It’s a Long Way to the Top – Part Two

“And I think to myself…. What a wonderful world!”
― Louis Armstrong

I have seen more stunning scenery in the last three years on my mountain bike, than in the rest of my life combined – and most of that has been within a two hour drive from my front door.

One of the main reasons for this is  that I’ve been willing to leave “flat land” and ride my bike up hills.  Big hills.

Here are some secrets that my riding buddies have shared with me about how to get to the top of a tough climb and enjoy the view!

Taking a picture
Duck Creek Road, Queensland


Last Time

In my previous post I explained:

  • why I think it’s so important to be able to climb big hills efficiently,
  • how you can prepare your bike mechanically for the next climb, and
  • how you can prepare yourself mentally to nail the big hills.

Before I continue, a couple of people had a bit more to add about the Mechanical and Mental aspects of climbing:

1. Strava – set segments on climbs & natural competitive nature will kick in.
2. Ride hills more.
…and a couple of quotes:
unknown “Climbing never gets easier, you just get faster”
Eddy Merckx “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”

There are many haters of Strava. But there is a lot to love about it if you have a GPS. If you can’t race your mates in person, race them virtually. You can even set up your own segments and try to better yourself. There is no better motivator to improve than competition.

Mad Mike added a couple of other gems that help motivate him to improve his climbing skills. Consider this… on any loop there will be just as much ascent as there is descent. But you usually go uphill much slower. So when you consider how much TIME you spend on each activity, it’s logical that you’ll spend more of your time on a ride going up a hill than going down.

My very first coach taught me to embrace hill climbing, because on average you will spend 70% of your mountain bike ride time going uphill (& 30% downhill). It helped put things in perspective for a keen young downhiller I once was. It took this bleeding obvious piece of maths for me to start considering training more specifically on hill climbing.

And Mad Mike shared a novel way that he uses $20 notes to get him up a hill.

I sometimes used to put a $20 note under a large rock at the top of a long climb that I’d set out to climb multiple (2, 3, 5) times. If I’d planned to do 3 repeats of a 5km climb, when I topped the climb for the 2nd time, I’d sit the 20 under a rock, as an extra motivator to get me back up from the bottom for one last rep. Because the pool/cold beer etc at home would be pretty enticing in 35 degree heat. It always worked.

Hey Mike, I wouldn’t mind having a look around the tops of some of the hills you ride 🙂

Today, I’d like to share some tips from top hill climbers about the technical and physical aspects of getting to the top.


Gnarly Hill
Rick Nails a Hill

Better technique costs nothing. It’s just a matter of changing bad habits and learning new skills. The benefits are enormous. I’m going to just give my friends the floor here. Some of this wisdom is priceless:

Juscruzin recently completed the gruelling Trans Portugal MTB race. 1,150 km in nine days with some heart breaking hill climbs. He knows how to nail a climb:

Don’t waste energy trying to rip the handlebars off your bike. Learn to relax and concentrate on pedaling nice circular pedals from the hips down. Whilst relaxing your upper body, point your elbows at the ground. Clenching your teeth or grunting and swearing doesn’t help either. If it is a long hill, don’t kill yourself at the bottom. Pace yourself and keep your heart rate under control.

Loose fingers on the bars will relax your shoulders and make you concentrate on pedaling.

Put your thumbs over the top of your grips instead of under the way you would normally ride while barreling down a mountain. Putting your thumbs over the top loosens your grip, which loosens your arms, which loosens your body and just lets your legs do all of the work. A lot of people (myself included before I heard this) will tense up on a climb and us your arms to pull yourself towards the bike or the bike towards you to feel like you are getting the most out of each down stroke. This means that you are using your whole body to pedal which will wear you out much quicker. Putting your thumbs over the top loosens up the grip and reminds you to loosen up all over. I know this sounds really trivial but don’t knock it til you try it. Obviously this doesn’t work in technical sections.

Shift forward on the seat when the climb gets steeper; the steeper it is the further forward you should be

Get forward and low and go, go, go!

Learn to climb seated as much as possible; standing increases HR. Minimise any body/arm muscle movement except the legs. Even a tight hand grip increases HR. Make sure your gearing is low so cadence is high enough. Don’t go too hard too early on a climb, your speed in the last third of the climb should be at least the same as the first third. For short climbs you can punch hard. For long climbs you need to ride at a rate you can sustain. If you have a Garmin, use the vertical climb rate field to control your climbing pace (e.g. climb at 700 metres/hour). During training learn what your sustainable climb rate. During training, don’t ride at others’ pace; know what your ability is and stick to it. Learn to ride ‘over the top’ of a climb. i.e. get your body and mind used to not resting at the top of a climb. This is where you can really put the hurt on others (I usually save this for my roadie friends).

On a really steep, long climb I would make sure I went no lower than 2nd or 3rd lowest granny. I’d then look up ahead and spot where the gradient made any sudden changes and when I got to that point, I’d reward myself by dropping to the easier gear. After that bit, I’d get back to a higher gear and start looking for the next reward point. Not fast … but it worked for me.

In Trouble? Go as slow as possible without stopping. Making it comes first – time is irrelevant by comparison. To this day it’s the only way I can get up Creek Rd when I’m knackered.

The faster you can go with a higher gear, the less technical issues you tend to find, like spinning out or keeping your line or lifting the front over stuff. Going faster also means you spend less time on the climb … but if you can do both then you really get somewhere. When I am tired, like fatmuz, I try to go no lower than 3rd…if I do I spend a fair bit of energy trying to keep the front down and tracking. when in trouble I do like MVDF said and just try to survive with soft pedaling in granny and keep the cramps away.

