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Climbing out of the saddle

Climbing a hill out of the saddle, standing on the pedals is very tiring and a rider can soon burn himself out. But used sparingly at the right time, an experienced rider can save energy in the long run.

When deciding how to climb a hill on a bicycle, think of it as a work load. Imagine two men, each moving 100lbs. of sand from A to B in five minutes. One man hoists the 100lb. bag of sand on his shoulder, moves it from A to B in one minute, then sits down and rests for four minutes. The other man divides the sand into five, 20lb. loads and takes a minute to move each 20lb. for a total of five minutes.

Now imagine that the two men have to immediately repeat the same task over and over. Who is the fresher? The one who makes a big effort to start with, but then rests, or the man who spreads the work load over the full five minutes? A lot depends on the makeup of each individual.

Often if a road is an undulating series of short steep hills, it is often in the interest of a rider to use the speed and momentum of the descent to carry him half way up the next climb, then without shifting down, he gets out of the saddle and puts in a super human effort to keep the momentum going to carry himself over the crest of the next hill, knowing that even if this effort takes him to the point of exhaustion, he can recover on the following descent.

On a long steep climb it is different, even a long gradual climb. One must still try to keep momentum, and must occasionally get out of the saddle to boost that momentum, but a rider cannot put in those super efforts, when there are no downhill respites where he can recover.

A rider climbs out of the saddle not only to get his full weight over the pedals, but to get his body nearer his hands so he has a direct pull on the handlebars in opposition the downward thrust of his legs. Think of using an elliptical treadmill in a gym. One has to constantly move their body from left to right, so the user’s full weight is directly over the downward stroke of the paddles.

On a bike, instead of moving the body, move the bike. As the rider thrusts down on the right pedal, he pulls upwards on the right side of the handlebar. This not only puts an opposing thrust on the pedals but it moves the bike to the left, effectively using the bike as a lever.

As the right leg pushes down on the right pedal, power is transferred through the crank, chainwheel, and chain to the rear wheel. Meanwhile the bike’s frame is moving to the left and the bottom bracket, is moving upwards on the right side. 

There is not just the leverage of the crank arm, but the leverage of the whole bike frame working in the opposite direction. As the pedal moves down towards the bottom of its stroke, the right side of the crank axle is moving towards the top.

When the right pedal gets to the bottom, the rider pulls up on the left side of the handlebars, while pushing downwards on the left pedal. The rider’s body stays vertical, and the bike moves from side to side. (See top picture.) Also as the rider pushes down on one pedal, he pulls upward with his other foot on the opposing pedal. 

Obviously climbing out of the saddle like this is very tiring, one is using the whole body. But used sparingly, to increase momentum, it can be very effective. For example if the gradient of a climb starts to level out, a strong rider can shift up a gear, then get out of the saddle to get the cadence back up to a level where he can sit down a pedal again.

It is all a matter of a rider knowing his fitness level, and his recovery time. Knowing his strengths and limitations, and that only comes with hard work, training and experience.


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Reader Comments (7)

Like so many other things, you'll get good at what you do.

I picked up riding bikes again some years ago. I rode a lot in my teen years, then did the "fat man in a car" thing for 20 years before picking up mountain biking 3-4 years ago.

I started out on a geared mountain bike and got really good at sitting and spinning up gradients. Standing up and mashing the pedals took it's toll, so I mainly used that for short sprints to get the cadence up before sitting back and spinning. 10-15 seconds of standing and hammering the pedals and I had to sit back down again.

Then 2 years ago I got myself a single speed mountain bike just to see what all the fuss was about. On a bike with only one gear you're forced to get out of the saddle on most climbs. It was very hard in the beginning, I was using a different set of muscles compared to those I use when sitting and spinning, and I had to build some strength in those muscles.

