Great advice on climbing from BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky!
In the following, I will address proper body position and its importance while ascending steep and technical climbs and also debunk a couple of infamous myths regarding climbing on your MTB.
While we can get away with sloppy technique on relatively easy climbs and still make it to the top, 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 appear more often when the trail gets steep because trail damage from the elements – especially water, and, therefore water control measures – become more prevalent on steep terrain), our technique needs to be nearly perfect to top the climbs. Simply pedaling harder – as we all know – won’t get it done!
Losing traction, “bogging out”, doing accidental wheelies, and/or getting a case of the “swirvies”, are all common causes of riders not making it to the top of technical descents. My guess is you’ve experienced all of the above issues when trying to ascend steep terrain (I think we all have!). While other aspects of riding technique such as proper use of vision (extremely important), proper gear selection (very often overlooked – even by “good” riders), and others, are essential in order to make it to the top, proper body position will do a ton to help alleviate the above “climb killers”.
First, let’s talk (type) about weight-shifts. Look at the rider in the photo (that’s me). Notice how far forward I have scooted on my saddle. Is that comfortable? Nope! However, very rarely will you need to move this far forward for an extended period of time (Most saddle companies do make saddles built with things such as the “enhanced climbing nose” to make being in this position as comfy as possible. If it is too painful to move this far forward with your current saddle, look into a different one. Your grundal will thank you!)
Why move this far forward? A couple reasons: if your bike is set-up correctly for you on flat ground and you feel like you’re in a good position to comfortably and effectively apply power to the pedals, what happens when your front wheel is elevated perhaps a foot, like in the photo? Your hips (your center of mass and source of balance and power) have now moved rearward in their relationship with your feet (your effective applications of power). Moving forward – shifting your weight forward – helps you maintain your “power position” as much as possible when the front of the bike becomes elevated, enabling you to continue to effectively apply power to the ground when things get steep. Another very important reason that I move this far forward on the saddle: I 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 these things from happening.
Remember: the hips are the center of mass of the human body. Even slight movements, or shifts, of the hips make a huge difference in our ability to ride the bike (contributing massively to weight placement, balance, power delivery). I am almost constantly making weight shifts – moving my hips fore and aft – on the saddle when ascending. A gentle climb with a small grade? I 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.
Another massively overlooked part of proper body position on steep climbs is the position of your upper body. Get that chest down!!! Look at the photo. My chin is literally only a few inches off of the stem, and, when the front wheel climbs up the rock that it is touching – elevating the front of the bike even more – my chin will almost be touching the stem. My upper body CAN NOT rise as the front of the bike rises, or – assuming I am in perfect balance before the angle of the bike changes – I will no longer be balanced on the bike, I will be falling off the back of the bike, and I will have to “hang” on the handlebars, effectively pulling back on them (because of gravity, my body wants to fall off the back of the bike). Of course, I still will need to pedal to maintain momentum, but because I will be “hanging” off the back of the bike and pulling on the handle bars, the bike will want to move out from under my body (rear wheel still moving uphill because of pedaling, handlebars wanting to fall off the back of the bike with my body), and – Bam! I’m doing an accidental wheelie or the front of the bike becomes so light that its swerving all over the trail. Either way, I have to cut my power, and that’s it – I’ve stalled out, “bogged down” – I’m done, and my climbing is over. I didn’t make it … that has happened to everyone.
Lowering the chest – drastically, in the case of a climb this steep – allows me to keep my upper body balanced on top of my lower body. I don’t want to lean forward with weight on my handle bars, nor do I want to “hang” off the back off the bike. In fact, in theory, I should be able to “flutter” my fingers on the grips when I’m in balance on the climb. This ensures that my weight is balanced on my lower body and not leaning or hanging on my hands.
Also, on a climb this steep, I will accelerate the bike (as much as possible) in order to have as much momentum as possible to help me get up the steepest part of the climb, or over obstacles such as the curb-type rock-ledge that my front tire is touching in the photo. This means that an even lower position of the upper body is needed during the acceleration in order to maintain fore and aft balance.
