Biking uphill is hard…
No matter how fit you are, the right bike can give you an edge when your route points uphill. So what characteristics help a bike excel at climbing?
Bikes that are easy to ride uphill will have little-to-no suspension, handlebars with minimal “rise”, a longer stem, and frame geometry that places you in a forward-leaning position. Good climbing bikes are also lightweight and have easy “low gears”.
As a simple example, road bikes tend to have the features of excellent hill-climbing bikes, and cruizers usually don’t. But, we also need to get into mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and some specific bike examples (like the Trek Checkpoint ALR 5) to really make things clear.
Here’s what I’ll cover below:
Six Things that Make a Bike Good at Climbing
1. Minimal or No Suspension
Suspension is great. It soaks up bumps on whatever surface you’re biking on and makes your ride much more comfortable. When it comes to climbing however, suspension can sometimes be a hindrance.
Suspension is measured in travel: the total length (in mm) a bike’s fork or shock will compress into itself. The more travel a bike has, the greater its ability to roll over obstacles while keeping you comfortable and in the saddle.
The drawback of long-travel bikes is that they can be inefficient pedalers. While pedaling, each downstroke will cause the suspension to compress slightly. This is known as pedal bob. This compression transfers a lot of your energy into the ground rather than forward, and sacrifices that hard-earned momentum.
Bikes with minimal suspension travel (100mm or less) or no suspension at all will be more efficient with your energy. Bikes without a rear shock are sometimes called “hardtails”, and bikes without a rear or fork shock are sometimes called “rigid” bikes.
If your rides require a lot of climbing, this is one important feature to look for when choosing a bike.
2. Forward-Leaning Rider Position
If you’ve been riding for awhile, you may know that you want to shift your weight forward when going uphill. This helps add weight over the front tire and prevents it from lifting up in the air, especially when you’re attacking a steep climb in a seated position.
Proper body position often makes the difference between getting to the top of a climb, or dismounting and walking up the hill in shame…something I have significant experience with.
Certain features on a bike can help you achieve the ideal body position for climbing.
The first thing to look at is a bike’s geometry.
You’ll see a lot of numbers here, but pay attention to two measurements: head tube angle and seat tube angle.
The head tube angle is the angle made where the fork intersects an imaginary horizontal line drawn through the bottom bracket (where the front chainring sits). The seat tube angle is the angle between the seat tube and that same imaginary line through the bottom bracket.
The steeper (closer to 90 degrees) those angles are, the more your weight will be moved forward over the front wheel, and the easier it will be to climb. For reference, most bike head tube angles fall in the 64-73 degree range, while seat tube angles fall in the 72-75 degree range. Choose a bike with angles near the upper end of those ranges for better climbing ability.
3. Low-Rise, Flat, or Drop Handlebars
Handlebars with less rise or more drop will put you in a much lower position and move your weight over the front wheel. This provides a much more efficient pedaling position when the terrain gets steep.
Rise is the vertical distance between the center of the bars where they mount to the stem and a line drawn through the bar’s ends. Drop is just the opposite: how far below the stem the bar’s handles rest.
Most mountain or hybrid bike handlebars will feature a 0-40mm rise–with cruiser-style bikes being even greater than that–while road and gravel bikes will have bars that drop roughly 125mm.
The more rise, the more of an upright riding position you will be in. While this tends to be more comfortable, it also shifts more of your weight over the back wheel. And now we know this isn’t the best position for climbing.
4. Longer Stem
Whether you’re buying a new bike, or just want to upgrade you current bike, a longer stem can make your bike a more efficient climber. The stem is the clamp that connects your handlebars to the steerer tube. The shorter the stem, the shorter the bike’s reach–the distance from the handlebars to your seat. This places you in a more upright position, once again shifting your weight rearward.
A longer stem will require you to lean over more to reach the handlebars, distributing more of your weight over the front wheel and increasing its traction on a climb. Stem lengths can vary from 0-120mm or more, so consider going up a size or two if you want better climbing efficiency.
Be careful making a drastic change though, as stem length also affects steering response. A shorter stem will require less rider input to make steering adjustments and deliver a more nimble feel, while a longer stem will provide a less responsive (but more stable) feel.
