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Make Climbing Hills The Ride of Your Life

by Rob Coppolillo - from Rocky Mountain Sports

Climbing hills, whether on a road or mountain bike, can be one of the most elusive skills in cycling. When the grade increases, a few cyclists seem to relax and enjoy the ride. Many others, like me, buckle down for the upcoming torture test. One might be predisposed to being a great climber, but the majority of skill comes from hard work and a little discipline.

To get the good word on improving our uphill riding, I went to one of the best climbers in cycling, RLX Polo Sport’s Jimena Florit. The Argentinean has proven herself to be one of the most consistent mountain bikers competing today, always riding in the top 10 and usually near the front of the race. Florit rode so well in 2002 that she ended the year as NORBA’s overall national champion in cross country, and her best finish at the World Championships was a remarkable 8th in 2000.

Florit speaks

“You gotta do a little bit of everything, just like your diet,” laughs Florit. By this the Polo Sport rider means that your training for climbing hills must incorporate a variety of workouts if you want to improve your skills appreciably.

Before we get to specific workouts, though, a reminder. Climbing is a function of your power-to-weight ratio and therefore towing extra weight uphill is a killer. Refer to my article featuring U.S. Postal’s Christian Vande Velde on weight loss in the March 2003 issue if you can stand to shed a few pounds. Consider focusing on dropping your body fat to reasonable levels in addition to performing a few of the following workouts from Florit.

“Repeats are my favorite,” she says. “It’s more the kind of climbing I do in a mountain bike race. If you look at my heart rate, it’s up, then down, then up, then down. I do between five and 10 of those.”

You should only include hill repeats in your workout after you’ve logged several hundred miles in a year and have been cycling for a few years total. Repeats challenge your body to go hard, then recover, then go hard again—an essential skill in racing, but also taxing on the joints and lungs. If you’re not racing, but just want to get a killer workout, burn a bunch of calories and get more comfortable on the climbs, then repeats will serve you well.

“If I go for shorter repeats, then the intensity might be a little higher,” explains Florit. She’s been known to ride Mount Soledad near her home in San Diego 11 times in a workout. Doing that many repeats she’d obviously keep the intensity down, more like an endurance day. If your workout only allows four or five repeats, then you might up the intensity.

Florit does repeats as well as workouts with longer efforts. “I use (repeats) sometimes to do intervals, but then you have more Palomar-Mountain climbs where you are fighting gravity for two hours.” Palomar is the biggest climb in the San Diego area, similar to a long canyon on Colorado’s Front Range. If you’re headed out for the long slog up Deer Creek or South Saint Vrain, then dial back the intensity and settle in for a steady climb. Try not to “blow up.” Focus on riding at the same pace near the top as you did at the bottom. You’ll burn a ton of calories, develop great endurance and build power, too.


Florit likes doing her hardest workouts near her home. “I don’t have to travel or ride 100 miles to do a big effort,” she says. If you’re really going to push your limits, then design your workout so you’ll be closer to home or nearer to the car so that if you do detonate, you won’t have to limp home in a horrendous headwind or with a nuclear bonk.

Remember to vary your rides as well. Focusing only on short bursts will give you higher-end speed, but might leave you gasping on longer climbs or in longer events. If you excel in one area, make sure you challenge yourself in others. Long, slow, tough climbs build great power, especially when you remain seated as much as possible. Short, high-intensity, steep climbs will raise your anaerobic threshold and give you that “top end” for tough sections on the mountain bike or particularly steep climbs when out road cycling.

No matter the terrain, just commit to varying your workouts because not only will you ride faster, you’ll be less likely to succumb to boredom during your cycling. And if you do decide to emulate Florit with 11 repeats up your local climb, remember to drink enough, rest up and always stretch afterwards. You’ll be flying on the climbs in no time.

Look for Rob Coppolillo’s first book, In the Gutter: Riding, Writing and Stories Too True to Tell, due out in the near future.

Exercise physiologist Ken Mierke, a two-time World Champion triathlete (disabled division) and owner of Fitness Concepts (, is available to answer any burning questions you may have about cycling. You can send them care of

Q: What are the signs that you might be cycling too much?

A: Dead legs are a sign of too much cycling. In the old days, cyclists said, If your legs are dead, you havent trained enough. Put in more miles. Of course, their legs stayed dead.

Performance during important workouts is the best indicator of optimal training volume. Many cyclists think that they should train hard enough that they are constantly tired until they taper before race day. This is ineffective because tired legs can’t produce power effectively. If 100 percent effort produces 95 percent output because a rider is tired from yesterday’s workout, that is not effective training. The body doesn’t care how hard you’re trying, it responds to output.

Many cycling traditions have been handed down from riders preparing for the Tour De France, which took Lance Armstrong over 80 hours last year. Lance needs to be trained to go hard even when his legs are. Our races aren’t that long!

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