There are lots of ways to skin a cat, and four ways to get up a climb. Here they are: use often, and in any combination you need.
The first type of climb is the seated climb. It’s used for fire roads or trails with mellow grades. It’s a smooth and steady climb not meant for technical features. This is because when you’re seated, it’s difficult to move your center of mass forward or back to keep even weight on your tires.
If you’re climbing and your weight is too far back, the front wheel is going to go wherever it wants – you lose directional control. The correction for that is to bring your center of mass forward so you are equally weighting the tires. If I’m seated, the only way I can move my center of mass forward or back is to lower or raise my torso. That’s why this type of climb only works on a nice steady, shallow pitch.
If all of a sudden you have to climb over a rock or roll over a log, you have to do something to get your center of mass forward. Otherwise, that front wheel is not only going to lose directional control, but it may completely come off the ground. So the correction for that is the next type of climb: a crouched climb.
In the crouched climb, you come out of the saddle in what looks like a ready position, but you’re pedaling. You’re out of the saddle, hovering over your seat, and the way you move your weight forward is to move your entire torso forward. Too far forward and you’ll feel the back wheel spin; too far back and you’ll lose steering in the front. That means your torso is constantly moving in a balancing act between coming forward and back. Crouched climb allows you to move your center of mass forward enough to keep your tires weighted evenly when the grade becomes steeper either momentarily for an obstacle in the trail, or as the terrain becomes too steep for a seated climb.
In both of these types of climbs It’s important to select an easy gear so you can pedal with a high cadence. This way, the power stroke (from one o’clock to five o’clock on your crank arm) happens more often providing better traction. Too slow a cadence, and you risk surging the back wheel and losing traction. The power stroke is happening less often with more power resulting in spinning out.
Also, an easier gear/higher cadence means you’ll be able to climb longer with fatigue setting in later. Your legs will quickly tire out pushing a heavy gear at a low cadence. Make sure your bike is geared appropriately. If you’re climbing up your favorite grade and you can only maintain 45 rpm before red lining in your easiest gear, you might want to consider smaller front chain rings.
The video above illustrates the transition from seated to crouched climb. You’ll notice as the terrain pitches up momentarily (the rocks on the trail) Courtney raises off the saddle and comes forward while keeping her torso down. She does to keep even weight on the tires which prevents the front of the bike from getting light and potentially coming off the ground.
The Standing Climb has two variations. It is used if your seated-climb muscles are getting tired and you want to get a break. Shift into two harder gears, come out of the saddle and use your body weight to help turn the pedals over. Changing from a seated or crouched climb position to a standing climb allows you to give one set of muscles a rest while you use a different set.
The video above illustrate a standing climb, you’ll notice this looks similar to the crouched climb but in this climb, Courtney’s torso is more upright. She’s also more forward on the bike allowing her to use he body weight to assist in turning the pedals over.
The next variation, we like to call the “hurt your feelings” standing climb. This is used in competitive situations—that can be in a race or riding with your friends. Here’s how it works: You’re riding along down a trail and one or more riders are in front of you heading up a short climb either in a seated or crouched climb. You spot them one hundred or so yards back and switch into a standing climb … but not your average standing climb. You want to engage every muscle from your pinky toe to your ears and apply all the power you have to quickly get to the riders and pass them at the right moment. You have to make sure you save just enough breath to say something like “good job” or “keep it up.” This is a particularly effective race strategy because the people that you pass think one of two things. Thing one: “Wow that racer is awesome. There’s no way I’m going to catch up.” Or more likely, they’re thinking, “That racer is an idiot; there’s no way you can maintain that pace and I will catch them around the corner.” Either one is great, because what they don’t know is before you saw them, you were going at roughly the same pace. Once you pass and get out of sight, you go back to the same pace again. Only now, you’re in front.
The Fourth Climb
When the first three climbs fail, you have one more option: The walking climb. This is the climb you use when you just need to get up, whether it’s a race course, technical climb, or you’re just tired and hungry. The key to the walking climb is the dismount.
It’s best to dismount the bike on your terms—don’t wait until you lose your balance, or control. First, apply your brakes and hold them. Then put a foot out to the uphill side of the trail (the side that’s closest to you). If you dismount on the downhill side, you’re more likely to tumble down the side of a hill. With your foot on the uphill side, you create a tripod between you and your tires. Next, swing your leg over the back of the bike (it should be easy because the bike will be leaning a little lower) and plant it safely on the trail. Then quickly grab the top tube and pull it out of the trail so a rider or racer behind you can continue on their way.
