Pacing hill climbs


There are different ways of riding hill climbs.

  1. One approach is to start very hard and hold on for dear life.
  2. The other is to start hard, but then try and put in even more effort in the last section.


Evidence of emptying the tank.

Both have there merits and demerits, though they usually end up in a similar pain cave at the top. Also like any pacing strategy – they depend on the physiology and capacity of the rider.

If you look at splits from national hill climb – you can see quite big variations in the relative pacing strategies. Two people may finish with a similar time, but may have reached the half way point at very different speeds.

After the 2013 national hill climb, I started writing about pacing strategies, but then thought better of it and decided to forget all about it. Perhaps I didn’t want to remind myself of the crazy split that emerged between myself and other riders. I took the option to enjoy the winter training without worrying about a pacing strategy that might have been better.

As a wise man once said, the best pacing strategy is the one the winner had.

Different pacing strategies

It is worth bearing in mind that one person’s best pacing strategy may be different to someone else’s. It depends on your physiology e.t.c. Athletes can have different composition of muscle fibres, different tolerance of acidosis e.t.c. What works for one rider, may not work so well for another.

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Even more on hill climbs

There is a well known cliché in cycling ‘let your legs do the talking’. But,  I sometime surprise myself how much there is to write about a short race up a hill.

In the run up to the national hill climb, I didn’t have much  inspiration to write, but since the national is over, my mind is  a stream of hill climb consciousness; and – for better or worse – it tends to get written down. To be honest, it’s a lot more fun writing about hill climbing than working on my next A level economics revision book. I should really be writing about UK fiscal policy, but hill climbs is a very welcome diversion.

Some random thoughts on hill climbs

Photo Dan Monaghan @13images

Photo Dan Monaghan @13images

Since Cycling Weekly’s relaunch earlier this year, there has been more of an effort to cover domestic racing, and coverage of the hill climb season  has been good. I think the hill climbs get quite a lot of interest because:

  • It’s a bit quirky (polite way of saying it hill climbers are a bit nuts.)
  • Everyone can relate to riding up a hill. I think the Strava effect has made more people conscious of riding fast up hills; and perhaps there is a realisation that doing it for real in a race, is even more fun than relying on electronic virtual competition.
  • The race lends itself to really great photos (see also: Russellis photos) – it certainly makes for better photos than 100 riders covered up in aerohelmets, visors and silly socks riding up and down on dual carriegaways, being overtaken by lorries. Instead, in hill climbs, you can take photos of riders with cloth caps, faces that look like they have been tortured by a medieval rack, and, in some cases, well wearing silly socks.
  • The hill climbs comes at a quiet time of the year, and there is a huge wide range of different types of riders, with the results often hard to predict. In fact, Paddy Power claim there was as much betting on the national hill climb championship as a stage of the Tour de France. I  like the amateur ethos of hill climbing – so the arrival of small time betting does feel a little strange, if not uncomfortable. (And I’m sorry to the 1.6% of you who put money on me. Still at 16/1…)

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2015 National Hill Climb championship

The 2015 National Hill Climb championship was held at Jackson Bridge – a 0.9 miles averaging 11%. It’s a steep unrelenting climb, widely regarded as a classic of the British hill climb genre. For a late October day in Yorkshire, the weather was probably as good as it gets – Mild, dry and a light tailwind up the climb. With good weather, 240 riders, and considerable interest in the pre-championship build-up, there was a good sized crowd up the steep slopes to Tinkers Monument.

photo velo UK
photo velo UK

In the mens event, Richard Bussell RST Sport/Aero-Coach won in a time of 4:15.1.

Given the tight margins of the race, Bussell’s winning gap of 5 seconds over defending champion Dan Evans (Team Elite/Paul Bethall Electrical (4.20) was quite impressive. Joseph Clark (Team Bike Box Alan/Envelopemaster) rounded off the podium with a time of 4.21.9

Photo Velo UK
Photo Velo UK

In the women’s event, Maryka Sennema (Paceline RT) won her third title in a time of  5:31.9. Just ahead of Hayley Simmonds, Team Velosport 5:34.2. Simmonds has had a great year of time trials and is just a few weeks back from World road race championship in Atlanta (helping GB to gold). 3rd on the women’s podium was Lou Bates Carnac Planet X in 5.34.9. Less than 5 seconds separated the top 5 women. There were seven men within seven seconds of a podium finish. Never make fun of hill climbers and their marginal gains!

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Hill climb bike 2015


Hill climb bike

  • Trek Emonda SL frame
  • Shimano Di2 9000 Dura Ace 11sp – Front mech removed,
  • 39 Chainring – 23-11 (11 speed cog with one cog removed to fit on 10sp cassette.)
  • Handlebars Zipp Contour SL – 135 grams with drops chopped off
  • Bontrager stem
  • Bontrager direct mount light brakes
  • Rear wheel Zipp 202
  • Front wheel – tune hub, AX lightness spokes
  • Tubs Vittoria Crono
  • Weight: 5.2kg.

