Top Tips


Presenting the Viking mileater


My top tips for cycling up hills:

  • attack
  • count down
  • curse
  • hold back
  • look right
  • pace yourself
  • relax
  • suffer
  • travel light


Yes, relax.

Riding a bicycle up a proper mountain is a very relaxing experience. There’s no rush. You physically can’t go any faster than you’re going. And you can’t go any slower because at 8 kph the bicycle topples over and you fall off. Nothing else for it but to settle in, and enjoy the views for the next ten upward kilometres. — Richard Beard

When Richard says “proper mountain”, I suspect he’s talking about the Ballon d’Alsace, highpoint of Le Tour’s first ever mountain stage. It’s a climb featuring steady gradients and rhythmic switchbacks. Richard rides a beautifully light bike with stupidly high gears, hence his resigned grind to the top. Later on in the same blog post, though, Richard admits to being defeated by a Chiltern. The extent of it took him by surprise.

In case of emergency, break out bottom gear

True road racers wouldn’t be seen with a triple chain ring. I’m no road racer. My bicycle has 27 gears and my get-to-the-top tip is to avoid using the lowest one until absolutely necessary. That way the climb can’t take you by surprise. This strategy has served me well — until I took on Porlock Hill this summer. There’s nothing surprising about Porlock Hill but it had me struggling in my granny gear after the very first bend.


Curse and Countdown

Octave Lapize was the first man to scale the top of the Tourmalet in 1910, emptying his lungs with cries of, “vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins,” directed at Henri Desgrange and the race organisers. — Cycling Weekly

Baldwin Street, Dunedin

I wouldn’t waste my breath on cursing, but it’s one of two never-fail techniques Rob Ainsley lists in his excellent Steep Thrills article:

  1. Guess how many pedal revolutions it is to the top and count down.
  2. Swear copiously.

I’ve yet to try the arithmetical approach: although I avoid my lowest gear I try to keep a high cadence, and the numbers change too quickly. I think Rob Ainsley has the right idea, though, and suspect most endurance athletes are addicted to the soothing counterplay of progression and repetition. Remember the kilometer markers in the Vosges mountains, their numbers ticking down 20, 19, 18, … while the altitude clocks up?

1km till the road junction

What would Nietzsche do?

Cycle campaigner Chris Hutt suggests a philosophical approach.

Cycling up hills — think as Nietzsche, if it doesn’t kill me it makes me stronger?

Yes, well, maybe. I’d rather think as Merckx, Contador or Millar. Eddie Merckx’s rapacious appetite gained him the nickname, “cannibal”. Great climbers stay hungry.

Travel light

Cycling up hills: my strategy is to be lighter. — @garethQrees

In this year’s Tour, Wiggo became Twiggo, exchanging 9% of his body weight for the ability to ride with the elite riders on the toughest mountain stages. And the sinewy rider who pipped him to the podium chooses low-calorie beer when he kicks back with a cold one. I prefer real beer, cheers Lance, but there are other tactics for reducing load. Team leaders use their domestiques like pack horses, to ferry them refreshments from the team car. Cycle tourists travel with three socks to be used in rotation: left foot, right foot, in the wash. Shampoo and toothpaste can be shared amongst friends. Or don’t bother washing!

You’re not Lance Armstrong

New romantic Gary Kemp rides a tailor-made bicycle. Here’s some advice an old guy gave him.

When I was doing a climb on the Circuit of the Cotswolds, an old guy told me to slow down: “You have only got a certain amount of fuel, and you won’t make it all the way,” he said. He told me to follow his pace and when I got to the top, it was good. I tend to get out of the saddle and imagine I am Lance Armstrong climbing Alpe d’Huez, but, of course, I am all spent by half way up.


Kemp may have been spent, but half way up is a pivotal point. If, like Rob Ainsley, you’re counting down, you have fewer numbers to go than you’ve already used, and those numbers are getting smaller. You’ve broken the back of the climb. Despite what the old guy said, attacking is a sound tactic. As soon as you see a hill, get in a high gear and crank hard so you’re riding at maximum velocity when the road veers upwards. If you’re lucky, momentum will take you to the top; and if not, you will at least have made a decent chunk of progress.

This tactic has worked well for me on coastal roads where sharp uphill ascents are often preceded by equally sharp downhill drops, making it easy to gather speed. However fine the beach at the bottom, you must resist the temptation to stop for an ice-cream or a photo; and you’ll need those bike-handling skills to avoid toddlers carrying buckets and spades, teenagers with body boards, donkeys etc. Onwards and upwards.

A down-then-up road often features a speed camera at its base. Bonus points if you can trigger it!

Ride like a pro

Gary Kemp regrets trying to ride like Lance Armstrong, but satisfaction can be had from pretending to be a pro-rider and imagining hills to be Alps. It is easier if you wear proper cycling kit. A quality bike does makes a difference. You may never be able to dance out of the saddle like Alberto Contador, but if you’re wearing lycra shorts and a polka-dot jersey you’ll do everything in your power not to get off and push.

King of the Mountains x 2

Pretend you’re suffering

Here’s one final pro-tip from a former King of the Mountains and Britain’s best ever Tour rider, Robert Millar, commenting on Bradley Wiggins’ 2009 Tour performance.

… maybe he could have pretended to be suffering a bit more in the mountains then the climbers wouldn’t have been so concerned by his presence.

Thanks for that, Robert. I’ll pretend to suffer from now on.