Embracing pedaling as a skill


I’m at a loss with climbing while riding with friends…I just can’t push a bigger gear and I can’t spin a smaller gear fast enough to keep up on climbs…I can bomb the downhill single track just fine but when it comes to climbing I just get left in the dust…and it doesn’t matter if it’s fire road, technical climbing, or just non-tech single track…it makes me just want to shuttle so I don’t look so weak…very frustrating.

So I know part of the deal is overall fitness level…I need to ride more, but it doesn’t really seem to matter how much I ride I still can’t keep up on climbs. Also it doesn’t matter what bike I ride…I have a full on xc bike @ 25lbs and I have an all mountain 6″ travel # 34lbs and I still get left in the dust…so I tend to lean toward the 6″ for the DH fun factor but on longer 18+ miles rides I go xc (most of the time).

What do you suggest to help me climb in a larger gear and or just keep up on climbs? Please point me in the right direction.

Regards, Lance – Sacramento

Back in the day, almost all of my bike time was focused on pedaling. I sucked at Riding (capital R), but I was skinny and long climbs were easy. Pedaling to the top of Lower Rock Creek outside Mammoth in 2002.

Hey Lance,

Thanks for the great question and the further details you provided (they are at the bottom of this post). You certainly gave me enough info to work with!

Let’s break this down as simply as possible:

Taking stock

You seem like you’re a good athlete in good shape. That is great news for a couple reasons:

1. You have the capacity to do work.

2. You probably have the body awareness to learn new skills.

Here’s what you need to do:

Spend more [quality] time on a bike
When you are highly skilled in every aspect of riding, you can rip (down and up) with one or two rides a week. But for now you have work to do. And you’ll need a few days a week to do it.

Speaking as a new dad of twins who works 60+ hours a week, I’m not going to tell you to follow some Bicycling Magazine 20-hour-a-week training plan. That’s a recipe for failure. Instead, I’ll tell you how to get more out of the energy and time you probably already have.

Your body does what you ask
If you spend a lot of time climbing slowly in a medium gear, you’ll get very good at climbing slowly in a medium gear. You will develop neither the ability to pull a hard gear nor the ability to spin an easy gear. The more you climb slowly, the better you get at climbing slowly. Think of this in DH terms: The only way to be fast is to ride fast. Right?

To climb at your potential, you need a few things:

1. Low-end torque.

2. High-end spin.

3. Good form.

If you go out there every weekend and chase your friends, you increase your fitness to a certain level, but you will not develop these core abilities. You’ll get used to turning whichever gear feels least crappy, and your body will find a technique that gets the job done (but not necessarily well). You know what happens? You work yourself into a state of mediocrity.

Digging yourself out of that hole requires a new shovel. The golden shovel of mastery.

To become a great mountain biker, teach yourself to attack the climbs with the same confidence you nail corners. Me this summer at the Giant/Keystone pump track.

Embrace climbing as a skill
You can climb pretty well by being light and strong, but not all of us are light, and many of us are already as strong as our lifestyles permit. The real improvements come with improved skill — and some very specific fitness improvements that come from exercising proper form.

It sounds like you know how to pin the descents. That’s rad. It’s time to shift your focus to your weak area: climbing.

I know what I’m talking about here: After a half-decade dedicated to handling skills, my pedaling has become pretty horrible. I can still sprint just fine, but I’ve become slow on extended climbs. Why? Because I’ve been saving my energy for the downhills.

But I realize extended climbs are an important part of our sport. This winter, I’m doing a series of intervals on my trainer and in the hills around my house. In the three months since the babies were born, I’ve seen, measured and felt significant improvements in my climbing comfort and speed. As a matter of fact, last weekend I dropped someone who I usually struggle to hang with.

It’s not about more training. It’s about smarter training.

Build your engine
Books upon books have been written about cycling fitness. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with a detailed treatise on that subject. Instead, I’ll offer this:

– Work on strength. Do some short efforts in a very hard gear. This is like weight lifting on the bike. If you’re outside, climb a short hill. If you’re inside, put your bike in its hardest gear and accelerate from zero to top speed. Stay in the saddle! Try 30 seconds pinned, spin until you feel better, repeat as many times as you can with good form. If you have time/energy, rock James Wilson’s MTB DB Combo Workout Program.

– Work on spin. Do some short efforts at the highest rpm you can turn. When I started riding, I could sustain 60 rpm and reach 80 rpm. Now I can sustain 100 rpm and reach 180+ rpm. It takes practice. Winter on the trainer, rocking flat pedals: that’s the secret.

