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Should I sit or stand when climbing?

Michael Donlevy
12 Aug 2021

Do you spin like Froome or dance like Contador?

You probably guessed there’s no right or wrong answer to this, so first let’s look at the pros and cons of each. Sitting is more aerodynamic and efficient – it uses less muscle mass and requires less core activation – while standing can produce more power but at a greater energy cost.

I say ‘can’ because it’s not a given. A rider with poor core activation will ‘spill’ potential power output everywhere but into the pedals.

Most pros ride seated unless attacking, but there are examples of riders who spend most of their time standing. Richard Virenque, for instance, seemingly never sat down.

There are a number of external factors that will influence your decision. Your fitness, including power output and cadence, is a big one, but also the gradient, weather conditions and your kit. Is there a headwind as well as a gradient? Or have you run out of gears? Sometimes you have no option but to stand.

On steeper gradients, the balance of the bike is often better if you stand, not to mention the fact that the extra power you can generate when standing will help to avoid grinding to a standstill. Gearing should be less of an issue though – gone are the days of just having to ‘suck it up’.

Nowadays compact setups allow you to sit on climbs that you might not have got up in the 1990s. Choosing a setup that gives you a good balance of seated climbing and power on the flat is important. Remember, you can’t sprint for a win if you’re not in the bunch at the finish.

It’s also worth considering the fact that standing isn’t only about power generation. It can also offer you an opportunity to momentarily rest muscles that are a little stressed or to stretch out your back after being stuck in a cramped position for an extended period of time.

So the answer to the original question is quite simple: both. While sitting is best for most people most of the time, having the option to stand – because you’ve trained for it – gives you options.

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The next question is: at what point do you stand? A number of pros and sports scientists have agreed on a gradient of 10%, which is probably a nice round number, but really it’s about how you feel riding up the gradient.

I know people who have ridden seated up the short but steep Femes climb in Lanzarote (the last 800m averages 12%) with 39x23 gearing. It’s very much about what you train for, and there’s probably some influence from your anatomical dimensions and bike setup too.

The best thing you can do is make sure you’ve spent time in training working on both options. Fitness is specific to the task at hand. If you never stand up on a climb in training you’ll tire very quickly if you have to do so in a race.

To quote a friend of mine in the jiu-jitsu world, ‘Learn to fight how you have to fight, not how you want to fight.’ Unless you’re the strongest rider on the climb, you might not get to make the decision about how you ride if you wish to stay on the group.

The best advice I ever got about riding hills was to ride lots of them and to learn to ride up them at an easy tempo in training. If every hill is hard in training, they’re going to be harder in a race. And work on the ability to maintain a good cadence on a variety of inclines. There are no fancy sessions or shortcuts – you simply have to go and ride hills. A lot of hills.

The expert

Will Newton is a former Ironman triathlete who is now a cycling, triathlon and endurance coach. He spent eight years as British Cycling’s regional director for the southwest of England. For more info visit limitlessfitness.com/cycling-coaching

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