Get a single speed. You have to go fast, and you get it over and done with sooner. If you’re first to the top, you can recover in peace, and then you can rush the others. Practice riding over small steps and logs efficiently. Pop the front wheel (just) over the top of the log, and let it roll down the back, shift forward and unweight or lift the back wheel before it touches, then let it roll down the back of the obstacle. Works even better if you force the wheels down hard into the back of the obstacle (same as pumping water bars, etc). Same technique for steps/ledges, but you can’t pump the back of them.

Smooth pedal stroke – stops losing grip
Looking up – so you can see what’s coming, prepare for obstacles
Slide forward in saddle – always center weight over Bottom Bracket.
Elbows in – limits over correction, keeps core strong
Chest down – the lower your center of gravity, the more stable
Pick a gear you can slow down, and speed up in if need be – obstacles, other riders etc. If it starts getting really steep/rough, hover over the saddle – helps keep core stabilised, smooths out pedal stroke, lets the bike move under you

I’d like to add a few of my own tips:

Avoid standing on the pedals. It might work on the road, but if you try it on a steep dirt climb you’re likely to make your rear wheel spin out. On some steep pinches you may have to move off the seat to get a bit more power, but when you do this, follow Darb’s advice… move forward and keep low. If you feel the point of the seat on your backside then you’re doing the right thing.

Avoid excessive zig-zagging. When I was a kid I’d often snake my bike back and forth across the road as I rode up our street. The idea was that if I went across the hill instead of straight up it, it wouldn’t seem so steep. This isn’t a good idea: If you try it on a paved road you run the risk of collision with passing cars. It’s not much use trying it on a single track because the track isn’t wide enough. I think it’s a bad habit on fire trails – you end up having to ride further, plus you have the added complication of switching your bike across the slope of the hill at the end of each turn. Your upper body ends up working harder, and you’ll tire just as much as if you rode straight up the hill. On a steep fire trail I might throw in one zig-zag to catch my breath, but in general they’re more hindrance than help.

On rough tracks, a good line is essential. We’ve all had to pit our wits against some nasty rugged sections. Have a look at the photo above of Rick nailing the hill. Concentrate on finding a smooth line that will lead you through these challenging obstacles. Be prepared mentally to go into overdrive to get the bike over that next hump.

Here’s one final observation: Sometimes I have to “go into overdrive” to clear an obstacle. When this happens I’ve noticed that there’s a delay between the effort, and the jump in my heart rate. My body seems to give me a few seconds of grace before it demands a repayment in oxygen. I can use this delay to my advantage. It might take me a couple of seconds to clear the obstacle. I might feel that I’m putting in maximum exertion already. But even when I’m “red-lining” it, I am physically able to make an extra effort for a couple of seconds before my body complains. This approach works well if I’m able to ease-off on the effort immediately after clearing the obstacle, to pay back my oxygen debt. Keep an eye out for water bars – “humps” in the trail to stop erosion. These flat spots are perfect locations to slow your cadence for a second or two, and catch your breath.


Iron Chick

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Okay – so you’ve lightened the bike. You’ve “got a new attitude”, and you’ve improved your technique. All these things have little cost to your body. The hard work is done in training.

Want to improve on the hills? Ride hills…often!

A few years back a few of us were training for a 6 hour and we would find a road/ trail with a long steady climb and grind it out in as high a gear as possible. This really helped tune the legs to work when the hurt set in and did make a difference during race day.

Mike and Dave highlight an important principle. We can’t just hit the trails once per week and hope to make progress on the big hills. We need to “do the work” in between the epic rides. Or as Sun Tsu said – we need to “win first and then go to war.”

One man who is serious about his training is Zepinator. He often hosts a “Sunday Morning Suffer Fest” where he takes unwitting victims friends on some hilly trails through D’Aguilar National Park:

As our coach says, “train slow … race slow.” Doing many long endurance rides teaches your body/legs to maintain a regular steady pace like a strong diesel engine. To climb faster you have to increase your speed. To increase your speed you must push harder on the pedals & increase your cadence. To do this you must practice high cadence repeats & ensure adequate rest between efforts so as you can really dig in & give each & every effort 100%. Choose somewhere totally flat or very little variation in the terrain. A typical workout would be a 20 minute warm up then 5 x 30 second max cadence efforts with 5 minutes easy spin in between. You should choose a gear that you absolutely max out at about 20 seconds (130-150 rpm +) & hold it to the end of the 30 seconds. On a road bike that would be a 39 (front) & 17 (rear). Mountain bike about mid cassette on the middle ring of a triple crank. Start from a rolling speed of about 15/km/hr & stay seated the entire time. Do NOT change gears. Remember each & every 30 seconds is absolutely flat out from the second you kick off. Do a 20 minute warm down spin afterwards.

The beauty of what Zep is suggesting here is that it doesn’t take much time. You could do it in an hour a couple of times during the week. I imagine you’d be exhausted afterwards, but after a few weeks, to quote Zep, you “can kiss your mates goodbye & blow them away.”

(I might give that “kissing” thing a bit of a miss)

Enjoy the World

Egypt Plateau
Egypt Plateau. Queensland.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
― “KING HENRY V”, Shakespeare.

I have some wonderful friends. Together we have seen some stunning places. They’ve patched me up when I’ve fallen off my bike. They’ve ridden the hard miles in front so I could draft behind them. They’ve waited for me when I’ve struggled up the hills. At times they’ve even pushed my bike up a hill for me when I was too exhausted to push it myself – Thanks, Derek!

I keep climbing hills – not to win races, nor to be a hero. I climb them because they help me enjoy the world with my friends. What are some of your hill climbing tips?


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.

About Author