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Approach altitude with attitude!

It’s tempting to avoid riding up hills but, with July bringing the opportunity to see the world’s greatest cyclists in uphill action on the Tour de France, it’s time to go climbing, says Sigma author and guest blogger Dave Hancock.


July is a month of mixed emotions. We marvel at the pedalling ability and stamina of Froome, Quintana, Contador, Porte et al. And we empathise with the domestiques as they grind to an exhausted standstill on the last climb after working for their team leaders all day. Most cyclists who have ever tackled a road marked by the Ordnance Survey® with one or two black arrows will know the feeling of battling against gravity. It’s tempting to stick to flat terrain but to do so may mean missing out on far-reaching views. And, of course, the thrill of freewheeling downhill!



Stage 17 of this year’s Tour includes the highest pass of the race, the Galibier, one of the toughest climbs professional cyclists ever face. Topping out at 2,642 metres, the 17.7-kilometre climb has an average gradient of 6.9%, increasing to more than 9% towards the summit. On Ordnance Survey maps, two black arrows mean a gradient steeper than 20%, or one in five. On the Continent, gradients are expressed as a percentage by making y equal 100. There are steeper climbs in the UK but they are nothing like as long as on the Tour. Cragg Vale in Yorkshire is the longest continuous ascent at 8.5km but has an average gradient of just 3%. Constitution Hill in Swansea has an average gradient of 20% and a maximum of 22% but is just 0.3km.

Nearly there! Fortunately, this road over the Wales/Shropshire border doesn’t go over the big hill in the distance!

 How to cycle uphill


Forget about ‘dancing on the pedals’ and climbing out of the saddle as the best pure (pro) climbers do. They are invariably lighter, train harder and have more suitable physiques. It’s much better to stay seated, select a low gear and pedal smoothly and consistently. If possible, you want to maintain a high cadence – keeping the pedals turning at 50 revolutions per minute or more. To do so, and depending on how steep the hill is, you may need ‘low’ gears – a chainwheel at the front with the same number or fewer teeth than the largest sprocket at the back.

Yes, it’s easier to climb on a lighter bike but before you spend a fortune on a carbon fibre machine consider how much cheaper (albeit harder) it is to lose a few pounds from your body weight. Tyres can also be a factor – wide, heavy tyres generally increase rolling resistance as do rough roads compared to smooth ones.

A hazy view of Church Stretton from ‘Little Switzerland’

 Walk this way


When the going gets tough, the tough get off! Don’t grind uphill to the point of exhaustion. It’s much better to get off and push your bike. Not only does this give your muscles and breathing an opportunity to recover but you can admire the views more easily. Even professional riders have been known to walk, most famously on the Tirreno-Adriatico road race in Italy in 2013 (mind you, this was towards the end of a 200km stage, on a gradient of 30% and following heavy rain that made the surface slippery!).

Chris Froome and Tour de France cyclists
 Downhill (almost) all the way


After pausing to enjoy the views at the summit, you can let gravity take over. Freewheeling downhill soon dispels the discomfort suffered getting to the top and will set you up nicely for the next hill! For a circular ride in Shropshire with some long climbs to enjoy(!), I suggest Ride 13: A tour of Church Stretton area – ‘Little Switzerland’ in my book More Cycle Rides in Shropshire. It’s just under 19 miles (30km) and includes many glorious views – some of which I saw at a walking pace as my chain broke 10 miles from the finish!


Dave Hancock is a keen cyclist and author of
Cycle Rides in Shropshire and More Cycle Rides in Shropshire, both available from Sigma Press.


Created On  6 Jul 2017 10:26  -  Permalink


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