Cyclists like to humble brag—or perhaps just outright brag—about the highest grades they’ve achieved. We’re not talking about the kind teachers dish out in school, but rather the inclines mountain roads dish out—which cyclists inevitably want to tackle.
For every 100 feet forward you travel on hilly terrain, you also travel vertically a certain number of feet. That vertical distance is expressed as percent grade. As in school, the highest grades—and there are some doozies out there; Canton Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, includes a record 37-percent grade—are the hardest to achieve.
But even relatively lesser (but still flipping steep) grades of 10 to 15 percent are really challenging, especially if they’re also unrelenting. Acing these climbs requires not only power and fitness, but also proper position and finesse (which also can help make up for shortcomings in the former). Here’s how to make the grade on any grade.
1. Hold on loosely
You want every watt you produce going into your pedals, not wasted away as you grit your teeth and white-knuckle your bars. Think, “I got this,” or another version of positive self-talk. Then relax your shoulders, hands, and face. Lightly tuck in your arms so your elbows are outside of your hips. Erase every ounce of unnecessary tension. Keep your shoulders down and back, so your chest is open and you have plenty of breathing space.
2. Use your gears
Yes, it’s blatantly obvious, but pretty much every one of us still fails to shift properly at one time or another. Making that mistake on super-steep pitches is a recipe for dropped or broken chains, both of which will send you in the opposite direction of what you’re shooting for. Shift into a gear that you can spin fairly easily before you hit the hard part. As soon as you feel the pressure on your pedals increase, shift again. At some point you’ll likely run out of gears, but you won’t be stuck in a higher one than you want.
3. Push through your heels
Your feet are powerful allies up steep climbs, as they are the platforms that put power into each pedal stroke. By keeping your feet flat (as opposed to toeing down) and pushing through your heels, you maximize the power transfer from your calves.