5 Tips for Tough Steep Climbs
Often, while mountain biking, we can usually get away with sloppy technique on relatively easy climbs and still make it to the top. However, when things get steep and loose (when traction is at a minimum) and obstacles such as water bars, erosion ruts, baby-head sized rocks, and who-knows-what-else, begin to appear on the trail (these things almost always naturally appear more often when the trail gets steep—dirt doesn’t like to stick to steep inclines, so it erodes, exposing the obstacles), our technique needs to be nearly perfect to top the climbs. Simply pedaling harder – as we all know – won’t get it done! Also, proper technique will save you huge amounts of energy even on climbs that you may currently may top, but currently waste a bunch of energy in the process because of improper technique.
Tip #1: Scoot forward on the saddle.
Take a look at the photo. Notice how far forward the rider has scooted on his saddle.
A very important reason to move this far forward is to put more weight on the front of the bike. Accidental wheelies and cases of the “swervies” (when your front wheel begins to wonder uncontrollably all over the trail, making it impossible to hold your line) occur because there is too much weight on the rear of the bike (not enough on the front). Shifting your weight forward will help to prevent this from happening.
Also, when the trail’s surface is varied, rough, and loose—as it often is on steep climbs—staying “centered” on the bike, with your weight on the bottom bracket, is essential. This allows the bike to pivot around the bottom bracket so that both wheels will roll up and over obstacles. Most riders end up with their weight too far back on the bike while climbing, placing all their weight on the rear wheel. In this case, all of the rider’s weight is forcing the rear wheel into obstacles and the rear wheel will stall when it comes in contact with the obstacle. Scooting forward will help alleviate this by distributing the rider’s weight more forward on the bike, thus, allowing the rear wheel to elevate and roll over the obstacle.
Even slight movements, or shifts, of the hips on the saddle make a huge difference in our ability to climb steeps (contributing massively to weight placement, balance, power delivery). A gentle climb with a small grade? Move forward only slightly – maybe a quarter of an inch. Medium grade? Medium movement – perhaps an inch … Steep as heck? All the way forward – as far as possible.
Tip #2: Chest Down.
Another massively overlooked part of proper body position on steep climbs is the position of your upper body. Get that chest down!!!
Take a look at the video. This is an extremely steep climb that few rider’s make.
At the steepest points, the rider’s chest is literally only a few inches off of the stem of the bike, and, when the front wheel climbs up obstacles elevating the front of the bike even more – the chest will sometimes literally touch the stem. When this happens, the rider should come out of the saddle slightly—or more accurately, keep the weight on the BB, the core will stay stable and balanced traveling in a smooth momentum path up the trail, and the bike will pivot around the BB, pitching backwards and dropping the seat from under the rider’s rear.
Lowering the chest – drastically, in the case of a climb this steep – allows the rider to keep the upper body balanced on top of the lower body (and the BB of the bike).
By lowering her chest, this rider is effectively getting her weight much more over the bottom bracket area of the bike, which is crucial for control on steep climbs.
In fact, in theory, you should be able to “flutter” your fingers on the grips when you’re in balance on the climb. This ensures that your weight is balanced on your lower body and not leaning or hanging on your hands. (I also like to say that you should be balanced in a position so that if the bike where to disappear, you would land on your feet)
This video below shows how not to do it: The rider stays seated, and when the bike pitches backward on the steep section of trail, the rider’s weight ends up too far back on the bike. The chest is high and the front wheel becomes too light, wandering all over the trail. Also, because all of the rider’s weight is on the rear wheel, the bike will not be able to pivot around the bottom bracket and allow the rear wheel to elevate up and over the ledges.
Tip # 3: Slow your pedal cadence.
You’ll need to slow your pedal cadence in order to accelerate the bike. If you’re already pedaling a super high cadence (which is fine for the road or smooth trail, but won’t work on nasty climbs on dirt where the trail’s surface is loose and inconsistent) you simply can’t increase your cadence any faster, and, thus, you can’t accelerate. Acceleration on steep climbs is essential for many reasons. First, simply to gain more momentum. Briefly increasing your momentum will help you blast up rock lodges, roots, etc. Pretty simple… But, acceleration is also an essential element for the following tips.
