Think tough climbing and you probably imagine the long, winding, hairpin ascents of the Alps. But for sheer brutality, the steep hills of the UK have few equals

Photos: Roo Fowler

They may only last a few minutes, as opposed to hours in the Alps, but the UK is littered with gradients of 1:4 or steeper.

Devon, Cornwall and the Lakes, in particular, are hot spots for the type of climb that leaves you gasping and straining. Steep roads are marked with either a single arrow for climbs of over 10 per cent or double arrows for those of 25 per cent or steeper.

On our photo shoot in Devon for this article, we even found a 1:3 gradient — there are only a handful of these in the UK.

Hardknott Pass is a minor road from Eskdale to Cockley Bridge in Cumbria, and it vies with Chimney Bank in Rosedale, North Yorkshire, for title of steepest road in England. Both are recorded as being 33 per cent and are signed as 1:3.

The steepest road in the UK is the unclassified road at Ffordd Penllech in Harlech, Wales; officially described as not suitable for vehicles, it is 1:2.91 at its steepest. It is possible by bike, as long as a strong and determined cyclist rides the bike.

>>> Technique training tips: climbing & descending

The secret to enjoying these monsters is attitude: they need to be viewed as a challenge, a test of your grit and determination as well as leg strength.

Certain masochistic cyclists are so enticed by the thought of these leg and lung breakers that specific hill-climb races are organised around the country for riders willing to take on super-steep hills against the clock. Cyclists have always appreciated the chance to pit themselves against a gradient; the oldest continuously run bike race in the world is the Catford Cycling Club Hill Climb that has been run since 1887 on Yorks Hill, in Kent.

Of course, what goes up must also come down, and the descents can be almost as fearsome as the climbs are leg burning. If your heart is hammering to get up the climb you may well find it in your mouth as you cling on at break-neck speeds on the descent.

The only way is up


Inevitably, power to weight ratio plays a huge part in how successful you are on steep hills, but your ability to tolerate the accumulation of lactate in your muscles is also significant. Upper body strength and your core play a bigger role in muscling your way up steep hills than they normally do on the flat, so if you are struggling then this is an area to address off the bike.

The good thing to remember about UK climbs is that they are seldom long and steep. Just at the point where your legs are on fire, veins are popping in your forehead and you are sucking in air from every available orifice, the top will arrive.

So, how can you train for steep hills? Well, the best way is to ride them frequently. This will have the double bonus of forcing you to improve in many other aspects of your fitness at the same time, so not only will you be better at hills, you will be better at everything.

Watch: How does weight affect your climbing speed

Pushing your heart rate close to maximal effort, which is invariably what will happen on a steep climb, triggers many training adaptations. Repeated one-minute efforts at near maximal heart rate have been shown to boost your VO2 max — the maximum rate that your body uses oxygen during exercise. It will also help improve your lactate tolerance, helping to raise your lactate threshold so that cycling feels easier at any other given effort level.

Riding steep hills is effectively weight training for the legs because of the huge resistance you are working against; this will help strengthen bone, ligament and tendon connections. If you can embrace hill training it will really benefit you.

>>> Core skills and fitness for cornering and climbing

Before you attempt any hill training, make sure that you are fit to do so. If you have been sedentary for a long time, have any health concerns or are seriously overweight, check with your GP first, as hill riding will put your body under some strain.

Don’t scrub that speed

Riding hills as part of a ride is a different challenge to taking on a hill-climb time trial. Firstly, during a ride you will have the benefit of momentum. If you can see a steep climb coming up use the flat or descent leading into it to build up some speed. Even if you are going faster than you normally feel comfortable with try and resist using the brakes as you’ll scrub off speed that would be more use propelling you up the slope of the climb — the gradient will naturally slow you down anyway.

Think about your gearing before you need to shift, particularly the shift from big to inner ring, as attempting this under load can lead to the chain jamming or a dropped chain. Shift to the inner ring on the descent and shift into a smaller sprocket at the rear, as you don’t want to find yourself spinning fast against no resistance, as again that is a waste of your momentum.

This also allows you to gradually shift into easier gears as the gradient begins to take its toll. Stay seated as much as you can as this is more efficient, but eventually the gradient may demand you stand. Keep the transition to standing smooth by pushing down on the pedal as you pull yourself up out of the saddle.

Top tips to improve your hill climbing

On really steep hills, when you’re out of the saddle, use your upper body to help apply weight to the pedals. Focus on an arm-led action, pulling left and right across your body so the bike leans from side to side while you stay fairly still. Stepping on the pedal as it is positioned directly underneath you allows you to use your full body weight to press down on the pedals.

