All the elements of good technique come into play when climbing hills on your bike.

Maintaining good balance, both fore-and-aft and side-to-side, is a key to success. And keep in mind that climbing hills on a road bike is different than doing so on a mountain bike. The main difference involves the presence or absence of traction.

Climb Hills on a Road Bike

Assuming conditions are good—meaning you have traction—climbing on a road bike is a matter of getting the most power for the energy you spend. The gut reaction of any beginning cyclist is to stand in the pedals and drive each pedal forward stroke after stroke until the crest of the hill is reached or the cyclist collapses from exhaustion.

But with a little technique, you can avoid burnout.

Stay Seated

When possible, keep your rear end on the seat and keep your cadence high. This assures a maximum transfer of your energy into power. Need more power? Drive your rear end to the back of your seat as you push on the downstroke. Also, lean forward. Keep your elbows flexed but pull on the side of the handlebar opposite from your downstroke. This helps you use your gluteal muscles as well as your leg muscles.

If You Must Stand

Sometimes the hills get very steep and you need even more power than sitting allows. Here, the danger of losing energy to the bottom of the down stroke is greater. But with some generous body English, you can make the bike work for you.

If you've ever been on a ski machine or elliptical trainer in a gym, then you've actually used a technique that helps with a standing climb. As the ski machine makes its oval-shaped revolutions, you weight and unweight your feet, keeping your body over the weighted foot. If you pay close attention, you'll find that your hips and shoulders move side to side just a bit to give the downstroking leg more power.

Now imagine that same motion on a bike. That side-to-side motion has to be more pronounced to obtain a full revolution of the pedal. Unfortunately, this means that your body has to move side-to-side in great energy-wasting motions. So don't move your body—move your bike.

As you begin the downward stroke, lean the bike away from the foot delivering the stroke. Keep your body in a straight line over the weighted foot. Lean forward on the handlebars to deliver even more power, but keep your elbows loose. As the weighted foot finishes its stroke, transfer your weight to the other foot. Use the bike as a lever to help pull your weight over to the other foot. The bike should now be leaning toward the unweighted foot and your body should be in a straight line above the weighted foot.

Pay very close attention to your pedaling technique. Really think about moving the foot back as if you're scraping your shoe. Then pull up on the pedal and step forward until that foot is ready to deliver another stroke.

Practice: Pedal with just one foot and try to get the push-scrape-pull-step motion down so that you're delivering a smooth circle full of power. Do this a hundred times. Now do it with the other leg. Once you feel comfortable doing this with each leg individually, start using them both to climb that hill.

The Mental Game

Now that you've got your technique down, you may want to pay attention to the mental part of climbing. Most good climbers have not only learned when to stay in the saddle and when to stand, but also how to trick themselves into staying in the saddle longer or standing longer when needed.

Most professional cyclists do this by focusing on minutiae while keeping an eye on the big picture. They think about each revolution of the pedal and ask themselves questions. Did I step over the top skillfully that time? How was my body? Was it straight? Such thoughts help dispel the pain of the climb and make each pedal revolution a practice for the next.

But there is still the hill to climb. Along with questions about minutiae, professional cyclists generally take the hill in chunks and insert a dialogue regarding this aspect of the climb. "All I have to do is make it to that rock up there. Good! Now if I can make it to that mile marker ... what is it? Ten yards? I can do that." Then picture yourself making it to the top. The important thing is not to bite off too big a chunk of ground to cover. When you make it to each marker, compliment yourself like you've just won the Tour. Added up, the markers lead to the top of the hill and the thrilling descent.

Climb Hills on a Mountain Bike

Halfway up a hill your rear tire spins and slips. Sitting doesn't work. Standing doesn't work. And you fall over, conquered again.

To settle your score with that hill, it's time to come to terms with traction. On a road bike (see the road bike section above), traction is only a problem when the weather turns bad. On a mountain bike, the traction is almost always bad. Loose rocks, roots, mud and sand can all cause even a rather tame hill to become something of a monster.

