ZEP's How-To Mythbusters - Climbing Technical Terrain

May 8, 2015
by Paul Howard  
As we discussed in the first article of our ZEP Mountain Bike Camps Mythbuster Series, it's generally best to view techniques in mountain biking as 'cause and effect,' rather than 'right or wrong.' Understanding this is key if you wish to truly progress your skills as a rider and/or instructor. The idea of this series of articles is to highlight certain technique 'myths' and then explain what the actual, modern, up-to-date riding techniques are; based on physics, biomechanics and nearly two decades of teaching mountain biking and training mountain bike instructors. These articles are therefore intended for riders interested in learning some core techniques to progress their skills, or for those instructors/coaches who are looking to improve the quality, relevance and consistency of their lessons.

In our second article, we discussed braking in downhill corners, but this week we're getting on the pedals and looking at some ways to improve your efficiency and success on steeper, more technical climbs.

ZEP Techniques

The Myth
When it comes to seated climbing on a mountain bike, the common technique we hear is, 'tuck your elbows in and pull back on the bars.' Only last week, I heard someone teaching this technique. Today we're going to dissect this myth and hopefully highlight a more efficient way of climbing, that also allows for a greater range and freedom of movement to negotiate technical sections. So, let's take a look at the two key points: elbows in and pulling back on the bars.

Elbows In
The disadvantage of this technique is that is restricts a rider's ability to move freely when climbing, which is particularly important for steering the handlebars and balancing on the bike. While this doesn't matter too much on smooth, road-like climbs, it does become an issue on anything technical where riders have to negotiate turns, roots or rocks, as they climb. This technique is really a myth that comes from road biking, since it helps keep the upper body still, saving energy... so like all techniques, it has a pro and con. And for technical climbing, the pro of saving energy is outweighed by the fact that riders need to move their bike and body to stay balanced.

Pull on the Bars
Most riders pull back on the handlebars in an attempt to keep their weight over the middle of the bike, so they're balanced on a climb. This goal makes sense. However, it's how they are trying to stay over the middle of the bike, that's the key. Continuously pulling on the bars takes upper body and hand strength, using energy, but also isn't very effective at moving the rider's centre of mass forward, over the middle of the bike. It also limits mobility, as the arms are tense from pulling, rather than keeping them relaxed to move the rider or bike, as needed. Again, not ideal for technical climbs.

The Solution
Being in a position on the bike to give the best stability and therefore balance, is key to mountain biking. So, when climbing, the best thing to first try (before pulling on the bars) is to move the body into a better position. The best way to do this is to move the parts of the body that will make the biggest difference - the hips and torso.

- Slide the hips forward on the seat to find a balance point where you are centred on the bike without having to continuously pull on the bars. If you do this enough, you'll be amazed at just how steep of a climb you can ride up without doing anything else. Some people avoid this technique, as sitting on the nose of the seat can be uncomfortable. Try adjusting the seat (lowering the nose helps for steep climbs), or finding a better seat that provides more support and comfort on the front section. Either way, moving the hips forward is important for a more stable riding position and its also provides better pedalling efficiency by placing the riders' hips more directly over the bottom bracket.

Zep s How-To Mythbusters - Climbing Technical Terrain
You can tell this rider has moved his hips forward because there is space on the back of the seat, his chin is over the stem and his arms are relaxed; all because he is centred and balanced.

Why else is being centred so important? Moving the hips forward helps keep the rider centred over the bike, keeping even weight on both wheels. This provides good traction on the rear, while keeping the front wheel weighted, preventing it from lifting up and 'wandering,' as you climb. Another advantage is that in a centred, stable position on the bike, the riders' arms and upper body can be relaxed and therefore ready to move and react to the terrain... which is perfect on steeper, technical climbs when you may need to steer the bike around an obstacle, or unweight the front wheel, to maintain the bike's momentum.

You can test this by trying to climb with a very light grip on the handlebars, or even climbing with open fingers... or even one arm! This will force you to move your hips so you move into a stable, balanced position on the bike first, helping you realize that for many climbs, moving your hips forward on the seat is the fundamental technique to start with, and sometimes is the only thing you'll need to do.

