One of the commonest questions asked by those who are preparing for a Coast to Coast Cycling Holiday is, “How hilly is it?”. The short answer is “very”, with the caveat that this depends on the terrain that you’re used to riding on. But there’s no hiding from the facts and you’ll climb over 4000 metres (13,200 ft) on the 136 mile journey. Having established the presence of inescapable undulations the next question is often, “How do I train for the hills?” and this is an easier one to answer: ride hills!
Thankfully, though, you don’t have to be an elite cyclist or regular club rider to enjoy the Coast to Coast. However, you do need a reasonable level of cycling fitness to allow you get the most out of the journey. The fitter you are, the more you’ll enjoy the ride and the quicker you’ll recover at the end of each day. A fitter rider will be more refreshed and able to relax and enjoy your evening meal instead of devouring in silence before staggering off to bed!
An internet search on hill training will give you pannier-loads of useful advice, but unfortunately most of it seems to be written by or for ultra-competitive road cyclists, which can be a little over the top if you simply want to improve your fitness so you can enjoy riding more. Statements like, “Crush the opposition!” and, “Push your lactate threshold” just sound a bit silly to me.
With this in mind, I’ve distilled as much relevant advice from a few sources and combined this with personal experience to offer what I think is the most useful and effective guidance for preparing you for the hills.
Practice riding up hills
However much riding you do, 50 miles riding on flat or gentle terrain is nothing like 30 miles riding with just one big hill thrown in, let alone 3 or 4. If you don’t have any suitable hills near to where you live, then ride up the biggest hill you can. Many times. If you’re concerned that this might take the joy out of your weekend ride, consider separating your training from your ‘pleasure’ rides. This will benefit both types of ride so you can relax and enjoy the pleasure rides and then focus on increasing your fitness when you’re training. You also won’t feel guilty that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough on the fun rides.
Set your seat height correctly
If you seat is too high you’ll have to rock your hips to reach pedals. If it’s too low, you’ll overstrain your quads (the muscles at the front of your things) and your knees will hurt. If you have your seat too low (as too many riders do), after 50 miles and 3000 feet of climbing, you’re gonna feel it in your legs. A lot. Riders often put this tiredness down to their physical condition when just a few millimetres of adjustment can make all the difference to their enjoyment.
A very simple way to set your seat height without having to take measurements or perform any mathematics, is to raise your seat to the point where you know it is too high and then lower it gradually until you’re no longer rocking in the saddle. If you start with the seat too low and raise it gradually, it will start to feel good before you’re at the optimum height, so best to start with it too high.
Change down early
It’s important that you anticipate the change in gradient and get into a comfortable climbing gear before the climb itself. If you leave it too late to change down, at best you’ll be in a slightly harder gear than you should be in, which means you’ll be churning the pedals and there’ll be some very unnerving noises coming from your drivetrain as you try to shift down. At worst, the tension on your chain will be too much and your chain will snap, leaving you with a long push and/or a fiddly roadside repair.
Relax and sit down
Don’t waste energy by gripping the bars and pulling up on the front of the bike – let your legs do the work, not your arms, shoulders and back. This is easier to do if you concentrate on keeping your elbows tucked into your sides and have a relaxed, loose grip on the bars with your shoulders back to open up your diaphragm.
Try and stay sat in the saddle for as long as possible, which will ensure you’re using your most powerful legs muscles and giving them more leverage on the pedals. This is also the most aerobically efficient way to pedal, so you’ll use up your energy stores less quickly than if you stand in the pedals and use brute force.
Maintain a high cadence (i.e. pedal fast!)
Cadence is the turnover rate of the pedals. You should aim to maintain a high cadence of 60rpm (revolutions per minute) or more when climbing. This often frustrates newcomers to hilly terrain, as they’re misled into thinking they’re progressing up the slope slower than they might in a higher gear. However, pedalling at higher cadence uses less glycogen than pedalling by brute force, and you’ll fatigue your legs less so you can last longer. Also, your downshifts to an easier gear will be easier at a higher cadence.
If you can’t get to that easy gear that gives you a fast, comfortable cadence it may be down to the bike. See if you can fit some easier gears or consider changing bikes if that’s an option. Our hire bikes are fitted with mountain bike gearing, with a small ‘granny ring’ and large rear cog to help you up the steepest of hills.
Once on the hill and riding in a comfortable position at a comfortable pace, stay that way. If you can’t hold a normal conversation (and it’s not due to your personality) then you’re riding too hard and you’ll tire much sooner.
Cycling should be fun, so approach any training as a means to an end, not the end in itself. If you can’t see the point of not riding at 100% all the time, then you probably won’t enjoy one of our cycling trips (and you’re probably not reading this anyway…).