Tip # 4: Learn proper wheelie technique.
Most riders simply yank up on the bars when they are attempting to wheelie over obstacles on a climb. This improper technique is bad for a number of reasons. One, the rider’s core will have to be lowered and then quickly raised in order to help the arms snatch the front of the bike into the air. Then the core will drop back down. This will inevitably throw the rider’s balance off. You may get lucky with this technique a time or two, but when the core is not a stable and balanced platform, no movements will be very effective. This is basic to human movement. Two, with this common, yet improper wheelie method of yanking on the bars, the front wheel goes straight up into the air and then right back down, yet the bike doesn’t really travel forward or beyond the obstacle.
When this wheelie is done correctly—by accelerating the bike forward by pedaling (think blipping the throttle to wheelie on a motorcycle)—the rider can maintain a balanced and stable core and now the core can travel up the climb in a smooth momentum path. This is essential to maintaining balance and stability of the body. Also, by initiating the wheelie with acceleration, the bike will travel forward as the wheel elevates and effectively move the front of the bike beyond the obstacle.
Tip # 5: Unweight the rear wheel (the simple method)
Many riders sweat the idea of getting the front wheel up and over obstacles on steep climbs. However, the front end of the bike is usually naturally light on steeps and will often easily roll over an obstacle with very little effort (proper wheelie technique). It’s often getting the rear wheel over the obstacle that gives riders the biggest headaches.
There is all kinds of advice on how to lift the rear wheel on climbs. The thing is, you usually don’t have to lift the rear wheel at all. Simply unweighting it will get it up and over all but the nastiest obstacles on climbs. And how do you unweight the rear wheel? Once the front wheel has cleared the obstacle, simply get your butt off the seat and get your chest low before the back tire makes contact with the obstacle.
*** Many riders complain that they lose traction and “spin out” as they pedal over the obstacle after unweighting the rear wheel (as described in the technique above). Yep. This will happen if you apply power where this is no traction (such as roots, rocks, loose gravel, etc.). Again, the trick is to accelerate below the obstacle, and this will allow a very brief pause in power deliver as the wheel elevates over the obstacle. This does take a little energy, but there really is no choice but to work a little in these situations.
Because of the steep terrain and tight switchback, this rider has very little momentum to help her over the root exiting the switchback. After properly getting the front wheel over–and beyond–the root with a proper pedal wheelie, she then simply raises off of her saddle, unweighting the rear wheel of the bike and redistributing her weight more toward the front of the bike allowing the rear wheel to roll op and over the root.
This will effectively shift the rider’s weight from the rear wheel (when the front wheel is properly lightened and has cleared the obstacle) to the front wheel and the bottom bracket of the bike. Getting the chest back down will center the rider’s weight over the bottom bracket and plant the front of the bike on the ground for steering and control. At this point the rider can become seated again, albeit on the front of the seat if the climb is still quite steep—with the chest down— and good climbing position is re-established.
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These are really great tips! I was just reviewing another instructional video titled “How to Climb Anything”, and practically all they talked about was the bike setup and gear. They also suggested keeping your “bum” over the rear wheel, but for the reasons you mention, that is really not a good idea. What I’ve learned is that it’s much better to get your ass forward on the seat and then slide it back ever so slightly if the rear wheel starts losing traction. Thanks for sharing for sharing these and so many other great tips.
Haha. “keep your bum over your rear wheel”… That will work on easy trail, but won’t cut it when the going gets tough. I always tell students to ask “why” whenever they encounter instruction and advice. Its kinda a bummer that there are so many MTB coaches out there, that even hold certifications, etc. (don’t even get me started on some of the certifying organizations and the garbage they teach as technique), that have know idea how to ride the bike and also, maybe give MTB coaching a bad name… Fortunately, people like yourself actually research riding and instructors and can seek out the quality ones… Thanks, again.