It’s a Long Way to the Top – Part One

” What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
― George Mallory, Mountaineer

I am addicted to feeling “Awe.” Most of the places that inspire awe in me are at the top of mountains. So to feed my addiction, I have to be able to climb hills. Big hills.

My riding buddies have kindly agreed to share their hill climbing secrets with you. After all, they’re often waiting for me at the top of the hill. Here are their thoughts on how to get to the top and enjoy the view.

The Long Climb Up
The Long Climb Up – Spicers Gap, Queensland.


When I first started riding my mountain bike, I didn’t like hills. They were hard work. It was much easier riding on the flat. But I fell in love with the places I saw while riding my bike. And I wanted to see more.

As I accepted the inevitability of hills, my mountain biking life expanded. I was able to visit more places, ride further distances, and see more amazing things. It was like someone had turned the volume up on the TV set of my adventures. And switched on the color. I had outgrown “flat-land” and started my love affair with the high country.

I could give you many reasons to climb hills:  Fitness; Self-esteem; Getting the edge over competitors in a race. But, for me, the main reason is that it allows me to visit some wonderful places.

And that experience makes me glad to be alive.

Enjoying the view
Governor’s Chair Lookout


An easy first step in shrinking monster hills is to start with the mechanics of hill climbing. Changes here don’t cost much, don’t take much time, and give immediate results.

If you weren’t carrying the kitchen sink in your pack you’d be one of the first up the hills too!

My friend Onyx has seen me ride and knows I carry a ton of crap on my back. I like to be prepared for any eventuality. Have a look at the following couple of photos comparing “Mad Mike’s” back pack with mine:

Coomba Waterhole
Mike at Coomba Waterhole

I think you could probably fit two of Mike’s packs into one of mine. That’s probably why he was miles ahead of me an one of our recent rides together in the Bunya Mountains.

Lighten up. Go through your back pack. Throw out the stuff you don’t need.

Having a super light weight bike helps

My riding buddies often lift Becca’s bike over fences and gates on our rides. We joke (enviously) about how obscenely light it is, and how we should strap a couple of bricks to it. But she consistently beats most of the bigger stronger male riders to the finish on our epic 7 hour rides. She deserves the credit for this, but (like she says), if you can afford it, a lighter bike makes a big difference.

Grab your granny and spin

Some of the more seasoned riders and single speeders will call me a wimp and tell me to harden up, but like Beev, I love my little granny. She only has 22 teeth. There are very few hills that my granny and I can’t ride up. And she cost me less than $20 from the local bike shop.

Bar-ends are awesome if you’re going to push big gears (like on a single) because you get more leverage. On the bars your wrists are an inch or so from the end; on bar-ends your wrists are a quarter to a half inch past the bar.

Hallam is one buddy who would probably tell me to “Harden Up,” ditch my granny, and get a single speed. My fingers were in my ears when he said that, but I did hear something about “Bar ends.” 🙂  I think they’re great. On a long climb it’s great to have an extra spot at the end of the bars to place my hands. Having them out that wide opens my chest and helps me breathe more deeply. And as Hal says, when you only have one gear, the extra leverage is a godsend.

When rotating the pedals, concentrate on the up as much as the down. Pedal forwards like you are kicking a door open with your toes and pedal backwards like you are trying to push along on a scooter. This will bring all of your leg muscles into action to share the load.

What Browy is saying here is more of a technical suggestion, but it highlights one other mechanical thing you can do to soften the climb – get clip-in pedals. Having your feet connected to the pedal means your leg muscles can work at turning the cranks at every part of the pedaling circle. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in using clip-ins properly and not falling off. Clip-ins definitely give you an advantage when climbing a hill.

Some of the steep little climbs around here appear as though a giant has taken his thumb and forefinger and pinched the land up into a sharp point with steep gradients either side. Around here, we call those nasty little hills “pinch climbs”…

To help you make it up those pinch climbs, I’d like to add a suggestion to this mechanical list – tubeless tyres. There are a number of tubeless conversion kits on the market that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Alternatively you can spend a bit more and buy tubeless specific rims. Tubeless tyres let you run lower tyre pressures. This gives you more grip. On steep technical pinch climbs, the extra grip can make a big difference in preventing your rear wheel from spinning out. Plus, lower pressure on the front gives you extra grip when cornering on descents. If you find yourself consistently spinning your wheels on some of those nasty little pinches, try tubeless.


"The Wall of Rock"
Delicia “Road”

“First with the head, then with the heart,”
― Hoppie, “The Power of One”, Bryce Courtenay

Hoppie was a boxer, but his advice rings just as true when you’re at the absolute edge of your physical ability on a steep slope. Mental attitude is everything. When your body is exhausted, your lungs are screaming out for air, your heart feels like it’s about to burst out of your chest, and your legs are on fire with pain – it’s your inner conversation that will get you to the top.

Repeat a mantra to yourself – “I can do it, I can do it”
Talk to the bike – it will make it move faster for you!

You might think it’s a bit “out there,” but Becca’s idea of a mantra really works for me. For some people it’s a boppy song chorus that just keeps going through your head to the rhythm of the pedals; for others it’s something profound. I used to repeat “If it is to be, it is up to me” as I climbed. Lately I’ve taken to reciting one of my favourite poems to myself.

The rhythm helps you to keep a steady pace. That’s important in making sure you don’t hit the hill too hard at the start and wear yourself out too soon. Whatever it is, keep it simple, positive and rhythmical. It works!

Defeated by what you see up ahead? Look at the ground and the scenery (not to the extent of compromising safety).

If it’s a “grueler’ I just concentrate on breathing and nothing else, that way the negative thoughts don’t get in. Oh and don’t stop unless there is a reason (other than just being goosed).

This makes a lot of sense too. If you keep your mind focused on simple / positive things, it’s hard to hear the weary voice in the distance that’s trying to convince you to stop.

Nebo Lookout
Paul makes it to Mount Nebo

You can help your flagging riding buddies this way too. On one of his first big hill climbs up Mount Nebo, I tricked my friend Paul by asking him technical questions while he struggled up the hill. His mind was working over time while his legs did the work. You should have seen the priceless grin on his face when he realized I’d tricked him into riding up a hill he didn’t think he could ride.

Most times I just pick something further up the track and focus on it with the “don’t stop until you reach that tree / rock” philosophy, then when I make it to that goal I select another.

This is really clever too. Break the climb up into smaller chunks. Then overcome those chunks one at a time. What started as one large insurmountable climb ends up being a series of smaller, easier sections. As you succeed at each of the smaller steps, your confidence grows, and before long you’ve conquered your mountain.

Attack the hill – dont let it defeat you before you start. It makes for a shitty experience.

Next Time

Rock Sculpture
Rock Sculpture, Mount Ninderry
(Photo by Liz Ennis)

Next time I’ll share some gems of wisdom from my riding buddies about Technique and the Physical / Training issues involved with Hill Climbing.

Till then, why not take your bike to “weight watchers”, sharpen your mental attitude, and go climb a hill?

You’ll be surprised where you may end up!


I’d like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance I received for this article from my friends via the MTBDirt online forum and the Mountain Bike Enthusiasts Facebook group.

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