How to cycle up hills (and back down again)

Cyclescheme, 31.03.2014

How to cycle up hills (and back down again)

There are two ways to climb hills easily by bike. One is to be a racing whippet. The other is to make sure your bike has low gears – really low gears. Here’s how to make cycling up hills that bit easier…

Updated May 2019

Cycling uphill is obviously easier if you're fitter and carrying less weight – bodyweight, bike weight, and luggage weight - but with low gears and practice using them, hills aren't a huge problem for the average cyclist.

That said, be advised: the gears on many bikes do not go low enough for normal people to ride up steep gradients without struggling. If you live in a hilly area, choose your commuter bike with care!

Know Your Bike Gears

The range of gears varies widely between bikes. Gear size is determined by the size of the chainring, the size of the sprocket on the rear wheel, and the diameter of the rear wheel. It can be expressed in terms of gear inches or gear development.

But first, some history.

In the early days, cranks were attached directly to a bicycle's front wheel. One revolution of the cranks equalled one revolution of the wheel. This is why penny farthings evolved: a bigger wheel enabled riders to travel faster. Gear size and wheel diameter were one and the same. A 52-inch wheel penny farthing had a 52-inch gear.

Nowadays most bikes use a chain drive to the rear wheel. If you have a 48-tooth chainring driving a 24-tooth sprocket, the rear wheel will turn twice for each crank revolution. A 26-inch wheel turning twice is the same as a 52-inch wheel turning once. It's the same gear. That's what gear inches are - the effective wheel diameter.

Gear development, on the other hand, tells you how far the bicycle will travel in a given gear for one revolution of the cranks. It's the effective wheel circumference.

To calculate gear inches, divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the sprocket, then multiply this by the diameter of the wheel in inches (a 700C wheel is approximately 27 inches.)

To calculate gear development, multiply this figure by pi and convert from imperial to metric. We'll stick with gear inches here.


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Bike Gears: How Low to Go

So, what bike gears should you use on hills?

There's some machismo involved in straining up hills in a too-large gear. You may hear racing cyclists declaim that 'no one needs a sprocket bigger than 25 teeth' or 'no one needs a triple chain set'.

What they mean is they don't want them.

You probably do.

Here are some rules of thumb for selecting the right bike gear:

  • Unless you live somewhere flat, like London, or are fit and determined, any commuter bike will benefit from a bottom gear lower than 40 inches. This will rule out some road bikes and many bikes with three or fewer gears.

  • For sportier commuter bikes and/or sportier riders, a bottom gear of around 30 inches is probably sufficient in hillier areas. A road bike with a 34-tooth inner chainring and 30-tooth bottom sprocket will provide this.

  • For heavier or less fit riders, load hauling, steeper hills, or all four, look for a bottom gear of around 20 inches. Mountain bikes and touring bikes offer this, as do some hybrids. Don't want to do any gear-inch maths? Look for a small chainring (28 teeth or fewer) and a big sprocket (32 teeth or more).


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Shifting Gears When Cycling On Hills

Novice cyclists often change gear too late. Instead they pedal slower and slower in the same gear and then desperately trying to downshift. Gears don't work well under these conditions.

Derailleurs shift best if you ease off the pedalling pressure; something you can only do if you're not already straining on the pedals. Some hub gears require a brief pause in your pedalling to shift.

When a last-resort downshift doesn't work, you will be stranded in a too-high gear and may come to a dead stop.

Instead of trying to stay in the same gear, try to keep your cadence high and anticipate any gear shifts. Keep pedalling smoothly and easily. Downshift as soon as your speed starts to dip, which will be almost as soon as you start the climb.

If it's a long or steep climb, use your front derailleur to downshift sooner rather than later. You get a bigger 'step down' from a front shift, and the front derailleur doesn't shift as well as the rear under pressure.

Should You Sit or Stand to Cycle Uphill?

