Is More Power Making You Mountain Bike Slower?!

One of the Huge, Little Things When Mountain Bike Riding!

While riding some steep technical climbs today I realized an interesting skill that I use quite often on my mountain bike yet have trouble with on my dirt bike (which has a lot of power!).  Although I am a professional mountain bike racer I am an intermediate (at best) motorcycle rider but both sports require a lot of skill when climbing steep and loose trails.

More power! Isn’t that what us men are always searching for?! The more power I have the faster I climb (and sprint!), right? Well, not so fast power boy. Often power can be our biggest weakness. Sometimes we power through sections on power alone, so we make the section but we weren’t particularly efficient and we got lucky, we could not consistently rely on power alone to make that section. Other times power is what slows us down or stops us. Loose and/or technical sections (especially climbs and switchbacks) require precision. The precision I am talking about isn’t line choice precision (which at .5-2 miles an hour is much more important than it is when going faster but not the topic of this post) but what in motorcycling is called throttle control, for mountain biking we will call it power control.

I was climbing a tight, steep, loose and way off camber switchback today. At about the 3/4 point around I almost came to a complete stop on nearly the top of the “berm” (banked part of the turn). Years ago I would of just put all of my power into at this point and would of had a 50/50 chance of making it. I might have flew through, might have spun the rear tire and stalled or slid out. Today, I realized I was slightly off balance (a little leaned down the hill) and because of the off camber and loose conditions I could not power through. So I stalled, shifted my weight up the hill a bit and then eased on the pedal pressure and crawled through the switchback, but I made it! This was situation where patience and a couple of key core skills (trackstanding, body position, switchback line choice and vision) really paid off.

This switchback was approximately number 10 of at least thirty switchbacks in about 25 straight minutes of granny gear climbing. It really got me thinking about power control (and how bad I am at it on my motorcycle!) and I started really paying attention to this seemingly little detail for the rest of the climb. I was blown away but how much modulation I used in my power out put for the rest of the climb! One of the big goals of climbing that we teach is to apply constant, steady power to the rear tire (not sudden surges that can break the tire free) but I never realized that on some climbs (like this one) it isn’t steady. It is carefully modulated power, accelerating or increasing power as much as I could with breaking loose, slowing or backing off the power when necessary then increasing power again.

This precision of power output  is easy to explain but it takes years of deliberate practice (not just random riding but really focusing on the skill) to master. It is mastered when you can subconsciously adjust you power output so that you can make all but the trickiest steep climbs and switchbacks. Which like so many skills means you will never master it! One day you clean all the switchbacks the next ride you miss one or two.

The fact that you can constantly improve with deliberate practice and drills but never completely master (where no matter how challenging the trail you never make a mistake) mountain biking is what keeps me riding! The challenge is always there no matter how good you get!

So go out and practice your power output and if you don’t have the core skills wired (remember, we do a lot of things wrong because they are intuitive, humans intuitively move away from danger, which on mountain bikes, skis and snowboards means we instinctively move or lean back away from the downhill. While instinctive it puts us in an out of balance, non-neutral, out of control position in all of those sports*) make the best invest you will eve make in your riding and lean the core skills (and dills to master those core skills) in one of our three day skills progression camps.

*Please checkout this article on intuition and instinct.

8 replies
  1. Andrew Cordova
    Andrew Cordova says:

    I learned to apply consistant power when I first started riding. There’s these 3 hills called the 3 bitches that are pretty steep and the dirt is shitty loose. The only way up each one is going slow with a constant power delivery to the rear wheel. Too much power your tire will slip. Not enough power, your tire will slip.

  2. rockhop
    rockhop says:

    @Andrew: the article is about power MODULATION, not constant power. You totally missed the author’s point.

  3. bradley
    bradley says:

    I rode a hardtail for 10 plus years (that is too long) before getting a full susp bike. The hardtail does a great job of giving feedback for rearwheel traction. From this I learned where to spin hard and fast and where to slow it down on climbs. I have friends who just started with full susp bikes and after years still struggle with techincal climbs because they don’t know how to dish out the power.

  4. WAKi
    WAKi says:

    Track stand works wonders, especially when tried in all 4 combinations left/right foot forward/wheel direction.

    Another drill which I think is very helpful for staying on the desired line on tech and steep uphill is “riding street/pavement curbs” on steeper roads. You learn to balance with knees, hips and handlebars to stay on as straight line as possible.

    Sometimes I also slow down and try ride some uphill as slow as I can. I try to be in balance and in control as much as possible, even though I know I could just charge it. I also stall on purpose and stuff like that, it’s actually good for a short breather to keep the pulse down without getting the feet of the pedals.

  5. Jon
    Jon says:

    @Andrew Santiago Oaks is one of my favorite local rides so I’m very familiar with the 3 B’s! 🙂 Riding up Mountain Goat is another great opportunity to practice power modulation. Lots of switchbacks and terrain changes.

  6. tooRew2btrue
    tooRew2btrue says:

    Another great article. Also reminds me of the importance of brake power modulation. bradley is right on the money: Riding a hardtail is a great way to learn to feel how the trail (and your bike) is reacting to your power output. Switching to full suspension took some getting used to since you lose a lot of that feedback loop.

    Thanks, Gene!


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