Tips for Tackling Tough Mountain Biking Hills from International Champion Rebecca Rusch
The word “epic” has been tossed out a lot to describe riding lately. Always searching for a new challenge, mountain bikers typically use this to describe rides of muscle burning, lung busting enormous climbs and lots of them. My namesake race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, starts you out right away on one of my regular training climbs on Trail Creek Road and repays your efforts with beautiful views and even more climbing. A 100-mile mountain bike ride can be a hard day of pedal pushing but toss in almost 13,000 feet of climbing and you’ve got the legendary Leadville Trail 100 MTB. The Breck Epic twists and turns you through 40,000 feet of Colorado mountains over six days of racing. These races will teach you to love your granny gear and keep your cadence going.
While big, steep climbs invoke fear in the hearts and lungs of many, they are what make cycling special. For way up there at the tops of those climbs are the best views and usually a descent waiting to reward you for your hard work.
To slay these well-known courses, and any hill on your rides, you have to prepare and practice your climbing skills. Here are some insights for improving your climbing, as well as some of my very own climbing tricks I’ve used on race day.
I’m a masher—I admit it. I started cycling later than most racers and I incorrectly believed that the harder I pushed down on the pedals, the faster I would go. I’ve spent years trying to break this habit and I still fall back into it in moments of desperation.
You’ve all heard this before, but it’s most efficient to use all of your leg muscles to move the pedals in circles instead of just the quad muscles that engage when you push. It’s important to engage the hamstrings, hip flexors and gluteus muscles, as well. I’ve done hours of one-legged drills and cadence drills on the trainer to try to develop a more efficient pedal stroke. These drills are tedious and feel completely ridiculous at first, but slowly your muscles adapt and soon you are pedaling circles instead of squares.
Good pedaling technique goes a long way toward climbing efficiency, especially on gentler grades. During an event, I keep focused on a round pedal stroke by thinking about driving my knees to the handlebar to engage hips and pull up. I also visualize “fluffy socks”—imagining my sock under the ball of my foot can fluff up at least once per pedal stroke as the weight of my foot lightens in the shoe. This reminds me to spin instead of mash.
Upper Body Position
Climbing body position is all about maintaining even balance over the tires in order to maintain traction. The steeper the hill (like the 26% grade on Leadville’s lower Powerline), the more forward your body needs to be in order to keep traction on the front wheel. You can do this by inching forward on your saddle and pulling your chest forward and lower toward the handle bar. The steeper the climb, the more you emphasize the forward position.
Once the grade kicks back, adjust your position on the bike to be more neutral and relax your upper body and arms as much as possible. I focus on keeping my fingers loose or open on the bar so I’m not wasting energy that isn’t going directly to the pedals. Remember to relax your face and shoulders and take in full, energizing breaths.
Smooth and steady is fast and efficient. Epic races tend to be races of attrition therefore nailing your own individual pacing is key. In most races I never take an early lead. I’m always told, “you really speed up the second half of the course.”
While it is true that I typically pass people on the second half of courses instead of getting passed, it’s not because I’m going faster—it’s because I’ve stayed consistent and other riders missed the mark on their pacing. Go into the red too many times on a long climb and you will find it hard to bounce back.
For me, a consistent pace is far more successful than a fast start. Pacing for climbing is dependent on the length and steepness of the climb. No matter how short or long the climb, steady metered effort is always more efficient than fits and bursts of effort. One pacing trick I use is to watch the miles per hour on my Garmin and focus on trying to go just .1 mile-per-hour faster by improving my pedal stroke. Then I try to maintain a consistent speed up to the top.
Course Knowledge and Training
Knowledge is power because it allows you to pace for the climbing ahead. If you don’t know whether a climb is five minutes or 50 minutes, it’s hard to know what pacing is best for you. It’s also mentally hard to stay in the game without knowing what’s coming.
If you’re able to pre-ride the course or take a training camp, you should be sure to learn all you can about the course. Know thy enemy—I research and plan out before the race, even if I’ve never set foot on the course. My first year racing Leadville as a rookie, I hadn’t ridden one inch of the course before race day. But I did have a course profile with mileages and time estimates taped to my bike. This way, I knew I could pace for the climbs ahead and knew how many big climbs were left. Now I can ride every inch of the course in my head.
Do your homework and look at profiles and time estimates and map out a plan for training and racing. Knowing that a climb is more than 3,000 feet and another is about 1,500 feet is a helpful tidbit to focus your training efforts on long climbs. Even if you live near small climbs, you can do them over and over until the climbing feet add up. There is no substitute for climbing, so find a way to put in some of these miles and hill repeats before race day. You will be happy you did and then enjoy the views and the up there and the descent back down.