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 🙁