It’s a busy Tuesday night at the gym and everyone is bouldering. You’re fired up, ready to crush all the projects. On cruise control as you glide easily through the first half of a V4, you’re energized by the thought of everyone witnessing your sendage. I climb so well under pressure, you think to yourself.
Then, out of nowhere, a slopey hold appears—and you have to match it with both hands. Distracted by its unforgiving rotundness and total lack of regard for your finger strength, you fail to notice the purpose of the starting holds at your feet. Your attempt at matching the sloper ends with you flat on your back, a cloud of grimey dust billowing up from where you’ve smashed into the floor. Perhaps, if you had used your feet to bicycle on the start holds, you would be reveling in victory atop the boulder problem. Alas, rock climbing is a fickle pursuit.
What It Is
Bicycle (n): Using the feet to apply simultaneous and opposing pressure on features of a climb—one foot pushing down and the other pulling up—in order to achieve balance and static control while climbing.
The bicycle is essentially a stabilizing technique. When you combine the opposing forces of your feet with a tight core, you’re far more likely to maintain a stable position on the wall. Executed correctly, a bicycle enables you to climb through sequences (typically on overhangs) that might otherwise seem heinously difficult, making it easier to grip, match, and move between poor holds. Like the kneebar, the bicycle relieves your arms of a portion of your bodyweight and transfers it to your legs and core—though it partially limits your mobility and dynamism in the process. Still, learning the move is a great way to increase your climbing efficiency.
Long ago, when I was a fledgling rock climber, I could not seem to grasp the concept of the bicycle. Using my feet to both push and pull at the same time—it just didn’t make any sense. Yes, my feet appeared to be positioned on invisible bicycle pedals, so the name I could understand. But executing the move felt foreign and awkward. As with any other strange move, however, like the kneebar or the pogo, I had to give myself some time to get used to it. Once I learned the subtleties of the move, I was throwing in bicycles all over the place. This allowed me to progress into the next echelon of higher grades and technically demanding sequences.
How It Works
First off, there are two types of bicycles:
1. The “clamp” bicycle, in which your top foot is pushing down and your bottom foot is pulling up (see above photo). Picture crushing the hold(s) between your feet. This type is easier to learn; see below for more detail.
2. The “void” bicycle, in which your top foot is pulling up and your bottom foot is pushing down (see photos of Jason Kehl below). As opposed to crushing something between your feet, in this case you would be doing the opposite, opening a “void” between them. Practice this type after you’ve already learned the first.
Bicycles are fairly easy to implement. All you really need is an overhanging wall and 1-2 relatively large footholds in order to practice. Here are the basic mechanics of the technique:
1. Set your feet
Once you have a big foothold or two that you’d like to bicycle, it’s time to set your feet in position. The move combines a downward-pushing frontstep with an upward-pulling toehook (see the above photo for reference). Choose two starting hand holds that are about a body-length away from the foothold(s), and use them to swing your feet up.
2. Engage the feet, legs, and core
Opposition is the key factor behind a well-executed bicycle. You should be aiming for equal and opposite forces between your feet. Less experienced climbers typically struggle more with the toehook than the frontstep, so make sure you stay focused on maintaining the pressure and force on your toe.
Bend your knees, keeping your legs and core tightly engaged. If you let up and relax, there’s a good chance one of your feet will slide off the wall.
3. Move your hands
Once you have the bicycle locked into place, start moving your hands to different holds. The point of this is to familiarize yourself with how it feels to move around the wall while keeping the bicycle locked. You might find that you can grab holds that wouldn’t normally feel comfortable, or reach others that are in odd locations or positions. You might also discover that it becomes easier to match your hands on poor holds.
After you’ve practiced the bicycle, switch your feet and try the same motions again. In other words, if you had your right foot on top and the left on bottom, now you would switch to having your right foot on bottom and the left on top. Notice how the different positions of the feet change the feel of the bicycle. Some moves feel easier with certain variations in your foot placement—you just have to experiment and find what works best.
Since the bicycle involves heavy usage of toehooks, I would recommend buying a pair of climbing shoes with rubber lining the top of the toe box. This isn’t necessary, but a layer of rubber is far more effective for toehooks than any other material.
Now that you know the basics of the bicycle, stay on the lookout for opportunities to use it. You might find that many route setters enjoy setting mandatory bicycles in the gym––and now you know how to unlock the beta. Trust me, once you get the hang of it, you won’t forget how it’s done. It’s just like riding a bi...never mind. ;)
About the Author
Connor Griffith has been climbing for 13 years in areas across the world, from California to Colorado to Switzerland. A V11 boulderer with multiple first ascents around the globe, Connor is also a professional route setter, a student of climbing movement, and a coach.