Technique: How to Attack a Steep Climb

Do you constantly find yourself  having to get off your bike and push it uphill while watching the rest of your friends easily cycle to the top? If that is the case, then this article is for you. This article is also for you if you want to learn a few techniques to get you higher up that hill with less effort.

Contrary to the popular belief that it’s all about how powerful your legs are, in reality it’s 90% technique and 10% muscle. The name of the game is how to balance your weight on the bike far enough to the back so that the rear tire doesn’t slip and at the same time forward enough to prevent the front tire from doing a wheelie. That’s it.

Balance and Riding Position

The trick, then, is to get your weight back and keep your weight on the front wheel. To do this:

  • Lower you chin as close as possible to the handle bar while looking forward, not down.
  • Keep your elbows close to your side and flexible.
  • Don’t pull on the handle bar. This achieves nothing.

This will lower your center of gravity and distribute your weight evenly between front and back. How far to lean forward is determined by the slope of the climb and the traction of the terrain that you are riding on. Another very important technique I learned is to:

  • Shift your seating position (i.e your buttocks) to the very forward tip of your seat, almost as if you’re about to stand up. (I know that this hurts, but this is probably the most important tip in this article).

With practice, all of these will come together and your body will naturally fall into the right position.

It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfectly straight climb in mountain biking. You will have to keep on ADJUSTING your balance and riding position every few seconds to react to the climb.

Other things that will help:

  • Don’t lower your seat. You only do that for downhill. Don’t have it too high either. Keep it in a position that allows you to pedal comfortably (maximum utilization of your muscles)
  • If you have an adjustable fork, then drop your fork at the lowest travel. This will allows you to put enough weight on the front to keep it from lifting up on very steep climb and keep it going where you want it to go.
  • If your have a full-suspension bike, switch on pedal platform or lock-out your rear suspension if your shock has that functionality. The bobbing motion from pedaling can result in significant energy loss (although many modern well-designed suspension designs and technologies mitigate this effect rather efficiently)

Pedaling and Shifting

  • If you are starting a climb from a stationary position, then it is natural to start on the lowest gear possible.
  • If you are approaching the climb with speed, then there are two techniques you can try:
    • Beginner: While coasting, shift to the lowest gear possible and then STOP pedaling. Let the bike go uphill on its own until you approach the point of zero velocity (otherwise you would probably spin out on the low gear). 2-3 seconds before that, you should start pedaling.
    • Advanced: As your pedaling and shifting techniques improve, you should work on attacking a climb in a way that preserves as much of your forward momentum as possible. While coasting, try to be on a gear that will allow you to comfortably do 1 rotation per second, then start your climb. Then start shifting down one by one until you reach the lowest gear possible. Never shift too many gears at once, or else you’ll hear lots of snapping and popping and could easily snap your chain.

Pick a Good Line to Climb

Scan the climb first and try to get a feel of the terrain and obstacles. Gauge how much traction you will have. Choose a line that has the following:

  • Less obstacles, such as rocks. Trying to steer around obstacles just increases its complexity
  • Avoid soft sand and loose gravel or anything that will make your tires slip, if at all possible.

Manage Your Energy

Try to manage your energy so that you have enough juice to make it to the top. Here are some tips:

  • Pedal at a constant speed (rotations per second). Don’t pedal too fast during the first part of the climb or you’ll run out of breath before you reach the top
  • Breathe!!
  • Take a break before a steep climb and wait until your heart rate falls to a normal rhythm. I find myself having to do that more and more the older I get 🙁

How to boost your confidence on the trail

Here is a quick guide that I put together that will help you boost your confidence on the trail and result in improving your riding skills. In my point of view, confidence is one of the most important factors getting better at Mountain Biking. Improved confidence will allow you to try out more challenging and more technical climbs and drops, also resulting in a more enjoyable ride ..

Here they are, not in any particular order:

  1. Practice / Repetition: Knowing the trail is very important. When you keep on repeating the same trail over and over again your body will automatically adapt to all the corners, drops and climbs. You will easily anticipate where each technical section is and you will know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to shift in advance and when to drop or raise your seat post.
  2. Protective Gear: Wearing proper protective gear gives you a strong feeling of confidence. A helmet is an absolute must. Knee and shin guards are optional, however I think that given the harsh terrain of Wadi Degla, they are absolutely necessary. Elbow pads are also important, but not as important as the knee pads.
  3. Using the right bike / equipment: Not all bikes are created equal. Some are better than others in handling certain types of riding. In Wadi Degla, you can breeze through 95% of all the sections using a hard tail, however there are certain sections that will be a lot easier with a full suspension bike. If you have a fork with long travel (130mm – 160mm), it will give you a boost of confidence on drops. Make sure your tires are in good condition. Also make sure that you have the right tire for the terrain you are riding. See this post for more info:
  4. Clipless Pedals: These are a double edged sword. Once you get used to them, they improve confidence and actually make your ride a lot more energy efficient. The problem is that they take a while to get used to, and during that period you actually ride with less confidence because you’re always too afraid that you won’t be able to release from your pedals in time. Personally, I use the Clip/Clipless pedals that gives you a 2-in-1. I found that to be the best option.
  5. Good Brakes: Knowing that bike has good brakes is a reassurance that you can push your riding to the limits of your skills and know that you have adequate stopping power on tap. Disc brakes are better than V-brakes and a worthwhile upgrade if you have a basic bike. Whatever type of brakes you have, always make sure that your braking system is well maintained.
  6. Ride in Groups: Group dynamics help boost confidence through competitiveness and encouragement. Try to join a group where there is an advanced rider among the group that coaches the rest.