Which bike for hillclimbs?

There’s a fierce debate occuring on the pages of a time trial internet forum regarding which bike is best for hillclimbs; fixed or geared? it’s a bit of a red herring i think, and there are a whole host of other factors that come into play. some of these are agreed, others are a little bit more contentious…

the most important aspect of any hillclimb bike, especially when considering longer climbs, is weight. this is because power-to-weight is the definitive measurement when it comes to this discipline. 5 time national champion, Jim Henderson, rode fixed, as did Chris Boardman.

“Fixed wheel bikes are lighter than bikes with gears and, as long as there are no downhill bits, will always be fastest. I go to great lengths to find components that are light but strong, and my best bike weighs just over twelve pounds.”

Jim Henderson's Hillclimb Bike

Both Jim Henderson and Matt Clinton tend to favour fixed. There is no disputing the lightness of Jim’s bike. it tips the scales at 5.6kg. Note the absence of bar tape, dummy left-hand brake hood, allen-bolt skewers and ultra light tubulars (120g).

You’ll notice also if you follow the link that Jim Henderson is a whippet of a man; essentially skin and sinew. This underlines one important fact, there’s no point really spending an excessive amount of money to shave 150 grammes from your pedals when you could have spent far less and shaved 10kg from your middle.

Jim’s bike is also a classic case of marginal gains. He’s removed the left brake lever, possibly saving as much as 40 grammes. this isn’t all that much. but if you throw in the weight savings from other areas – 200g on a lighter saddle, 50g on spokes, 20g bar tape, 200g by using 3/32 over 1/8 chain, 200g on tyres, 200g on pedals, 50g skewers, a wheel saving of 500g, then it’s a no-brainer. it’s the marginal details rather than the overall picture that build a bike at sub 7kg (or sub 6kg in this case!).

other aspects of the argument centre around the different technique involved with riding either fixed or geared. some argue that the flywheel nature of the fixed drivetrain, along with the sense of a fluid cadence and the lack of choice can contribute towards a quicker ascent where the gradient is consistent and the gear chosen is appropriate. the danger is with over or undergearing, and on a varying slope, gear choice to accommodate all the gradients is essential. last year i rode westclose on a 57″, i was undergeared in the middle, and near the top overgeared, but on the whole it worked well and I came second. I chose the same gear Jim Henderson used on the national there in the late 90s.

Paul Curran on the Nick O Pendle - riding 60.1". the crowds give you an indication of why the National Hillclimb Championship is such a fantastic event to ride in.

those that advocate fixed for hillclimbs tend to be the sort of person who may not countenance any other option, seeing fixed  as somehow pure and true, uncontestable, and gears as an unnecessary and weighty affectation. the also tend to argue that there is no way that the higher cadence and wider choice of gears could possibly lead to a faster ascent. i tend to oscillate between the two.  geared bikes are ridden differently uphill, and judicious gear choice can make a huge difference, a carefully time shift up at the right point can be key to a timely pacing strategy.

in practice, i’ve ridden both geared and fixed on hillclimbs. my geared bike, a cervelo r5, is significantly lighter than my fixed bob jackson vigorelli. the times i’ve ridden on the same climbs have been better on the geared bike, but i suspect i’ve been fitter when i’ve ridden them more quickly. there is something brilliant about turning up to a hillclimb on fixed, people suspect you may be some kind of crazed, fast lunatic. it signifies that you take the events seriously and are aware of the importance of fixed wheel within the history of the sport and see yourself as a part of that slightly bonkers tradition.

in summary, go with your lightest bike. ride fixed up a climb at least once if you can, just for the experience, but choose your gear carefully. i favour longer, shallower climbs like haytor and burrington, these are better for gears. this year i will be riding gears in every event, with the possible exception of a club event on shipham hill in somerset, just for fun.

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