As a 255-Pound Rider, Climbing Is Tough for Me. Here’s How I Make It Easier

The mountain is the great equalizer. The grade is the grade and the vertical is the vertical, no matter your size, build, or body composition.

Brian Barnhart

The mountain doesn’t care that I’m a big rider—6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, to be exact.

I realized this halfway up Pilot Mountain, North Carolina’s eponymous peak as my riding companions—four men, the biggest one barely half my size—zipped past me with ease. The sweat poured down my forehead, stinging my eyes as, one by one, my friends disappeared around the mountain’s series of switchbacks.

Still, I climbed, one searing pedal stroke at a time, eventually reaching the top where my buddies were waiting, their lungs long recovered. And then again, a few miles down the road, up Sauratown Mountain, we climbed again. And finally, at Hanging Rock Mountain, we climbed once more.

The ride is not coincidentally called Three Mountains and is one of those more challenging rides central North Carolina has to offer. A metric century with 6,800 feet of elevation gain, it’s a slow-burn rollercoaster that leaves few recovery miles between the base of each climb. And though the climbs are relatively short, they are pitchy, with several segments creeping heavenward in excess of 12 percent.

The mountain is the great equalizer because the grade is the grade and the vertical is the vertical, no matter your size, build, or body composition. The only difference is, in order for me to get to the top of any mountain, more wattage is required to fight the gravity that constantly tugs me down like an anchor.

I’m not a weak rider. Put me on rolling hills, and I can easily hold a 22 to 23 mph pace over a metric century, averaging well over 200 watts. But as soon as those foothills turn to mountains, I’m toast, dropped like a rock as smaller and leaner riders grind up the mountain with ease.

More often than not, my legs can handle the work. In fact, for a rider my size to climb a 5% grade at 10 mph, I need to make 341 watts, something I can hit for 10 or 20 minutes, no problem. According to Colin Sandberg, a cycling coach based out Hillsborough, North Carolina, a 160-pound rider only needs to sustain 226 watts to climb the same grade at the same pace.

Preparation for most any kind of riding can be broken down into three parts: off-the-bike training, mindset, and on-the-bike execution. And given the brutal and unrelenting nature of climbing, all three of those elements must coexist to get you and your bike to the peak of a mountain, especially if, like me, you’re larger than the average cyclist.

How to prepare for hills off the bike

Sandberg sees cycling as a sport that, unlike basketball or football, anyone can excel in, regardless of body type.

But when it comes to climbing, body type plays a bigger role than when it comes to flat terrain or rollers. Sandberg stresses the importance of strength training to supplement and enhance on-the-bike performance, with a focus on the body’s core and its complimentary muscles.

“Everything in cycling happens on one plane,” he told Bicycling, noting how the muscles we use while cycling—such as quads, hamstrings, and forearms—tend to get very strong, while others may suffer from inactivity. And for bigger riders who can create more watts, those imbalances become even more apparent.

“Anytime a bigger rider accelerates, they’re creating a lot of power,” Sandberg said. “So, the strain on the complimentary muscles is huge.”

Sandberg recommends a basic 20-minute core-strengthening routine that focuses on planks, side planks, scissor kicks, and Russian twists, along with embracing exercises that highlight lat and lower back strength.

Pull-ups, push-ups, pull-downs, and bench-pressing should all become part of the circuit, according to Sandberg, but always with a focus on lower weight and higher rep schemes.

“The last thing big riders need is more mass,” he said.

How to prepare your mind for hills

Dr. Mandy Gallagher, the head cycling coach at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, said her teams can’t roll anywhere without climbing. And when it comes to climbing, Gallagher preaches mindset above all.

“One of the biggest things I tell my athletes is to get out of their head and just focus on the work,” she said. “I also stress how important it is to embrace suffering, how to learn how to suffer.”

Gallagher also suggests that no matter how miserable my emotions become or how much pain my legs endure while climbing, it’s easy and important to remind myself how being able to ride my bike, regardless of the grade or the day, is a privilege.

“You don’t have to ride your bike,” she said. “You get to ride your bike. And that’s a super important distinction. And if you lose sight of that, all the training in the world is not going to make a difference.”

How to execute on the bike

When it comes to climbing the mountain, Jim Rutberg, cycling coach and co-author of The Time-Crunched Cyclist, suggests I train my focus on both pacing and my choice of gearing. While, thanks to the sheer output we can create, most large riders tend to be better at shorter climbs and rollers, Rutberg stresses the importance of slowing our pace on longer climbs, even if we know we can go faster. He suggests handling the first parts of a grade at an output well under what a big rider’s legs can produce, which will keep plenty of watts in the legs for the later stages of the climb.

“If you go out too hard on a climb, you can lose more time on the second half more than you can gain on the first half,” Rutberg told Bicycling. “And larger riders pay a heavier cost, because when that hill comes due—and it always comes due—you’re going to slow to a crawl.

Also, one advantage bigger riders have while climbing actually lies in our size, Rutberg says, and that we should use our mass to help us up the hill by standing up while climbing, especially on lower-grade sections of a climb.

“You have so much more weight to put over the pedal,” he said. “The strategy of shifting into one or two or even three harder gears and standing up, you have your entire body weight over the pedal and you can turn over a larger gear.”

Of course, that method comes with its own challenges, as most riders equate standing up with sprinting or accelerating.

“You can stand up and maintain the momentum you already have,” Rutberg says. “So don’t add force to the equation. Just stand up and use your body weight.”

Armed with these professional insights, I might become a faster climber. Because the faster I get to the top, the sooner I can descend. Because when you weigh 255 pounds, coming down—that’s the fun part.

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