To tame the beast, you need to learn how to deliver power to your rear wheel and stop that wheel from slipping when you do.

Here's How It Works

When the winds howl and snow covers the road, you'll notice that folks with pickup trucks will toss a couple bags of sand or perhaps some tires in the back to help put some weight on the rear wheels. This is what you want to do when you find your tire spins without grabbing. Just slide your rear end back on your seat.

Simple! Well, not really.

Balance

The unfortunate thing about sliding your rear end back when going up a hill is that it will unweight your front tire. Suddenly you're doing a wheelie, perhaps even a backflip. The trick, then, is to get your weight back and keep your weight on the front wheel. To do this:

  • Lean your torso forward as you move your rear end back.
  • Bend at the hips.
  • Keep your elbows close to your side and flexible.
  • Keep your head up.

This lowers your center of gravity and distributes your weight evenly across the bike. How far you have to lean forward is determined by the angle of the slope and the traction available on the trail. The looser the dirt and the steeper the trail, the closer to parallel your torso will be to your top tube.

Though it's awkward, you can have your chin right above your handlebar, your back flat and your rear end sticking up in the air. It's comical, but effective. Learning how far to slide back and how much to lean forward is where the finesse of hill climbing enters. And that takes practice. With time you'll find how simple, subtle variations in forward-and-back movements can help get you over obstacles and up big hills.

Practice: Find a good stretch of trail with varying conditions and hills. Find a low gear (but not too low) that will allow you to pedal up the hills. Experiment. Move just your weight back without leaning forward. Now lean forward. Try this on various trail conditions and varying slopes.

Pedaling

When you approach a hill, the gut reaction is to click into the lowest gear and attack the slope. This doesn't work. It's like spinning your car's tires on ice. You'll only upset your balance and cause your tire to slip. Instead, go into a gear that's just low enough (this will take practice to learn what gear to use) so that you're neither spinning rapidly nor having to stand on the pedals to crank them forward. Then, keep your cadence steady and smooth. Pay attention to your pedaling technique.

Shifting

As you approach the hill, the tendency is to shift before you actually start climbing the hill. For a beginner this is the best approach. But as you learn to move your weight fore and aft to maintain balance and traction, you can modify your shifting to maintain speed.

Once you feel more comfortable climbing, maintain your cadence on your current gear until you feel like you're about to have to lift out of the saddle to continue pedaling. At this point, shift into a lower gear. This will help you maintain your speed and make the hill seem shorter, the climb less grueling.

Pick a Good Line

It also helps to pick a good line before you go up the hill. A beginning cyclist has the tendency to pick a line that avoids the most obstacles. Seems logical, but this isn't always the best route. Turning the handlebar to steer around an obstacle can upset your balance more than just going over the obstacle.

Of course, you'll have to learn which obstacles you can power over and which are best avoided. Obviously big rocks and large, wet roots will stop any advance and are best circumvented. But you can generally power through the small stuff.

As you ride along a trail, your eyes should constantly scan the trail. Move your line of sight from in front of your tire to about 15 feet up the trail, then back. Look for large rocks, roots, sand—anything that can easily stop your forward motion. You'll see the general lay of the land and obvious paths where your bike can and can't go. As you become more experienced, your eyes will spot paths that most people think mountain goats couldn't conquer.

Look, But Don't Look

A common mistake is to eye that next dangerous-looking obstacle. This is true while climbing and descending. Don't. If you've ever eyed some landmark while driving in your car, then returned your attention to the road only to discover you've veered dangerously close to its edge, you'll understand the danger of such distractions. You tend to steer in the direction you're looking. It happens in cars. It can happen on your bike.

Instead, see the obstacle and then focus your attention immediately on the best route around it. Make your eyes stick to this point of reference. Roughly 99.9% of the time you'll hit your mark and safely clear the obstacle. As soon as you've cleared the obstacle, resume scanning the trail in the manner described above.

That's it. By using these techniques you'll find climbing hills a desirable challenge and a worthy conquest.