When out of the saddle, keep the elbows slightly bent and your head up looking where you are going. Looking down will encourage you to slump your shoulders and drop your chest, making the climb feel harder and restricting your breathing.

Pull yourself slightly forward of the saddle and use your arms for leverage. You still need to keep some body weight over the rear wheel to keep it firmly in contact with the road surface and for the bike to stay balanced. If the road surface is greasy you may need to stay seated to prevent the rear wheel from spinning out.

When seated, make sure you are making full use of the pedal stroke by pulling up as well as pushing down on the pedals. Your cadence will naturally have to slow down to take advantage of this.

If a hill is really steep, zigzagging across the road — where safe — can help take the sting out of the gradient.

Pick a steep hill and ride up it for one minute, making a note of how far you get. Keep trying to reach this same point — or further — in your one-minute effort. Repeat six times. Try alternating between being in and out the saddle

How are gradients expressed?

Road gradients are expressed in two ways: old style, as in 1:4, or the newer method of expressing it as a percentage, 25 per cent. The older method uses a standard unit of measurement and relates the number of inches, feet, yards or miles travelled vertically (the vertical rise) with the number travelled horizontally.

In other words, if you climb 10 yards over a 30 yard horizontal distance, that hill is a “1:3” or “1 in 3” — so a steep incline. The percentage method is almost exactly the same. The vertical rise is measured against every 100 units along the horizontal.

So if you rise 33 units in 100 units the gradient is 33 per cent — the same as 1:3.

  • David Chadderton

    I had learnt most of these by age 16 in 1960 from long solo riding, Sunday club runs, training rides with a friend at night, adding heavy tools to my saddlebag in winter and club time trials, all in Hampshire. Now, I am the slowest teenager on our club velodrome in Ballarat. I’m 71 though, and don’t give up.

  • David Chadderton

    Never give up. I am the slowest teenager on our club velodrome but I keep them honest as they know granddad does not give up. I am 71.

  • David Chadderton

    Muscle strength is used to lift weights while bones stop muscles from collapsing into a heap of jelly on the floor.

  • David Chadderton

    Oh, weight lifting? Every time my muscles are used to increase my height above sea level another metre, I have lifted weights vertically.

  • David Chadderton

    Many say and believe that; scientists say they have proved it.
    I say, all my bones are involved with strenuous cycling, sprinting, racing, climbing hills, 2 hours of doing push-ups on the handlebars, and it is all doing me good. I’m 71.

  • David Chadderton

    Yes, lifting heavy weights can cause injury. I’ve had one of those. Riding my bike does not cause injury; falling off can; riding is good for me; I’m 71.

  • J1


  • Dave2020

    Anyone who doesn’t know the difference between strength training and weight lifting shouldn’t be a qualified coach.

  • J1

    The problem with cycling is that it doesn’t build bone strength because it’s non-impact, bone strength is important. That’s where weight training comes in.

  • J1

    more rapidly?

  • J1

    Steve Hogg is a bike fitting wizard….and the people he’s trained are. It’s a much higher level of understanding than most can comprehend. The material challenges section had me like ‘What!?’

  • dourscot

    This article forgot to mention the single most important piece of advice – start breathing more rapidly at the base of the ascent, not later when your body starts asking for it.

    If you don’t do that the rest of the advice is academic.

  • Dave2020

    I don’t subscribe to any single expert view on this very complex subject. As you rightly imply, trying to reduce it to one “optimal” position is a fool’s errand. It is ignoring the wide variety of athletic ‘types’ and the different biomechanics they become habituated to. (with or without cleats; using short or long cranks, etc. etc.)

    The comment I posted two years ago on the original ‘saddle height’ article sums it up:-

    “Saddle height, the fore/aft setting, crank length AND cadence are ALL determined by an individual’s specific technique, which anyone is free to modify, if they so wish. By adjusting only ONE variable, this ‘research’ can teach us nothing.”

    Actually, Steve Hogg makes one of the strangest remarks you’ll come across anywhere. i.e. “Don’t tell me that in a sprint you are thinking about how you are pedalling. You are not. You are doing your best to push on those pedals and yank on those bars as hard and efficiently as you can.” One of the least ‘efficient’ ways of sprinting is to “yank on the bars”! The loss of control is evident when a rider throws it into that big gear and fails to get ‘on top of it’.

    No coaches in any other sport will tell you; “Accept what comes naturally to you and refine it. What results is the best technique for you.” In a word – “nonsense”. You do the “thinking” as an essential component of skill training, which adapts the body to the specific task. Then you have the best ‘muscle memory’ and perfect co-ordination (aka souplesse) becomes second nature.

