MTB Skills Tip w/ Pic, Technical Climbing w/Andy Winohradsky

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”.

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky climbing the Steeps!

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.

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42 replies
  1. Susan Pollard says:

    I’ve been practicing some of the points in this article. Very helpful – especially on steep gravelly climbs! I couldn’t keep the front of my bike on the ground before.

    Reply
  2. Bam says:

    Thanks, very helpful tips! How about shifting gears? Do I go really soft, medium, or hard gears? What is the magic gear & do I want to maintain 80 RPM? A friend likes staying on the middle ring no matter what, but I notice that not only does he climb slow, but he’s legs give out faster. When I need to, I shift to the granny & shift to a cog that still needs a little push to climb. I end up climbing faster & have more rest time at top waiting for him ;0)

    Reply
  3. Jeff says:

    Andy,
    Great article, I’ve noticed that a lot of riders don’t have adequate mobility / flexibility to get themselves into the proper position for climbing or descending and they don’t have the strength or endurance to do it for an extended period of time.

    Jeff
    BetterRide Coach, Bend OR

    Reply
  4. Scott F says:

    I see myself doing some of the things shown, especially for the descending. I’ve often wondered if I was crazy for hanging my butt back behind the seat, sometimes almost touching the rear wheel on the steep descents at our trails. It’s refreshing to see that I was actually on the right track! My problem is that I am tall and if my seat is high enough for good riding position on the saddle, its really hard to get my butt back behind the seat for steep descents. The seat is so high it gets badly in the way. What am I doing wrong?

    Reply
  5. Andy says:

    Right on, Jeff. It isn’t easy to maintain these positions for an extended period of time. And, as you said, often riders who aren’t fit have a tough time of it. Also, when any rider becomes tired or fatigued these positions are especially difficult to maintain.

    Reply
  6. Andy says:

    Bam,

    Great question! Gear selection and pedal cadence are a very overlooked part of riding a MTB in difficult terrain. That’s actually the topic of the next update, so stay tuned!!!

    Reply
  7. Andy says:

    Scott F,

    I think you are on the right track, but not because of what you’re doing right! You’re having problems with the seat getting in the way on the descents when its at climbing height, as you always will, if you don’t get it out out of the way! This is great that you noticed this!!!

    It is absolutely IMPERATIVE that you get the seat out of the way when you descend technical terrain IF you want to do it under control and/or fast.

    Its impossible to cover all of the details of a said topic in these articles, and this is a very important point that I probably should have touched on. (Take a camp! Take a camp!)

    It is mandatory that we can move our hips (center of mass of our bodies) around and get low on the bike and we can’t do this correctly with our seat in the climbing position (when we’re descending). Look at Downhill bikes, bmx bikes, motocross bikes. There’s a reason those seats are down and out of the way.

    There’s also a reason that big companies such as Rock Shox and Specialized are making adjustable-height seat posts and spec’ing them, OEM, on top selling bikes, jumping in with smaller, more boutique companies such as Gravity-Dropper, Crank Brothers, KS Suspension, others, that have been making a killing off the things for years. These things are seriously the greatest products in the history of Mountain Biking!

    Look at the photo of the rider in the descending article. Dude’s got an adjustable-height seat-post slammed all the way down. That post has a five inch drop and there is no way he (I …) would want to ride that section with my seat at climbing height. Would it be possible? Probably, but it sure wouldn’t be any fun!

    These posts aren’t cheap, however, so a good quick-release seat-post clamp (Or even pulling out your multi-tool out and dropping the seat) will still get the job done.

    If your butt is touching the tire, you’re weight is probably too far back, but that is probably because your seat is in the way forcing you into this position!

    Drop that seat (way down, at least 4″ – make sure your seat-post isn’t going to protrude out the bottom of your seat-tube and into your suspension like it can on some bike designs), then go do all the things stated in the Descending article. Emphasize getting your hips low, bending your knees (this is something you weren’t able to do properly with your seat high. I think you will be incredibly stoked!

