Biking Up Hills

Mountain biking can be a test of endurance and strength, and sometimes make you wonder why you ever thought you could get to the top of that slope. No matter how much stamina you have and how well you can control your bike, there’s an art to climbing a steep hill on a bike as well as some techniques you can use to make it to the top.

First of all, how old is your bike?  If you’re mountain biking with an ancient bicycle, you’ll benefit from some new gear. Newer bikes have shorter chainstays than older bikes, a change that gives the rider better traction. On bikes with shorter chainstays, the rider’s weight is situated more over the rear wheel than on bikes with longer chainstays.  That weight provides the traction, and makes the bike better for steep climbs. So if you’re trying to traverse the hills on a bike you’ve had for 10 years, save your pennies for a newer model. It will almost instantly be easier.

That’s not to say a brand new bike designed for steep hills is going to make it easy for you. Most mountain biking enthusiasts will tell you right up front there’s nothing remotely easy about getting to the top of a steep hill.  It takes a combination of strength, endurance, and something you might not give much thought to—balance.

If you’re not strong enough, you’re not going to make it to the top, no matter how much aerobic stamina you have, or how well-balanced you are.  And if you have the strength to pump those pedals up the slope as well as the physical stamina to keep going to the top, you might still end up walking part of the way if you don’t have the key ingredient—balance.

You have some, of course, or you wouldn’t be biking in the first place. But the balance that keeps you on the bike is chiefly side to side balance. Shooting up a hill requires a forward to back balance that you might never have used on a flat trail. It’s a skill you have to learn early on in mountain biking to avoid getting discouraged and opting for flatter terrain.

When you’re going up a hill, you need to lean far enough forward so that your weight puts extra pressure on the front tire for traction.  This can cause the rear wheel to slip, because of lack of traction there. Then it’s necessary to move back on the seat to give that wheel proper traction, without going so far that your front wheel tries to lift off the ground. This front to back shifting and rocking motion can help propel you up a hill.

When you seem to need traction all over, try scissoring.  Stand and lean forward briefly, then sit again while moving back and forth to keep momentum, then stand again when necessary. Standing helps push the bike down and forward and can give you momentum to get over the steepest spots.