How to build strength and speed for climbing

Here’s one simple way to build leg strength and speed for mountain bike climbs, and improve your climbing technique at the same time.

If you’re the type of mountain biker who is starting to find your toughest local climbs easier, then this tip is for you.

Rather than only becoming as strong and skilled as your trails need you to be, this tip helps you blast up the climbs and become better by making the climbs harder still.  All it takes is five or six rides over a two to three week period and you’ll have more climbing strength, speed and skill than ever before.

And this tips works.  Why?  Because this tip gives you no other choice but to become better!  And because…

Walking sucks

You usually pedal those tough local climbs, so if you’re tenacious enough you’ll still want to pedal to the top even though you know you’re using harder gears.  Remember, you might fail at your first few attempts, but that’s why it’s called a challenge!  Keep positive and keep at it.

How to Do It

Simply lock-out the easiest rear gear you currently use up your local tough and tricky climbs, so you can no longer choose that gear. Do this by adjusting your rear derailleur limit screw as shown in these step by step photos.

If you usually use first gear – the easiest rear gear – then remove it from selection to make your new easiest choice second gear.  If you usually use second rear gear, then adjust the limit screw to remove first and second from selection, so that your new easiest rear gear is third. And so on…


But why physically lock-out?

Sure, instead of physically locking out gears you could just decide not to use them, but there’s still that temptation to shift to the easier gears when the going gets tough.

On the other hand, purposely locking out easier gears so you can’t use them requires a different mindset and level of commitment to the climb. Now, with your easy options gone you’re forced to think better if you want to make it to the top.  Every on-the-fly decision you make is now much more critical as you work to maximise your skill and strength.

Yes, maintaining momentum and traction and getting over obstacles will be harder…


Focus on these Key Skills and you’ll succeed

Momentum is King – don’t attack the climb with all your might only to burn out before halfway, but do approach the climb with as much controllable momentum as possible.

Sure, the harder gearing will make the climbs more difficult initially, but that’s exactly the challenge you need.  Harder gears force you to ride faster to maintain traction.  And it’s that push for greater momentum that develops your new strength and speed, while at the same time fine-tuning your climbing technique.

Smooth pedaling – a ‘spinning’ yet smooth pedaling technique as shown in this video helps minimise wheel digging up loose climbs and avoids chain failure, while maximising momentum and continuous traction

Smooth shifting – make all gearshifts smooth like pudding, and avoid gearshifting at critical moments if it could cost you lost momentum or traction 22 Gear shifting Do’s and Don’ts

Traction – on super steep climbs use the ‘Chest and Nose’ technique to keep the front down and the rear gripping

Seated or unseated – whatever gets you to the top.  Either way, pedal strongly but smoothly and be ready to switch between seated and standing in an instant, if traction and the terrain allows.  If it’s steep and loose enough, like the Devil’s Doorstep in the video, pedaling off the seat won’t maintain the traction you need.

Look up the trail, not just in front – looking ahead up the trail allows you to anticipate your next move. Knowing what’s ahead in advance helps you choose the grippiest riding line

Pick and Pace – settle into a smooth pedaling rhythm quickly to maximise traction and keep your heart rate more stable.  Choose your 100% effort moments wisely.

Un-lock for race day – remember to ‘unlock’ the derailleur limit screw to revert back to full gear selection before your next mountain bike race, to keep your gear selection options open

  Super Tip – Mission impossible? Some climbs, particularly those with lots of obstacles or tree roots, will simply be too tough in harder gears. Have at least one attempt though, because you just might surprise yourself!

The Devil’s Doorstep

The video climb is STRAVA segment ‘Devil’s Doorstep’, a 24.5% average grade climb with side-angle (camber), using 2nd gear on an XTR 2 x 10 system – approx 3rd or 4th gear on a triple chainring system, using small chainring.

Will you get better?

Absolutely. By locking out the gear you usually use you give yourself no choice but to improve!  It may take five or six rides over a two to three week period for your body to adjust to the challenge, but it will happen.

Soon you’ll have more power, tenacity and skill to ride up those tough climbs faster than ever before.

  Super Tip – The right tires and pressure can substantially improve traction. Fit grippy tires and lower your pressures a few psi to enhance grip, even if it’s just for the first few attempts.

Step by Step : How to adjust your rear derailleur limit screw:

Step 1. Shift to the easiest rear gear that you want to use.

In this case, I want to lock-out rear first gear, so I have shifted the chain to rest on second gear.  (If you want to lock-out first and second, shift to third gear and follow the steps, and so on.)

Step 2. Locate the correct adjustment screw.

If you’re not sure which screw is the right one, have a close look inside the derailleur cage to see which screw end is closet to it’s stopper.  The screw with the smallest gap to it’s stopper is the correct screw to adjust.

Step 3. Adjust the correct limit screw to close up the gap shown in step 2 so that the screw now rests on the stopper.

On the XTR derailleur shown it’s the lower limit screw.  Wind the screw only till it touches the stopper – no further.

Step 4. Your limit screw should now be resting on the stopper as shown.

Go for a test ride down your driveway and back, cycling through the rear gears to make sure the shifter comfortably shifts to second gear, but not to first gear.