– Concentrate on form. That’s a whole other book (Mastering Mountain Bike Skills has a lot of detail on pedaling technique). Basically: keep your hips and spine aligned, keep your torso engaged but not stiff, keep your hands light, push across the top of the stroke. Work up to 10-minute intervals with the best form and highest power you can sustain. Consider buying an indoor trainer with a power meter. It’ll give you immediate feedback, which is a great way to dial in your technique.

My cheapo Performance trainer with power meter tells me I can sustain about 250 watts. When I lose focus, the wattage drops to around 230. When I focus on good form, the power bumps up to about 280. That’s a huge power increase with no increase in perceived effort. Imagine climbing 20% faster — without becoming lighter or stronger. It’s free speed, man.

Embrace pedaling as a skill.

If you can’t make great power on a trainer, you’re not gonna nail a technical climb. Ron Schuman at Lyons Bike Park.

Put it all together
– Add one or two “training” sessions per week. Pedal hard. Pedal fast. Pedal well. Thirty focused minutes in your neighborhood or on a trainer is better than nothing. When I get a chance, I’ll do on-bike workout book for real Riders (capital R).

– Pay attention to form. Master the art of pedaling. For more details, check out Mastering Mountain Bike Skills.

– Enjoy your trail rides. When you’re climbing, make sure you’re climbing well. When the trail drips downward, pin it!

I hope this helps.

— Lee

Here are the details I asked for:

Hey Lance,

– Who do you ride with? Are they total bad asses?
– How tall/heavy are you? What is your body composition like?
– How old are you? What is your riding experience?
– Tell me, specifically, what you feel when you climb. Are you sitting or standing? Which parts of your body hurt? Etc.?

Good question …

— — —

Hey Lee…thanks so much for replying…

Here goes…

I’m 40 just this year, I’ve never been into racing or “training” mainly just weekend rides 7 to 24 miles max…but avg of 18miles. I did find out I have diabeties (type-2) where my blood sugar get higher than it should…so I have to watch what I eat and drink…currently using Hammer products, gels and HEED. So don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but I just found out last year but could have had it for 2 or 3 years…just not sure since I wasn’t paying any attention to it…

The guys I ride with are varied in skill level and fitness levels. I’m the best at any downhill tech or standard single track or freeriding, but they destroy on the up so I always get left at the hills. One of the guys is my size but maybe 10lbs lighter and he pretty much owns and rides a SS or FS specialized epic. The 2nd guy is 62years old but weighs like 100lbs and he’s on a FS epic, and the last guy is shorter in his 30’s but in the 170lb range and is good around on his Turner FS and his Trek Remedy.

So me…I’m 40, 6′-0″, 205lbs, muscular build, but slight gut so I do have body fat (could do a better job eating) and I feel I’m best at around 190~195 but it’s hard to get there. I’ve been “biking” since I was a kid and mountain biking since the mid to late 80’s off and on. But really got back into biking about 4 years ago (riding 1 to 2 times per week avg). So I have skills but suck at climbing. I use to hit the gym during the summer to get ready for snowboarding but now I pretty much just mtb and that puts me in a good spot for snow season…and I try to ride during the winter as well.

It really feels like I have no power and can’t turn the cranks…or if I do spend a lot of energy/affort my heart rate goes way up and it takes me a long time to recover. I try not to stand up too much other wise on longer rides I start cramping up after about 18miles…so that 18 to 24 mile duration can be hurtfull with cramping setting in…working on hydro more and electrolite replenishment to combat that but it seems not to really help that issue either.

So the body dosen’t really hurt while climbing but I do feel I can’t turn the pedles in a big enough gear to keep up with others who seemingly just pull away at the drop of a hat.

My thoughts are all over the place so hope that makes sense Lee.



Know more. Have more fun!

Join the leelikesbikes mailing list:

11 replies
  1. Eric H says:

    Lee is giving excellent advice (as always!) but as someone who struggles with climbs too here is a lil somethin’ from when I actually got good at climbing.
    Mental attitude is 90% of climbing, ok, maybe not 90% if you are as out of shape as I am currently but your attitude will make or break your climbing.
    Way back when I first started mtn biking I was coming into it from MX and dirtbike trail riding. Speed did not freak me out (except I used to think to my self “self, if you were on your moto right now, going this fast…you’d definitely be wearing something more protective than a pair of shorts and a foam beanie!”), sorry back on subject, I was one of the fast guys as long as we were going DH. Uphill? Well, I got good endurance from not getting/taking a break because everyone would be waiting at the top and when I would finally reach the top they would take off, I’d pass them down the hill, they’d pass me going back up and so on.
    Anyway, I moved up in the foothills and had a mile long climb either direction from where I lived. There were times I felt like quitting riding because climbing sucked so bad. Then I had a change of attitude. I decided riding was important to me enough to like even the worst part aka climbing. Started using mind games like if I had a tail wind, it was blowing me up the hill and making pedaling easy. Using the “one more mile then it’s flat” mantra (which in Northern CO is really lying to yourself:D)just stuff like that.
    So to finish this up (sorry for the novel!) after a year of commuting, yes my base fitness was better but I was still over 200lbs, I ended up being able to outrun or keep up with the guys on the climbs, keeping a good attitude the whole way up.

