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MTB Skills: How to Climb a Steep Hill

As if climbing a hill isn’t hard enough on its own, the hills you encounter on mountain bike trails can be extremely steep – much steeper than you’d encounter on a paved road. Climbing them successfully requires not only great fitness but also superb technical skills.

Here’s how to conquer the steep ones:

Body Positioning for a Steep Hill Climb

Here’s the body position you should maintain during the climb:

Body weight is centered.

You want to stay centered over the bike, putting weight on both wheels. If you’re too far back, your front wheel could wander or even lift off the ground. Too far forward and you’ll lose rear wheel traction.

Stay seated, but lean forward.

To keep weight on the rear wheel, you must stay seated. But to keep some weight forward, you should be sitting on the nose of the saddle and have your torso leaning forward.

Elbows back.

By leaning forward and pulling your elbows back, that puts downward pressure on the front wheel to dig it into the dirt. Don’t pull your elbows down, though. Just straight back.

Eyes up ahead.

As always, keep your eyes focused ahead of you, looking where you want to go. You don’t have to scan quite as far ahead as when going downhill, since you’re going so slow, but you do want to analyze the trail to find the best line.

 

Shifting and Gearing During the Climb

Here is what you need to know about shifting and gearing when climbing steep sections:

Shift before the hill. It’s very, very difficult to shift on a steep climb because the drivetrain is under load. It’s next to impossible to shift the front derailleur and very hard to shift the rear derailleur, so try to pick a good gear at the very bottom.

If you must shift on the climb… here’s how to do it:

Take a couple power strokes first, then soft pedal for a stroke while you shift. As soon as the shift completes, put the power down again so you don’t lose momentum.

 

Pedal Stroke and Cadence

Pedal stroke and cadence are much more important off-road than when you’re on the smooth pavement. One bad stroke and you could be walking up the rest of the hill.

Pedal Stroke

The key is to stay smooth. Pedaling in circles is best, but what really matters is that you don’t jerk on the pedals. Stay smooth and consistent the whole way through.

But keep this in mind – a harsh pull up is even worse than mashing the pedals down.

Cadence

As with most off-road climbs, I use a relatively low cadence (compared to spinning on flat ground.) This gives you good leverage to push when necessary and not spin out the rear wheel.

That jerky pedal stroke that you want to avoid – it’s more likely to happen in lower gears.

 

Putting It All Together

Start out in the correct gear, keep your body in position, and pedal smoothly. Then just keep going! That’s about it, but here are a few more tips.

Generally, if the hill is steep and long, I won’t look too far ahead. Why? Well, looking up to the top, riding some more, and feeling just as far away can be demoralizing.

So instead, I look ahead to a certain landmark, like a rock or tree. When I get there, I get that feeling of satisfaction, then I an push on to the next landmark.

Also, try to breathe steadily. You can breathe in sync with your cadence if it feels right for you. A nice rhythm can be helpful to keep you focused on climbing mechanics.

You could also repeat song lyrics in your head. This is a nice compromise between daydreaming and focusing on nothing but your breathing and pedaling. (If you go the song route, make sure you have the lyrics memorized perfectly, because you’ll be in too much pain to remember them.)

 

That technique, and oh yeah, massive leg strength and anaerobic conditioning, will get you to the top!

Any questions, just post them in the comments below.

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2 Comments
  1. A video of some of these techniques would be really useful. As a new MTB rider I *think* I’m doing most of these, but it is hard to visualize some of them.

  2. @Bryant

    Very good point. These posts were actually held back for two years now while I tried to assemble a good video crew. Alas, I published them anyway, but adding the videos is very much on my to-do list! 😀

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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