Climbing is the harsh mistress of mountain biking. All mountain bikers have a little masochism in them and a ride isn’t really complete without a proper lung-buster bike climb.
Where downhill rewards you with wild fun, excitement and instant gratification, the slow tedious improvement of fitness and skills are found in the climbs.
Improving at climbing not only shortens the agony but presents you with challenges to overcome. Every bike climb is a series of goals where the effort spent reaching them is often outweighed by the satisfaction of achievement.
There are several key aspects, regarding both the bike and rider, to mastering bike climb. Let’s break it down.
Fitness and Stamina
Above all else, the thing that will win you the fight against gravity is your little half-horsepower engine. There are an uncountable number of ways to squeeze a little more juice out of it but the best way to make your legs stronger is to ride more.
Putting more distance and elevation under your belt is a sure path to better performance.
Going out on rides regularly is already a big step towards fitness, but there are little things you can do on rides to maximize your time on two wheels.
Setting performance goals is one of the best ways to do this. Keeping track of your progress can be tough, especially since it comes incrementally over months of training.
Some tools that have helped me keep motivated are fitness tracking apps. I may not have felt any stronger week after week of training, but it was very satisfying and motivating to see my times on local climbs getting lower by a few seconds.
This may not seem like much, but add consistency and time to the equation and in a few months you’re going to be doing a particular bike climb twice as fast as when you started keeping track.
This enforces the habit of trying to best yourself by just a little bit more than yesterday and makes you feel like what you’re doing results in real improvement. Small daily goals keep achievements coming consistently without burning you out as loftier long term goals might do.
Momentum and Getting to Know Your Gears
Skill, technique and the strategic aspects of climbing become much more common when the fire road ends and the trail begins.
Climbing trails will mostly be smooth single track with steady grade, but sections that break the flow with steep inclines, rocks, and roots or tight turns and switchbacks are inevitable.
This may tempt you to stop but riding through them actually needs the exact opposite. An approaching technical section often requires that you break your cadence and drop your chain to a heavier gear to build up speed.
For many of the short technical sections found on bike climb, momentum alone can be enough to get you through them. Building up speed can save you from getting bogged down on rocks or roots and can save you from stalling on steep inclines and switchbacks as well.
Having momentum not only protects you from stalling but it also stops you from putting down too much torque and spinning out the rear wheel on the loose dirt often found on these kinds of sections.
Building up momentum comes at the cost of power from your legs, which most of us have in short supply. This is why it is essential to know your gears well.
Modern drive trains work incredibly well compared to drive trains from even just a few years ago, especially when it comes to shifting under power.
This means that you can forgot committing to a certain gear for a certain section and actually save your legs with strategic upshifts and downshifts even while pedaling.
New drive trains have let me attack sections with a heavier gear to build up speed and get over tricky obstacles then immediately pull the chain up to a higher gear to gently continue pedaling on.
Just keep your upshifts to one or two gears only or you risk stalling yourself out instead of building momentum. Make sure you have a well-tuned drivetrain before putting your faith in it.
Many of the key technical climbing sections on trails can’t be overcome with momentum alone. Either they are too long and too rough to properly power through them or your legs may just not have the juice to overcome the section with brute force.
Sections like this need some analysis, which is a skill in and of itself. Lines are paths through a technical section which allows you to avoid the roughest parts, the tightest turns and to maintain the most momentum through the section.
On trails that see a lot of use, this will often be the main line which can be easily identified by that worn out 3-inch wide path through the section. This is often the friendliest line but looking for alternative lines can be rewarding.
The main line is the most prone to getting lots of loose dirt from wear in dry climates and getting boggy or rutty in wet climates, but finding your own unique line through a section and nailing it can be its own reward.
Finding alternative lines through a section is also a good opportunity to capitalize on your own personal strengths. A stronger climber may choose to forgot the mainline which avoids the steepest part of a technical section.
