Climbing Hills

ByMichael Heffler

Editor’s Note:The following piece is the fifth in a series by the author. The preceding 4 submissions can be read by going here.

Why do we do it?

You can go so much faster on flat roads. It’s much less work. There’s got to be reasons….

Some people want to go fast.Flat roads accommodate that nicely.You can focus on the wheel in front of you and hammer away.At the end of the ride both the odometer and your endorphins will make you feel good.

Hills are different.

There are people who can speedup hills. I’m not one of them. I’m in it for beauty. I’m also, just not that fast.I like what I see and I like to go at just the right pace to see it, generally. There are those hills that are steep enough that I’m not looking at much more than what’s right ahead of me. Ican’t tell you what’s on the side of those roads.In the moment, I am focused on how much to push or conserve to make sure I get up to the top. And you can’t always be sure where the top is – between curves an dangles it’s often a best guess.

But that’s just the really steep ones. When you climb hills you get to the prettiest parts of the country. There are streams floating down while you’re climbing up. The trees, the fields, the flowers and all the tame and wild creatures rustle around while you pump, pedal, watch and wonder. There’s much less traffic – more animals than cars – and much more quiet – a majestic quiet can play and I realize how infrequently I hear that.

When you go fast you count miles per hour. When you climb there are things you can measure – the hill’s grade or its length – but I find there’s something else, something that’s not measured with a number. Somethings are not measured with a number. They are measured by what you choose, or don’t choose to do.Like beauty, they’re in the eyes of the beholder.

Hills as stories, or hills as metaphors:

These give hills their real angles. The hills we climb on bikes are generally of our choosing – at least if you are the ride leader or on your own and not lost. Off the bike, the hills we encounter can be anything from everyday problems to tragedies, illness in ourselves or loved ones,conflicts, emotions that we lose control of, or difficult people. When I cycle up hills these problems are far from my mind. When I confront these problems it’s good to know I can climb hills. At some point, if Ican maintain the right motion and the right mindset, I’ll get over thehump…and there’s always one more hill. You just don’t always know how long and steep it’s going to be.

When do I get out of the saddle?

Now here’s a question that gets asked a lot. There are some points on some hills where you have to stand to deliver. When there is a short steep section it often pays to stand up. The extra weight on the pedals gets you over the steep stretch. The trade-off is getting past the difficult stretch knowing it will drain you for an equal period while you recover from the extra effort. Sometimes you just have to; the only other option is getting off the bike because the steepness limits your options. For longer stretches, if you have the leg strength, it always pays to remain in the saddle. It usually ends up more of a marathon than a sprint.Retaining your reserves is generally the better bet.

There are always exceptions.

One local hill is so steep that the first time I climbed it I couldn’t keep my front wheel down.I feared that if I tried to stand up I’d go over backwards. The hill never relented, my adrenaline shot up and I ended up getting out of the bike because my heart was pounding so hard I went with Shakespeare and figured discretion was the better part of valor. Getting out of the pedals when the bike is not moving is a feeling you don’t soon forget. Second time up that hill I stood up the entire length. When I got to the top and stopped I was breathing so hard my chest hit the front handle bars as I gasped for air.

First time was a surprise. Second time was purely for the challenge.

One more thing about challenge:

When I went cycling with friends last year in France we had a guide who was the same age as my son. We told him we liked hills and we wanted him to challenge us with some good climbs. He said:”In that case, I’m not happy until you’re not happy!”We climbed a lot of hills. We climbed a few really big ones just about every day. I’d say it was rare that we all weren’t happy.