5. Granny Gears
A term of endearment for the largest cog on a bike’s drivetrain, “granny gears” provide the easiest pedaling to help you get up steep climbs. Personally, I prefer SRAM’s “Eagle” gear designation for the easiest gear on its drivetrain, as it makes me feel less pathetic when I have to shift into it…which is often.
Check a bike’s drivetrain range. It will feature two numbers (10-52 for example) which designate the number of teeth found on the drivetrain’s smallest and largest cogs respectively. The more teeth a gear has, the easier it will be to pedal.
All things being equal, a bike with a larger low gear will be a better climber. If you want to learn more about how to read the numbers that indicate the difficulty of the gears on different bikes, you should check out this article.
This is probably the most obvious factor that will affect a bike’s climbing performance. A lighter bike is easier to get going, no doubt about it.
Now you might be thinking, how much difference could a few pounds really make?
And the answer is, quite a lot actually.
Unfortunately, super lightweight bikes can be very expensive. In fact, I’ve heard it said many times that it can cost around $1000 to take one pound of weight off your bike! Lightweight bikes will be made mostly of carbon fiber and feature components that brag about how many grams of weight they dropped from last year’s model.
Choosing a lightweight bike will lead to a huge improvement in your climbing ability, but expect it to come with a premium price tag attached.
Examples of Excellent Hill Climbing Bikes
Road bikes are the best type of bikes for climbing hills. Generally speaking, road bikes hit all 6 of the criteria for a good climbing bike that we covered above. There are occasional exceptions depending on the specific model you buy, but most road bikes are going to be pretty solid climbers.
I always think that a specific example helps to drive an idea home, so let’s take a look at a couple of specific road bikes that are excellent for climbing hills.
Trek Emonda SL 5 Disc
Coming in at 20 pounds – thanks to it’s carbon frame – the Trek Emonda is super light. Sure, there are lighter road bikes out there, but 20 pounds is way lighter than your average mountain bike.
It also checks all of our other essential boxes: no suspension; a 72-73 degree head tube angle and 73-74 degree seat tube angle (depending on frame size); 124mm drop handlebars with a long stem (100mm); and a decently sized gran…uhh, I mean Eagle gear on the cassette.
This is the budget-friendly version of Trek’s road bike, so if you’re willing to spend more, the higher end bikes will be even lighter and more capable.
Specialized Tarmac SL6
Another carbon racing machine, the Tarmac SL6 provides an equally forward-biased riding position. It also features 125mm drop handlebars, 100mm stem, and a 32 tooth low gear.
Specialized chooses not to list their bike’s weight, but this thing is mostly carbon, so…it’s gotta be pretty light.
Gravel bikes are a relatively new bike category, but they’re pretty darn cool. With designs similar to road bikes – but more durable – they’re off-road capable so you can ride more terrain.
You can think of a gravel bike as 80% road bike and 20% mountain bike.
For hill climbing, the primary downside of gravel bikes (compared with road bikes) is that their sturdy frames tend to make them a bit heavier than road bikes, so if climbing is your main focus, a road bike will probably be slightly better for that purpose.
Let’s take a look at a couple of specific gravel bikes, to see how their hill-climbing specs stack-up.
Trek Checkpoint ALR 5
At 22 pounds, Trek’s Checkpoint ALR 5 is only slightly heavier than its road counterpart, but it has lower gearing for tackling steep, rugged terrain. The 71-72 degree head tube angle and 73-75 degree seat tube angle (again, depending on frame size) are a little slacker than a road bike, but they will inspire more confidence if your terrain is less than smooth.
Canyon Grail 7
Though they’re a direct-to-consumer company you won’t find at your local bike shop, Canyon is a super popular brand that makes bikes of all types – and offers them at significantly cheaper prices compared to other brands, since there are no “middleman” fees bike shops charge to sell products in-store.
The Grail 7 is an entry-level gravel option. It weighs just 21 pounds, has 130mm drop handlebars, and a 42 tooth low gear – which is very large for this type of bike. If you can’t get up a hill with that, you’re probably not trying hard enough!