    Reply
  8. Mike Brodsky says:

    Hey Andy – Great article. I am still working on incorporating it all and perhaps, attending a camp this summer. But I am wondering about saddles and the enhance climbing nose you mentioned. Would the ISM Adamo fit the bill? It looks intriguing. Also, my biggest difficulties seem to come when I hit a steep section following a sharp turn where I lose momentum and/or balance and end up falling into the turn as I try to climb. Thanks again, Mike

    Reply
  9. Andy says:

    Mike,

    I’m not too sure about those split-nose saddles. A good one is the SDG Formula MT. You can go to the SDG website and check them out. They’re a little heavier then regular saddles because there’s more to sit on, but, oh so comfy!

    As far as falling into the turn, It sounds as if that is a super slow type turn and you won’t have much momentum. All the things we talk about with climbing body position have to be present. A very common mistake is that riders sit up too tall instead of keeping their chest down (Check out the article on steep ascents) and end up with their weight too far back on the bike and have to cut their power substantially so the front end doesn’t come up, thus losing momentum and stalling out or toppling over.

    So try getting your chest way down (lower then you think), slide forward on the saddle, and look WHERE YOU WANT TO GO and get there (make a goal for yourself with your vision – look where you want to go). If you do these three things, you should be in pretty good shape!

    Reply
  10. Don says:

    Learned this climbing technique last fall in the Betterride camp. First time I used it on the trail I cleaned a nasty climb I’d never cleaned before. Definitely easier than sticking your elbows into your sides and pulling on the bars the way I used to do it. Betteride camps rock!

    Don. 2010 Dallas camp

    Reply
  11. chris says:

    andy,
    incorporated the info from this article on my last couple of rides with some serious climbs and wow, what a difference! awesome article and great tips! thanks,
    chris

    Reply
  12. Mike says:

    Andy – 1 more question – From the picture in your article it appears that your seat is tilted a bit downward. Is that the case or just the photo?

    Reply
  13. Cameron says:

    Andy – Any advice for climbing on a single speed bike? I find to get enough power, I must stand up, shift weight as far forward as I can without loosing traction, and pull up on the bars to get more power.
    Thanks,
    Cameron

    Reply
  14. Max says:

    Love the SDG Formula MTR. Great recommendation. Climbing on the nose on that saddle is in a whole different class of comfort compared to other saddles I’ve used. Makes technical climbing with my 180mm travel fork much more pleasant. Thanks.

    Reply
  15. Andy says:

    Mike,

    It is tilted a bit forward. That helps me maintain the forward weight-shifts on the climbs so I don’t slide off the back of the saddle when the bike is tilted backward (Because of the steep terriin). Good observation.

    Reply
  16. Andy says:

    Cameron,

    Yeah, eat your Wheaties and pedal super hard!

    Seriously, though, you’re on the right track. Stand up, do whatever it takes …

    There are definitely many similarities between seated and standing climbing. Try using the techniques described in the article as much as possible, they will help, but, obviously, things change a bit when we don’t have the ability shift gears.

    Reply
  17. Mike Brodsky says:

    Thanks Andy – BTW, I just demo’d a Gary Fisher HiFi Pro 29er (that I can’t afford right now)and couldn’t believe how much better it climbs than my 2007 GF HiFi 26″. I will try tilting the seat a little and hope to make it to a camp in Seattle or Bend this summer.

    Mike

    Reply
  18. Damian says:

    Wow I used this info on my ride today and wow did it make a difference. I actually felt like I got up the hills faster with less energy. Can’t wait for skills camp in Philly in a few weeks. Thanks.

    Reply
  19. Jonathan says:

    I read this post yesterday (9/11/2011) morning, I applied the techniques yesterday afternoon. Thank God I read this as I entering the third year of mountain biking, not ten years later.

    Thanks Andy.

