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Mountain Biking Hill Climbing Tips

For those of you new to California racing, allow me to share a little secret that veteran members will have no trouble recalling: race courses in this state are hilly...even mountainous. Some may consider this unfortunate, but it in fact gives us a potential advantage against our competitors-its affords us the opportunity to conveniently develop riding techniques that I believe are essential to becoming stronger riders. Note: the term stronger does not refer to a cyclist's ultimate strength, but to the overall riding ability as a combination of topics discussed below.

The ultimate goal in developing climbing skills is to maximize the efficiency (high speed-to-energy output ratio) with which one reaches the top of a climb. A common understanding is that lanky riders tend to climb faster than heavier, stockier riders of similar size. This is not always the case. Ben Rush is a prime example-his build is typical of a criterium or track rider, but we all know what a stud he is on a climb (ask him for an sample sometime)-a rider that overcomes a disadvantage (i.e. force due to gravity) by riding efficiently. This means that we don't all have to look like Bobby Julich to climb well, but we do need to emulate his and other climbers' riding styles to increase our own efficiency.

The key to maximizing efficiency in cycling, like any other sport, is improving technique, which acts as a prerequisite to increasing aerobic capacity. The purpose of this clinic is to provide a starting block for technique work in several areas: positioning, pedal stroke, mental focus, and on-the-climb strategies. Alone, any of these improvements will help your climbing* ability, and together they should produce drastic results. *It should be noted that this exercise will improve your riding in general, and is not limited to climbing.

1. At Ease

Professional cycling has had difficulty finding its place in the hearts of Americans. Why is this? As a country, we like to watch our athletes suffer; to see the strain of competition-induced agony on their faces; to enjoy them beating each other up, quite frankly. Cycling has not reached stardom in this country because its professional athletes make the sport look too easy. You'll notice in the above photo just relaxed Bobby Julich appears-this is because he has concentrated his efforts in turning over the pedals, not in stressing his upper torso.

Relaxing the upper body is the first step in improving efficiency. When under stress, one tends to use the weight of all that lies above the waist to throw the bike forward, then pull back against the handlebar during the upward stage of the pedal stroke. This develops a bobbing motion that becomes a sizable energy sink. The upper body should instead remain stationary, with arms slightly bent to absorb any bike movement that might cause translated movement to the torso.

The arms, when in a bent relaxed position, should be used merely as a brace to keep from sliding off the back of the saddle rather than as a means of pulling forward-this is a waste of energy. The use of the arms as a brace will become less important as you develop the skills introduced in the next section of this lab.

2. Newton's Second Law of Motion: Conservation of Momentum

It's a shame, for the sake of bicycle racing, that children's bikes aren't sold with clipped pedals. From a young age we are trained to develop a pedaling motion that emphasizes the down-stroke, without a means of tapping into the strength of our underused hamstrings.

The bobbing (not Bobbying) tendency addressed above is a direct result of the reliance on this push downward on the pedals. There are several methods of un-training this habit: I used a technique promoted by Greg Lemond in his book (a bible for some) while training as a junior, and I have since developed one of my own that I feel is quite effective.

For those of you fortunate enough to have seen Lemond race in his heyday, you may have noticed the relatively low position of his heel with respect to the pedal axle at the bottom of his stroke. He labeled this the "mud-scraper" technique. Imagine that you are scraping the mud off your shoes across the top of the pedal-this acts to trick the mind into releasing its focus from the down-stroke and placing it on the back- and up-strokes. Try this out, and you'll make a remarkable discovery-the quadriceps are well enough trained to work on their own!

This is an important discovery, and is the basis for this next technique. When looking at a cyclist in profile on the bike, draw an imaginary line that splits the entire body in half lengthwise, front separated from back. Now imagine that this cyclist is you, and due to a very unfortunate accident, you no longer have voluntary control of the front half of your body (don't worry, you have retained certain involuntary functions on the front side!)-you are required to ride your bike with your back side only. Yes, this method sounds bizarre, but give it a try, and you will certainly find that maintaining a consistent pedal stroke up a climb becomes noticeably easier-by focusing on the upward motion concentrated along the back side of your legs and on up the lower back, your momentum is more easily maintained.

The ultimate goal in this section is to eliminate the tendency to pedal "in squares" when climbing, accelerating, etc. By tapping in to the frequently underused hamstring strength, the pedal stroke becomes much more fluid, or "round".

3. Get the Mental Edge

The phrase "cycling is 50% mental" is not just a cliché-it happens to be an understated truth. Those riders we watch climbing over passes through the Alps and Pyrenees in the Tour de France appear to do so with ease, but in reality they are playing a mental game with their opponents-bluffing. By remaining relaxed and appearing fresh, regardless of the level of fatigue being experienced, a rider may break down the mental strength of the competition in a demoralizing fashion.

Awareness of others' weaknesses is the key to remaining offensive on a climb. Rule: your opponents (and teammates, too!) are most certainly feeling the same pain that you are. At this point, whether alone or racing, you are involved in a battle of mental strength-if not with other riders, than with yourself. By remaining mentally calm and aware of your potential, you can increase the pain threshold level that determines the pace of your climb.

There are several techniques for taking the offensive on a climb in a race situation: stay close to the front, if not at the front; exert short bursts of acceleration to slowly wear down your opponents; etc. I'd be happy to go into more detail with anyone interested in developing these skills.

4. On-the-Climb Strategies

Finally, I have compiled a list of tricks to help you maximize your climbing efficiency. These are techniques that I have chosen for and from my own riding style, and may not be the most effective for yours-try them out and see what you think:

Any sudden change of position on the bike requires energy exertion. It is most efficient to stay in the saddle whenever possible, standing only when an increase in grade is unavoidable.

Many of the turns on climbs in this area are "hairpins", and have steep grades along the inside radius. If possible, stay to the outside of the turn (but out of oncoming traffic!) and in the saddle. Stand only if the turn is steep completely across the road.

When forced to stand out of the saddle, plan the move (and possibly the shift up or down) in advance of the grade, and take control of your bike. This is difficult to describe on paper without a diagram, so I will demonstrate at the clinic this Friday. The key to this tactic, I've found, is to grab the brake hoods with as many of your fingers as will fit wrapped underneath. This allows the full strength of your arms, forearms especially, to be used. Dips are a great exercise for this motion!

Pace a climb--choose a gear that you feel you will be able to maintain for the entire climb and stick with it. Shifting should only take place when the grade increases, and the chosen gear should be returned when the grade levels out again. The aim here is to develop a smooth rhythm of circular pedal strokes, relaxed body position, and constant speed up the climb. Wildcat is an especially good climb for rhythm training, because it has a relatively consistent grade from base to top.

The most difficult section of a climb-certainly in a race situation-is rolling over the top. The pace generally picks up in the last 1/4- 1/2 mile from the summit, and naturally this is the most difficult time to exert additional effort. This can be made easier by becoming comfortable with the maneuver: force yourself to increase the pace at end of a climb by either dropping down a cog, or increasing your rpm's. Your body will resist at first, but the benefits of training with these sorts of techniques are noticeable.