Training for very steep climbs on the mountain bike


So I’m aiming to do a race next year in NZ called the Karapoti Classic It’s a race I’ve done a few times before and would like to do a decent attempt at.

The primary challenge of this race is three very nasty climbs -

Deadwood, which is horribly, unrelentingly steep and loose
Devils staircase which is too steep to ride much of
Dopers, which is steep but doable, but has very steep pinches in it

The challenge with these three is that all of them force me down into a low cadence grind up, so by the time I hit Dopers my legs are pretty much written off. I’m trying to build up a higher Watts per kg so I can spin a bit faster up the hills, but does anyone have any good tips for building repeat-ability of steep climbs at a low cadence?

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Hi Andrew. Interesting tips on low cadence in this thread, within the Thursday workouts.

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What gearing do you have on your MTB? Is it an option to change your chainring or put a 50 on the back?


How long are these climbs? And how long are the steep patches? If they are short, you might want to muscle through, but if they are longer, that’s not a good option. As others have said, you may want to adapt your gearing, especially if you there is a significant change in elevation. If you need a 28:50 to get up certain bits spinning, then by all means, put a 28-tooth chainring on your bike.

(I did a bike tour in Chile last fall, and my rental had a 28:42 as its smallest gear. Initially, that gear was quite tall, I thought, and unnecessary. But the higher I got, the more and more I needed one more gear :wink: I live and train at sea level, which definitely had an impact.)

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On the fitness side, as already mentioned improving W/kg and ability to work at low cadence will certainly help. As will good equipment choices including tires and gearing.

How’s your technique though? As a mostly roadie who occasionally ventures offroad, I find that getting up steep, loose climbs is as much a technical challenge as a fitness one. Ability to apply power smoothly to maintain traction, and not tense up when the tires do slip. Ability to keep your upper body relaxed while working hard so that you can keep the steering accurate and pick good lines. Weight distribution. Learning to spot parts of the trail where you can apply a bit more power and get some momentum, and parts where you need to ease off the power and maintain that momentum. You can only really practice that stuff on similar terrain to the event, where you get instant feedback for any mistakes and can correct them.


I also made a longer post with grouped info.

This is huge. If the event will be dominated by long climbs then having at a minimum 50t in the back and considering 28t or 30t in the front will be a big advantage. Of course increasing your FTP and becoming familiar with lower cadences are needed but don’t overlook your gearing.

I would also add plenty of practice in technique. With a 28x50 and low cadence gearing you will be going very very slow, combine that with loose ground and a steep grade takes quite alot of technical skill to ride.


Thanks everyone, some good tips and advice. I’m already running eagle with a 30t front chainring and a 50t rear, so there’s not much further to drop. For now I’ll make a point of doing a few of the steep rocky pinch climbs near where I live to make sure I keep the technique dialled on my regular outdoor ride (I’m literally less than ten minutes from some so I can do this in NZ, even with Covid happening) and once I get into build try some of the suggested in the other threads. The climbs are all about 400 meters of elevation and around 2-3km long, as part of a 50km race.

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Low cadence Sweet Spot intervals.

I rode Leadville twice, once where I did a lot of low cadence training, and once where I didn’t. The lack of low cadence training for me was noticeable the 2nd time around - especially later in the race - I had a lot less strength left in my legs to grind through the steep parts.

And a higher FTP helps also - which allows you to spin a bit faster in the same gear.