The most difficult thing about line choice is finding the time to make the choice. Getting off and scouting sections can break the flow of a ride and make it significantly longer but can be worth it if it’s on a trail you ride often.
Watching other riders with different strengths tackle a section can also give you some perspective. In time you won’t have to get off the bike to look at lines, even on trails that you’ve never ridden before.
Experienced riders can survey all but the most challenging climbing sections in a second or two while approaching them, form a strategy and execute it without having to get off the bike and scout on foot.
Suspension is our friend, even on the climbs. But with suspension lockouts and pedaling platforms being pushed as features on suspension products, it’s easy to think that our suspension is working against us when we’re pedaling up hills.
The reality is that suspension is a tool and one that needs to be tuned to our needs rather than totally locked out, especially on full suspension bikes.
The main symptom of suspension that is poorly set up for pedaling is pedal bob. Pedal bob is when each pedal stroke cycles a little bit of the suspension travel until it turns into a literal springing motion.
Suspension is prone to bob when the suspension is set up too soft or it doesn’t have enough damping on either the rebound or compression adjustments.
Suspension is not just about comfort. When climbing, active suspension can soak up bumps that would otherwise kill your momentum if you had a rigid bike or locked-out suspension.
Like any tool, this benefit can quickly turn into a drawback if improperly setup.
Many new riders make the mistake of setting up their suspension too soft which, among many other negative effects, results in the suspension being more likely to bob during pedaling.
Regardless of whether you are riding a full suspension bike or a hardtail, one of the most common solutions to sluggish pedaling is making the suspension firmer.
Improperly setup rebound and compression are the next culprits for suspension bob. The amount of rebound damping a fork or shock should have depends entirely on how hard the spring is and consequently, your weight.
Harder setups will require more rebound damping to control the stronger force of the extending spring. Compression is more up to personal taste.
Some riders prefer a less damped ride with a harder spring and more compression damping while others prefer a more damped ride with a softer spring and more compression damping.
Both of these scenarios are considered okay in terms of setup and neither should suck too much force out of your pedal strokes if setup right.
Tires are one of the most important components on your bike but there is no best tire for climbing. The right tire depends entirely on the kind of terrain you have and the kind of riding you do.
Semi-slick tires are game changers on long distance rides with fire road climbs.
Semi-slicks are tires with very low-profile center knobs and they are the best compromise between low rolling resistance and good cornering traction.
Their efficient rolling makes such a huge difference in maintaining speed that even downhill racers sometimes eat the compromise and use these tires for more speed and efficiency.
The compromise you make for this choice is that you won’t be able to transfer as much power to the ground in loose soil when pedaling and braking.
Stronger pedal strokes may lead you to spin tires on loose soil which can hurt climbing in steep sections where you need to transfer the torque to the ground.
If your trails involve steeper, more technical climbs, you may need some beefier tires to help you put power down on steep loose trails.
Bigger tires with more prominent center knobs, basically traditional mountain bike tires, are a necessity if you need to get up loose terrain.
They will also reward you on the downhills with more braking traction and impact absorption. Unfortunately, they also roll much worse than tires with smaller knobs. You may not feel this loss in rolling efficiency immediately, but on long days your legs will definitely be complaining more.
Regardless of the trend, you want to be looking for the lightest weight tires you can get without compromising too much on tire width. High volume, lightweight tires have been a growing trend lately so options are plentiful.
Lightweight tires will make it much easier to accelerate and put the power down and there are no drawbacks on the bike climb, but on the descents, you will run the risk of folding your tires in corners or puncturing them on rocks if you use the lightest tires.
If you ride rolling trails, you’re going to spend upwards of 80% of your time riding up hills. They don’t have to be seen as an entrance fee for the descents.
Taking the time to improve your climbing technique and setup is going to greatly improve the quality and fun factor of your rides. Utilizing your own power is, after all, what biking is all about.
How Do You Crush The Uphills?
Have you figured out some tips and tricks for crushing an uphill? If you have and it is not mentioned above, please share it with us, we would LOVE to hear from you!