Making the situation worse are super-low gears, because their tremendous torque promotes rear-wheel spin. Go ahead downshift into a 22x32-tooth granny gear, stand up, and pedal hard. The rear wheel will break traction regardless of tire tread pattern.
Unless, that is, you learn to balance on the edge of your power. A fine line exists between holding and losing traction. Apply too much force and it's gone; use too little and you'll stall. It's akin to balancing on a gymnast's beam. If you stay centered, you'll stay up. But lose that center and ...
That's how it is when climbing a steep grade with a loose surface. If you remain balanced on the bike and apply just enough power to keep moving, you won't break traction. But lose that delicate center by applying too much or too little power, or by leaning too far one way or another, and, like an off-balance gymnast, you'll fail.
Finding that balance
To learn how to balance on the edge of your power, find a relatively steep hill with a moderately loose surface. This should be a climb you could handle quite easily if not for the lack of traction. Shift into your lowest gear and aggressively attack it. Get out of the saddle and force the rear wheel to begin breaking free. Do this a few times, then try it while sitting. Learn how much pedaling force you can apply before losing traction.
Now change tactics. Ride into the hill as slowly as you can in your lowest gear. Creep up so you're constantly on the verge of stalling. Pretend you're in an airplane, the stall-warning buzzer keeps going off, and you have to make the minimum adjustment to shut it up. Try this standing, then sitting.
Now pick the smallest cog you can ride up the slope in. Repeat the previous exercises. Pay attention to your stalling point. Work on sensing the loss of traction before it happens. Do it in and out of the saddle. Play with it. Have fun balancing on the point of power.
Now for the final ingredient: your arms
Shift into your granny gear and again ride into the hill slowly, trying to spin the rear wheel. But this time, counteract the force of your pedaling by pulling back and down on the handlebar.
Pivot your hands and lower your wrists and elbows so your forearms are parallel to an imaginary line between your hubs. Get out of the saddle in a low crouch, your butt hovering over it. Feel how pulling back on the handlebar helps oppose your thrusts on the pedals.
Notice how you can control tire slip with your arms. Each time you push a pedal down, pull back on the handlebar and feel how the rear wheel is squashed into the dirt. As you reach the bottom of the stroke, relax your arms, thrust the bike forward, and then resume pulling on the handlebar the moment you initiate the next stroke. Try this in different gears.
Now you're ready to increase the challenge. Find a steeper hill with an even looser surface. Shift into your lowest gear and slowly ride into the climb.
Feel for the balance point that encompasses the power applied to each pedal stroke, the pull on the handlebar, and the limit of the rear tire's traction.
Don't worry about riding all the way up, but go as far as you can with the wheel on the verge of slipping. If it spins a tad, instantly adjust and regain traction without stopping. Try it in different gears, experiment, and apply these techniques on each tough climb you ride.
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