Zep s How-To Mythbusters - Climbing Technical Terrain
Trying to climb with your fingers open is a great way of finding out if you've moved your hips enough, and therefore, if you're centred and stable on the bike.

- Chest and wrists low. If the climb gets steeper, riders can move their hips further forward and also lower their chests to the handlebars. Lowering the chest (by hinging at the waist and using the core muscles to bring the chest towards the bars) helps move the centre of mass of the rider closer to the middle of the bike, further improving stability. Rolling the wrists down, also helps you lower your chest. Try and you'll see... as you roll your wrists down slightly, your chest will naturally want to move towards the handlebars.

Why else does this help? By simply talking about the chest and wrists, we naturally avoid mentioning the elbows and therefore allow them to do whatever they need... which on technical climbs, is to move freely. As soon as we say "elbows in", riders tend to lock themselves into a rigid position, losing the ability to move their bike, and to balance and adjust with the technical terrain.

To Summarize:
When you're climbing technical terrain, be sure to focus on moving your hips and chest as the primary technique to maintain balance and control on the bike. And remember, if you're balanced into and up the climb, you can better move the bike, pick a line, pedal more smoothly, pedal harder, change gear... and generally do all the other things you need, to climb successfully! The key points of the seated climbing position, are:

- Hips Forward
- Chest and wrists low

When it gets really steep
There are, of course, times when just moving your hips forward and chest down aren't enough, and the rider will still feel a need to gradually pull on the bars to stay over the middle of the bike and keep the wheels evenly weighted. This is also where rolling the wrists down can help. In doing so, this helps riders to pull the bike "back" underneath them, rather than pulling "up", and lifting the front wheel off the ground. The key is to use this technique as a last resort, as opposed to it being the first thing to do. If you keep this in mind, you'll make most of your climbs without having to continuously pull on the bars at all. Save this technique for only the steepest of climbs.

When the going gets rough
The other myth that we hear in technical climbing comes from people being told to "stand up when it's rough, to unweight the bike". As ever, the language we use when teaching and how we define and explain things, is so important. In this case, the terminology of 'stand up' often causes an undesired affect - people, literally, stand up. In doing so, their hips move forward (away from the rear wheel), while their shoulders move back and up (away from the front wheel). Their centre of mass is now high, causing stability issues, and they lack weight over the rear wheel, often causing the rear wheel to slip when they put the power down. Instead, think of 'hovering' or 'crouching', rather than 'standing up.'

Zep s How-To Mythbusters - Climbing Technical Terrain
Try not to think, "stand up," if there's an obstacle such as a root on the climb. Instead, keep the chest low and forward and "hover" the hips over the seat, keeping weight over the rear wheel for traction, while allowing the bike to move underneath the rider, up and over the obstacle.

This position should look similar to the seated climbing position above, except the hips are about 1-2 inches above the seat... they are "hovering." It does take some core strength to balance on the bike and hinge at the waist to bring the chest low, towards the bars, while keeping the hips above the seat (and not in front, which is a common issue). It's useful to practice this on easier sections of trail so you can get a feel for what it's like and how to balance and move in this position, before you try it for real. The three bullet points for a hovering climbing position can be summarized as:

- Chest Low and Forward
- Hips Hovering - just above the seat
- Harder gear - to avoid spinning out

For short, steeper and/or rougher sections of trail, this hovering position is a great way to maintain stability and traction, while finding some extra power and momentum from pedalling out of the seat. Riders can also use their arms and legs as suspension to help the wheels roll over rougher terrain more easily, preventing the bike from stalling at the first sign of a root or bump on the climb. Allowing the bike to move underneath and adjust to the changes in terrain, is a key advantage to moving out of the seat. This being said, because the rider is out of the seat, it's not a position that can be sustained for long periods of time.

Efficient climbing should naturally involve constant adjustments from the rider, based on the pitch and surface of terrain. Try not to get into a 'climbing position,' and stay there. If it gets steeper, move forward and lower; if it eases off, you can relax and sit farther back on the seat. If there's some roots, you'll need to slightly raise your hips off the seat for a brief moment, as the rear wheel rolls over. Scan the terrain and decide on a plan of action ahead of time. With plenty of practice, these tips should get you climbing higher, farther and faster, with less effort.

