When climbing on your mountain bike, don't forget 'scissors'

Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
Ever wonder why it is that you have to push your bike to the top of those same steep hills youve just watched your riding partner clean with a grin?

It may be good for the soul to endure such trying times, but if youd prefer a better chance at pedaling all the way up, read on. After all, theres always an opportunity to make your partner smirk by doing an endo on the way down the other side.

You might already know that the general movement of mountain bike frame geometry from the very relaxed angles of the early 1980s to the somewhat steeper angles and much shorter chain stays (the frame tubes running from the pedals to the rear axle) of today makes for easier climbing on steep roads and trails.

Shorter chain stays place your weight more directly over the rear wheel, allowing far greater traction. But no matter what geometry youre riding with, youll benefit from a short analysis of body position and technique called "scissoring" during a climb.

In essence, climbing on a mountain bike is a matter of power, endurance, and balance. If the hill is too steep or your legs or arms too weak; or if you are good for bursts of speed but not aerobically fit for longer pulls, even the best of riding styles will not take you to the top.

Conversely, power (the kind of full-body, anaerobic effort seldom required in thin-tire recreational cycling) and endurance, (the ability to keep all systems going for long off-road climbs) serve only to help you win a summit. It doesnt guarantee it. For you still need that third essential ingredient balance the key to transmitting your power and endurance into front-wheel contact and rear-wheel traction.

We all learned the necessary right-left balancing trick of staying in the saddle when the training wheels came off our first two-wheeler. Well, taking steep hills on a mountain bike, especially over somewhat technical terrain, requires a forward-back balance that most non-racing road riders never even think about. No wonder cleaning hills is tough at first.

Moving back and forth may seem simple enough once someone brings it to your attention or you come upon it yourself. Keep your body in a straight line over the bike, lean forward for increased leg propulsion, let some of your upper-torso weight assist the arms in keeping the front end down, and shift forward or back in the saddle as required to maintain traction and front-end contact.

That is, when you feel the rear wheel slipping a bit, shift back in the saddle to put more weight over that wheel. As the hill grows steeper and the front end tries to lift, apply more weight in that direction.

But what can you do when more weight is required in both directions at the same time?

One option is to gain more power momentarily by standing in the pedals, leaning forward to hold down the front end. But remember that this must be momentary only, for soon youll have to return to the sitting position to apply greater traction to the rear wheel.

This up-and-down, back-and-forth technique is called "scissoring," and it works because of the bodys far greater mass (five or six times that of the bike) and the momentum gained by standing up to lurch the bike forward with the arms. Once youve mastered it youll find yourself cleaning those steepest final parts of climbs that stopped you cold before.

In a skill builder to come, Ill discuss other hill techniques (pedaling in circles, a second means of maintaining traction, how to start again when on a hill, how to maintain dignity while pushing . . . ). But, in the meantime, see if you cant scissor your way to the top.

Best of luck!

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