How to Climb Mountains by Bike

Stephen Lord, author of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, has this advice to help make cycling uphill that little bit easier.

Ventoux – one of the toughest climbs of them all. Photo: wonderer with a camera

Ventoux – one of the toughest climbs of them all.
Photo: wonderer with a camera

I once asked Swedish cyclist Janne Corax, one of the most famous adventure-biking tourers in the world, which was his favourite pass in East Tibet. “Oh, Dungda la at 5008m altitude, without a doubt,” he replied. I asked him why, as it wasn’t the highest or longest pass in that region. “You’re thinking of the west side, that’s only 1200m of climb. I’m talking about climbing the east side, that’s 1400m of gain and it’s long and straight, you can see the top from a long way off.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “you mean climbing these passes is what it’s all about?” And from that moment, climbing mountain passes by bike changed for me because you can do nothing about that climb ahead, but you can do everything about your attitude towards it.

Physics favours cycling on flat roads. Unlike a walker, you don’t carry your own weight, or your bags or the bike itself and have only wind resistance and a little friction to worry about. That changes the moment the road goes uphill. The walker only has to carry his backpack, but a cyclist has to carry not just his gear but also his bike. Cycling uphill is much harder, and particularly so for heavily loaded touring cyclists. So what can, or should, you do?

1. Go your own pace

Cycle touring is a very individual thing. You won’t feel comfortable at someone else’s pace unless you are evenly matched – you’ll either be bored or tired. Instead, agree to meet at the top or perhaps for a snack and rest half-way up. On your own, enjoy the scenery, stop for photos and a drink and ignore the other person ploughing on ahead. Mountain scenes are beautiful and you should take your time to enjoy them.

2. Fill 'er up!

Hills are tiring for everybody and you need to think like a marathon runner. Get plenty of carbohydrates in your system beforehand with a big dinner and breakfast (never worry about your waistline when bike touring!) and include some slow-burning complex carbs and fats. A breakfast of oats or muesli is ideal. Simple sugary foods burn up quickly and will leave you tired. Carry some snacks with you for rest stops on the hill, such as a peanut butter and banana sandwich, a rich and sustained source of energy. I once rode with a Japanese guy who would stop and cook some rice and top it with tinned tuna mixed with mayonnaise, another good combination. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water.

3. Don’t overdo it

Conserve energy by taking it easy; it’s a tour but not the Tour de France. It’s easier and more efficient to sit while climbing, so just drop down into an easy low gear and climb. Aim for a pace you could sustain indefinitely, one that won’t make you sweat. However, if you want a break from sitting or you find it’s become so steep you have to stop often, try standing on the pedals instead of stopping. At first you may be so tired you can only stand and pedal for 100m or so, but you’re using different muscles and when you need to sit down, your other muscles will have rested a bit. Over time you will build up the ability to stand for a couple of minutes at a time. It’s a good stretch and a break from saddle sores.

See Stephen's Freewheeling France guides to choosing the right camp stove and tent for your cyclocamping holiday, as well as his three essential items for any cycle tour.

Stephen Lord is the author of Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, published by Trailblazer.

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