So, next time you're tackling a technical climb remember that moving your hips is the most effective place to start, to maintain a stable, balanced position. And try to focus on one thing at a time... there are a million tips we could give you on "how to climb," but most riders (in any sport) can only properly think about and work on one technique at a time.

Happy Climbing people... I hope these ideas help.

Paul
credit www.timhailwoodphotography.com

About the Authour
Paul Howard is the Owner-Director and Head Coach of ZEPtechniques, Technical Director of the Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association, Head Snowboard Trainer for Whistler Blackcomb SnowSchool, Technical Education Committee and 2015 Interski Team Member for the Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors, and has been teaching mountain biking and training mountain bike instructors around the world, since the late 90's.

About ZEP
ZEPtechniques is a Whistler-based mountain bike camps and instructor training company. Established in 2006, ZEP offers single and multi-week, adult specific rider improvement camps, as well as weekly clinics, private lessons and tours. ZEP's Instructor Training services include the industry's original, multi-week mountain bike instructor training camps; training riders four days per week with evening seminars on suspension set up, bike mechanics, nutrition, as well as strength and conditioning sessions, all with industry experts. As developers of the internationally available Professional Mountain Bike Instructor (PMBI) Certifications and Directors of the PMBI Association, ZEP has long played a key role in establishing and improving the finest teaching practices and instructor certifications, within mountain biking.
ZEP is proudly supported by
Transition Bikes
ANVL Components
Fox Racing Shox
Troy Lee Designs
Five Ten
MRP
EVOC
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Photos
Bike Park Photos
Tim Hailwood Photography

Upcoming articles...

Body Position for Riding Downhill
Speed Control on Steeps and Rock Rolls
Techniques for Flats vs. Bermed Corners
Jumping Part 1 - Myths vs. Facts
Jumping Part 2 - The 3 Components of Air


MENTIONS: @TransitionBikeCompany / @foxracingshox / @troyleedesigns / @evocsports / @zeptechniques




77 Comments

  • + 96
 The tech climbs I struggle with are when there are back to back shelves or other obstacles that are close enough together that you can't build momentum in between. Or worse, when unweighting the rear wheel to clear an obstacle you run your front into the next with most of your weight on it. I have successfully done an endo while climbing.
  • + 13
 This is a great description. Exactly the scenario that frustrates me!
  • + 103
 The solution to this problem is to be Chris Akrigg.
  • + 20
 I have also endoed while climbing. Spinning out in gravel and ramming one's sack into one's steerer is another winner. Also flyin' Brian - why climb when you can just levitate/teleport to the top of the obstacle?
  • + 6
 Right on the money man, I had an faceplant of epic proportions just two days ago because of exactly what you just described. Coming from a downhill specific background I was surprised when I realised just how much technique comes into climbing!
  • + 45
 The climbs I struggle with is when my wife is too busy to shuttle
  • + 1
 www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAIoI0ito9c has a good tutorial on dealing with those multiple steps. My problem was always being in too high a gear too pedal wheelie over, so I'd get a nice stem to the groin.

For those ones where your front hits before the rear clears, you're kind of forced to bunnyhop rather than wheelie and clear both at once. Judging whether you have to hop or wheelie is the hard part.
  • + 5
 How did Lopes do all that with those tiny wheels? Razz
  • + 0
 Joeys.
  • + 4
 @RaythePedaler FYI - MTBTips is some of the worst mountain bike advice on the internet, and one of the reasons so much bad information is out there on how to ride ("saddle stop", lmao). ZEP, however, is spot on with riding advice (on all three articles, no less!). Kudo's to them for putting these articles out there.

