I will be discussing some controversial topics in this story. These include slowly pedaling a bicycle while not wearing a helmet, being seen in Lycra shorts in public, and strapping things to your frame that, temporarily, will leave it looking cluttered and ugly. I’ve learned that these things make people uneasy. But stay with me here. This’ll be worth it.
For years, I’ve been doing nearly all of my long climbs with my helmet strapped to my handlebars, my protectives strapped to my frame, and my baggy shorts packed away, leaving my skin-tight Lycra bibs out there for the world to see. Big rides are far more pleasant, and they can last far longer into California’s ever-lengthening summer. Of course, this approach won’t make sense for every person in every situation. I don’t go without a helmet on any climb with consequences, and I don’t kit down on any climb too short to be worth the trouble. My threshold is 20 minutes. For reference, it takes me about 90 seconds to stow my gear before an ascent, and about two minutes to kit back up again for the downhill. It has yet to disrupt the flow on a group ride, and I end up more comfortable, less sweaty, and less fatigued. Still, it seems, I’m the weird one.
So, I decided to use the privilege of my voice at Beta to try and convince you to rethink a few things you’ve been putting up with ever since you started mountain biking. And I’m not only talking about specific small grievances like the constant friction of pedaling in baggy shorts, or the strain of holding up nearly a pound of foam and plastic with your neck. I’m talking about the way we think about climbing in general. That it’s simply something to be endured. Something to be avoided by way of shuttling, chair lifts, or e-bikes. Being more comfortable on long climbs just may have you actually enjoying them, and if you already are, you will enjoy them more.
I’ll start with the helmet, but I’ll double down on my disclaimer first. This is of course not safe on all climbs. I’ll trust you to know when that is. Don’t do it if there’s exposure, don’t do it if it’s technical, don’t do it at speed. Anyway, a well-ventilated helmet may even keep your head cooler at speed. But if wearing a helmet were more comfortable than not, we’d see people in them when hiking, running and doing their taxes.
There are packs that have devices meant to carry a helmet, and you can usually rig something on the ones that don’t. But what if you’ve just got a hip pack? Or no pack at all? I’ve found the handlebar is the right method regardless of your pack situation. It’s a little less weight on your back, and a little less hassle when you need to get into your bag.
I use a thin, 20-inch elastic band made of ⅛” shock cord, but any ⅛” or ⅙” diameter, 16- to 24-inch “mini” bungee cord will work. They don’t pull too hard, and they’re compact enough to stow in a pocket when you’re on the downhill. Every helmet shape will work differently, so you’ll need to experiment to find the best method for your setup. I start with the helmet just above the bars, visor facing forward. I thread both ends of the bungee cord down from the top, rear of the helmet, through the upper rearmost set of side-by-vents. I wrap each end underneath the bars from the front, around and back and up outside of the helmet to hook into the piece of exposed cord that I stretched between those two vents. This will nestle the handlebar into the cut-outs most helmets have just above the ears. The hoses and cables—even just the brake hoses if you have an AXS bike—will keep the helmet level and stable under gentle bumps. Gentle bumps, remember, are the only kind we’ll be dealing with because we are on safe, smooth climbs.
The stowed helmet will obstruct your view of a handlebar-mounted GPS unit, so you’ll have to get creative if you want to keep yours in your sight. Same goes for a handlebar-mounted light, but I usually solve that by wearing the elastic head lamp I carry on my night rides. This also opens the opportunity to wear whatever warming or sun-protection methods you would use to deal with the elements when you’re not wearing a helmet. A beanie, a sun visor, a trucker hat. Once you get used to it, it just makes sense. It changes something you probably took for granted into another opportunity to optimize your ride to suit your environment.
Saving your knee pads for the descents is less controversial. Sure, if your trails remain consistently technical on both ups and downs, you might wear minimal, climb-friendly pads and leave them on the whole ride. But stowing larger pads for the climbs is nothing new. Yet, this presents the same issues as porting a helmet. Not all of us wear packs, not all packs can accommodate pads, and a full-sized pair will usually weigh well over a pound.
My trick only works with pads that strap on above and below the knee, and that can be removed without taking off your shoes. Reason being; the straps are what you’ll use to affix the pads to your bike, and taking off your shoes is probably a bridge too far. Most pads are sized just right to wrap around a frame’s top and downtube, just behind the headtube. Face the narrow end forward, stack one on top of the other, and close the straps to a reasonable tension. But here’s where there may be some controversy. Although this method won’t interfere with either pedaling or steering, I sometimes notice other riders staring at the black neoprene growth on the front of my frame. It’s a question of whether the benefit is worth the stares. I’ve made the opposite decision in some cases. For example, the VC Hand Guards I tested recently work great, but I decided they weren’t worth the stares. On the other hand, having bike-park-ready knee pads on the descent but not feeling them for a second on the climbs is.
For some reason, when I start talking about taking my shorts off, things get awkward. So, let’s have another disclaimer first. I’m of course not suggesting you ride in a chamois that was meant specifically to be worn under baggies. That’s how a lot of popular bibs aimed at mountain bikers are designed. The Specialized Mountain Liner SWAT bibs, for example, are great, but are unfortunately NSFW. Road and XC shorts and bibs only.
I understand why this is a big leap for some. Most of us may look and feel a little ridiculous in Lycra. I was even riding a fair bit of road during the hot summer when I started peeling off my baggies for long mountain bike climbs. At first, the whole thing still seemed weird unless I was on pavement. Maybe that’s because Lycra makes you feel pretty vulnerable. There’s so little material between your skin and the hard, pointy earth. But that’s exactly why I wear baggies on the descents. “MIPS for the hips,” as I would so very cleverly put it. Whether it’s checking a tree or hitting the ground, there’s an initial deflection that can save you a lot of skin.
But really, why do we wear two pairs of shorts on long climbs? What are the baggies doing for us? Maybe you’re storing things in your pockets on long rides. If so, we need to have a whole other conversation. If not, baggies are just trapping heat and adding friction.
Those risqué “liner” shorts can potentially be more breathable, and there are some paper-thin, well-ventilated baggies out there to pair them with. But a decent set of traditional roadie shorts will be cooler every time. With only one layer through which to radiate heat and moisture, it takes far less for a breeze to have a cooling effect. And even supple 4-way stretch baggies will slide slightly on your thighs every pedal stroke. Listen for it the next time you’re on a calm, quiet spin. Chances are there is a slight swish-swish each stroke. It’s like disc-brake rub to me. It’s costing me efficiency, and I can’t un-hear it once I’ve heard it.
Shorts don’t weigh much, so I’ll usually stow them in my pack or in a bib pocket if I’ve got one. If I don’t, I’ll carefully tuck them between the knee pads on my frame, making sure no ends can get loose and get pulled into the front wheel. This is sort of the ultimate configuration for me. Just sitting on a bike with the clothes on my back.
That’s the ultimate goal here. I acknowledge that it’s nice to keep our bikes as light and unencumbered as possible. And that the thrill of going for a shred may be lessened if our bikes look like they’re loaded down for a bikepacking trip. But none of that matters when you’re sitting down grinding out a long climb. Something about it feels essential, even primal to focus simply on pedaling, nothing on your head, shoulders or knees. Depending on your age, that may be how you first experienced riding a bike.
Photos: Chris Wellhausen