Reflections on Hills, Size, and Confidence

Yelagiri Hills in India
Yelagiri Hills in India

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.


21 thoughts on “Reflections on Hills, Size, and Confidence

  1. I made sure I read that article thoroughly before commenting because I want to make sure I get all my points down…of the many obstacles that face me as a cyclist, I ENJOY hills and you know what Tracy? I learned this, because I learned the mechanics of the bike, physics and my own physiology. Several things I will say below. Note: Catherine, please feel free to add or subtract should you see anything missing.

    1. Know thy bike/gearing/chainrings – I believe your bike has a double ring, plus 10-spd cassette. When you are on the outer ring (big ring), in whatever cassette cog, the EQUIVALENT gearing that will cause little to no momentum or cadence drop in the inside ring (small ring) is two “black clicks” on your rear cassette. [okay guys, I need someone in London to explain what I wrote to Tracy]. Remember this rule, it’s useful when you are sprinting down a hill only to go back up, CARRY AS MUCH SPEED GOING DOWN AS YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH TO SAVE ENERGY GOING BACK UP, brings up my second point.

    2. Know thy gravity constant – At 9.81 m/s^2, our weight is what we are battling with when we are going up hill. Steep hills (Port Stanley exit #2) and false flats (Westchester Bourne) all follow this logic. So weight-wise, we are not at a disadvantage because we are not carrying as much. The down side is the last sentence of the previous paragraph, we have to pedal downhill as fast as possible, rather than let gravity push us down, so the velocity carry us into the first 1/3 of the hill upward. Being a good hill climber means being able to see ahead, seeing the terrain and having confidence going downhill.

    3. Know thy body/heart – as you are no doubt aware, there are generally two types of riding style when climbing – sitting and standing. Pedalling on your seat you should look for a higher cadence, rhythmic strokes, light load per revolution. Pedalling out of the saddle, slight lower cadence and heavier load per revolution. When you are heading up a hill, look ahead, don’t just stare 10′ in front of you, look ahead and gauge your effort for the stretch. I prefer to work up the hill slow and steady for the first 1/2 to 3/4 of the hill and then stand up to finish off. This generally work for my physiology because you do not want excessive lactic acid building up in your cells the first half of the hill. This brings me back to the first point, know where your shift points are so that you are able to correct shift into a proper gear to keep as much of your momentum.

    That about does it, with these rules in the back of my head, I’ve gone up most of the hills in Toronto, in Gatineau Park in Ottawa last weekend. They are ALL the same. As my wife is now being forced to enjoy this sport as well, I keep tell her “visualization is one important thing, visualize yourself at the top, don’t waste your mental energy thinking about how terrible this hill is. There is no hill, you are enjoying the scenery of this incline…slowly.”

    1. Thank you Eaton! What great information. I get the point about lighter weight being an advantage climbing and a disadvantage going down. I do need to get more comfortable about my shifting. Right now, I can’t ever tell where I am without looking or running out of gears to up to or down to. And yes, what is black shifting?

  2. Great post Tracy! I do believe that confidence is a feminist issue! A real important one. I have been learning to be more confident and value small attainable achievements.

  3. For me, riding up hills successfully means downshifting in two ways: 1) getting into the lowest gear I need to keep my leg speed as comfortable as possible. 2) as importantly, shifting into the moment– looking 8-10 feet ahead (as Eaton said), NOT all the way up (it’s too daunting), and focusing on breathing, pedaling, body position, and just experiencing my body moving me up the hill against gravity.

    Tracy, it does happen that you get into your lowest gear and you still slow way down, and pushing the pedals seems too hard, or too slow, or too risky (fear of falling). Here are a few thoughts on that. As you get more experience doing this, you will acquire more skills: one of mine is riding very very slowly without tipping over. A dubious skill perhaps, but it helps on hills. Also, relax your upper body, sit back a bit on the saddle (counterintuitive, but it’s true, unless you’re on a mtb on technical steep stuff), put your hands where you are comfortable– for me it’s the tops, and then visualize (as Eaton says). I visualize my hams, glutes, quads, all doing a great job for me. It injects some pleasure and pride into an otherwise all-working moment.

    As you do this more, you can gauge what you want to do with the energy you have– this addresses the riding v. walking issue. Last summer I was on a group ride and we got off course, stopped near the bottom of a steep hill (bad bad bad), looked at map, then decided we had to go UP. And it was super-steep and windy. I tried to get going from a dead stop, but soon became too irritated and out of breath. So I got off the bike and walked. and walked. and walked. Then I saw my friends sailing back down the hill, saying, “Oh, wrong road.” Argh. It happens. But at least I got a nice trip back down. And this is why we ride our bikes!

