This was a question I pondered often on this Saturday’s ride. I was out with John McSwain, a fellow mountain goat who rides locally (you can read our ride on his blog here). He brought me out to his neck of the woods, the hills of Lake Wateree. Overall the total climbing was comparable to an easy mountain ride, but it was all of the rolling variety. There were a couple longer climbs, both of which were new to me, but most of the punishment was on the rollers.
In my opinion, rolling hills can be a better way to train than long climbs. The difference is in the way you attack them. I tend to try and gain momentum on the descent, pedaling downhill, and attack at the bottom of the hill. John has a power meter and he noted that I would often be above 300 watts at the beginning of the hill and would relax at 200 or lower around the middle. My thought process is that I want to conquer the hill. I want to power to the top without losing too much speed and then carry that momentum into the descent on the other side. This is great when the uphills are short or not too steep, but not when they become longer, steeper climbs, as they did on John’s ride this past Saturday. In essence, this makes it a hill jam, where you power up a climb in the highest gear possible and grind your way to the top. When the hills are few and far between, there really is no consequence. There is plenty of time to recover. On John’s route this weekend, the rolling hills were relentless and threatened to chew me up.
On longer climbs the goal is to find a suitable heart rate or wattage, get into a rhythm and spin to the top. Once you are in that zone, you can take control of the ride. You can either crank it up or hang back and go at an easy pace. These climbs can still be quite challenging, especially when steep, but once at the top you have plenty of time to recover on the descent. There have been many mountain rides where I have felt fine the next day, as if I walked in the park. I have found that after some rolling rides, like last year’s Ride2Recovery, I felt like I had been beaten by a bag of potatoes.
In my opinion, rolling hills can be just as effective a training tool as mountain climbs. Sometimes they can be even better because they are approached more like an intense workout rather than a scenic journey. If you do hill repeats on Mount Mitchell, for instance, you are going to end up a monster. Given the choice between a leisurely ride up a 6% grade for a few miles or a rolling ride through a river corridor, I may choose the latter if I want to get stronger.