Cycling: Inclines & Descents

Cycling Inclines

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I spent the weekend in Nice cycling up some big mountains. I got some really excellent coaching while I was there and due to my taking on of the Etape du Tour in July, I was paying particular attention to any instruction given on how to handle inclines and descents. The more I chat about my Etape challenge, the more I realise these are points a lot of newbie cyclists struggle with and would like some hints on, so I thought I’d share what I learned here. By no means am I an expert and I’m still working on all these things myself, but I came on leaps and bounds over the space of four days using these techniques.


– Switch all the way down in your gears, (depending on how steep the incline is). I used to make the mistake of switching down a little but trying to stay in a relatively high gear – my logic being that if I pushed harder with my legs, it’d power me up hill more. But staying in a high gear can literally grind your gears, which is not good for the bike. What I learned this weekend is that while yes, inclines to require a degree of glute and leg strength, they’re actually more about cardio. Switch to a low gear and get a nice, steady rhythm in your legs, but your heart and lungs should be doing a whole lotta work here.

– Position your hands lightly on the front of the bars – not the sides, not the drops – open your chest up, sit up a little and breath. This actually really helps you to draw on your core strength too. If you stay in the same position you would when you’re on the flat, you might start to feel it in your back a bit (I sure did). Sit up slightly and use that core to keep you stable.

– Get a good steady rhythm going in your legs. I fully expected to feel a world of pain in my legs on 10km and 14km climbs, but it actually really wasn’t that bad. I’ve got good cardio so it was more about that. I’m not saying you won’t feel it at all in your legs, you will, but it’s your cardio vascular system that’ll get you up those hills.

– When going around a corner up a hill, take it wide, i.e. get into the middle of the road. The steepest part is the bit next to the pavement, so to keep your rhythm going and go wide. It sometimes even feels like it flattens out a bit as you take a corner – probably a total illusion, but midway into a 10km climb, I’ll take it!

– You don’t need to be out of your saddle that much. Obviously that depends on how steep the incline is, but I did inclines of up to 10% and found I didn’t get out of the saddle much at all. The steeper the incline though, you may, so if you do, get your weight over the front of the bike, relax the arms, bend the elbows a bit and pull up a little on the bars as you pedal, getting your arms and upper body into it a bit too. Admittedly, I haven’t mastered this yet, but I’m a work in progress!


– Let’s be honest, if you’re going down a straight road, you aren’t so worried – it’s the corners on a descent that put the fear of God in you. So, the first step is to try to relax. Easier said than done, I know, but take a deep breath, relax the shoulders and set off.

– I was totally guilty of it on my first descent, but try not to hug the brakes all the way down. Let it go and keep pedaling – especially if you’re coming off the back of a big climb, while the temptation may be there to stop moving your legs altogether and just freewheel it, try to keep them ticking over.

– Don’t brake on a corner as you risk the wheels sliding out from under you. Gently brake before the corner so you’ve leveled your speed as you go into it.

– Again, when taking corners, take them wide. If you’re going left around a corner, your left knee should be up on the pedal. Put some weight onto your right foot and stick your left knee out a bit as you slightly lean into it. This will take the bike around the corner without you having to move the handlebars much.

– Remember to look in the direction of the corner too – adds to the bike going the right way and just generally, it’s a good idea to look where you’re going!

– On that note, pay attention to any potential hazards in the road (bumps, holes, rocks etc) and be sure to avoid them – and if cycling in a group, alert others to them as well.

– Crouch into it. Lower your upper body, tuck your elbows in and get your hands on the drops (if you’re brave enough, I’m not yet). Make yourself aerodynamic and feel the speed!

Those are the main points I picked up on this training camp that really helped me. I’m sure there are some more experienced cyclists reading this who may have some tips too, so feel free to leave them in the comments. The main point I want to get across is that inclines and descents are totally doable – don’t fear them!

8 Responses to “Cycling: Inclines & Descents”
  1. Well done for getting to grips with it all so quickly – even after years of cycling I’m still a wimpy descender!

  2. Jo says:

    Great advice thanks for sharing! I am only just getting into cycling and as I live in Birmingham I am surrounded by hills (I keep saying to my hubby we live in a ditch because whichever direction I ride in I have to get up a bloody hill!) I also keep in a fairly high gear and try to power through so I will change tatics tonight and drop down the gears. I am really new to your blog and have to say I am really enjoying it and your etape adventure.

  3. Karen says:

    These are such good tips. I also am tempted to stay in a higher gear on an incline, as I think it’ll power me up it, but definitely need to get my mind into the lower gears. I fear I’ll be riding the breaks on the descent for a little longer though…I need to get much more comfortable with the speed!! eek!

  4. Grace says:

    During the Redbud Ride in London, Ky., I learned the sheer joy/exhileration/pants-wetting-thrill that is careening down a straight hill at 40 mph. I’ve never gone that fast on a bike, but good God was it fun. Probably would’ve had a heart attack if there’d been any kind of major curve to it (as it was, there was a 90-degree turn about 1/4 mile from the bottom).

  5. Reggie says:

    Another thing I recently discovered that will add to a more fulfilling ride is by having the right amount of volume of air in the tyres for your type of bike. Too soft and your tyres gain too much traction, grip on the road. This calls for way too much effort from you! Add more air and feel the difference.

  6. Tammela says:

    I am thrilled to have stumbled upon your blog — it is fantastic. These cycling tips are also great, as I recently started road cycling in hilly North London…

  7. Descending is so mental for me. For some reason I just keep thinking about crashing or something terrible happening. I’d much rather climb slow and steady! Thanks for sharing these tips. Sometimes I climb in a hard gear/low cadence, as more of a strength workout. But you’re right, in a race or a normal ride you want to get into that cardio-driven rhythm/higher cadence.

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  1. […] Tomorrow, I’ll share the tips I learned about how to climb and descent inclines, so keep an eye out for that post. […]