BicycleSource Newsletter

Running Up

The fastest way to climb stairs is to dismount and carry your bike. Hold the frame in the air (just pick it up on the left side, so you don't rub chain grease on your clothes), and run up the steps. Try to place the weight of the bike on you back along the seat tube, as resting it on your shoulder as you bounce up steps starts to really hurt. On mountain bikes or other small frames, rest the nose of the seat on your shoulder. If all else fails, just hold the bike up with your arm muscles as you run up the stairs.

Riding Up

Just as on a motorcycle, you can ride the bike up step by step, hopping the front wheel if need be. To hop the front wheel, compress, and pull up sharply on the handlebars. When hopping your front wheel, which is also great for clearing debris on steep uphills and saving your rims on railway tracks, stay off the back brake, as its use pushes the front wheel into the ground.

This works best on steps that are low and deep, as steeper stairs require much more strength in your legs. Set your gearing very low, so that you go through a complete power cycle to get up a step. Ratchet your pedals until one foot is at 1 or 2 o'clock and is able to apply power -- if you get trapped at 5 and 11, or in a high gear, you are guaranteed to bog out. You don't need to get up the stairs at more than a couple miles per hour, so gear appropriately -- it will make spinning easier.

The essential thing when riding up steps or curbs is to approach them head-on. If you approach at an angle, unless you yank the front wheel up high enough to clear it, your front wheel will wash out along the front of the step, and you'll fall.

Hopping Up

Another method is to bunnyhop the bike up each step, sideways, although you want to have good balance and loose clip-in pedals for this one. The fact that you can hop up the stairs while riding along each step is a big plus, such as with very wide staircases with few steps. If you are good at bunny hopping, you'll be able to clear the largest steps this way, but I can only get a four or five inches of air on by road bike.

If the step is high, such as a porch, the best approach is to wheelie or hop the front wheel onto the ledge with the bike nearly parallel, lean forward and lock the front wheel, and hop the rear wheel up. Do this by leaning the bike in the direction of the step and pushing with your feel while steering away from the dropoff, once the rear end is lifted up high enough by compressing, then jumping way forward. This takes some practice and requires you to stop, however, but it is the most powerful technique.

Walking Down

The best way to walk your bike down stairs is not to hold the handlebars while you stand beside it, but it flip it up on its back wheel and hold the handlebars from behind the bike. Access to the rear brake is easy from this position, which is important as the bike always want to descend faster than you do. You can slowly go down step by step, although low-pressure tires will bounce more this way. Try shifting onto your large front cog to keep the chain from slapping around.

Riding Down

To ride down, use the downhill position. Slide your butt back on steep steps, even right off the saddle, to keep your weight back as far as possible while still being able to reach your brakes. Keep your arms and legs loose, and your pedals at 3 and 9 o'clock. Point your wheel perpendicular to the steps, and ride straight down. Try to find some deep, short steps to practice on before you try to get down the Via Sancta on the pilgrimage route at Rocamadour!

Descending stairs is virtually the only instance where you'll want to mainly use your rear brake (see our article on effective braking). The reason for this is that you don't need an enormous amount of decelerating power, merely to counter the effects of gravity. But it's all to easy to accidentally brake too quickly with the powerful front brake, especially by looking it when it's in the air, and this can result in doing an endo down a flight of stairs. Enough weight has been transferred to the front already, without using the front brake.
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