This model also features a 1x drivetrain (one chainring up front), whereas most other road and gravel bikes give you two chainrings. You may get fewer gears, but I personally prefer a 1x system. No front derailleur means one less part to get damaged. And front derailleurs have a habit of running into rocks, curbs and other obstacles for some reason…
If you’re a road cyclist who wants to venture off the beaten path once in a while, you may want to consider a gravel bike. They’re still a solid option when it comes to climbing hills.
Like a gravel bike, hybrid bikes blend some of the basic features of road and mountain bikes.
But for a Hybrid, they are closer to the mountain bike side of the spectrum. You can think of a hybrid bike as roughly 60% mountain bike and 40% road bike.
Due to the incorporation of more mountain bike features, like heavier frames and suspension in some cases, hybrid bikes are typically not as good at climbing hills compared to road or gravel bikes. However, they can still be quite capable.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Canyon Pathlite 6
The Pathlite 6 is definitely heavier than a road or gravel bike (28 pounds), but offers front suspension to make it more comfortable for light trail riding. At 75mm, the suspension travel is minimal, and will hardly impede pedaling performance.
A 71 degree head tube angle and 73.3 degree seat tube angle still place the rider in an aggressive forward position, and a massive 51 tooth low gear makes pedaling uphill a breeze.
Hybrid bikes usually have low or no-rise handlebars compared to drop bars on the previous examples. The Pathlite’s bars have a 5mm rise–about as little as you can get without being flat!
Norco XFR 1
Let’s head to the North Shore for this next example from Canadian brand Norco.
The XFR is a great option for those looking for a slightly more off-road capable bike. It has an 80mm travel fork with lockout, which allows you to effectively eliminate the travel when you want to improve uphill pedaling efficiency.
It’s a little slacker than the Pathlite 6, but not significantly so. It also has a higher rise handlebar (25mm) but has an overall longer reach from seat to stem, which shifts your weight farther forward. All in all, a good hybrid climber for a very reasonable price!
So, if you want riding uphill to be easier then your best options are probably going to be somewhere in the road, gravel, or hybrid bike categories. Now, let’s shift gears (pun fully intended) and cover a couple of bikes that are not very good for climbing hills.
Four Types of Bikes to Avoid For Climbing Hills
1. Mountain Bikes
Ok, so obviously if you do mostly road or gravel cycling, a mountain bike just isn’t going to be that efficient. They’re built for rough terrain, not smooth pavement!
That being said, mountains have hills too: and sometimes you’re gonna need to climb them! If you’re a mountain biker who spends a lot of time climbing, look for a cross-country (XC) style bike. This category has all of the pro-climbing features I discussed above, but in a more durable package.
Compared to other mountain bike categories like trail, enduro or downhill, XC bikes are going to pedal uphill much easier.
2. Recumbent Bikes
Recumbent bikes are a great choice for people who find that regular bike handlebars give them significant hand, wrist and arm pain. They’re also easier on your lower back…and your butt!
However, the riding position is exactly the opposite of what we want for climbing efficiency. So unless biking causes you pain in any of the above areas, I’d avoid a recumbent bike if possible.
If you want to learn more about recumbent bikes, check out our article on whether recumbent bikes are faster than upright bikes.
3. Single-Speed Bikes
“Fixies” have a cult following: though they are pretty cool, even a die-hard single-speed rider knows they’re not the most efficient type of bike.
Next time you ride, shift to a gear somewhere in the middle of your cassette…and leave it there the entire time. Yep, now you have a single-speed. Not the easiest to pedal when the trail points up.
4. Cruiser Bikes
When you think of a cruiser, you’re probably picturing someone riding along a boardwalk next to a beach. Very relaxing…but beaches are also pretty flat.
Super high-rise handlebars and a very upright riding position make cruisers comfortable, but not very good climbers. Many of them are single-speed too…
The Right Bike for the Job
There’s no single bike that does everything well…which is why most biking enthusiasts either own multiple bikes, or are currently online looking for their second one right now (you know it’s true!)
If hills are a frequent obstacle on your rides, make sure to choose a bike built for climbing. Sure, biking is supposed to be challenging, but you’ll enjoy your riding so much more with the right tool for the job!