5 beginner’s tips for cycling up mountains

The learning curve for beginners is always much steeper. Now that I’m safely back from my first ever cycling trips, I thought it would be a good moment to share some tips.

In August I cycled the North Coast 500, a bike route around Scotland’s northern coastline. There were lots of very small hills and I found it hard. I lost count of the number of times I had to get off and push.

Last month I climbed 6310m Chimborazo from sea to summit. This involved starting at Guayaquil on the coast, and cycling up through the Andes to the foot of Ecuador’s highest mountain, which I then climbed.

Despite the altitude, I found cycling up the hills much easier second time around. So what changed? Here are my top 5 tips for cycling up mountains.

1. Get a bike with more gears

Sometimes it's easier just to get off and push
Sometimes it’s easier just to get off and push

There were a few times during our cycle ride of the North Coast 500 when I had to get off my bike and push. This happened when the road was so steep that it was exhausting to push on the pedals. My speed of ascent became so slow that it was actually quicker for me to walk.

To begin with, I was determined to get up these hills. I’d stay on my bike, and crawl my way up using the sort of motivational phrases that I expect Eminem uses in a swearing contest. But towards the end of the trip I could no longer be bothered with this. I realised that it wasn’t worth the energy and was more efficient to walk.

I assumed this was due to my weedy leg muscles, that have been honed for walking rather than cycling. I was encouraged when my brother – a keen cyclist with no past history of polishing my ego – blamed the gears on my bike. We’d hired hybrids rather than mountain bikes. I’m not going to launch into a technical description for fear of coming across as a moron (to use a popular word nowadays), but the plasticy thing on the right handlebar had six settings, while the one on the left had only two. This meant that there weren’t many gears, and when the pedals became sticky there was nowhere to go. On the North Coast 500 this happened several times a day.

In Ecuador we hired proper mountain bikes. There were many more gear settings to play with on both handlebars. If it became exhausting to push down on the pedals, there was always a lower gear to drop into. I was able to keep rotating the pedals in comfort, and no hill was too steep to cycle up.

2. ‎Reduce the load

This man has far too much stuff in his panniers
This man has far too much stuff in his panniers

This should go without saying, but the more stuff you carry, the harder it will be. If I thought towing it around on a wheel would be any easier than carrying it on my back, I was quickly undeceived. Massive panniers loaded on the back wheel don’t make for efficient cycling, any more than pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill makes for easy walking.

When we started the North Coast 500, we intended to stop off in places along the way and hike up a few hills. Tired leg muscles soon ended this plan, but we still had to carry our unused hiking gear. We camped every night, so had to bring tent, sleeping bags, mats and stove.

I resisted the temptation to bring my comb and hair drier (I’m able to care for my hair with a single wet wipe), but we could have made it easier for ourselves by leaving behind our hiking and camping gear.

In Ecuador we cycled up through the Andes carrying the bare minimum. How? Firstly, by staying in hotels, and secondly, with one of these…

3. ‎Recruit a support driver

It's nice to have a support vehicle you can retreat into for a rest and some snacks (Photo: Edita Nichols)
It’s nice to have a support vehicle you can retreat into for a rest and some snacks (Photo: Edita Nichols)

Oh yes, that’s right. I didn’t know such people existed, but apparently they do.

When we reached the top of the Bealach na Ba, the highest pass on the North Coast 500 and reputedly Britain’s most challenging road for cyclists, a nice lady offered to refill our water bottles.

“It’s alright, I have plenty. I’m carrying it for my husband, who’s just on his way up behind you,” she said.

There were a few cyclists at the pass, but we seemed to be the only ones with big panniers on our bikes. Most of them were day trippers, but one enterprising gentleman (and I use the word gentleman loosely) who was also cycling the North Coast 500, had managed to persuade his wife to follow him around in a support vehicle. Quite what he was expected to do in return we never discovered.

When we first started talking about our Chimborazo sea to summit, I didn’t know if I’d be capable of cycling up through the Andes on a bike loaded with gear.

“It’s OK, I’ve already arranged jeep support,” said Edita.