I've been riding my single speed almost exclusively for the last 2 years and actually prefer being out of the saddle whenever I have to climb. I've taken my geared bike out once in a while, but find that climbing hills in a low gear while sitting and spinning is very tiring to me these days. It seems I've lost my "sit and spin" muscles.

My point being, if being out of saddle is very tiring to you, it's probably just because you don't do it enough. If you put in the time and effort you can make standing and mashing just as effortless as sitting and spinning, allowing you to be out of saddle for longer time, relaxing one set of leg muscles while using another.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

Standing up for 15 to 25 "beats" changes / takes the strain off knees and hips. It's never a bad idea to occasionally stand up and push things a little bit. Staying in the saddle too long isn't necessarily good for you!

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber

I have come across descriptions of how bottom bracket drop gives a different feel and probably a difference in efficiency. Perhaps it relates to the centre of gravity and leverage. It feels easier for me to be out of the saddle on a mountain bike than a touring bike.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

Thanks for writing these articles, Dave.

As Thomas points out, you can train yourself to be more comfortable climbing out of the saddle for a longer period of time. While I prefer to climb in the saddle, since moving to NH, I've been forced to do more climbing out of the saddle. It gets easier with time. I also find that I climb better if I work out my legs regularly with free weights. That stands to reason: stronger legs and core mean easier climbs.

One thing you didn't focus on, but that I read in one of Sheldon Brown's articles: the stresses on the bike frame caused by moving the bike laterally on the climbs out of the saddle.

His point was that the frames were designed to take the stresses vertically, and to transmit the stress to where it would do the most good. He claimed that climbing out of the saddle was less efficient because of the loss due to flex of the frame when it is strained laterally. That's not to say that it doesn't work (you pointed out why it can be great to get your weight over the pedals), just that you do lose efficiency by doing that. He also claimed that the frames themselves could get damaged over time with the repeated strain.

I couldn't find the article I'm referring to here (the website has changed since his death), so I'm paraphrasing from memory. Please take anything I write here as an interpretation of what I remember.

I'd think that most bike frames can take the repeated strain, but is this something you have any experience with? Have you ever heard of a frame failing where the lateral stress could be the cause?

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohann

One of the reasons I built my frames with Columbus SP chainstays, was because it added a lot of lateral stiffness in the frame in an area it is needed, from the rear wheel to the bottom bracket. And because chainstays are more or less horizontal it didn’t affect the ride too much or make it harsh by transmitting road shocks.

When Columbus came out with the SLX and STX tubing in the late 1980s, by adding internal spiral ribs to the tubes, it gave them a resistance to twisting, that out of the saddle climbing and sprinting induces.

August 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Stoop up always hands on the drops, racing hill climbs in the 50s, IN FACT some chaps even took there saddles and brakes off! to save weight. Find now with a hip replacement and age that climbing in the saddle with a short burst out of the saddle helps. Rode up Wolfe creek pass a few weeks ago stayed in the saddle most of the way even with a 53.39 11.25 had several younger rides pass me twiddling (spinning) a much lower gear. But found my old ways of slogging on form the fixed gear riding of the 50s helped

August 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Thomas is exactly right about conditioning yourself to standing. Fixed has been my drivetrain of choice for over 15 years now and I too find that I tire less easily while standing in a larger gear than when siting and twiddling up a hill. Doubtless twiddling, once you are used to it, is more energy efficient overall, but of course that's not an option if you like to ride fixed or ss.

Of course, the other secret to long bouts of standing climbs is to learn how to pace yourself. Once you've adapted in this psychological way as well as physiologically, you can stand for surprising distances, and even a late 50-something can grunt surprising loads up surprisingly steep hills: 4 mph on a very steep incline in a 67" gear with 40 lb load? -- only a 1/2 mile hill, of course.

This carries over to my geared bikes: On pavement, I tend to stay in the 60" to 75" range for all my riding unless exceptional circumstances prevail such as a very heavy load or a very strong headwind, or unusual fatigue.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Moore
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