    Reply
  20. Steven Morrison says:

    Hi i have the same problem i struggled very much on the steep uphills, I loose momentum and then i have to stop and walk up. I will definately give this tips a go.

    Reply
  21. Tom says:

    What about standing on nearly straight up ascents. Ones so steep that it is impossible to remain seated? There are literally dozens of these climbs in South Florida. Limited space requires us to build inclines this steep. We pack shell rock down as the climbing surface, so there is adequate traction. These inclines are not possible to tackle without standing.

    The incline in the picture above is probably the least steepest incline we have down here.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Tom,

      The photo doesn’t show up but those hills sound steep. Standing up is fine but it is hard to stay centered standing. On a really steep hill if you get a little too far forward your rear wheel will spin out (but it sounds like you great traction with the shell rock). Staying centered while standing takes a lot of core strength and control but allows you to put more power to the pedals so in your case it might me the ticket.

      Reply
  22. Matt says:

    Great article! I kind of “discovered” this technique out of necessity when going up a nasty climb on one of my favorite trails. It’s not a comfortable feeling with the nose of the seat in a place where the sun don’t shine….but it works!

    I’m looking forward to the next article about climbing. The task I have the most difficulty with now is when I’m moving along a flat grade, turn a sharp corner and BAM! – there’s a steep, nasty climb. How do I approach this climb with enough momentum and gear so I can climb without having to dismount or breaking my chain into a million pieces? throw in a race situation where you have guys to the right who give up and hike-a-bike – gotta navigate around those folks too. :-)

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Matt,

      Glad you loved the article. As for your task of a sudden climb after a sharp corner two things would help. 1. With proper vision techniques steep uphills rarely catch you off guard so focus on doing a better job looking ahead (and remember sometimes even the best rider gets caught in the wrong on a blind turn with a steep uphill exit) 2. You mentioned this happening while racing. This is what the pre-ride is for, always, always, always pre-ride a race course so you memorize sections like this!

      Create your best ride yet,

      Gene

      Reply
  23. Matt says:

    Thanks Gene! I’ve got the pre-ride planned, and I’ll do that section as many times as I can to make sure I get the approach right. The thing is even though I know it’s coming I can’t seem to get myself into a position to get up the climb.

    As I go into the turn and hit that climb, should I keep the higher gear I have from riding the flat part, or should I downshift? Don’t want to find myself in a gear that I can’t pedal through, but also not spin myself into oblivion.
    Also should I plan to stand up to deliver more power, or just keep myself low and forward as your article suggests?

    Thanks again, the advice helps greatly! :-)

    Reply
  24. Gene says:

    Hi Matt,

    Without seeing the climb it is hard to give advice, I don’t know what it looks like, the traction available, how high it is, how steep it is, just too many variables to give good advice. If traction is iffy and/or it is longer than 10 seconds I would recommend seated, if it is short and traction is good stand. Match the gearing to the speed you are going.

    Good luck in your race,

    Gene

    Reply
  25. Steve says:

    Great article! I’ve been mountain biking for years and always heard “keep your elbows down”. I’m excited to try some steep pitches with my elbows up!

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Steve,

      I was taught elbows in and down, don’t use your front brake, get you weight way back on a descent, all kinds of myths by well intended riders during my first 8 years in the sport. One of the reasons I started BetterRide. Once you get used to this new position you will love it, much more control and less energy spent!

      Create a great climb,

      Gene

      Reply
  26. Philip Madeley says:

    I am 5 ‘ 11 and ride a specialized 2007 19″ frame, doing mainly XC trails. The 30 inch handlebar makes sense and will be an easy upgrade, I hold my hands on the ends of my bars now and it feels good.

    Just want to figure out what stem size to get for my body. I do not have the money to play around and get different stem lengths right now. I love change and could just leap in and get a 50mm and learn to work with it, but wanted to check in on what you think.

    My goal is to invest in your skills training this year once I can make some extra cash.