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Huddersfield SW hill climb 2015


This Saturday was the double header of Huddersfield Star Wheelers – Granville Sydney Memorial Trophy (on Jackson Bridge) and Holme Valley Wheelers (on Holme Moss)

Top of Jackson Bridge

With the National on Jackson Bridge in two weeks time, there was a big entry, with 90+ riders and many of those hoping to be contending for Nat. Champs on startsheet.

Jackson Bridge
Jackson Bridge

It has been quite a good week training. I went to Jackson Bridge earlier in week to test the national course. It was wet and strong headwind, though sun did come out just towards the end. The bad news was my stages power meter finally went kaput. It had been going through  batteries every four hours, but now this is nothing working at all. I’ll have to hope I can get an exchange for this Stages generation one for Stages generation Two, but by the time I’m back in Oxford and get a replacement, it will be too late to use this hill climb season. Still my Quark power meter broke for several months in 2013 – it’s not the end of the world, though there is always a value to seeing your power go up and down.

Today, the weather was quite good, though there was a light headwind at the top – unlike last year where I think there was light tailwind.

I did the course in 4.19. Slower than last year. I thought I maybe held back too much for the first steep section. Though I had brief chat to Adam Kenway at the top. He felt he had gone too hard on the first section and suffered on the rest of the course.

It’s a tough one pacing hill climbs, especially a variable gradient like Jackson Bridge. If you don’t do as well as you would like on a hill climb you can always think you could have paced it better, but sometimes you just don’t have the legs.

I finished 4th, behind Dan Evans, Adam Kenway and Joe Clark.

  • 1st Junior was Tim Home – 4.27 NRG RT
  • 1st Vet – Jim Henderson 4.28
  • 1st Lady – Lou Bates –
  • 1st U/16 – Nathan Allatt

Holme Valley CC 2015-start

After a brief drive over to Holme, it was time to get ready for the second hill climb on the menu. It is a 1.3 mile version of Holme Moss, made famous through the Tour de France climbing it in 2014. It averages 9.5% for the 1.3 miles, and fortunately there was a light tailwind at the top. I went reasonably well; it’s definitely a climb where you can get into more of a rhythm than Jackson Bridge.

view from Holme Moss

I finished in 6.30 which was 3rd place. 1st D.Evans, 2nd J.Teasdale. 3rd me. 1st lady was Dame Sarah Storey.

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Otley CC hill climb 2015


This weekend was the Otley CC hill climb, with perhaps a record field of 58 riders. It was the ninth time I’ve ridden the event (though 2 of them were in the last Millennium). Still I have a long way to go to catch up with Paul Brierley of Huddersfield R.C. who was making it 28 starts for Otley CC hill climb).

Paul Brierly on Guise Edge

I was ridding my Trek Emonda, which is getting close to Nat HC weight. My top bike mechanic Andy Sherwood came round on Friday, to make it single chainring (39*) I nearly didn’t make it because I lost a single chainring bolt, but I was lucky because somehow Andy had a spare single chainring bolt lying around his van. That whole operation must have taken at least 250 grams off an already light bike. There’s probably a bit more to come off before National, but not very much.


Andy Sherwood of Sherwood cycles

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How to cycle uphill techniques

Some of the useful techniques for cycling uphill from 3% long drags to 30% wicked hairpins.


Simple top 7 tips

The quickest 7 tips to cycling uphill I would give are:

  1. Avoid going into the ‘red’ too early on the climb. Don’t get carried away on the lower slopes, if you still have a long slog to the top.
  2. Maintain a reasonable cadence of 65-80 rpm. It will be a lower cadence than normal, but avoid pushing a big gear at a very low cadence.
  3. Anticipate steep sections in advance by getting into lower gear before.
  4. Traffic permitting, avoid the steepest apex and go wide around corners to maintain the best rhythm and constant speed.
  5. Where possible remain seated. Save standing on the pedals for the really steep hills and steep sections.
  6. Stick to your own pace. It is counter-productive to try and stay with much quicker riders. You will lose more time in the long run.
  7. Know what you are climbing – length, gradient, max gradient, and likely time needed.



The effort required to cycle uphill increases exponentially as the gradient increases. If you’re unfit / new to cycling don’t start off in the Lake District, it may put you off for life. You need a reasonable fitness before you tackle steep hills. Also, when you start to climb, you use your upper body and back more. Core strength exercises to strengthen upper back muscles will help a lot.

Climbing in saddle or out of saddle?

A big issue is whether to climb seated in the saddle or climb out of the saddle. In short, I find it best to be seated for long gradual climbs.  Getting out of the saddle is useful for when the gradient really gets steep. Climbing out of the saddle is less aerodynamic and is harder work. It is good for short bursts of power, but you will tire more quickly.

Climbing in the saddle

Snake Pass, gradient 7%. Time 11. mins. All climb is done in the saddle.

Where possible, I try to remain seated when climbing. It is more efficient and you can maintain a high power for longer. It is also more aerodynamic. For novices, it is good training to try and climb whilst seated and get out of the habit of standing on the pedals as soon as the road goes up hill.

