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Uphill And Downhill

Riding flat roads is easy —
here's how to conquer hills

Do you fear hills? Does the sight of one on the horizon turn your legs to jelly? It shouldn't, you know. Because even an average cyclist can manage significant climbs. It's mostly a matter of outsmarting the hill. Likewise, if you're afraid of downhills, an attitude adjustment along with a few secrets can work wonders.

Win The Gravity Game
For safety's sake, we'll talk about going downhill first. Rather than grabbing the brakes all the way down to feel safe, learn to let go and enjoy descents. These tips will help you:

  • Relax: It's easier to control the bike when you remain calm. Release the tension in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck and face so that you're not tight and stressed. Breathing deeply helps.
  • Keep your weight back: It's best to scoot back on the seat slightly on downhills because the angle of the hill naturally moves your weight forward where it can adversely affect handling.
  • Raise the inside pedal in corners: Otherwise, you may strike a pedal on the ground, which can cause a crash.
  • Control your speed: The best way is to "pump" both brakes as necessary. This way, you'll retain full braking power when you need it (if you brake continuously, your brakes may overheat and fade).
  • Use the wind brake: You can also slow down by sitting taller to catch more wind.
  • Look where you want to go: You tend to ride where you look, so look to the inside of corners to keep from riding out of them.
  • Stay off the drops: If you're riding a bike with racing-style dropped handlebars, don't hold onto the drops (the lowest position) on descents unless you want to go as fast as possible.
  • Watch for hazards: Cars push debris into the road in corners, so keep your eyes open for gravel, sand, water and other dangers.

    Reach Your Peak
    Now that you know how to enjoy the descents, here's how to conquer climbs:

  • Sit tall: If you remain upright, rather than crouched over the bars, you'll find it easier to breathe. And, if you can get more oxygen, you'll feel stronger and you won't tire too quickly.
  • Learn to stand: One of the best ways to scale hills is occasionally standing to pedal. Although this takes a little practice to perfect, it lets you use body weight to turn the pedals, which is easier than pushing them with muscle power alone. To do it, simply stand up (remaining crouched slightly) and lean forward a bit. As each pedal reaches the top of the stroke, rest your weight on it and push down to pedal. With practice this becomes fluid and the bike rocks slightly as you shift side to side with each push. Let the slope dictate where you stand. Rather than shifting to an easier gear, stand up on steeper sections. You'll use different muscles and your crotch will thank you, too.
  • Use an easy gear: It's always best to start hills in an easy gear and then shift into a slightly harder one, if you feel up to it. That way, you won't burn too much energy starting the climb and you'll be able to pace yourself to the top.
  • Get the right gears: If you find that, even with these tips, every hill is a struggle, it's possible that your bicycle doesn't have easy enough gears for you. No problem. In most cases, you can visit a shop and have easier gears installed.
  • Train for hills: Surprise! Perhaps the best way to improve your climbing is spending more time riding in the hills. A little extra strength can make a big difference in your ability. No hills where you live? Train into headwinds to build climbing strength!
  • On steep stuff, zig zag: Zig zagging is riding back and forth across the road to reduce the steepness of the hill (do it only on empty roads). It makes the hill longer but if the grade is really steep, it can make it much easier to climb.
  • Lose weight: This only applies if you're carrying extra baggage. Because climbing is an exercise in conquering gravity, even a small weight loss results in much easier climbing. So, improving might be as simple as cutting back a bit on fatty or sugary foods, or maybe getting a lighter bicycle if yours is an older model.