The Ups and Downs of Cycling: Climbing and Descending

Climbing hills sounds like a pain, when you’re cycling right?

But when you’re riding from Canada to Mexico across the Rocky Mountains, climbing hills is something that happens—a lot. In fact, over the course of this ride, we will do 67,067 feet of climbing, and 67,589 feet of downhill. That will be about 4200 feet of climbing each day.

Elevation profile of Highway 89

So you have to get used to it.

When I was a teenager I used to ride my bike from our Taylorsville home to my high school in West Valley. It was almost all uphill to school, and down on the way back. I learned to enjoy the coasting after the workout.

In 2014, when I decided to ride LOTOJA, I saw that there was about 10,000 feet of climbing over the 200 miles. I knew I had to learn to love hills. I didn’t love them, but I was willing to get used to them, especially because I enjoyed descending so much.

So how do you get up the hill? I’ve learned a few things over the years.

Climbing hills

First, keep your cadence high. Shift down to easier gears. After awhile you might get tired. Then you should do the counterintuitive thing: Shift one or two gears harder, and stand up. It’s less efficient but it gets you out of the saddle when you sit back down, you might not have to shift down as far.

Lean forward to center your weight over the two wheels. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, but when the grade is really steep you have to do this or your front wheel will start coming of the ground.

A lot of getting up a hill is mental. You have to plan the climb. Start a little lower than you can. This helps you maintain a steady pace. Then as the hill starts to flatten at the top, I start going harder so I can build up momentum.

I also use this as a chance to look around. I enjoy the scenery. Although you have to be careful. Once I was climbing a mountain pass and saw a badger about 20 feet away heading into the woods. I thought it was pretty cool and wanted to get a picture. I started coasting, planning to stop and take a picture. The badger heard my derailleur, turned around, bared its teeth and started a slow charge, jumping up and down and growling. I stood up and got out of there.


The best part of climbing a hill, is going back down. I have some friends who get scared by this, but it’s not that bad. Last fall, I climbed Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, AZ. It was basically three hours of climbing followed by an hour of riding downhill. It was probably the most perfect hour of my life. The wide turns in the road meant I could swoop around the turns without worrying about hitting the brakes at all.

The first thing to remember is to move your body back on the seat. This balances your weight between the wheels and helps you keep control if you hit anything. As you descend you can easily get up to 30 or 40 miles per hour. At these speeds, steering comes from your hips. Watch your line ahead of you and make smooth, measured adjustments. Brake before you get into a turn. Trying to brake during a turn reduces your forward friction on the road and can cause a crash.

Last year I everested, riding up and down the same mountain pass 23 times. Descending the same hill over and over really allows you to practice your skills. You get to know how fast you can take each turn and where the best line is. Try it some time. You’ll feel like a descent pro.

The more you do it, the better you get at both climbing and descending.

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