The Secret to Climbing Faster on the Bike


, by Chris Case

Cyclists at the L’Etape du Tour 2022. Photography by: A.S.O. / Benjamin Becker

After dispelling some myths of climbing by bike, we offer tips on how you should climb given your type of physiological engine.

There are few things more satisfying than conquering a really challenging climb—be it in the Alps or in your backyard. For many cyclists, climbing big mountain passes offers the ultimate reward.

But strangely, there is very little hard evidence about what it takes to be a great climber. Our limited understanding of the biomechanics and physiological rules that govern climbing are driven, in part, by the fact that it’s very hard to study the activity in a laboratory—stationary trainers cannot measure gravitational pull.

Sure, there are some decent rules of thumb and a host of myths that people rely on while climbing. And while the pros make it look incredibly easy, mimicking their approach or style is a recipe for disappointment. For those of us who aren’t built like feathers, how can we take full advantage of our physiology to improve our climbing prowess?

RELATED: Build Back Stronger with a Cycling Overload Block

I have worked with leading coaches, researchers, and elite athletes—including American superstar Sepp Kuss—to study climbing from a scientific perspective. I have come to understand some of the peculiarities of pure climbers, studied the biomechanics of efficiency, and analyzed performances to diagnose what it takes to excel at climbing.

Here’s what I’ve found.

Power and weight

The concept of power-to-weight ratios is well understood in cycling. There are even online tools that can “predict” your time on a given climb—just plug in a few data points about yourself and the terrain, and out pops your finishing time.

We can't all climb like Thibaut Pinot. Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly_Lopez

I won’t go into the details of the appropriate gear for climbing, or when to give that little extra push on a pitch. Because, in large part, it comes down to power-to-weight ratios. And because power-to-weight determines performance, it would seem the only way to substantially improve your climbing performance is to, 1) improve power or, 2) lose weight.

Okay. But does your physiological threshold (think FTP) determine your power-to-weight on a climb? Based on what I’ve seen, the answer is, not exactly. For the sake of this article, I am ignoring gear or aerodynamics. If I considered rolling resistance, position, muscle-firing patterns and so on, it would take far more time and words to fully discuss.

RELATED: How to Use Strava Flyby to Hone Race Craft

What type of engine are you?

So, it’s simple: Improving your time up a climb has a lot to do with the power you can generate and your ability to stay as lean as possible.

Okay, but is there anything else we can do to overcome what physics seems to dictate?

Improving your time up a climb has a lot to do with the power you can generate and your ability to stay as lean as possible.

The answer is a little less pre-determined than you might think. That is because there are different types of riders—possessing unique physiological engines. Research has shown that there are four primary “morphotypes”: time trialists, climbers, flat-landers, and all-rounders. Each type has a clearly defined role during the distinct phases of a cycling race.

Dr. Sabino Padilla led some of the initial research in this area. He attempted to answer the question of which type of rider has the advantage in a grand tour. Complex formulas were used to study 24 of the best cyclists in the world, and it was found that the outcome was heavily influenced by something called allometric scaling.

DID YOU READ? Adventures of a Lifetime: The World’s Most Challenging Off-Road Bikepacking Races

This concept has to do with how our physiological attributes—height, surface area, VO2max, and so on—scale relative to mass. Some scale more, some less, and some equally.

I’ll spare you from the deep science. In essence, what all this means is that different types of riders can take advantage of various physiological strengths, based on their morphotype.

Different types of riders can take advantage of various physiological strengths. Photography by: A.S.O._Benjamin_Becker

So, here are some tips for becoming a better climber, based on the type of rider you are:

If you’re a “time trialist” style rider

  • Ride very steady and close to threshold: You tend to have the highest physiological threshold and steadiest power-to-weight of all rider types. Yet, you pay a price if you go too far over threshold. Ignore the attacks and ride at your own pace.

  • Stay seated: Standing is less efficient at lower intensities because of the extra energy required by the arms and core. As a general rule, climb seated. In fact, all riders tend to have better biomechanics when seated.

  • Ride to your strengths: If it’s a long and steady climb, you may be able to hurt the climbers who prefer variable gradients. Drive a hard tempo. On steep, variable climbs, responding to attacks will take a heavy toll. Ride your own race.

RELATED: How to Create Effective Training and Performance Goals

If you’re a climber

  • Vary your pace: Physiologically, climbers seem to struggle with steady power output. Look for opportunities to surge and recover.

  • Don’t stare at your power: While time trialists are limited by their threshold, climbers are less so. Vary your pacing and don’t worry too much if your average power seems high compared to your last FTP test.

  • Stand for hard efforts: Everyone can produce more power when standing, but smaller riders pay less of an energy cost. Look for opportunities to stand more, especially on steep grades or when attacking.

  • Ride to your strengths: Take advantage of steep pitches and variable grades to hurt time trialists. On steady climbs, don’t let them dictate the pace. Instead, attack and break their spirit.

Riders at the 2019 Etape du Tour. Photography by: A.S.O. / Aurelien Vialatte

For everyone

  • Have a pacing strategy: Don’t go out too hard; find an overall pace that’s at your limit but not over it. Find that pace through practice.

  • Keep a steady cadence and learn to spin: Climbing at lower cadences may feel natural but our biomechanics suffer and our muscles fatigue faster. Improve your fatigability by working on climbing cadence.

  • Learn how to grind: Sometimes a climb is just too steep to spin up. Prepare for these pitches. Do torque work riding at a sustained 45 to 50 RPM.

  • Attack over the tops of climbs: We naturally tend to hold a steady velocity on steep pitches and then accelerate as the grade decreases. So, if you want to put out a big burst of power, use it where you get the biggest advantage—over the top of steep stretches and not on the steep pitch itself.

  • Core power: A strong core is essential for staying stable while climbing, especially when out of the saddle. Without a strong core, your form and economy will break down.

  • Pass on the cake: If you want to climb with the best, dropping some of that non-functional mass (i.e., your “spare tire”) is the simplest way to boost your power-to-weight. Just do it in a healthy manner, and target no less than nine percent body fat for men and 11 percent for women.

  • Sustained but not steady training: Even time trialists can benefit from training their ability to respond and recover. Try doing “over-unders,” alternating between efforts just above and below threshold.

Related Tags

More Stories