    1. Thanks for this. I understand the value of slow riding skills from the motorbike. Makes all the difference. Anyone can ride on straight flat roads at a good pace. But handling in tight positions, curves etc. is essential. I can see how a lot of this can translate to a slow climb on a bicycle.

  4. I’m just jealous of your size. It’s funny given culturally normative standards of beauty that I don’t usually feel jealous of thin, small people. But on hills? Every pound matters, makes it worse. There I’m jealous! You’ll be waiting at the top for me in no time.

  5. Ha! I love climbing hills on my bike (I also love running up hills), but my fear holds me back when descending. It feels so out of control and scary-fast. I don’t delay my fellow riders too much going up, but they nonetheless have to wait for me at the bottom. That’s a confidence issue too. And, like you, my feminism makes me want to be fearless on hills, but I keep getting nervous and grabbing the brakes. I’m told that the only cure for this is more hills. *Gulp.*

    1. More hills. I’m now almost (I stress “almost”) excited to encounter more hills and try out all of this advice.

  6. Stick with it. I was once terrible on hills. So bad that once, my computer read 0 mph despite that fact that I was still (barely) moving forward. So bad that once, a runner passed me. So bad that I was always the last one up and everyone else had been waiting for me for.ev.er.

    I had no confidence that this situation would ever improve. In my head I was a terrible climber, and reality continued to reflect that. Even after I started racing, and training consistently. I got stronger overall but was still the last rider up every hill.

    I’m not entirely sure when things changed. There was a moment where, with the usual group, I got to the top of the first big hill with the group, looked down, and realized I had accidentally done it in my big ring. I had no idea I could ever take that hill in the big ring, but I had just done it. Then there was the ride where suddenly I wasn’t at the back, but with the group and even sometimes at the front with the better climbers. It just happened. My confidence began to improve as more and more instances like those happened. I no longer consider myself a bad climber.

    This year, I surprised myself again with a 2nd place in a hilly time trial. I actually gained on women during the climbs, the same women who had easily beaten me on a flat TT the week before. I’m not built like a climber and always considered myself better on the flats, but once again I was proven wrong.

    I didn’t really train for hills. I never even focused too much on it, because I was resigned to always sucking on hills. I live in flat terrain, so that’s what I ride.

    All I can say is – keep riding. I’m proof that it’s possible to improve. It just takes time.

  7. I love it when athletes support each other and the confidence achieved by accomplishing something you didn’t think was possible. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!

  8. Well, certainly it helps to be on a bike with lots of gearing options. I can’t claim great on hills but when I moved to Vancouver and lived there for 8 years, I became better. The air quality in Vancouver is better and not as humid as Ontario.

    But most of all, it really is cycling at least 1-2 hills @10-15% ….daily within your regular commuting route…a person becomes slowly stronger when you have clothing and groceries in panniers. This happens when you use cycling as daily transportation.

    I would also recommend learn some yoga breathing. Learn to breath slowly and more mindfully as you grind up a hill that is difficult…hyperventitating up the hill, tends to create panic, anxiousness in me.

    Learn to cycle up that same hill in sun and rain. You will become stronger….after a few months.

    As a last resort, think of wheelchair Canadian athlete, Rick Hansen, when he wheelchaired around the world….your hill climbing absolutely can’t be as difficult as a wheelchair cyclist.

  9. I imagine hitting my limit, with no gears left to downshift to, grinding to a halt, and toppling over.

    Suggestion: once you get a little more comfortable clipping out on flat ground, go find a really quiet/secluded road with a steep hill, and practice grinding to a halt and clipping out before you fall. If the “best” quiet hill nearby is one you can climb, do it in the big ring so you run out of gears, or just don’t push hard — the point of this exercise is to grind to that halt and gain confidence, not to get stronger uphill.)

    You can (and I’m sure will) get stronger on hills, but there is a hill to defeat everyone out there (or a ride long enough to exhaust anyone to the point that a rinky-dink climb becomes The Hill).

    1. I can see the value in that drill but it scares me at the same time. Sam has recommended something similar. I get that there is only one way to get these skills, and that’s to practice them! Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Four years ago we were in St. Catharines, Ontario for our annual academic event (called “Congress”). Catherine, Christine, Sam and I went out for a morning bike ride and this got me posting about riding and hills. I don’t ride this type of riding anymore, but reading about the anguish of my former cycling self and seeing the determination to “get it” made me feel good. That last line got me, “I want that beautiful, pure look to come over me, the look that says: I thought this was impossible for me, but it’s not.” I did get that with cycling. I did get that with triathlon. And I’m still getting that with running. May you also get that look if you’ve not already. Happy #tbt!

    1. Love this post. It always makes me smile. I love the confident beginner’s mindset of seeing the skills and believing them to be doable. Cycling wasn’t for you, I get that, but you did have excellent bike skills. And it’s true that climbing is all power to weight ratio and with your new found strength from weight lifting, you’d be super on hills.

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