Tips and tricks for making uphills easier

By Kelly Bastone

Here’s the straight truth: Cranking uphill on a mountain bike ain’t easy. Climbs always issue a challenge, ranging from pleasantly satisfying to intensely uncomfortable. And the physical effort is only part of the difficulty: My mind responds to big, intimidating hills by getting grumpy and negative. “Why did I think I could do this?” I nag myself. Those are the moments when I’d happily empty my life savings if it would mean hiring a helicopter that could whisk me to the top of the hill.

But over the 25 years that I’ve been mountain biking, I’ve also picked up some tips, tricks, and habits that reliably ease the uphill suffering. These aren’t training tips. I’m not a kinesiologist who can recommend a cycling fitness program to transform your body into a hill-crushing machine. But I’ve ridden with mountain bikers who are truly gifted climbers and who shared their strategies with me. My own mistakes (and I’ve made plenty!) have also taught me valuable lessons about how to climb better—meaning happier. I offer these to anyone who’s ever cringed at the thought of pedaling up a gnarly hill. 

rider biking on the white rim trail1) Expect the first 15 minutes to suck.

Starting the day’s ride, your body isn’t really ready for the effort. Your breathing might feel strained, your muscles might not feel like they’re getting the energy they need—you might feel so yucky that you conclude there’s no way that you can pull off the planned ride. My brain asks, “If I feel this weak within the first five minutes, how can I hang in for four [or whatever the expected ride duration is] more hours?”

If the ride begins with a climb, as many rides do, this initial feeling of weakness is even more pronounced.

But then a magical thing happens: After 10 or 15 minutes on the bike, it’s as if your body resigns itself to the effort and opens your throttle. Strength kicks in, and the ride (even the hill) feels easier.

I’ve come to expect this sequence, and I’ve also taught it to my daughter, who now reminds herself to reserve judgment on how she feels until 15 minutes have elapsed. Don’t trust your feelings in that first quarter-hour. Hang in there and wait for your system to kick in. In almost all cases, it will.

2) Check your tire pressure.

Tires roll easier at higher pressure. The tradeoff: Firm tires can’t conform to rocks and roots, and as a result, traction suffers. So think about the tire pressure that’s likely to serve you best given the terrain you expect to encounter. If you anticipate lots of uphill, especially on smooth surfaces, you might consider adding more pressure to your tires to enjoy less rolling resistance on the climbs.

I can’t name the best tire pressure for you—that’s a personal choice based on various factors—but I can divulge that I typically run 18 psi in the rear, and 15 to 16 in the front. That’s probably too low for most riders (I weigh 120 pounds and stand barely five feet tall) but for me, it’s enough to protect my rims through rocky terrain while also promoting good rolling efficiency.

3) Get prepped at the bottom.rider biking the maze with arms up

I used to get so hyped up about the climb ahead that I’d charge right in—which makes sense if you’re trying to maintain downhill momentum into the uphill. But more often, I typically take a short break at the bottom of tough hills so I can get ready.

If I’m eyeing a technical climb, I’ll use the pause to bring my heart rate back down so I’ve got room for the coming spike. After all, you’re less likely to clear technical uphills if you’re gassed from the start. This is also a nice time to eyeball the trail ahead and map out the best line. 

When I’m facing a particularly long climb, I take a moment to fuel up for the coming effort. In the past, I’d wait until I felt tired or weak to eat an energy chew, but these days, I try to avoid playing catch-up with my calories. By swallowing some easy-to-digest energy before beginning the big hill, I climb stronger throughout.

4) Rest on the easy sections.

I learned this tip from my friend Steve, who is famous for cleaning impossibly long, technical climbs. His strategy? Scan the coming hill for places where you can slow your pedaling cadence and rest your lungs. 

Most riders do the opposite: They charge through easy sections because they can. But by breaking up the hill into “go hard” and “go easy” stretches, you give your body a chance to recover and increase your likelihood of riding it all. 

On technical hills, look for sections of smooth dirt where you can pedal very slowly and expend minimum effort. On extended road climbs, like the White Rim’s Shafer switchbacks, rest on the flats so you can save your energy for the curves (where the hill steepens).

5) Keep your eye on the prize.

Focus on the top of the hill, rather than staring down at your front tire. Simply looking at your destination makes you a lot more likely to actually get there by pedaling. This is classic advice: You can’t hit a target you can’t see.

I like to imagine myself attached to a rope that’s hauling me up to the top. My husband repeats a mantra, “Do not rest until you crest!” Use any mental device that pins your attention on the top.

As a full-time freelance writer, Kelly Bastone contributes to publications such as OutsideThe Red Bulletin, and AFAR. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but every spring and fall she totes her mountain bike to the Colorado Plateau. Follow her on Instagram at @bastonek, and read her latest work at