I pedal back and forth across the road rather than straight ahead. Like a paper boy delivering his cargo to alternate sides of the street, I use an angle across the pitch rather than straight up. This effect can be compounded by using any crown or banking of the road from side to side to gain more momentum and allow me to almost pedal down hill slightly, then gaining my ascent upon turning uphill. Remember to carry any speed generated here as you make your turn back to the opposite side of the road. And keep your cadence at a sustainable level. Warning: on narrow, high traffic roads this technique puts you into the oncoming traffic lane and can be mighty dangerous in the wrong conditions.
6- It’s OK to take a break.
Remember, you’re not racing. If you see a nice spot for a break, take a minute to let your legs stop screaming and catch your breath. Make sure not to linger more than a few minutes, otherwise your legs will feel like two sacks of ham once you get back on the bike. Touring should be fun, even when climbing the highest passes. Stop, have some water or snack. Steel you mental and physical will, then jump back on your bike and pedal to the summit. When climbing on gravel roads, I almost always have to stop for a minute or two, just to let my legs catch up. It’s OK. Take a break.
You can do it.
Topping a big climb on your loaded touring bike will certainly take some practice and effort. Once you begin to master the strategies above, you’ll find yourself at the top of any mountain you approach. Soon you’ll begin to love the feeling you get at the top of a tough climb even if, like me, you secretly loathe the actual climbing.
Remember these are just my experiences. Your experiences may vary. Everyone has their own perspective on climbing with a loaded touring bike. Maybe yours are different than those listed here. Let me know how you do it.