Cycling in Mountains: How to Master Ascents and Descents

Originally published at: https://blog.cyclop.in/how-to-master-cycling-in-mountains/

Cycling in the mountains is a whole different game. It comes with downhills, climbs, hairpin bends, and sweeping valley views.

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If you are cycling off-road in the mountains you may be hurtling down (or trudging up) single-tracks, going over rocks and roots. If cycling on smooth roads, you may be navigating blind corners as you go at high speed. Either style of riding comes with its own challenges, and exhilaration! Here are a few techniques that you can use while cycling uphill or downhill.

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Techniques for Cycling Uphill

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Cycling uphill can be a challenge, because gravity makes you work harder. Try out these techniques to master climbing:

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1. Fuel Yourself Before the Climb

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Before you start climbing, eat something like a banana, or have an energy gel so you are not operating on an empty tank. As the carbohydrates release instant energy, it will help you in your climb. You may also not be in a position to unwrap a chocolate bar and eat when climbing up, and every cyclist knows how awful it is to stop, lose momentum and then start a ride from zero speed on an incline with your cycle rolling back.

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2. Lose the extra weight

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Instead of carrying two bottles of water, carry one, especially if you have a support vehicle or will get water ahead. Do not pull any weight you don’t need to. Keep it light and conserve your energy. It is the same logic as having a carbon bike.

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3. Maintain stability, lean forwards

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Lean a little forwards, putting your weight more on the front wheel. This will also lower your center of gravity and the power will transfer from your upper body to your core and legs. You will avoid bobbing and swaying which is just a loss of your cycling effort in unnecessary action.

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4. Increase Cadence Before The Actual Climb

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When you see a monster climb coming up don’t hit the climb and then begin to tackle it at the last minute as it looms large before you. Just start pedalling fast as you approach the climb, from a little distance away, so that the momentum you build takes you over like a pole-vaulter. Ramp up your speed as you get closer to the climb. This is actually a lot of fun as you double down and go towards your enemy (the climb) in full attack mode. You may find many tough climbs easily tackled thus.

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5. Shift to Smaller Gears but not too frequently

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Use your gears! When the gradient increases shift to a smaller gear; don’t push hard and stress your knee; this can cause injury. This way you can maintain your speed and RPM, instead of facing a loss in speed as you go uphill. But don’t shift the gears for every little uphill as switching gears too much, for small sections, can result in a loss in momentum. Instead point your toes down and work through the pedal strokes. This will help your legs, shifting the work from your overworked quads and glutes to your lower leg muscles, for that short section, and get you through it without loss in momentum.

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6. Stay Focussed and Breathe

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As you strain hard climbing uphill don’t forget to breathe deeply. Often cyclists start breathing shallowly which provides them with less oxygen when they actually need more. Also, keep track of your RPM. If you find that the climb is getting challenging and your RPM is dropping, you might want to shift gears again, increase your power, or maybe even leave your saddle. 

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7. Stand Up and Ride (But Only Sometimes)

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Studies say, staying put in your saddle is great as it conserves your energy by 10%. But on some sections you may want to stand up and cycle. This will allow you to add a lot of body weight in your pedal strokes and make climbing up easy for you. However, this can only be sustained for a short while as it is exhausting. And if the incline is very steep, then you also risk falling backwards if you stand up by doing an unintentional wheelie. So just use judgement, and ride in your saddle or out of it, as you find fit, and overcome challenging sections.

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8. Choose Outer Edges of Roads

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If the road you are climbing has a lot of bends, always try to approach the curves from the flattest point. That is, try to follow the outer edge of the corner; as trying to ride along the inner edge might look easier, but it’s steeper and draws a lot of energy from the cyclist in one go.

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The same logic applies for trails. Don’t try to go over bulky boulders. You may manage to do so but it exhausts the rider. Rather, go around big stones and rocks, with fast pedal strokes, conserving your energy and moving ahead steadily. 

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Techniques for Cycling Downhill

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Cycling uphill is about effort, but cycling downhill needs less effort as gravity is in your favour. It is in fact all about control and managing your speed. Here are some techniques to cycle downhill the right way.

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1. Always Press the Back Brake First

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If you press the front brake first, your back wheel will stay in a rolling motion and this may cause you to somersault, especially as your bike is already in a downward momentum. The writer of this blogpost is unfortunately writing this from firsthand experience and the memory of a black-eye. It happens in slow motion as your cycle heaves forward and you find yourself on the road, or worse, on rocks. Press the back brake first and keep control of your bike.

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2. Practice Feathering

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Feathering is a technique where you squeeze your brakes lightly and release continually, bringing your cycle to a halt slowly. If you brake suddenly or hard, your wheels will stop rolling but your bike may not stop, especially if you are cycling at a high speed.

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3. Counter Centrifugal Force in Turns

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When approaching turns, centrifugal force is acting on the bike and cyclist. So, it is a good idea to anticipate it and apply some braking in advance to keep yourself on the mountainside. To turn, lean in with your bike and NOT your body into the turn. The sharper the turn, the more you’ll have to lean your bike. 

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4. Be aware of your rims

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Constantly pressing the brakes and causing friction can overheat your bike’s rims and cause a tire blowout, so practice precaution. On extreme downhills like the famous stretch between Masinagudi to Ooty (via Kalhatty) with 36 hairpin bends, it is a good idea to stop every now and then and let your rims cool off. Sometimes cyclists even pause and pour water on their wheels to take away the heat.

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5. Be an aerodynamic missile or an “air brake”

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When cycling downhill, be aerodynamic and shoot ahead by tucking your body. This way you do not provide your torso as an “air brake” causing resistance and slowing you down. Conversely, if you want to go slower and are scared of losing control, do sit up and use yourself as an “air brake”.

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6. Keep Your Hands on the Drops

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On a road bike, riding in the drops while cycling downhill is safer than resting your hands on the hoods. It lowers your center of gravity, and evenly distributes your weight between the front and the rear wheels of your bike. This helps you maintain traction, especially during turning or braking. A tip: Keep your hands on the drops, and your fingers on the brakes! 

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7. Keep your Body Centered and Loose Enough

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Have maximum control of your bike by staging centered, between the front and back wheels. Don’t lean backwards and allow the bike to “slip away” from your control.

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Hold your handlebar tightly, but don’t clench so hard that every bump and jolt of the ride is transferred to your body. One of the best methods to absorb shocks, especially on rocky downhills, is to hang back (almost behind the seat), grip the seat with your thighs, and keep your legs relaxed as you almost skim over rough terrain. Keep your feet in ‘platform position’ i.e at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position. This helps you stay centered and steady.

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8. Scan Ahead and Stay Relaxed

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Keep your eyes on the trail and look ahead. Never look at the ground while riding. This applies for both; while cycling in mountains or on flat trails. As you descend your speed would likely be high; obstacles can come in your way suddenly and cause accidents.

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And that’s how you do it! You may already be employing many of these techniques instinctively, and some may be new to you. Apart from riding techniques it is important to pay attention to nutrition on tough rides, especially uphills. Read on here to be fuelled and prepped for your rides.

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*Featured image courtesy: Temghar MTB Challenge

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