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Coach Charlie Livermore: Riding in hilly terrain

By Coach Charlie Livermore

Empire State Ride is lucky to have the support of professional cycling coach Charlie Livermore as an advisor and friend. Charlie is not only a coach at Carmichael Training Systems, but he also serves as a training consultant on our adventure across New York State. He offers his expertise and tips to all ESR riders and joins us on the road each July to ride 500+ miles.  

This year’s Empire State Ride courses will give us some options to ride hills on open roads. Personally, this is my favorite type of terrain to ride, and it can be yours as well if you develop and apply this technique. If you do it right, you’ll feel a sense of flow as you use the hills to your advantage. Otherwise, it could feel like you can never get a good steady rhythm — like every hill is punishing you.

The method of riding hills that I’m about to walk you through is best used for long, steady endurance rides like Empire State Ride. If you’re racing or trying to split the field in a competitive group ride, this won’t do it. In fact, this method is designed to keep a group together at a good, steady pace.

So, let’s break it down.

In Figure 1 below, you can see that there are seven sections to our hill.

Charlie Livermore graph

The Approach

As you approach the hill, keep your speed steady all the way to the bottom. Do not slow
down or shift to a lighter gear until you’re actually on the climb. This is the first mistake most cyclists make. Slowing down in anticipation of having to make a hard effort only makes the effort harder. The more speed (momentum) you carry onto the hill, the better.

The Start of the Climb

Here’s where you have to get it right. Do not start too fast! Let the slope of the hill naturally slow you down to a comfortable pace you can sustain all the way to the top. Find the right gear, keep your breathing steady and be patient.

The Middle Section

At this point you’ve found your sustainable speed and comfort zone. You should still be able to talk at this intensity. Keep it nice and easy here and don’t accelerate… yet!

Riders at ESR

The Top of the Hill

Here’s where the magic happens. The top of the hill is not the place to recover. If you need to recover from your effort at this point, you went too hard on the way up. This is the place where you should be slowly increasing your speed rather than decreasing it. Your highest speed on the hill should be going over the top of it, not at the bottom or middle sections of the climb.

The First Downward Slope

If you gauged your effort correctly, you should be able to shift into a bigger gear, accelerate (not a sprint), establish the speed you are comfortable descending at and then recover from your climbing effort as the gravity of the backside of the hill keeps your speed high. Depending on the grade, you might be able to coast down without losing speed. If the grade isn’t steep, you may need to soft pedal to keep the speed as high as possible toward the next flat section.

The Approach to the Next Hill

In this section, use the momentum from the downhill to keep your pace as high as you can. Here, it’s more about not slowing down too much vs. speeding up. You want as much momentum as possible going into the next hill without overexerting yourself.

During this entire cycle, your rate of perceived exertion should be about 5-7, at the most, on a scale of 10. You should not be in oxygen debt (breathing heavy) and your legs should not feel very acidic. If you are, try slowing down at the beginning of the next climb to find the pace that’s right for you.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Shifting to a lighter gear before you start the climb. If you’re in the right gear on the flat approach to the climb, don’t shift to a lighter gear until you’re actually on the climb.
  • Accelerating at the start of the climb. Starting too fast is the worst mistake you can make on a climb. Better to start slower and finish faster.
  • Resting/slowing down at the top. The rest point is 20-30 feet after the crest of the hill. If you have to rest at the top, you went too hard on the climb.
  • Not using the first downward slope at the top to accelerate. The first 20-30 feet of descent is for accelerating. This is where you get the most speed for the least amount of energy expenditure. Again, if you can’t accelerate here, you went too hard on the climb.

Practice this technique on your next training rides these last couple of weeks before Empire State Ride, and you’ll see why it makes hills seem easier to ride and way more fun.

Can’t wait to see you all soon!

Coach Charlie