Another great resource is www.dirtsmartmtb.com - (I'm partial to Andy's instruction)
  • + 79
 When it gets really steep, instead of getting over the front of the bike I get over the side. Like, right over the side and off, and then push the effing thing.
  • + 26
 If only we had a wider tire standard to make climbing easier. And a new hub width to make climbing more stable.
  • + 8
 I'd love to have one of these dedicated to tight steep switchbacks - up and down!
  • + 5
 Awesome series! Looking forward to more of these. I saw a how-to video that gave this advice a couple years ago and it COMPLETELY changed my riding in a matter of hours. Probably one of the best/most useful things I've ever learned on a bike (especially because I love techy climbing).
  • + 4
 I'd say the first thing you do wrong is when your bum touches the saddle. Second is when you crank fast on light gear. Shift down to harder gear, stand up, move your center really forward and learn to control traction in this position. In this way you vastly improve your balance and handling. By riding harder gear you increase rear wheel traction (yes it's counter intuitive), improbe balance and minimize chance of hitting obstacles with crank arms. Then sit down and shift up to regenerate in an easier spot. Learnign to wheelie seated/standing then to use whole body shifting weight dynamically back and forth gives you an edge on climbs.
  • + 4
 I'd say your technique problem waki is that you're a little too comfortable having the nose of your saddle bearing weight on the backside
  • + 3
 The problem I have with "being in a harder gear" is that when you pedal through the very rough stuff and come to a stall in a steep section, it is very hard to get things moving again. Since you can't really shift in such a situation, your speed selection will have to be based on the lowest common denominator of the climb...
  • - 6
flag Coppermine (May 8, 2015 at 20:43) (Below Threshold)
 harder gear destroys (every gear in fact, if you riding and climbing a lot) your knee cartilage, which once degenerated will never be 100% cured. Climbing in standing position should be avoided, if you want to ride your bike for years and years.
  • + 4
 Coppermine, that is for road cycling where people crank hundreds of miles a week in one position, tied to stiffest pedal interface out there, having limited hip stability. I speak of momentary efforts, which in fact are common even in fireroad and road racing because on tougher climbs mixing seated and standing pedalling is beneficiary. Leave pedalling related injuries away from MTB unless you have particular issues yourself. Don't treat everyone with same measure. My knees for instance do not tolerate cold and develop cringing and month lasting pains if I ride with no warming medium under +15C
  • + 0
 PLC07- putting yourself into stall situation is adequate to, spinning out, wheelieing or turning off line on low gear. It is a matter of experience skill and above all situation
  • + 7
 super useful as always, thanks a bunch!
  • + 3
 Once found a shaolin pressure point in my right knee spinning out and cracking my handle bars. Carried on up the climb and 5 mins in started feeling faint to the point where I had to stop....woke up 30mins later surrounded by my clothes that I somehow felt needed discarding and thankfully my bike .
  • + 2
 Holy Crap! This article is over analyzing riding a bike. The best thing One can do to improve climbing is 1st actually ride technical terrain, 2nd, try loosing about 15 pounds, and 3rd, pedal the sections as slow as you can this will help you to acquire balance and Body English to successfully manage technical climbing. And last but not least TRY,TRY AGAIN !
  • + 2
 for me all these advices are great and well explained... I hope to read although, the thing that best work for me; and it is to look forward as much as you can and pedal hard before steep climbs and obstacles, when it´s "easy" and get momentum for the hardest parts. that´s my advice
  • + 2
 "...because the rider is out of the seat, it's not a position that can be sustained for long periods of time." Pretty sure I spent the first 18 years of my life completely out of the saddle, cranking over roots and rocks in new england is more fun that way. Good article though I didn't see any technical in the photos, is BC just that smooth on the climbs?
  • + 1
 Yep. Singlespeed riders spend much of the ride out of the saddle. It's a different muscle group for sure. Once developed, it is possible to mostly stand and peddle for hours.
  • + 7
 "is BC just that smooth on the climbs?"

