I’m just going to come right out and say it: when I’m riding my road bike, I’m terrified of having to go up hills. I imagine hitting my limit, with no gears left to downshift to, grinding to a halt, and toppling over.
This almost happened when I was out on that canal ride with Catherine, Christine, and Sam last weekend. On a really short and not even steep hill, Catherine tried to give me an impromptu lesson on hill climbing. She’s an experienced rider who has run clinics and workshops, so lucky me that she is so willing to share her wisdom. The trouble is, I’m the kind of learner who needs to know what I’m about to learn.
So a lesson on the fly doesn’t always work for me. I need an explicit account of what I’m trying to achieve. Maybe that’s overthinking things. I’m a philosopher, so you could accuse me of worse. Anyway, the point is when she said to pedal really fast and downshift, I got all frazzled and shifted into a tougher gear.
Then my chain kind of slipped or at least didn’t quite take hold when I attempted to fix the situation. And in the end I ended up grabbing onto the railing. Lest you think that the entire canal run has a railing, let me say that in fact I think the only place there was any kind of thing to grab onto was right there at that exact spot.
I held on for all it’s worth. Catherine, so kindly, jumped off her bike and grabbed mine so I could unclip and dismount.
Now, when I’m out there I try to feel confident. And in fact, I’m getting better. My clipping in and out comes easily now. I never so far have simply forgotten to clip out. I did have a mishap in an intersection later that morning. I had my right foot unclipped, all ready to stop. And then lost my balance in the other direction. I heard the people standing on the other side of the road say “ouch” when I hit the ground.
It must look odd to see a cyclist all decked out in their professional looking kit do one of those slow, inevitable falls to the ground. It didn’t hurt or anything. My husband Renald didn’t believe that when he saw the bruise and chainring wound. But scrapes and bruises are as much a part of learning to ride with clipless pedals as they were when I learned to ride a bike without training wheels as a kid.
Anyway, back to the hills. Sam always tells me that I will be a good hill climber in very short order. Why? Because I’m small, she says. This is apparently an objective fact about me qua cyclist. Weighing well under 150 pounds puts me in an excellent position to become a proficient and fast hill climber.
Soon, Sam assures me, I’ll be the one waiting at the top of the hill for everyone else (or almost everyone else. Maybe not Eaton, who is a climber par excellence).
Whenever she says this I find myself incredulous. My skepticism has everything to do with a lack of confidence. I’ve already written about how I never think of myself as fast. I’m a slow runner and a slow rider. I can’t believe I’ll ever be ahead of anyone on the bike. Right now, it feels to me as if I will always be the one everyone is waiting for all the time.
The last time I went out alone with Sam, she spent the entire time coasting or waiting for me. A route the probably usually takes her one hour took us two.
Where is my confidence? I truly believe that confidence is a feminist issue. This slowpoke narrative that runs through my head hooks right into the doubt I feel about calling myself an athlete. I wrote about this more than a year ago. See “Am I (Are You) an Athlete?”
Even as a swimmer, which is my strong point, I’m not bullet fast. I’m faster than some, but lots of people are going to blow past me in the swim leg of the triathlon.
Catherine agreed with Sam that I would one day be a fine climber. Again, it’s supposedly because I’m small. I was doing some searching around the internet for info about hill climbing (because that’s what I do — I research something and then apply what I read). I came across some advice in a couple of posts, Hill Climbing 101: Pedalling and Shifting and Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques.
The author says:
Climbs are the yardsticks by which experienced cyclists measure themselves while new riders often look on them with fear and loathing.
I get the part about fear and loathing. That right there bought some credibility. The posts are geared at the new rider. They, along with the encouraging words from Catherine and Sam (and a number of other people), have helped me see that hill climbing on the bike requires a skill set.
So it’s no wonder that, having only been out on my road bike FOUR times ever, I haven’t mastered the skill set. Objectively, it’s got to be within my reach if I work at it. I just need a little bit of confidence.
The author of Hill Climbing 101 and 102 tells a great story about encouraging a woman who, like me, didn’t think she could make it:
Climbing is hard but learning to climb is worth it. During the AidsRide I rode up and down that hill I mentioned earlier several times helping riders make it to the top. The hill was the longest on the entire 340 mile ride and many of the new riders had been dreading it since the ride began. I began riding with one woman at the bottom of the climb who was very much overweight and out of shape. Like maybe 100 lbs overweight. In addition, she was riding a hybid rather than a road bike which was making the climb a good deal more difficult for her. About a quarter of the way up, she knew she wasn’t going to make it. I talked to her about the hill climbing techniques discussed here and in Hill Climbing 102 and encouraged her to keep going. Another 10 feet, just make it another 10 feet. She was in agony. Just 10 more feet. The hill had such a fearsome reputation that a good number of people had stopped to stand along the road and cheer the riders on as they struggled up the climb. Someone had parked a van with a sound system in the back near the top of the hill and Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” was booming out. We’re halfway up and the woman was going so slowly that I don’t know how she remained upright on the bike; I had to keep looping around in small circles next to her in order to move fast enough not to lose my balance. She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she refused to give up until she absolutely couldn’t give it one more pedal stroke. Just 10 more feet. Tears of pain and effort were streaming down her face. About 30 feet from the top of the hill amidst the music and the cheers of the onlookers she realized she was going to make it, that she was going to succeed at something that just moments before she believed was impossible. The look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment I had suffered building the climbing strength that allowed me to ride with her that day worth it. It was the kind of thing you never forget. Hills will do that for you.