Low Cadence Training For Steep Hill?


Jul 25, 2004
Some background, I'm a big guy with a bad lower back (210lbs) and generally keep my butt in the saddle and spin up hills, usually around 90Rpms. I'm not very fast, averaging between 16 and 18Mph on my lunchtime rides (which are my only rides right now). That being said, I'm a flat-lander and while I can cover over 400 vertical feet in just over 11 miles, it's broken up across around 10 different "hills", so I have no way to practice real climbing. Long hills around me top out at .3 miles in length, even though some of them are fairly steep, they're just over way too fast to ever establish a rhythm.

I'm sporting a Compact (50-34) with a 32-12 in the back.

Here is my dilemma: I'm trying to ride in the Garret County Gran Fondo, which includes a fresh slice of hell known as Bowman Hill. This hill averages 10% for 1.1 miles. On Strava, the KOM averaged a whopping 10.3MPH on this hill. A cyclist I work with who rides with the A group of the local bike club averaged 5.2MPH (by contrast, I doubt I could ride with the B2 group, so I'd probably be in the C group). Granted he was close to the end of his ride and had ignored all rest stops, but he's way faster and way more fit (and smaller) than I am.

Riding in a 34/32 combo, I put spinning at 90RPMs to be around 7.7Mph. I'm not going to be able to put out that kind of wattage. 5MPH is around 60RPMs, and that might be pushing it. So I literally can't spin up this climb.

Should I try to integrate some low cadence grinding into my rides to get me ready for this, or will that not help at all?
Low cadence grinding on flat terrain will not be like climbing a steep grade. Climbing a wall like that will require serious power at low speeds. On flat land you can either have low speeds or high power but not both.

Balance and bike handling will be an issue climbing at slow speeds. At your weight, putting down a reasonable 200 watts you should be able to climb at about 4 miles and hour. Your climb will be 16 minutes and 30 seconds. Your cadence will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50rpm in low gear. 60rpm puts you at 5mph and 255 watts. 90 rpm is 7.7mph at a healthy 400 watts. Of course getting that power at a low cadence will require a lot of torque, you may need to spend a significant portion of the climb out of the saddle.

My prescription is hill repeats. Find the steepest hill within a reasonable cycling or driving distance, warm up and work out your climbing strategy.
Yes, agree low cadence work will help. Believe you are on the right track to consider cadence and your power output for the long climb. If 200 watts is reasonable climbing threshold for you during a long ride, then that 60 rpm would be a good practice point. Riding on flat ground isn't the same as climbing, but if you can match the power output and cadence, I'd say it's close, at least for seated-climbing anyway.

200 watts should be around 18 to 20 mph with hands on the hoods on flat ground. I'm guessing that your 50/12 top gear would give you about 60 rpm at that speed, which should be perfect for interval work. Set up your interval time to match the time you project for the climb and you're all set to train.
You can and should do some low-cadence intervals, but there is one huge difference between riding at a low cadence on the flat versus a steep climb. On a steep upgrade, you have to apply force through a much wider arc than on the flat. On the flat, I don't start to apply force on the downstroke until my pedal shaft is about 45 degrees past top dead center and I rest that leg when it gets to about 45 degrees before bottom dead center. On a steep upgrade, I have to start to apply force immediately after top dead center and continue to apply force all the way to bottom dead center. So, each leg is working through a much larger arc, in addition to a low cadence. You should try to find some steep sections to do your low cadence intervals if possible.