Because you gotta get up to get down
Depending on where you live, rock ledges, rotten logs or slimy roots make climbing on a mountain bike more interesting…Or maybe just more embarrassing. The following tips should help you climb technical sections of trail with more efficiency and more success!
1. Learn Finesse
If you have the strength to smash your way up every climb, good for you. Unfortunately for the rest of us, few people are built that way. Even if you have elite energy, you’re wasting it every time you bash into something. You’ll become more efficient and feel better when you develop a soft touch. When I coach elite endurance racers, I tell them that they can make up a 100-watt deficit by climbing with greater finesse. When elite athletes learn finesse, well, that’s how they become and remain world champions.
Yes: I just said better climbing skills are worth 100 watts. Eat dessert. Drink beer. Enjoy life. Still climb pretty well.
2. Think Like a Downhiller
When you ride down an interesting trail, you have to manage your bike off ledges, over logs, across roots, and through turns. When you climb that trail, you have to do all of those things plus pedal at the same time! This takes some effort and planning. Look as far ahead as you can, pick lines that work for you, and anticipate your moves. Basically, conduct yourself like a downhiller (who’s only going five miles per hour).
3. Get Off Your Butt!
You’re climbing a hill on the saddle, and you encounter a ledge. Your front wheel goes up it easily, but your back wheel hits hard…BAM! Depending on your speed and fitness, you lose momentum, pedal hard, or simply fall over. Big, soft tires and long-travel suspension make this easier, but you’re still wasting energy. Why? Any time you’re sitting on a steep uphill, your weight is pressing into your back tire. When that tire hits anything, the force goes through your bike to your butt, and you slow down.
Waste. Of. Energy. And, also, some butt-hurt.
4. Stand Tall
This is a mind blower in my skills classes. Would you carry a box of books around your house with your back hunched over and your arms bent? Heck no! That would be weak. And stupid. You are strongest when you’re standing upright. Imagine a BMXer exploding out of a start gate, or, think of doing a deadlift. Even this broken guy (me) can deadlift 300 pounds without stress — but only when I maintain good form and stand tall at the end.
5. Light Hands, Heavy Feet
I coined this phrase in the first edition of my Mastering Mountain Bike Skills book, 11 years ago, and it’s become gospel for a reason. When you’re in a technical uphill section, stand up. Drive all of your weight into your feet. Keep your hands neutral (no resting on the bars, no hanging off the bars). This balance lets your bike float across bumps, and it gives you the freedom to manage shapes with your handlebars.
6. Work the Shapes
Any time your bike rolls upward, the bars come back toward you. If your arms are stiff, the bars push you backward, which puts even more weight on the rear wheel. When your Minion DHR smacks into the rock, you stop even harder. That’s not what we’re doing here! If you know the bars are gonna come back toward you, don’t wait for that to happen: Make it happen! Row your bars backward as you pedal up your next rise. Wow. Easy.
7. Choose the Best Lines for You
Note the “for you” portion of that phrase. Your ideal line helps you get up the hill with minimal effort, minimal stress and, hopefully, maximal fun. Most riders follow a timid line around big rocks. Instead of riding straight up one boulder, they go around it which forces them to make a couple turns and deal with a dozen little rocks. This is technically way harder than simply riding the boulder! I encourage you to practice tall, balanced, intentional climbing. When you have confidence in your ability to deal with big obstacles, you’ll find yourself riding right over them and you technical climbing will become much simpler.
When you reach the top, that technical climb becomes a technical descent. Have fun!