If embrace rather than fear hill climbing, you can enjoy terrain such as this, the Coll de Soller in Mallorca, Spain, where the author and her husband, Markham Dunn (pictured) biked this past spring. PHOTO BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
If embrace rather than fear hill climbing, you can enjoy terrain such as this, the Coll de Soller in Mallorca, Spain, where the author and her husband, Markham Dunn (pictured) biked this past spring. PHOTO BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
As the song goes, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” Or was that just the sound of me wheezing up another killer climb in the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin?

Many years ago, I was a flatlander. Born and raised in Minneapolis, the only big climbs to be found were on the way out of downtown St. Paul on Ramsey Street and Summit Avenue or climbing out of Fort Snelling State Park. I remember my coaches calling for hill repeats, something that always sent shivers up my spine. I hated hills. With my short femurs, large quads and abundant fast twitch muscles, I was built for sprints. Put me on a hill and I’d explode, and not in the good way.

Fast forward to 2001, when my husband and I first landed in Madison, Wisconsin. That summer, I was forced to deal with my demons by riding west of town. Although I often rode with my husband, I preferred riding alone since he was a much stronger climber (he’s built like a Basque) and I still had that competitive thing going on which made me hate him for outperforming me on every ride.

Slowly, as the years passed, I began to enjoy climbing. I think it was our stints living in the hills of Connecticut that did it. There, I didn’t have a choice. Each day my ride into work was a four-mile descent to the river, which of course meant a four-mile climb home. I could choose to yell, scream and swear every day or get over it and embrace what climbing could offer.

Along with the change of “accepting” hills came a change in my body. I began to lose the ability to sprint and my endurance began to improve. No, I still don’t have a “climber’s body,” but I stopped relying on my quads to do all the work and started using these magnificent things called glutes. By learning how to activate the appropriate climbing muscles, I also lowered the number of days my knees hurt post ride.

Embrace elevation gain
As a trainer and cycling coach, I am constantly urging clients who don’t like hills to give them another shot. After all, is riding through flat cornfields day after day really that much fun? By learning to embrace climbing, a whole new world opens up.

Sure, it may be uncomfortable for a few moments – or hours, depending on where the climb is – but look at the pay off: By riding the hills, you often get spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Climbs usually require a few twists and turns which can open up onto postcard worthy valleys and farms. There is most certainly a great sense of accomplishment after a difficult climb and you get to fly (or coast) down the other side.

I don’t know about you, but when I ride flats for hours on end, I actually feel more tired since I’m never able to stop pedaling without stopping. On the backside of hills, I get a few moments to catch my breath and act like a kid whooping and hollering all the way down. Those moments of elation prep my mind and body for the climbs ahead.

Tips to the top
So here’s the deal. I’m going to let you in on a few training secrets on how to improve your climbing skills. By following these few easy steps, you, too, will be on your way to seeking out bigger hills.  

1) Change your outlook on hills. If you don’t like ‘em now, going into them with a sense of dread won’t help you. I’m not asking you to switch your mindset completely in one day. Just don’t beat yourself up over them. Take a deep breath, be nice to yourself and take on each hill one pedal stroke at a time.

2) Learn to love your granny gears. If you have knee issues, get a triple chain ring. If not, at least move to a compact. Very few people actually like pushing huge gears up hills. Not only is it not fun, but, if you aren’t trained for it, you will suffer later, too, from sore knees and lower back pain.

3) For long slow climbs, scoot back in the saddle a bit. This will allow you to activate those ever-important glutes I was talking about earlier. Glutes are bigger, stronger and have more muscle endurance than quads, so use them. If a climb is short and steep, feel free to either ride the nose of the saddle for power or get out of the saddle and “dance” up the hill. Either way, try to keep your cadence up. This may seem difficult in the beginning, but you’ll preserve energy for the next climb.  

4) Open up your chest. I’ve seen lots of climbers pull so hard on the handlebars (I do this, too, especially when tires) that they make their chest concave and can’t get enough air into their lungs. By keeping the chest open and proud and the arms a bit relaxed, you’ll not only climb better but you’ll also help prevent injuries to the neck, shoulders, lower back and hip flexors.  

5) Train during the off-season for hill climbing by strengthening your glutes and core. Limbs aren’t meant to do the work climbing hills (or sprinting, for that matter). If your abdominals, back, glutes and ab/adductors (inner and outer thighs) are strong, you’ll not only be able to climb better, you will prevent injuries. 

I find doing simple planks, front and side, as well as back bridges, to be some of the best exercises out there for core strengthening. For glutes, multi directional lunges, body weight squats and a few plyometrics, do the job nicely. If you aren’t a fan of these exercises or need more direction, yoga and pilates classes work wonders.  

6) So if you end up falling in love with hills, and I’m hoping you will, don’t ride them every day if you can help it. It’s fine to hit some rollers on each ride, but throw in a few flatter days to balance things out. Just like everything else, there can be too much of a good thing.

Get thee to the hills
Okay. So there you have it. Hill Climbing 101. Now if you’re reading this surrounded by some of the Midwest’s flatlands, it’s time for a road trip.

1) Get yourself to the driftless area of Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota. This region is my favorite riding destination in the world, hands down. You may think I’m joking, but it’s what keeps me in the Midwest. While moving around the world and biking in each place I lived, I have never felt so connected to a riding area more than here. My all-time favorite routes are around Viroqua, Westby, Soldiers Grove and Trempealeau.  

2) Brown County, Indiana. Yes, there are hills in Indiana.

3) The interior of Bayfield and Washburn counties. Along the lake you won’t find big climbs, but if you head inland ... Hoo boy.

4) Southern Iowa. Ask anyone who has ridden the Southern section of the RAGBRAI or Trans-Iowa and they will tell you about the endless rollers that await you.

Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor. She blogs at www.twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.