Ah, climbing. Let’s face it, this is the reason why a lot of people don’t ride much. As much as the appeal of flying down long downhills or weaving through some complex singletrack might draw you out onto the hills, the idea of climbing the hills to begin with puts people off. Perhaps it shouldn’t.
Alternatives to climbing:
Option one: Choose your routes. Sometimes you can mountain bike without much in the way of serious climbing. Some manmade trails are made largely on the flat, and it’s possible to find natural riding that is as well. Problem solved! The difficulty here is that it also means you miss out on all the headlong downhills, the swooping berms, the speed that can mean you get (occasionally unintentional) air, and in short you lose a huge amount of the fun of mountain biking. You also lose a lot of the benefits, as it is the sustained effort of climbing that will do the most to improve your stamina and fitness.
Option two: Pedals vs. feet. You could simply walk the climbs. Sometimes this is absolutely necessary, as there are occasionally sections of trail that just get too steep, too loose, or otherwise too technical to ride, so a hundred yards of walking is completely necessary. Even Danny MacAskill walked up onto bits of the Cuillins, and he’s a god among mountain bikers. However, let’s say your average manmade mountain bike trail is twenty miles long. Typically that means ten miles of climb. Maybe that’s an hour and a half on a bike, perhaps more, but on foot and dragging a bike it’s more like four hours of walking. Wet, cold, tedious, uninspiring walking that will completely put paid to any wish to go out riding again.
Option three: Uplift. A potentially more viable option is to take advantage of uplift services where they are available. You load your bike onto a trailer, load yourself onto a minibus, and get driven to the top of your chosen trail in comfort and warmth. Lovely. Bike Park Wales has uplift as an integral part of their model, and indeed the vast majority of riders take advantage of it. Cwmcarn offers uplift services as well. However, there are distinct disadvantages to this. Firstly, you lose out on the fitness and stamina benefits of completing a grueling climb. Secondly, it’s expensive. To get a day pass for uplift at Bike Park Wales is £30 or so, which is more than I typically want to spend for a days riding. They do single use passes as well, but even that will quickly become expensive. Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, I personally find that the idea somewhat cheapens the mountain biking experience. Much as I’m panting for breath and cursing halfway up a climb, there is a huge sense of achievement in reaching the top under your own steam. You pause for a breath and a drink, you take in the views that you’ve slogged upwards for hours to see, and then when your legs have stopped shaking you clip back into the pedals and turn your bike to the section of singletrack that you’ve been dreaming about. It will be all the more satisfying because you’ve earned it.
Fine, there’s hills on my trail, there’s no uplift, and I don’t want to walk. How’s this done then?
I am not claiming it will be easy. The first few climbs will be painful, exhausting, breathless, unpleasant trials. The first thing to note is that the more you ride, the easier it gets. Ride the same trail again after a few rides and you’ll be amazed at how comparatively easy the climb is. You’ll pass all the places you stopped to gasp for breath last time and wonder why you felt you had to stop there – because this time you feel fine. Stick with it.
I’m on a road! If you see a climb ahead, change down through the gears and sit down. Generally speaking, ignore the temptation to stand up and stamp down on the pedals – this only makes it more exhausting in the long run, since you’re having to throw your body weight around as well as the bike. Again, sitting down to climb gets a lot easier as you get stronger, but it’s definitely worth it. Taking a more passive approach to climbing leaves you more able to quietly daydream away long sections of monotonous but necessary climbing. In terms of gears, you should find one where there isn’t too much resistance to you pushing the pedals round, but equally you’re moving forward at a reasonable rate. A good compromise in gearing will result in a pace that you can maintain for a good long time, and will mean that the climb falls away behind you surprisingly fast. There’s no denying that it’s more difficult when your muscles are cold, and when you’re tired.
I’m on a smooth track! Basically the same as above. Sit down, change down, slog it out.
I’m on a horse! Silly. Get a bike.
There’s a sudden steep bit! Saying sit down to climb doesn’t mean you have to stay glued to the saddle. If something’s unmanageable, stand up and give it some more welly. In the long run it’s more exhausting, but for short bursts it provides more power and control. Sit down again once it’s over. It may also be worth shifting up a gear at this point, as the perfect gear for slogging out a climb may be a bit low for standing up.
There’s a sudden loose and rocky bit! Stand up, pay attention. Keep your weight nice and balanced over the bike – resist the temptation to lean forward as this will leave your back wheel with little or no grip. Pick a line and ride through. Frankly, if it gets too difficult, walk it. No-one’s judging you.
I’m on singletrack! This is where the advice runs out and immediate experience has to tell you what to do. Read the trail ahead and ride accordingly. Smooth, gentle climb? Sit down and pedal. Steep, rooty bit? Stand up and ride it. Up and down section that looks like fun? Stand up and enjoy it – don’t bypass the fun of good sections of trail by categorising them as climbing. There are some excellent climbing sections to be had on some trails, and they’re well worth enjoying for themselves, not just for the downhill bits they eventually lead to.
There’s a dip! Well, great, what are you whining about? Freewheel for small dips, and adjust your riding for big ones. Change up as you come over the crest of the hill and down as you reach the bottom of the dip. Try to get some speed up that will help you up the start of the next bit of climbing. Try not to let your gear changes lose your momentum.
One thing that I find helps is to know where I am on the trail. Often on manmade trails in the UK, the climb is mostly on fireroad and the downhill is mostly on singletrack. So if you note where the balance changes on the map, that’s likely the end of the climb. Once there, it’s all fun. Get there, enjoy the satisfaction of the ache in your legs and the fact that you’ve made it. Have a drink, have a breather, get to the more fun bits.