Unlike road cycling the one thing you can be certain of when out mountain biking is that there are sure to be sections of terrain which will be very steep.
You will need to adopt certain techniques to accomplish these passages in the most efficient way and whilst going uphill is, naturally, going to be the most physically demanding of the two disciplines, going downhill calls for efficient techniques too and can be the most dangerous aspect.
If you’ve ever pedalled uphill on a road bike, no doubt you’ll have stood up from the saddle and begun to pedal furiously with both your behind and the bike deviating from side to side. Equally certain will probably be the look of sheer exhaustion and relief when you get to the crest of the hill.
However, an efficient mountain biker will stay firmly planted to the seat. Instead of adopting a standing position, you should concentrate on planting your behind into the seat and driving it into the saddle as you push down with each downstroke on the pedals. Your body should lean forward and it also helps if you pull on the handlebar on the opposite side of the pedal which is being pushed downwards. You’ll soon get into a rhythm and will find that both your body and legs, together with the bike’s propulsion, will soon start working in harmony and this will help to propel you steadily forwards.
Of course, you may find that you can accomplish steep climbs better with your bottom stuck up in the air and it’s useful to try out your own techniques first to see which one suits you best.
The Mental Aspects of Going Uphill
Maybe you’ve watched other bikers tackle steep hills and have been puzzled as to why some who would appear to have more physical strength than others don’t tackle steep climbs quite so well. The simple truth is that whilst all successful mountain bike climbs involve muscular strength and stamina to a degree, one of the most important muscles you have at your disposal is your brain.
Some people are quite literally beaten before they’ve started a climb but it’s a matter of grit, determination and focus that will get you to the top of a particularly steep climb easier than others.
Mental approaches will vary but one useful one is to break the climb up into smaller sections in your mind. Instead of feeling beaten that you’ve still got 5 miles to go until you reach the top of the hill, pick out a ‘marker’ about half a mile away, it might be a rock or, perhaps, a herd of cattle or sheep. Then, look back to the ground right in front of you and simply focus on that.
This is useful in 2 ways. Firstly, if you keep your eyes on the marker you’ve set yourself, you might get discouraged if the wind’s against you and you can’t even see yourself reaching the marker, let alone the top of the hill.
Secondly, the terrain beneath you. Although you should remain alert to what’s all around you, on a hill or mountain, there are bound to be the occasional rocks or other obstacles that appear out of nowhere, so by looking down for most of the time at your front wheel and just beyond it, you’ll be able to take action before it’s too late if an obstacle stands in your way.
So, for each steep climb, view it as, perhaps, 10 shorter sections with a definitive beginning and end point that you’ve set yourself for each section, even though that might not necessarily mean stopping at the end of the section.
Also, you should try not to shift gears too much when ascending. It not only affects balance but your momentum too. Whilst this is more common for beginners, your increased level of fitness as you practice more will see you being able to maintain a particular gear or two, no matter how steep a section suddenly becomes.
Aaaaah! I can hear you sigh. And it’s true, coming back downhill is certainly a much less physically stressful experience. Nevertheless, with less emphasis on the physical pressure, you need to stay alert as coming back down and the potential of increased speed can also mean more danger of coming off your bike.
Gravity means that your bike will want to pull you along with it so it’s important to adopt a strategy of resistance to that. Moving your behind towards the rear of the saddle helps but you should still feel in full control of the handlebar. Don’t grip the handlebar too tightly and keep the tips of your fingers lightly on top (but not squeezing) the back brake so that you can squeeze it gently in an instant, if you need to reduce your speed.
The key to going downhill is to relax your muscles much more.
Pick a Route and Stick to it
One of the biggest causes of people coming off their bike downhill is a tendency to look for hazards they might encounter coming down and an emphasis on avoiding these at all costs. It may seem the logical thing to do but the problem is they become so focused on avoiding particular markers they’ve drawn up, that they don’t see what’s directly in front of them which may turn out to be an even greater obstacle which then becomes too late to avoid and then, bingo, you’re out of the saddle before you know it.
The best strategy is to survey the downhill route as best you can and then, pick a route and stick to it. Even if you do encounter an obstacle on your chosen line, you should have plenty of time to avoid it if you’re focused on the line you’re taking as you’ll spot the hazard or obstacle before it’s on top of you. Remember the saying, “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”.
Watch Your Speed
It’s only natural that if you’ve had a gruelling ascent, you’ll want to reward yourself by feeling the effortless impact on coming back down. The wind blowing in your hair syndrome etc. Avoid that temptation.
This is not to say that you can’t travel downhill at speed but it should be a speed at which you’re still fully in control. Slow down when you approach corners for example, or if there are any other blind spots. You never know, there could be a group of walkers literally seconds ahead of you and it could be catastrophic if you’re travelling way too fast and are unable to stop the bike in time.
Likewise, bear in mind the hidden obstacles, rocks and the like, perhaps a wild animal or two – the faster you’re travelling, the more at risk you are to injury so you should remain alert and in control of your bike, aware of your immediate surroundings and in control of your emotions and urges at all times.