Bonus: The Canadian Carry
Maybe at this point you want to try to remount, or else continue uphill using the walking climb. If that’s the case, reach over and pick up your bike on the downtube (just ahead of the bottom bracket) with your arm extended. Depending on your seat height, your saddle might fit nicely over your shoulder. We call this the Canadian Carry because a Canadian showed us this. This is an effective way to carry the bicycle because with your arm fully-extended, you’re not contracting any muscles so it’s easy to hold the bike without fatigue. Not using the Canadian carry on a walking climb can result in your arm being really tired at the top of the climb. There is usually a downhill on the other side of the uphill, and having a tired arm can impact your ability to control the bike for the fun part.
For some great tips on technical climbing, checkout this post about Aaron Lucy’s lessons learned about living in Colorado here.
Special thanks to Courtney Cowan for demoing these climbing techniques. Courtney is a Team Ninja rider and the owner of Real Health, a coaching program proven to bridge the gap between wanting to be healthy and becoming who you’ve always wanted to be. Stop Dieting. Start Living. www.realhealth-coaching.com
Richard La China is a Professional Mountain Bike racer, USAC Certified Cycling Coach and a IMBA Certified Mountain Bike Skills Instructor who coaches beginner to pro cyclist. Currently working with mountain bike XC, Endurance and Enduro racers and other competitive and non-competitive mountain bike riders seeking to become their best.
I would encourage anyone of any ability to take a class with these guys.
I recently attended one of the Intermediate/Advanced Efficiency and Flow clinics. Even though I have been riding for many years...
I recently attended one of the Intermediate/Advanced Efficiency and Flow clinics. Even though I have been riding for many years I learned a lot from this clinic. The techniques covered ranged from reviewing basic skills such as basic body position to practicing more advanced techniques like switchbacks, bunny hops, and cornering. I was able to recognize, get instruction, and practice some skills where I was weak and instantly improve them. Even skills I thought I was pretty good at I was able to pick up useful tips. I also realized that deliberate skills practice is not something I incorporate into my riding, but now that I understand what I should be doing I will make sure to add this in! After taking the course my comfort on the bike has improved and I am more aware of my body position and movement of the bike. I would encourage anyone of any ability to take a class with these guys. The instructors are knowledgeable and easy to work with. There is a lot of one on one help and they will make sure you understand the skills being taught and are able to perform them successfully. Plus the clinic was lots of fun! I highly recommend and hope to work with these guys again soon. ~ Michelle A.
The course was very fluid, engaging, and I would highly recommend it.
I took the intermediate/advanced course in Balboa Park after having ridden for just over 2 years on my own. It...
I took the intermediate/advanced course in Balboa Park after having ridden for just over 2 years on my own. It covered a wide breadth of skills, some of which I already felt aquatinted with and others I had little to no experience with. I found all of the material useful. I was able to improve skills I already had and was able to learn new skills. I also feel confident leaving the course that the instructors have provided all of the information for me to practice and improve outside of the course setting. The environment of Balboa Park was perfect for learning and sessioning the skills covered. The instructors were friendly, fun, and attentive to all of the participants. They spent more or less time on certain skills based on how the entire group was grasping them. They also gave individualized attention to participants that required more help with technique. The course was very fluid, engaging, and I would highly recommend it. ~Alexandra Rose Brysiewicz
Taken the 3 day Skills Camp out in Mulberry Gap GA. Outstanding weekend. We had a small group of about...
Taken the 3 day Skills Camp out in Mulberry Gap GA. Outstanding weekend. We had a small group of about 8 people with 3 Ninja Pro's. Richard and the instructors were attentive and always helpful. The course had you work on your base fundamentals, advanced skills, along with bike setup,maintenance, nutrition ,This was a very comprehensive course. After learning the skills, we'd hit the trails and the training didn't stop. Instructors would get to a technical portion of a trail and have us all stop and they would show us how to use the skills we just learned. Everyone learned at their own pace. So no one felt pressured to keep up with others. Having fun was always top priority. Arriving back home, I was practicing all the skills i've learned like an excited little kid with a new bike. I hope to take this course again when they come back to this side of the country -- it was well worth it! ~Vic D.
Enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I’ve ever done to improve my speed and ability on the bike.
Hands down, enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I've ever done to improve my speed and ability...
Hands down, enrolling in the Intermediate/Advanced clinic was the best thing I've ever done to improve my speed and ability on the bike. I am so much faster on singletrack and through technical sections/jumps that even if people are more fit than me, I still keep up with them (and kind of love watching them do a lot more work than they need to). Richard and Kris are fantastic and break things down in a way that makes sense and is manageable. By the end of my first clinic, I was jumping off ledges and power climbing up sections that I couldn't drive a car up. You could buy a $5,000 carbon bike and do 10,000 ft rides every day, but you will get the best return on any investment you make in your riding by attending a Ninja Skills Clinic. ~ Regina J.