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Climbing hills. To Stand or Not to Stand.

You shouldn't be afraid to get up off the saddle when you're riding.

I still remember buying my first Triathlete magazine back in, I’m guessing, 1983. At that point I was still a runner, but the thought of throwing three sports together in one race intrigued me. In that first magazine I picked up was an article by Scott Molina which provided some cycling tips for beginners. To this day the one and only tip I remember from the list was his comment about standing up off the pedals.

Basically what Molina wrote was that you shouldn’t be afraid to get up off the saddle when you’re riding. It can be a great way to maintain your momentum when you come to a small rise, and can also provide some much-needed power on major climbs.

Three years later I got to watch Molina put all that into practice at my first Ironman race, the Bud Light Endurance in Cape Cod, where he won and I finished third. While there weren’t any steep or long hills on the course, there were some occasional rises that provided a welcome break from trying to stay low on the handlebars. (This was the pre-aerobar era, I’m afraid to admit.) For the short time that I did get to see Molina on the bike he stood up and powered over ever single rise.

A year later, at the Kaui Loves You Triathlon in Hawaii, I managed to stay with Molina for much longer on the bike, in part because I was mimicking his riding style as much as I could. Rather than gear down every time we hit a gradual uphill, we stood up and powered over the top of the hill. While I certainly posed no threat to Molina taking his second Association of Triathlon Professional Championship title that day, I did manage to finish in the prize money.

Pros and Cons

The upside of standing up out of the saddle is that you’re able to work more muscles, which can give some others a much-needed break. A short break from the aero position can also provide some relief for your lower back. When you stand you can also deliver more power to the pedals, which can help you get up the steeper sections of a climb.

The downside of standing up is that you’ll use more energy because you’re supporting more of you body weight, you’re using muscles in your upper body and you’re also not as aerodynamic, so you’re creating more drag.

All of this said, you definitely don’t want to stand up more than you need to. When it comes to speed, aerodynamics are critical in a triathlon. The more you can stay down on your aero bars, the faster you will be. Bar end shifters and Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting systems allow you to change to an easier gear without having to move your arms at all as you change gears. On steeper and longer climbs, sitting also allows your upper body to remain relaxed so you won’t use up as much energy.

Stay Aero

Cycling enthusiasts will likely remember Marco Pantani, the Tour de France champion renowned as one of the best climbers the sport has ever seen. More often than not Pantani climbed on the drop part of his handlebars, allowing him to remain extremely low even when he was standing out of the saddle. It probably wasn’t the only reason he was such a great climber, but it certainly didn’t hurt. When you’re climbing, remember to keep your elbows bent and head low to try and get down out of the wind as much as possible.

When to Stand

If the climb is gradual enough that you can stay on your aero bars throughout, that is always going to be your best option. If it’s a short, steep climb, standing up can provide some relief for your leg and back muscles and power you over the top of the hill. For really long climbs you should alternate between sitting and standing.

Everyone will have their own optimal climbing style. Experiment with different ways to climb hills to come up with a plan that works for you. I lucked out in that the style I tried to emulate early on in my career worked – you might have to experiment a bit more.-KM