And she had. We had the best possible support driver in Pablo Montalvo, an Ecuadorian cyclist who has also climbed Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest mountain, from sea to summit. He carried our gear, and stopped regularly beside the road to provide us with snacks, refill our bottles, and check our bikes to make sure they were in good working order. Best of all, he was a treasure house of cycling expertise, patiently answering dumb question after dumb question without laughing at me. There are a few world leaders who should hire him.

4. ‎Cycle up some other mountains first

The best training for cycling up mountains is to cycle up some other mountains
The best training for cycling up mountains is to cycle up some other mountains

When I was a student at Loughborough University, I shared a corridor with a super-fit competition cyclist who trained every day by cycling dozens of kilometres. He even avoided alcohol. He made me look like an elephant seal, but when we went for a hike up Beacon Hill, a modest 248m pimple just five miles away from the campus, he was knackered.

“I’ve got the wrong leg muscles for this,” he said.

He told me there were two types of leg muscle – ones for walking and ones for cycling – and he had the latter. His elaborate explanation (otherwise known as an excuse) implied that the more you built up one set of muscles, the more the other set wasted away. This is patent nonsense which would mean that triathlons were impossible to complete, but for many years (about 20, in fact) I believed him.

Many myths contain a small grain of truth that makes them seem plausible. When I started the North Coast 500, I assumed I had a walker’s leg muscles rather than a cyclist’s. But by the end of the bike ride I was still just as good at walking up hills, and had improved enormously at cycling up them (I was even better at pushing a bike while I walked up the hill, but I prefer not to talk about that).

I don’t often promote training in this blog, but even I have to admit that if you cycle up a lot hills, then you get better at it.

5. ‎Remove your underpants and smear on cream

Cycling shorts with a padded seat and cream for smearing on your buttocks: I didn't know these were even a thing
Cycling shorts with a padded seat and cream for smearing on your buttocks: I didn’t know these were even a thing

Yes, you read that right – and no, this is not a porn site.

When I cycled the North Coast 500, I was warned to expect sore buttocks. I was advised to buy a pair of cycling shorts with soft padding sown into the fabric, and a really good tube of butt cream. I had no idea that either of these things existed, but a visit to Decathlon two days before I started fixed me up with both of them. Every morning in the tent I smeared my backside with the latter before putting on my underwear. I still got sore buttocks.

“The best technique is to smear it liberally onto the padded part of your cycling shorts,” my brother told me when I visited him a few days after the trip.

I scratched my head.

“What, you mean you don’t wear any underpants?” I said.

He nodded, and it took me a few moments to realise that he was serious. I knew cyclists shaved their legs, but it was a big surprise to learn that they go commando as well. Pablo later explained to me – in perhaps a little more detail than I needed – that the underwear tends to accumulate salt, which increases chafing. If you’re eating your dinner then I’m sorry.

My brother also gave me a tub of something he described as “the Rolls Royce of butt cream”. In Ecuador I followed his advice, and my buttocks emerged relatively unharmed. He used to give me crap CDs as presents. I never thought I would ever say this, but the cream for putting on my arsehole was much more useful.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this article and it helps to make you a better cyclist. Next week’s tips involve a pair of rubber gloves and a cucumber.

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2 thoughts on “5 beginner’s tips for cycling up mountains

  • October 13, 2017 at 10:42 am
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    Hi Mark,

    Great post! As a keen cyclist myself I agree with all your well-made points.

    “… one enterprising gentleman (and I use the word gentleman loosely) … had managed to persuade his wife to follow him around in a support vehicle. Quite what he was expected to do in return we never discovered.”

    Wow, an ex-boyfriend tried to persuade me to do this for him and some friends. It was especially galling because I would have liked to have cycled with them across the Alps but due to an illness wasn’t fit enough. It’s great that you’re too much of a gentleman to expect this kind of stuff.

    BTW, a good tip for training runs is to try and not push for as long as you can. I found that setting small targets for myself, like getting to a certain tree or rock or road sign up ahead without getting off my bike, worked really well. Most of the time I would end up staying on the bike up until the next tree, rock, road sign, and then the next, and so on… Incidentally, cycling uphill also helped me get fitter for walking uphill.

    Ann

  • October 15, 2017 at 11:06 am
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    Ha, thanks for that. I don’t know about being too much of a gentleman – I never thought of asking 😉

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