    There can be (there should be?) a marked difference in how we pedal with cleats and what we do naturally when we first learn to ride a bike without them.

    If you want to be the best you can be, fire the questions to:- I’m sure you will be able to choose for yourself, which tips are going to work for you.

  • COL S. Trautman

    Hi, I totally agree with you that the body works as a whole in relation to the bike, and the fact that 99% of people-bike fitters included- prioritise the relation of a SINGLE body part to the bike higher than the WHOLE body, is embarrassing. I’m a young rider (at 17) and pissed off at the guidelines and the obsolete ”rules of thumb” (more like religious rules) that rely on averages when sadly, most people aren’t average so to speak, and everyone is individual and this which is largely down to flexibility (the bike shop wont tell you that though, they’ll just raise your saddle till your knee angle is in the ”correct” range.
    Something tells me you know Steve Hogg?

  • Vertigo

    “Steep roads are marked with either a single arrow for climbs of over 10 per cent or double arrows for those of 25 per cent or steeper”

    Pretty sure, on OS mapping, a single echelon is for 1:7-1:5 (14%-20%) and two echelons are for above 1:5 (20%+).

  • James Lees

    good post. I will work at applying your recommendations.

  • Crydda

    The steepest little climb in my home area of North Devon, is 1 in 3, for about 200 metres, but the problem is the very sharp ‘s’ bend, at the bottom of the climb, which means you have to scrub off all your speed, coming down the, almost equally steep hill, on the other side of the valley. It’s a brute, especially after riding more than sixty kms to get there, but making it gives a real sense of achievement, especially for an old boy like me. I try to do it, at least once a year and now I’m in my 60s and I haven,t failed the test yet. I intend to be still doing it a 70 and beyond.

  • Vertigo

    double arrows on OS maps are for 20% or higher, not 25%

  • Dave2020

    Obviously, BC’s track riders need to get out more and find some decent climbs, so they can build strength AND learn better technique at the same time:-

    “I kept trying to manage it and train and then I was in the gym one day lifting and felt a tweak.” Kian Emadi, after sustaining a lumber disc pathology in early September.

    Yet another one to add to the catalogue of injuries suffered weight training, for which BC’s misguided coaches must take responsibility. I’ve said it before – “brute force and ignorance.”

  • Tigonabike

    You should probably also warn people that if they are riding up Ffordd Penllech they need to be very discreet as it’s a one way street – in the other direction 🙂

  • Dave2020

    It’s hard to imagine a worse analysis of the biomechanics of pedalling uphill. (Which is essentially the same as the biomechanics of pedalling. . . . ! )

    A favourite quote of mine comes from a technical appraisal of F1 suspension. It described the function of the anti-roll system thus: “This is the opposite of what is required.” Which begs the question – “So why do you keep designing it that way?”

    “When seated, make sure you are making full use of the pedal stroke by pulling up as well as pushing down on the pedals. Your cadence will naturally have to slow down to take advantage of this.” This weird definition of “pedal stroke” as up and down is ignorance personified. All the cranks I see go round in a circle.

    Why “When seated”? It is far easier to ‘pull UP’ when standing up, and that also means you can push ‘down’ more than if you used body weight alone. Pulling too much on the ‘bars is what ‘dummies’ do. ‘Pulling’ on the (other) pedal instead is a better balanced technique and it transmits more power to the back wheel. But . . . .

    The ONLY reason for shifting your weight distribution is to avoid an accidental wheelie and prevent any loss of rear wheel traction; i.e. the best balance between the two. So, “when seated” on a climb you should be back in the saddle, unless that causes the front wheel to lift. THEN you can use the most efficient technique, which is to pull BACK with the hamstrings and push FORWARD with the quads at the same time. This is balanced biomechanics. Your cadence will have to RISE “to take advantage of this.” As in any technical sport, this is an ‘unnatural’ skill that must be learnt. I found it was very effective for pushing kids up the hills on clubruns, but obviously a good cadence in a lower gear is essential.

    “Riding steep hills is effectively weight training for the legs because of the huge resistance you are working against;” – OK, but can you name one weight training exercise that matches exactly what you do on the bike? All conventional weight lifting, as advocated by a bunch of ignorant coaches, only ever exercises one set of muscles (e.g. leg extensors) at a time, and that places a level of stress on the spine that NEVER occurs on the bike. The point is, a logical analysis should simply say – “Don’t waste energy bending your bike. (this is easily done) Select a gear that allows you to climb the gradient without using brute force.” For me that’s 27×28 as I live at the top of an unadopted Welsh road with a 40% gradient. I guess that’ll be 24×32 by the time I reach 80. Simple laws of physics . . . .