Climbing whilst out of the saddle

Matt Clinton on rake at 23%. Powering out of the saddle (notice handrail by side of road, it is steeper than it looks.) Photo Bob Tobin

Sometimes referred to as ‘standing on the pedals’. Here you employ a lot more muscles and upper body strength to help you pull up against the handlebars. If you stand up, you will get a short term increase in power. If you’re using a power meter, you will probably see your power increase significantly. This is great for acceleration or getting through a particularly steep section. But, when the fast twitch muscle fibres are exhausted, the burst of power will evaporate, and you will find your power dissipates.

Bear in mind, there is no hard and fast rule about climbing in the saddle. If you watch the Tour de France, you will see different riders have different styles. A light rider like Alberto Contador always seems to be out of the saddle rocking around all over the place. A heavier more powerful rider like Cancellara will be much more likely to be going up the Alpine climbs whilst seated. Shorter, lighter riders generally do better out of the saddle than heavier riders. Sometimes it’s good  get out of the saddle just to give your back muscles a stretch and break the monotony of climbing in the seated position.

Don’t forget the wind

Some of my hardest hill climbing experiences have actually been due to a super strong headwind, as much as the gradient. The closest I came to walking up a hill was Wrynose pass (25%) but, that day there was a super strong headwind. Obviously, if you can keep lower on the bike, it helps avoid the headwind. This is why it can be good to practise climbing seated. On the other hand, in 2013 the national hill climb had a 35mph tailwind, making it an advantage to do most of the climb standing up!

Rock solid core and minimising other movements

Talking of pro techniques – watching last year’s Vuelta Espagne I was struck by the stage where Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) won. On the last climb, he was absolutely solid on the bike. His lower and upper back wasn’t moving – only his legs were moving. He must have worked a lot on core strength, this increases power climbing because more effort is going to his legs and less into his upper body.

Best line to take climbing

This is a hairpin on Box Hill. The rider is taking a wide route.
This is a hairpin on Box Hill. The rider is taking a wide route.

Where possible you want to try and reduce the gradient of the hill by going wide on the corners and avoiding the apex. The shortest route is not the quickest. If you go through the apex you will break your rhythm and be forced to try harder. It is better to try and maintain the same gradient by going wide. You can keep in the same gear and maintain your speed; this is a secret of climbing, maintain your momentum where possible.

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Watford Velo Hill climb – Aston Hill

Today was a new hill climb organised by Watford Velo on Aston Hill in the Chilterns. It is about 1.3 miles long- gradual at the start, increasing in gradient to 15% near the top.

I often train in the Chilterns. There is a long ridge from Watlington in the West to Tring in the East, where there are innumerable climbs of about 1 mile long. I often use these climbs for training – Britwell Hill, Watlington Hill, A40 Hill (Confusingly called Aston hill too), Chinnor Hill, Bledlow Ridge, Whiteleaf, Kop Hill, Aston hill from Tring. Probably more, but you get the idea there are plenty of hills in this part of the world. I often start in the West and move along the ridge. I don’t often get as far as Tring, but I have done Aston Hill on a couple of occasions in the past few years.

tejvan-matt-james Photo: Matt James, flickr

The hill climb season often involves quite a bit of travelling so it is nice to be able to do a local hill climb on roads that you actually train on.

It was beautiful early Autumn weather and a great day to be cycling. I felt a little guilty to be driving there, when I could have cycled the 50 miles roundtrip. But, it’s always good to treat each open like a big event, get used to using race wheel e.t.c. Testing your warm-up routine e.t.c.

The hill climb seemed quite relaxed, Watford Velo a club of 70-90 riders had an impressive turnout of 25 riders, making up about half the field. I felt a little out of place with supertight skinsuit, NOpinz pouch and every weight saving marginal gain on my wheels. I even still had my tribars left on bike from last weekend. I can’t say this was a scientific decision to leave on to gain aero advantage – more I never got round to taking off.

However, my professionalism and hill climb marginal gain efforts were deeply undermined by riding the hill climb with water bottle in. As mentioned in my ‘Ultimate Guide to Hill climb warmups’ Rule number 47  – is never do a hill climb with water bottle in – always remember to take it out.

Aston Hill is a little unusual, 1.3 miles. With fast start. There is even a little bit of downhill where I touched 31mph, then there is a gradual height gain before you turn left up to Aston Hill proper. Here the hill gets steeper straightaway. But, the gradient is variable. Near the top it reaches a max of 15%. Near the top, there was an excellent crowd of spectators for a local hill climb. There was a great roar as you hit the last 300m. I have done the hill in training, but is really very different to race on. I paced my effort quite conservatively. Averaging mid 350 watts for first half. In last half, there were bursts of 500watts for the steep bits. I may have ridden too conservatively in first half, but I had enough left for hardest bit.

My time was 5.03, which was good enough for first place.

Average power was 404 watts, which seemed a little low compared to training this week. But, I did recalibrate power meter on my rollers.

Thanks to Watford Velo, Cyclopeadia, Watford and all who came out to spectate.

I took some great photos, but left my memory card at home, so nothing to show for the day.

Watford Velo took this short video