    Thank you for all you do
    Philip
    Escondido, CA

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Philip,

      Sorry for being so late getting back to you on this. At your height I would probably go with a 60mm, it is what I run on my 20″ frame and I am 6’3″ but frames of the same size can vary by up to inches in length so it is tough to say what would be perfect. If a 60mm stem makes you feel cramped it is time for a longer frame!

      I hope to see you in a camp soon.

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply
  27. Tom says:

    Thanks, Gene.

    I’m going to try some of the ones with lesser incline seated. When I bought my bike, it came with a offset seat post. I traded it out for a zero offset and that brought be forward about 1 1/2 inches and I get a lot more climbing power being that I’m over my pedals more.

    That made such a tremendous difference in my overall power that I wonder why they’d put an offset seat post on an XC or trail bike? I have a 2012 Specialized Camber Comp 29.

    Thanks for the great articles and emails. I’m down here in South Florida. I don’t think you make it down this way. Wish you did.

    Tom

    Reply
  28. Janet says:

    Hi Andy/Gene,
    Some questions related to stem length & climbing…I’m just shy of 5’3″ w/short legs and a longer torso. I recently got a Small Mojo HD and am working with a fitter (I’m aware of the warnings…was just at a loss). He moved my seat down & forward, which helped knee pain, etc. But now bars are almost 2″ higher than my seat (even after flipping stem) & I feel a little cramped in the cockpit…could get used to that, though. Climbing steeps is challenging, although your tips helped. His suggested next step is to go from 70m to 80m neg rise stem. He thinks the 10m difference would be negligible on the handing but lower/longer stem will help with climbing.

    So…on a small frame, how long is ‘too long’ when it comes to stems? How important is it to get bars at seat height or lower? And, overall, how does one tell if their bike setup is ‘balanced’? Seems tough to get this dialed when you’re at one end of the short/tall spectrum – my tall friend w/short legs has the same issue and runs a long stem. Thanks for any input!

    Reply
  29. Gene says:

    Hi Janet,

    So tough to say without seeing you on the bike. Sounds like you have a knowledgeable and caring fitter, 10mm is not exactly negligible on the handling but won’t destroy your handling either. You definitely want the bars to be lower than they are, the higher the bars the harder it is to shift your weight forward on the climbs. I would try the longer/lower stem and see if it helps with your climbing. A more expensive but better solution would be to get a fork that is adjustable on the fly, most companies make forks that can be lower 2″ for climbing then extended back for descending, this would greatly improve your climbing ability. On Fox forks this is the “Talas” feature, Marzocchi and Rockshox have forks that will do this too, they aren’t cheap.
    however.

    Let us know what you end up doing and how it works.

    Good luck,

    Gene

    Reply
  30. Jack says:

    i use to climb elbows in because i was taught bike steers better. but when I did like Gene says elbows out the bike steers fine and I can hit stuff and if I have to press pedal I dont give up any controll. I like this deal! I trade my bad habit in for a good technique in the mini course..Thanx Gene!

    Reply
  31. dan says:

    Hi Andy,
    Great article. can you comment on how stem length and handlebar height can accommodate more efficient technical climbing? I have long legs and short torso and was thinking of using a shorter stem on a slightly larger frame.
    Thank you!
    Daniel

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Daniel,

      This article was written a while ago so I doubt Andy is still monitoring it so I will answer your question. A short stem on a long frame is something we HIGHLY recommend. Mountain bike design is going through some revolutionary changes and one of the biggest is exactly that. Longer frames are much more stable and give the rider a much bigger “sweet spot” (where all of the rider’s weight is on the pedals) and shorter stem give much better control. It will take some research to find the right bike but it will make a world of difference. Andy often rides medium frames instead of small frames (sacrificing stand over height) with a nice short stem for control. I ride an XL 29r with a 35mm stem. Andy is one of the best technical climbers I know and I am pretty good and we love the long frame short stem combo!

      Climb like a billy goat,

      Gene

      Reply

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