Consider your cycling uphill technique. Sitting is more efficient, but standing on the pedals enables you to turn a higher gear as you can use your bodyweight to press down on each pedal alternately, shifting your weight from one leg to the other.

When you run out of gears, standing is the final option before walking. Single speed riders will have to get used to it!

Standing isn't only a last resort. If the hill is short, you can rush it. This takes a little more effort than twiddling up the hill but is faster. It's different from fading in an over-large gear like a novice as you're attacking the hill from the outset. Accelerate as you approach so that your momentum will carry you further up the hill. Keep your cadence high, standing on the pedals as the gradient begins to bite to keep the slightly-too-high gear turning. Push, push, push, and then relax as you crest the hill.

What About Dismounting Your Bike and Just Walking Up the Hill?

Getting off and walking isn't an admission of defeat. It might, however, be an admission that the gears on your bike are too high. You can comfortably ride up very steep hills at 3 or 4mph if your gears go low enough.

You might think it would be just as quick to walk.

It rarely is.

Most of us walk at about 3mph on the flat, but if it's a steep hill and you're pushing a bike, that can easily drop to 2mph. Plus you have to factor in the time taken to stop, dismount, stop, and remount.

Route Choice

It’s easy to fixate on the kind of bike you need and the kit to wear for commuting, but nothing will affect your ride-to-work experience more than your choice of route. In fact, before you even start, it’s worth spending a quiet Sunday exploring various route options to see if there are any hidden gems among backstreets and parkland paths, as well as noting particular challenges, such as steep hills.

If you use a paper or online mapping source to decide on your route, you may not even know where any particularly tough climbs are. And even if you are aware of the gradient, the distance they cover could look so short and enticing as to be worth the risk: “How tough can a climb just X metres long really be?” You might be very unpleasantly surprised.

For commuting, it’s far preferable to choose a longer, shallower climb where you can get into a nice pedalling rhythm rather than an all-or-nothing challenge that pushes you to your limit.

Split it Up

As well as the mechanical element, there is a very definite psychological element to conquering hills on a bike. You will notice you are travelling far slower than you were on the flat and the hill may seem as if it’s going on forever, which can be dispiriting.

The secret is to split the climb into segments. Look for road signs and other markers ahead of you that indicate you are making progress. As soon as you successfully reach one, look to the next.

Few climbs maintain a constant gradient all the way up. Use easier sections to have a breather and keep enough energy in reserve that you can increase your effort if needed. Again, look ahead for steeper sections and change gear in good time before your drivetrain is under load.

How to Cycle Downhill

cycling downhill

Descents are the cyclist's reward for climbing hills. You can travel effortlessly fast. You can relax your legs, heart, and lungs – but not your brain. It's never more important to be alert. Even a modest descent can see a cyclist's speed build to 25mph (40km/h) or beyond, and on a long steep road it can reach twice that.

There's less time to react, for you and other road users, and the consequences of getting things wrong can be grave.

Limit Your Speed When Cycling Downhill

If you feel out of control, you are. Even if you do feel in control of the bike's speed, you might not be. You need to be able to stop within the distance that you can see ahead.

Bikes cannot stop as quickly as cars. The brakes are seldom as effective and the tyres will lose traction sooner. Even in ideal conditions, you can add half as much again to the stopping distances you learned for your driving test – so about 18 metres at 20mph and 35 metres at 30mph. If it's raining or you're tired, stopping distances will be much greater.

How far you can see ahead will depend on bends, buildings, and vegetation – and your own vision. While there's no compulsory eye test for cyclists, the onus is on you to ensure you can see well enough for the speed you cycle at. At night, you can't see further than the beam of your front light; if you want to descend at speed in the dark, get a good one! During the day – and at night if the lenses are clear – cycling glasses will keep wind, insects, and debris out of your eyes.


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Cycling Downhill: Staying One Step Ahead

Scan the road environment ahead. That includes everything from the road surface to drivers at junctions, and pedestrians on pavements. You do this anyway, but when you're travelling faster, you need to react sooner. If things are happening too close for you to react in time, then you're travelling too fast regardless of whether you have right of way.