Usually they're anything but smooth in my experience. Whistler has really steep technical climbs which, if you're in the mood, can be a lot of fun. I suspect they've just chosen photos where it's easy to see the body positions rather than anything particularly technical.
  • + 2
 I find that climbing with a boner helps pull me forward and center on the bike while still keeping enough weight on the back tire to move. On longer rides I usually take two or three Viagra. The con is down hill sections keep my rear tire in my butt crack, unless you can get a tuck and swoop in with a boner and riding shorts. If you have small enough equipment to do that (I do) just don't sit down while the rod is hard.
  • + 6
 I like the teaching style. Why as well as why not.
  • + 2
 Thanks a lot! Learning from these article. Crazy Question: Is there a good compromise on seat height that allows me to move the bike around for DH stuff and at the same time help me climb without standing up that much? Or Should I just get a dropper post?
  • + 1
 this is why I find the most effective way to climb is...reach into my hydration pack and pull out a nice cold toasty beer and just spin along the climb while throwing back some energy mind altering hops. When I get to the top, my muscles are relaxed, I don't know where I am, but the trail goes in the opposite direction I just climbed...game on.
  • + 1
 Dropper seat post, this single thing changed technical climbs for me. On a technical climb, by lowering the dropper post it allows me hugely increased movement on the bike. I can switch my position around with ease, if I need to be seated it's easy to pop the seat up, pedal, drop it down again and attack an obstacle. Love it!
  • + 5
 Wooo Was he on a 26"+ wheel
  • - 4
flag fatenduro (May 8, 2015 at 23:46) (Below Threshold)
 26s climb better on steep technical step ups. Big wheels just tend to span root to root and lose the traction in between.
  • + 0
 The traction between the roots? ThAt Is Fu kinG hysterical!
  • + 0
 Look at the first pic where the guy is descending with the white fox 40 fork. If you were climbing that in the wet, the roots would be slippery. So a big wheel loses traction more easily. Been there n done that. 26s can get into the dirt between the roots, and you get better traction climbing. F in hilarious aint it?
  • + 2
 Surly the gaps between roots vary hugely and different for every situation so you really can't compare which wheel size would be better. Plus you still have to hit the roots at some point no matter what.
  • + 1
 Blaenavon... you're correct, sometimes theres no winning the traction game and you have to rely on momentum to carry you over. Having more opportunities to get grip and gain momentum in small pockets of traction is where 26s really shine.
  • + 3
 How can he manage to ride up a technical feature, his wheels aren't even 650b.

Where is all the Enduro(tm)?
  • + 5
 Even worse, he is running a two ring setup... its a miracle he can even climb without dropping a chain.
  • + 3
 he's riding a 26" because he knows what's best
  • + 2
 Very helpful - thanks! Would be great if there was a way to imbed video showing the techniques in action over obstacles.
  • + 2
 I was hoping for some vital piece of insight to change climbing forever... Damn it, I already do these!
  • + 3
 We call that forward position on a steep climb 'D Block'.
  • + 3
 Climbing a freeride bike sucks...period.
  • + 3
 2x is the answer to very technical climbs. Especially long ones.
  • + 2
 Passed a few 1x riders who dropped chains at a race today. Probably thought they could do without a chainguide because it was a mostly flat xc course. But flatland can get pretty rooty and gnar if you're going fast. On 1x, you can't just shift your chain back on.
  • + 4
 More please, and soon!
  • + 3
 26 still rocks
  • + 2
 this is sweet sometimes you gotta get that saddle up your butthole
  • + 1
 BMC soft tail prevents back wheel slipping. So does a Slingshot frame or Softride beam.
  • + 2
 Thanks!!
  • + 0
 We "earn our turn" so we have to climb to get to the DH and sweet jumps. So......high ho high ho it's off to climb I go.
  • + 0
 Wow, I imagine the next article with be teaching how to pedal...... Climbing schimbing
  • - 1
 It would help if the examples were on steep pitches. The problem with these articles is that biking is too dynamic to say 'this is how it is and works everytime for everyone'
  • + 0
 just get a 29er and skip this article!
  • + 0
 I think this myth is a myth.
  • + 0
 i just let the suspension do all the work
  • + 1
 Does your suspension pedal for you ?
  • + 1
 no the sus does not pedal. sometimes tho when I'm hammering up the hill i'll get a suspension kick back that kicks me up and over rocks and such. I wonder if its the sus and the pedal stroke through the max tension of the chain doing it on me.
  • - 3
 to summerize..i didn't learn anything fro reading that but thanks
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