Up: The Zen of Climbing


You’re on a bicycle. The road or trail ahead tilts skyward. So, you have a choice to make: turn around and pedal back the way you came or start climbing.



Unless you live in Florida, at some point in your bike ride, you will encounter a rise, roller, hill, grade, or mountain that stands between you and the ice-cold beer (or protein smoothie) that awaits you at ride’s-end.  To embrace the lifestyle and sport of cycling means that you will tackle that obstacle and overcome it!

You will go. Up!

But, how will you do it?

Will you be adversarial and attack the climb? Head down, mouth open, arms locked, shoulders hunched over your handlebars, your body rocking from side to side as your legs slowly push the pedals down, stroke after agonizing stroke.

Or, will you take on a Zen, or meditative, state and use your training, knowledge, and experience to transform the climb into an opportunity?  Exploring, learning, and reflecting upon the cyclist that is you.

Choose the Zen approach. Be calm and purposeful in your climbing. Be mindful of physical and mental state. Be aware before, during, and after the ascent. And, in all your climbing efforts — whether it’s a half-mile 2% grade or a 34-mile 6-13% alpine ascent — use these Up! strategies to make it over the top:

Warm Up! — Where possible, start any significant climb towards the middle of your ride so that you are appropriately warmed-up for the ascent. Do not stop to rest or eat at the bottom of a climb. Keep moving. The longer you rest and the more you eat, the more difficult it will be for your body to get moving again.

Look Up! — As you climb, keep you head up and eyes forward. A lowered head will constrict your throat, inhibit proper breathing, and make it more difficult for you to clearly see the road ahead.

Lighten Up! — One of the best ways to become a better climber is to lose weight — body weight and bike weight. Every pound you lose is one less pound you must carry over a climb.  A reduction of five-to-ten pounds of body weight will make a significant difference in your climbing ability.  Consider this: one full 20-ounce waterbottle weighs almost two pounds!

Toughen Up! — Bicycling is hard. Climbing is hard. Get used to it. Ride in the heat. Ride in the wind. Ride in the rain. The more you ride, the tougher you will become. It’s that simple.

Change Up! — Unless you are riding a fixie, use your gears when you are climbing. On prolonged ascents, when you come to a flat section, shift up one or two gears, get out of the saddle, and increase your speed for a short segment. On shorter climbs, shift up one or two gears as you approach the summit and power over the top of the hill.

Speak Up! — As you approach other climbing riders from behind, say hello so they know you are coming. Many cyclists tend to drift into a ‘zone’ when doing prolonged climbs, effectively shutting down their awareness.  This is dangerous for themselves and other cyclists. So, verbally communicate before you overtake another rider.

Straighten Up! — Keep your head up and chest open when climbing.  If you are on a road bike, do not climb with your hands in the drops of your handlebars. Keep your hands on the brake hoods or the flat section of the handlebar. If you are on a road or tri bike with aero bars, do not climb in the aero position.

Listen Up! — Be aware of what your body is telling you. If your back is aching, get out of the saddle. If your knees are hurting, shift down to an easier gear. If your neck and shoulders are sore, relax your upper body, lower your shoulders, and gently move your head from side to side. If you have to pee, pull over, find a good spot (not near a cliff), and water the shrubbery.

Wise Up! — Climb at your own pace.  If someone passes you while you are climbing, let them go!  Maintain your pace and don’t get suckered into a testosterone-fueled catch-me-if-you-can chase.  The result could be you experiencing muscle glycogen depletion (aka Hitting The Wall) at mile 12 of a 27 mile ascent.  Not good. Know your pace and be comfortable with it.  If you want to push yourself, do so by your own initiative.

Cheer Up! — You are riding your bike because you choose to do it.  You could be playing golf, eating chocolate chip cookies, or napping.  Instead, you are making your way up a long climb.  So, enjoy the view, the workout, and the outcome: some well-deserved downhill! Oh, yes!

Give Up! — Sometimes the climb will beat you, so know when to say: “When!” Three flats. A bee sting. No water. Sunburn. Yeah, been there.  It’s not a nice place to visit. Always carry your cellphone so you can call for an ‘extraction.’ There is no shame in recognizing when you have reached your limit, resetting your goal, and managing your expectations.

Up! You go.


About The Author

AaronLegsSmallAaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita-US VETS Regional Amateur Team.  A 27-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.

Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work.  He has even been on the race podium a few times.

Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at:




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