Slow down so that you're descending at a speed that suits the worst-case scenario. A suitable speed will vary enormously, depending on the situation. On a straight country road, you might be able to descend as fast as you like. That hill down into town with the roundabout at the bottom? Proceed with caution!

When Should You Brake When Cycling Downhill? Early.

Always keep your brakes covered when on a descent. That means resting one or two fingers on the lever. This reduces your reaction time, since you can start to brake sooner. It also puts your hands in the right position to 'feather' the brakes.

Feathering the brakes means lightly squeezing them on for a few moments, releasing them, then squeezing them on again, and so on. This moderates your speed so that you shouldn't have to jam the brakes on suddenly – a situation that's best avoided, as it may cause you to skid and fall.

On a long descent, feathering the brakes is better than dragging them on the whole way down. Your hands are less likely to cramp, as they get a chance to relax. You're also less likely to make the brakes (or braking surfaces) overheat, which can cause the brakes to fade.

Do the bulk of your braking before you attempt any manoeuvres rather than during. You're less likely to skid or become unbalanced if you brake while travelling in a straight line. So brake harder before that sharp corner and only lightly – or not at all – as you go around the corner.

Road Positioning When Cycling Downhill

'Road' is the operative word. If you prefer to use off-carriageway cycle tracks, you will need to seriously limit your speed while descending. That way you will be able to react in time to Give Way markings where the cycle track meets a side road, or where the cycle track dives back onto the road alongside without warning.

If it's a shared-use track, you'll need to keep your speed down in any case, so that you can mix comfortably with pedestrians.

When cycling downhill on a road, your speed while descending will more closely match that of cars. This makes it easier to take the lane when you need to  – and it also makes it more important to do so. If you're travelling fast in the gutter, you're at more risk of being cut up/left-hooked by an overtaking/left-turning driver who didn't appreciate your speed.

Taking the lane is a reminder that you're not just traffic but fast-moving traffic, and it gives you room for manoeuvre around car doors, potholes, and more.

Wobbling On Your Bike When at Speed

Bikes can occasionally become unstable while descending. Known by motorcyclists as a 'tank slapper', a shimmy or speed wobble is an unnerving oscillation in which the frame and fork twist from side to side and the front wheel jerks the steering left and right. If it happens, your instinct is to grab the bars firmly and brake hard. Both of these things can make the speed wobble worse!

The bikes that most often suffer from speed wobble tend to be road bikes, audax bikes, and small-wheeled bikes such as folders – especially if they're lightweight, torsionally flexible, and ridden by heavier cyclists. Solidly-built bikes with stable steering and fatter tyres don't tend to shimmy.

You may never suffer from a shimmying bike. But if you do, the following advice could prevent a crash:

Stand up on the pedals and, if the frame has a top tube, grip it between your thighs. This damps down the vibration. You can then brake gradually to a stop.

The Beauty of e-Bikes

For people living and working in very hilly areas, e-bikes can be the ultimate commuting tool.

Modern e-bikes – or electric pedal-assist bicycles, to give them their full name – don’t offer power for free, but add a little extra help to a rider who is already pedalling. That means you can’t freewheel and expect an e-bike’s electric motor to propel you alone.

In the case of hills, however, e-bikes do away with the sinking feeling non-assisted cyclists sense as their speed drops when the road rises. The motor takes up the slack and keeps you travelling at or closer to the speed you were achieving on the flat. The beauty of this is manifold. Your commuting time management can be precise, as you know exactly what kind of speed you can keep up on the way to work.

No matter how tired you feel or how much weight you are carrying, you never have to worry about making it home at the end of the day. Don’t forget, if it seems like cheating and you actually want more of a challenge, all e-bikes have different assistance settings. Simply reduce the amount of help your e-bike provides and use more of your own power.


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