How to Bike Up a Mountain

My Bike Gearing

This blog post might have been more aptly titled ‘How to Bike Up a Mountain When You’re Over 50 and Don’t Want to Kill Yourself’ but that seems just a little too long, so I shortened it. As I contemplate heading out to Cyclefest later in the summer and riding up to the McDonald Observatory, it occured to me to jot a few notes on climbing big, long hills.

First of all, let me establish what I mean by climbing up a mountain. It’s probably obvious and it doesn’t matter that much what ‘category‘ of climb we’re talking about as far as I’m concerned. What I mean is any climb of a few thousand vertical feet over an extended course of many miles at a grade ranging from >5% to upwards of 10-15% or more. The climb up to the McDonald Observatory qualifies if you believe the route profiles I’ve found online.

First of all, let’s assume you have some basic level of fitness and a medical authority of some sort like a doctor has taken a look at you and told you it’s ok to consider getting your heart rate up to 180 over an extended period of time. Maybe you’re lucky and just super fit. Congratuations. This should be easy for you. If not, you can still do this but you’ll at least need to be somewhat fit.

I’m mostly a weekend rider. I don’t have time to ride every day and I’m not a super athlete. But I like to be able to bike any route I want and a mountain shouldn’t stand in my way. In fact, the views are great up there so that’s where I want to go.

The secret is not that big a secret: get the right gearing. The ‘right’ gearing is something you’ll need to figure out, but I think what you want to find is gearing that let’s you keep a cadence that doesn’t blow out your knees and allows you to stay just this side of completely winded. You’re going to be huffing and puffing, but it can’t be so bad it’s unsustainable. If it’s unsustainable, keep tinkering with the gearing until you find something that works. If you find they just don’t make gearing that low, well, maybe this isn’t for you. But I bet you can easily find the right chainring and cassette combination.

Over the years I’ve become a fan of the Ultegra triple chainring gearing. With a chainring of 30 teeth and a cassette cog of 28 teeth in the back I have found I can settle in and ride up the likes of Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez. These days you don’t have to go with a triple chainring setup though if you don’t want to. Compact cranks are made that effectively give you the same gearing.

Below I’ve made use of Sheldon Brown’s good old gear calculator to take a closer look at how the Ultegra Triple compares to, for example, the SRAM Apex line of cranks. The first graph is the gain ratios plotted for the 3 chainrings on my current bike (taking into account wheel, tire, crank length etc) with a cassette that goes from 11-28. The second chart illustrates the gain ratios for a similar configuration with SRAM Apex and with a cassette that goes from 11-32. Note the Apex uses a compact crank of 34 teeth instead of the granny 30 tooth one on the Ultegra Triple. From low to high the range covered by either setup is identical. In both cases, there’s also plenty of overlap between chainrings. This shows me I could quite easily switch to Apex and ride on the same as always. Happy climbing.

Shimano Ultegra Triple

SRAM Apex Compact

One thought on “How to Bike Up a Mountain

  1. Pingback: Biking the Marin Headlands Loop | Rambling Roads

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