Your weight shift (fore and aft on the saddle), and lowering your upper body are both mandatory in ascending steep, nasty climbs – to do one or the other is simply not enough. They also work together, but in an inverse relationship: often you do need to keep a fair amount of weight on the rear tire to maintain traction over slippery rocks, water bars, etc, so you can’t slide as far forward on the saddle as you would like to; you must compensate for this by lowering your chest even more in order to stay balanced on the bike and not fall of the back of the saddle. Also, if you can exaggerate your movement forward on the saddle, you won’t have to drop your chest quite as low. If its super-duper steep, however, I’m probably all the way forward on the saddle and as low as possible with my upper body. (On a 29er the same concepts apply but do to the longer chainstay and longer tire contact patch you don’t need to do the weight shifts to the same extreme.)
What about standing in this situation? I may stand slightly and briefly in order to make extreme weight-shifts or grossly accelerate the bike. But often, when I stand, I’m expending a lot of energy, and I’m usually making up for a mistake that I made – damage control, if you will. Also, if you look at my position in the photo, I will only lift my butt a couple inches, maximum, off of the saddle when I stand, and then return to the saddle. Its still mandatory to maintain this position, even if I do come off of the saddle briefly.
Note from Gene on standing: Standing can provide more power and actually be efficient but on a technical climb it is very hard to stay centered and you will often shift forward just enough to un-weight the rear tire and spin out when you stand.
Since I’ve mentioned pulling or “hanging” on the handlebars, I feel that its necessary to debunk a popular myth about climbing on mountain bikes. Perhaps we’ve heard that we should “pull” on the handlebars with each pedal stoke? This advice comes from way back in the day and from road cyclists. While this technique may provide some additional leverage and miniscule amounts of additional power on the road (which is paved with excellent traction). Its a kiss of death to a mountain biker. Road riders don’t have the problem of doing wheelies on climbs because of the construction of the road bike and because the climbs simply aren’t very steep compared to MTB trails. The only time I “pull” on the bars on a MTB while ascending is to make a weight shift forward with my body. And in this case, I’m pulling my body forward, establishing a balanced position, and then I refrain from pulling until I make another adjustment. I don’t continuously pull on the handlebars with each pedal stoke for reasons explained above.
Perhaps we’ve also heard that we want to climb with our elbows in. Look at the photo. My elbows are fairly elevated. While I AM powering the bike with my lower body, the difficulty of the terrain necessitates constant weight shifts and adjustments in order to keep the bike moving (the handlebars are used to manipulate the bicycle into a position so that it can be powered and controlled primarily with the lower body). Most of these adjustments require a substantial amount of effort. Do this: stand straddling your bicycle. Now pretend that you want to pull both of your grips, outward and off of your handlebars simultaneously. Where are your elbows positioned? Now, pretend that you want to push those bars suddenly and violently through the floor. And finally, pretend that you want to dead-lift those handlebars through the ceiling. In all of these positions – where you wish to apply the maximum amount of power possible – your elbows will be up and out. Imagine trying to accomplish these tasks with your elbows in! We will give up massive amounts of control and power if we try ride technical terrain with our elbows in (if the trail is smooth and easy, fine, put your elbows wherever you’re most comfortable).
Its safe to say that climbing steep and technical terrain such as the stuff in the photo, requires far more dynamic technique and movement then climbing paved climbs with perfect traction (that’s not to say that one is more difficult – or painful – than the other!). Therefore, a lot of that old advice that may work on the road or an extremely smooth trail, isn’t applicable to riding a MTB in the nasty stuff. Apples and oranges …
Try this out for yourself: find a steep trail with consistent grade and get into the proper ascending position described above. Apply the power. That should feel pretty good, now, suddenly do everything wrong: scoot back on your saddle and sit bolt up-right! You’ll notice that your power – and therefore your speed and momentum – will drastically decrease.
If these tips help you imagine what an actual 3 day skills camp would do for you! Tips are great but they are only scratching the surface, there is a lot more to climbing. As you know, nobody ever mastered a sport from tips. Nothing beats well designed coaching with feedback from passionate and experienced coaches.