  2. Jess says:

    Good advice from Lee, as always.

    Another piece of advice: get a singlespeed. Riding SS basically forces you to do intervals, since you have to hork it on steep climbs and then spin like crazy on the flats. What Lee says about “turning whichever gear feels least crappy” is right on…the lowest middle-ring gear isn’t always the best, especially for somebody big with a lot of slow-twitch muscle. With only one gear, everything feels crappy, so you really have to push yourself. And you’ll be surprised what you can clean if you just tell yourself never to unclip.

    After 2 years of mainly riding SS, a long, steep fire road will still force me to get off and walk after a while. But I’m definitely stronger on both ends of the powerband now, and I’m more familiar with how to make the most out of my strength. I’m a big guy myself, and knowing when to be the rabbit and when to be the hare makes a big difference.

    There are a lot of decently priced SS bikes out there, especially 29ers, but if you’re really on a budget you can even build one out of broken old parts for just a couple benjamins. Start with a 32×20 gearing and work your way up from there. If nothing else, you’ll feel a lot better when riding your geared bike, and everybody you ride with will think you’re a badass.

  3. Richo says:

    To improve, you’ll need to challenge yourself. I find that mixing it up is important to grow.
    If you do a similar distance ride over similar terrain with the same people, you won’t be getting the variety needed to improve.
    There so many different exercises you can do to help. Lee suggested some good ones.
    Sprint along the flat. Ride up a small hill and back down 10 times. Sprint up a hill until your legs give out and then change down and keep spinning super slow until you recover. Try pedalling along the flat with one leg only. Pick a low gear and see how fast you can go in it along the flat. Try and go faster next time.
    Take the saddle off your bike and see far you can ride it like that. Use your imagination.
    The book also has some great training drills to try.

    If you want to drop some pounds, longer rides 50+ miles off road at a relaxed pace work well, and they build fitness too.

  4. Bill says:

    Hey Lance. I turn 40 tomorrow. Over the last two years, I went from being one of the slowest riders up the hill to being one of the faster riders. I am in the best shape of my life and I participated in two centuries last year. You guessed it, I became a powerful climber after switching to the dark side (roadie!). Was it just the road biking? Well, no… It was really my weight. I was fooling myself about how fast I was (or wasn’t) on my mountian bike. I am a pretty good technical rider up and down the hills so that masked my overall lack of fitness. I would pedal at a slow, steady pace and over technical terrain where others stopped and walked. I took up road riding because it sounded like fun and it takes less time srtart from my doorstep versus sriving to a trailhead. Without anything technical to slow down the other riders, it became quite clear that once the road pointed upwards, I immediately fell behind. One day, I decided I did not want to be 5’5″ and 178lbs but no mater how much I rode, I maintained that weight. So I made a lifestyle change with regard to my eating habits. Within three months, I lost 30 lbs and have never felt faster.

    To me, road biking gives me a much more steady cardio workout than Mountain biking. Mountain biking where I ride seems much more like weight lifting to me – with short powerful bursts needed to clear technical sections. I think road and Mountian biking use different muscles – or at least uses the same mucles in a very different way.

    So the short story here is to mix up your workouts and riding buddies – as Richo mentioned. Crosstrain; even hiking helps – Hiking uses negative resistance down the hill which is something cyclists don’t use much of. Also try to ride longer than your average rides – once a week. I do a short hill climb on the road bike – 2k feet in 5 miles! I time myself to track improvement. After riding that, those shorter climbs on the mountain bike seem much smaller. Also, once I got a road bike, I also picked up an indoor trainer for those miserable, rainy days so now I have zero excuses not to work out. I rarely miss a workout now.

    Mountain biking is still my favorite by far though. I enjoy it even more now that my weight/fitness is better. Good luck to you. let us know how your improvements are coming along.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] you want to pedal better, embrace pedaling as a skill and do some smart training. This site has lots of pedaling tips, and I’ll post more info […]

  2. […] Pedal better. I have embraced pedaling as a skill, and I am learning a […]

  3. […] Embracing pedaling as a skill […]

Comments are closed.