Tips on Becoming a Better Recumbent Hill Climber

I am not a strong climber. Let me just get that out there before anyone dismisses this article as written by a 150 pound lean, mean, recumbent climbing machine. That’s my teammate, Jeff. I weigh just north of 170 pounds, and I have been on a recumbent for only a little over a year. I live in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, which is a very mountainous region. To give you a little indication of how mountainous, there are 4 world-class ski resorts within 25 miles of our house. You can avoid a lot of the mountainous terrain by hopping on your bike and spinning around in the relatively flat Salt Lake and Utah valley, but that’s not where you’ll find most of the areas devoted cyclists. You’ll find them hammering up steep, sustained hills like Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons on a regular basis.

Big Cottonwood is about a 15 mile climb and the grades average around 4-6% with several patches as steep as 10%. The base lies at around 4900ft, and the climb ends at Brighton Ski Resort at a lofty 8740 ft.

Little Cottonwood is about an 8 mile climb and the grades average between 6-9% with several patches as steep as 12%. The canyon base entrance is around 5200ft, and the Snowbird base tops out around 8250.

Both of these climbs are very challenging and that is why they are very popular with cyclists in the area. I have been up both these canyons on my Bacchetta Corsa S/S over a half dozen times to date and I have never encountered another recumbent. Before my first attempt, I was flat out afraid about getting part way up one of these climbs and having to throw in the towel and coast back down the mountain. That’s a fear I’m sure all riders have – especially when they are attempting a climb that they’ve never done before. However, when you’re on a ‘bent, there’s another fear that crosses your mind. If I have to turn around, will I be feeding the false rumors so prevalent in upright cyclist circles that recumbents can’t climb hills?

Serving as the Regional Recumbent Representative

If you’ve ended up becoming the de facto recumbent cycling “ambassador” in your area, it can make you even more self-conscious. As the only one on a ‘bent out there day in and day out attacking the surrounding hills, you can’t help but to feel like your personal performance carries a lot of weight. Recumbents are so rare in Salt Lake for example; I’ve had my picture taken at least 20 times during this training season alone. And to date, I have only seen 1 other ‘bent rider and 2 trikes on the road in the valley. In the foothills and the canyons, we have no representation whatsoever that I’m aware of.

So, what’s it like cranking up steep grades for up to 2 hours on a high racer? Hard work. But let’s ask the question one more time a little differently; so what’s it like cranking up steep grades for up to 2 hours on a bicycle? The answer is oddly exactly the same - hard work. My point is, no matter what you’re riding, hill climbing is not for those who are looking for a casual, comfortable spin session. It’s work. It was work climbing on my Cannondale SR500, it was work climbing on my Trek MTB, and it’s still work on my Bacchetta. One difference I have noticed however is that improving your climbing technique on a recumbent is pretty straight forward. On an upright you can stand on the pedals, pull with your arms, or grind it out in the saddle. On a ‘bent however, it’s all about efficient RPMs because if you realize your knees are getting sore or your legs are burning because your pushing a gear that’s too big, you can’t hop out of your seat and take stress off your legs in exchange for turning the heat up a bit in your arms and lungs.

So how do you get started as a hill climber on a ‘bent? Find a nice little sustained incline and get in that granny gear. One thing most of us probably know all too well is that your knees can get very upset with you if you push a gear bigger then they like for an extended period. It is very tempting to try to grind away in a bigger gear, and you may actually be able to scramble up shorter hills faster by doing so. However, successful sustained climbing on a recumbent is about efficiently managing the stress on your legs and knees.

After a few attempts at even short hill climbs, you’ll start to be able to gauge what size cogs your knees, legs and lungs can sustain for extended periods, and at what percent grades. Although everyone is different, I find personally that if I can stay above 70 RPM while staying within my target heart rate zone, I’m a happy camper. Also, by staying above 70, I find that it’s easier for me to balance. 9 times out of 10 if my balance ever gets shaky it’s because I did 1 of 2 things; I let my RPMs drop too low, or I stopped focusing on the road ahead an got distracted by one of my onboard gadgets.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

As any strong climber will tell you, becoming a better climber takes patience, discipline and humility. It’s so easy to get discouraged when another cyclist tears past you on a hill and it’s easier still to fall out of your training zone at that point and push too hard in an effort to catch up, or at least gracefully get left behind. I can’t count how many times I’ve been peddling away up a hill in my endurance threshold zone (for me, that’s around 160BPM) only to glance in my mirror to see someone gaining on me. Instead of sticking to the plan, I have thrown humility out the window, geared up, and peddled as if my life depended on keeping that upright rider in my rear view. After a couple of minutes of this, what inevitably happens is I notice my heart rate pushing 190, my legs burning with lactate buildup and I’m pedaling well beyond an even remotely sustainable pace. Often times the result was that I still would get overtaken, and then I would end up limping through the rest of my training ride in misery.

I tell this quick story because I believe it is much more critical on a recumbent how well you pace yourself climbing because you cannot hop out of the saddle and rest your legs, and burnt out legs on a recumbent can lead to losing your balance and having an accident – especially when you are fighting against gravity at slow speeds. If you can keep slowly ratcheting up your sustainable pace by balancing your RPMs, heart rate, with persistence you will inevitably become a stronger climber. And one last note – remember that all the laws of physics that govern hill climbing capability on an upright also apply to a recumbent. It is your strength to weight ratio that plays the biggest role in hill climbing performance. Two riders of equal strength with a 10 pound difference in weight will perform nearly identically on the flats, but the rider that is 10 pounds lighter will have a significant advantage going uphill.

- Curtis from Bend It Cycling