How to: Ascend and descend hills when commuting by bike

Cyclescheme, 12.11.2018

How to: Ascend and descend hills when commuting by bike

Here's how to conquer any fear of hills on your commute.

No ride to work is pan flat and what might be a fun little blip for a leisure cyclist could pose a significant challenge when you’ve had a long day at work and are laden down with baggage.

So here are a few simple ways to help you minimise the effect of hills on your commute.

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. Bear in mind, such a climb could pose a greater trial depending on the weather, the load you’re carrying and how you’re feeling. Any climb that is so steep it causes you to weave across your lane is putting you at danger, so avoid it.

If you’re riding light, feeling good, and the weather is perfect, by all means have a crack at some more challenging routes on the way home. But on the ride to work, keep everything within your limits and understand that a longer climb that takes you slightly out of your way is probably more sensible than a short, steep one. 

How to climb

So you’ve picked your route and you know there is a hill at a certain point, how do you approach it? You’re not a child, so please don’t pedal like crazy to the base of the climb hoping that momentum and magic will somehow spirit you to the summit. You’ve got to put in some effort, but you can make that seem easier by being clever and using the tools at your disposal sensibly.

Higher pedalling speeds – ‘cadences’  – use your heart and lungs more and tire your legs less, while slower cadences use your leg muscles more but will tire them quicker. Because of that, you want to set your gearing choice at the start of the climb so that it allows you to keep up a nice high cadence and get into a steady pedalling rhythm.

Don’t be tempted to initially keep your gearing the same as it is on the flat and gradually drop through the gears as you feel the effects of the gradient. Changing gear with the drivetrain under increased load heightens the possibility that something will malfunction or your chain will slip.

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 little do-able 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. Take the opportunity of 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.


What goes up must come down, which poses its own set of concerns. At the top of any climb you may need to get your breath back. But while your body recoups, don’t allow your brain to lose focus. If there is a descent straightaway, you could be back up to high speed very quickly, so it’s important to have your wits about you.

In wet or potentially freezing conditions this is even more important, and it might be necessary to use your brakes from the very top to stop you building up too much speed.

On fast descents, if you are travelling at the same kind of speed as surrounding traffic or near the prevailing speed limit, it may be important to use assertive riding techniques to assume the primary position (in the centre of the lane) and take control of it.

The first reason for this is that higher speeds will allow you less time to react to potential dangers either in the road itself or emerging from the pavement or the side. The second reason is that there should be no reason for traffic to overtake you and often drivers who do overtake descending cyclists don’t fully appreciate the speed at which they are travelling and may then cut back in early or pull up sharp.


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