Everyone loves mountain biking up steep gnarly hills.. come on, admit it :o)
Over the last few months, different people that have been riding with us have asked 'what is the best way to nail an uphill'. In short, there's not one answer, but their are methods you can adopt to get yourself in the right mind-set and techniques to help you negotiate a range of terrains.
The trick when mountain biking is to look at a hill as just another an element or challenge within a ride rather than get into a mind-set were it becomes an unobtainable obstacle from the onset. I wouldn't mind £10 for everytime i've heard someone say i'll never get up that' or 'stuff this i'm pushing it'. Its like any challenge you set yourself in life, if you think this before you even start then you may as well sell your bike and take up knitting.
The technical aspect
This totally depends on the terrain, gradient, conditions, tyre choice, seat post height, bike style.. you name it.. Its all trial and error but I often try to keep to a few general rules of thumb.
On tarmac sections, you can generally opt for a more rhythmic attack. Try and keep the pace steady and remember that the hill is just one 'element' of your entire ride. Try not to aim for full burn out but rather for a pace were you body feels comfortable and relaxed. Try and think well in advance of any change in gradient and change any gears before reaching the sharpest of angles. I often use the 60 second rule (1 revolution of the pedal per second) or the muscle burn minus one philosophy (if the legs begin to ache, knock the gears back one). Also try to remain seated as long as possible (set your seat position correctly, dont leave in downhill mode for uphills) and aim for nice balanced long strokes.
On technical off-road single-track you've really got to focus and play the 'anticipate whats coming' game. Always look well ahead of yourself and pick your line before you've even approached it (as before anticipate those gear changes, you'll soon discover that mud, slow speeds and gear changes do work well together). Dont automatically put the bike into the easiest gear possible, spinning the legs at high revolutions not only costs energy but is likely to result in wheel spin. With multi element hill work try in determine an average handling performance for your bike across all elements, learn to interpret the terrain. Style wise, try to limit body sway and focus on generating all energy through the pedals. If balance is required, be fluid and try to adopt a style which results in limited fast wheel movements. Try to arrange your seat so your body weight is pushing slightly forward on the bike to prevent the from lifting but at the same time to provide enough weight over the rear wheel to maintain rear traction. Try to maximise your energy by remaining seated as much as possible and take long steady breaths. The overall trick is to develop a relaxed, rhythmic, balanced approach and get rid of all erratic tendencies, all cost energy. If you need to improve your balance for single tracks, have a go at playing the 'slow balancing game'. Start on the flat and challenge your friends to a competition to see who can cycle 3m in the slowest time. As your balance improves, play the same game but increase the slope gradient.
Never say never.. but when you physically cant do any more on the saddle and the bike continues to spin out, move into cyclo-x territory. In fact, as soon as you feel that the energy you are expelling is likely to exceed the energy yo would use jogging/ walking fast while carrying/ pushing your bike, move into foot mode until the terrain becomes rideable.
In summary, anticipate your terrain, set your bike up so that its at its optimum setting for nailing multi transitional uphills and try to develop a sustainable balanced rhythm across all technical elements.
Hope you find this useful.