Climbing and descending techniques on a road bike

Cycling the slopes as safely and efficiently as possible

Cycling can be a hugely satisfying activity, allowing the body to stay fit and get healthier. However, it can also have some potentially dangerous moments when it comes to climbing and descending steep hills. To avoid injury or accidents on your road bike, here's our guide how to cycle slopes safely.

Climbing and descending techniques on a road bike

Climbing on your bicycle

The main task confronting the cyclist when climbing is to ensure that the correct gear is chosen for the incline and that not too much energy is expanded early on so that the rider burns out before the climb is completed.

Correct bike gear ratio

There is no such thing as the correct bicycle gear for a situation, rather a correct gear for that individual. For climbing, lower than normal gears are used. Only through experience can the rider find the best gear for any incline. Cycle climbs should not usually be tackled in one gear. When changing gear it is best to shift before you need it, to avoid being caught in too high a gear. If you lose momentum then it is likely to lead to a very difficult crawl up the hill.

Pace yourself when cycling

Inexperienced cyclists are often likely to tackle a climb as fast as they can, only to run out of steam before they reach the top. Tackling a climb in this way increases the heart rate, causing the blood pressure to rise. The rider then tenses up and burns energy at a higher rate than would have been the case had a sensible pace been used from the start.

If running out of steam during the climb, the rider should shift down a gear and continue at a slower pace. If already in the lowest gear, it is sadly a case of gritted teeth and sheer determination to reach the top.

The best advice to the rider is to try to keep the effort (rather than speed) constant, but downshift a gear as soon as they feel they are not spinning freely. Once some momentum has been regained the cyclist should shift the gears back up.

Road bike pedaling technique

It is individual choice as to how much to stand upon your bike during the climb. One suggestion for climbing technique is that the cyclist should stand at first to rest the muscles that were being used on the flat. Others suggest that the majority of the work should be done while sat on the saddle as this doesn’t waste energy suspending your body upwards.

Alternating between bike pedaling styles by sitting and standing helps rest the various muscle groups, provided that the technique is sound.

Methods for bike climbing in a group

— Take a position among the group so you follow an experienced rider up the climb, taking note of the pace, gears and technique used.

— Start the climb towards the front of the group and fall back in the pack as the stronger riders pass. The aim is to stay in contact with the group, but climb at a lower speed than the others, therefore expending less energy.

Cycle descending

An impending steep descent is a source of potential danger to the cyclist whilst also being the source of a potential adrenalin rush. The fear of the unknown, particularly on a snaking mountain descent, leads some to positively relish the challenge, while others view it with fear. Descending ability, like any other skill, is best improved with practice.

Forward planning on your bike

A fast bike descender will be someone who prepares for a corner well in advance, on the outside, and completes their braking before entering the turn. They will hit the apex (the slowest part of the turn where the bike is closest to the inside of the corner), finally exiting again on the outside. The key is to get in position early and smoothly follow a line through the corner, with no sudden movements, breaking or turning.

Cycle braking

When descending, it is best to have the bike brakes covered with one finger resting on the lever. Ideally brakes should only be used up to the beginning of a corner, not on a corner. Both brakes should be applied with even pressure, rather than snatching at them.

If the bike rider does have to brake after entering the curve, they should straighten out the line before applying the brakes. Many people believe that you should never use the front brake only. However, particularly when riding in a group and on good road surfaces, light feathering of the front brake only, provides the best control. Too much front brake could end in disaster, as could slamming on the back brake alone. However, we are talking about bike control here rather than emergency stopping.

Bicycle passing

Attempting to pass a slower cyclist when in a group is a difficult skill and should be done with great care. Passing on a descent is always difficult and dangerous due to the fact it may require the rider to cross onto the other side of the road where there may be oncoming traffic.

At the same time, a cyclist who finds themselves ahead of someone who obviously wants to pass should let them by at the earliest safe moment, allowing plenty of room.

Self-control on your road bike

It is easy for the bike rider to get carried away in a speedy descent and become unstuck, and an accident will surely result. Relaxation, smoothness, and planning brought about by experience and self control are key ingredients.

Pushing the speed to the point of fear will not help develop bike descending skills. Riders should be prepared for a car, a greasy patch, or even another cyclist to be in the middle of their path however skilful they are.

Check out more articles in our cycle training section.

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