Training Tips | Riding in Rolling Hills

Ah, the scenery, the challenge, and the thrills! Love ‘em or hate ‘em: it’s important for every cyclist to become comfortable or at least acquainted with riding what most cyclist call The Rollers (aka: ‘hills’ – not indoor training!). Here’s a few tips from someone that has gone from being a hater to a lover.

Rolling hills are by definition: not long climbs, usually short and can be steep – but not typically over 15%. Steep sections usually only last for 100 yards or so. How you approach cycling in rolling countryside can be vastly different than longer climbs. I may not know much, but I do a bit of riding in this type of terrain and I hope my experiences can help someone else. Besides: almost every cyclists I know wants to know more about how to climb easier, faster, and more efficiently.

To start: I’d like to clarify a few items.

  1. I don’t possess a typical hill-climber’s physique. I’m 6′ tall and 162 lbs on a good day. I’m not a lightweight tiny person that naturally zooms up hills.
  2. I ride a compact crankset on my training bike. Why? Did you read point #1? Enough said.
  3. I also typically have an 11/28 or 11/25 cassette on my training bike because I’m not crazy nor do I hate myself.*

*This doesn’t mean I can’t climb (which I’ve heard from a Cycle Snob or two), it means that I’ve realized that engineers created gears for a reason and I’m going to use them. Anyone who doesn’t is a complete moron.

When I first started riding bikes I had well-meaning friends (who will remain nameless) made me feel ashamed if I wanted to ride anything but standard cranks and a compact cassette. After all: that’s what REAL cyclists do – only flappy t-shirt wearing weenies rode anything else.  This person was considerably shorter and lighter and I spent many years suffering until I discovered the joy of using bigger gears!

Here’s a few tips for hill climbing:

  • Use Your Momentum. Don’t stop pedaling on the decent unless you feel that it is unsafe to continue. However, very steep descents aren’t typically found in ‘rolling’ countryside. The momentum will assist you in the beginning of your next climb. If the climb is short enough, you may not have to work much at all!
  • Get into the Small Chainring. Sorry ol’ friend, but I’m using that small chainring to get my tall rear up the hill. Unless it’s a very short hill (we call them undulations), shift down for the serious rollers. Worried about shifting between large and small chainring? No stress – stay tuned for some pointers on how to shift without putting undue strain your gear train.
  • Stay Seated. Unless you are tackling the steepest sections of the climb, conserve your energy and stay seated. Shift your weight forward, engage your core, and keep your hands on the hoods or the top part of your handlebars for better climbing performance.
  • Find a Higher Cadence. Ramp up your RPM (revolutions per minute) as you pedal. A higher cadence will use less muscle and more cardio. You will build up less lactic acid as you climb if you maintain a higher cadence for as long as possible. Pick a comfortable, but quick, rhythm as you ascend.
  • Shift down. In my early years, thanks to some bad advice, I was a ‘masher’. I stayed in larger gears as I climbed and eventually burned my legs out. Pick a gear to maintain your cadence for as long as you can on the climb. Shift down and continue to do so to try and stay within your ‘zone’. You will be working harder to climb, but not as hard as if you stay in a larger gear for too long.
  • Breathe. Concentrate on getting large volumes of air in at a steady pace. If you feel yourself stress-breathing, wheezing, or gasping from effort: back off if you can. If it’s a short (very short) steep section don’t give up. Your body can put up with more than you think for a short period of time. You will regain your breath when the climb levels out again.
  • Focus. Don’t obsess on how long the climb is. On longer climbs a trick that worked for me is: look 4-5′ in front of you – never looking up, just concentrate on what is directly in front of you, your cadence, and your breathing. Another method for shorter climbs is to focus on the top of the hill and pretend that there’s a rope pulling you up to the top (don’t forget to breathe). Crazy? Maybe. Cycling is mostly mental so find something that works for you.
  • Train the Brain. Speaking of mental… That voice that keeps telling you how bad the climb is, how you can’t make it, or is giving you the by-the-second report on how much your legs hurt? Tell it to shut the !$%@ up.
  • Spin it out! An experienced racer; Joyce, whom has been my mentor for competitive cycling, gave me a great piece of advice years ago: “Don’t coast, spin out your legs on the decent – it helps eliminate the lactic acid”. Coasting down the hill feels like we are giving ourselves a well-deserved reward! In actuality, your body has just made a lot of lactic acid so help it out by spinning your legs as you descend.


Also: pick your equipment wisely.

  • Lightweight, stiffer wheelsets climb better.
  • Heavier bikes are harder to climb with. In climbing: weight matters.
  • The stiffness of a bike will make a difference when it comes to power transfer to the pavement.
  • Invest in good gear and it will pay off when you need it!

In general, to be a better climber, one needs to shed any extra weight. However, not everyone is a lightweight individual: even at their optimal height/weight ratio. If you are like me and physics is against you: learn how to use every trick you can on the bike to burn less energy. The name of the game while riding is to do as much as you can with as little as you can unless you are doing a specific training ride to build muscle, endurance, etc.

I hope these tips help you when you tackle the hills! Also: there is no shame on getting off the bike on very steep sections that make your legs seize up. Let’s face it: you’re probably doing more efforts on a bike than most people do in a lifetime. Five years ago if you had told me that I would love hill climbing I would have probably said something rude followed by: “You’re crazy!” Now: thanks to the right gears, a bit more experience, and a better attitude – I do love it!

Feel free to ask questions and chime in on what works for you and I’ll see you in the hills!

Don’t have hills? Click here for some tips on hill training without ‘hills’.