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Riding Solo, Part 3: On Hills and Mountains (Or, Learning to Crawl, for Rob West)

by Julia Creet

I’m not built for climbing. I have the muscle and bone mass of a hockey player. I would have made a brilliant rugby player if girls had been allowed to play when I was coming up. (Knocking down girls is still one of my favourite things.)

So climbing has always been a struggle for me. I would attack the bottom of a hill, drive up it until my heart rate soared and my legs and lungs gave out half way, gear down and wobble to the top, arriving spent and anxious and far behind everyone else. I never understood the concept of spinning up a hill or riding at my own pace.

It took Rob West, my excellent cycling coach, two years to convince me that I should learn to crawl hills. Once again, the idea seemed completely counter-intuitive to me. Weren’t hills meant to be conquered? Wasn’t I meant to exhaust myself on them? I bought carbon wheels just to make hills easier, and they helped, but I still arrived at the top panting and worried. Nothing like carrying 60 pounds or so on a bike to make you learn to crawl. Sometimes baggage is necessary to understand weightlessness.

Here’s how to crawl a hill: Start in your lowest gear at the bottom. Forget about carrying momentum into a hill unless you are riding rollers…which are a blast…but at the bottom of a mountain, momentum is a losing proposition. The first little bit your legs might spin too fast and then too slow. The inclination is to throw your weight into your feet, pushing hard on the pedals, quads firing. And then, slowly, once the crawl begins, so does the magic. On a hill with a long, slow incline things begin to shift. Your shoulders relax, core tightens, feet lighten, and the pedal strokes start from somewhere deep in the abdomen, pulling your knees up, until miraculously it seems, you are spinning up a hill, slowly gathering speed. Don’t look up, that’s deflating, unless you are near the top. Look sideways, where the shoulder looks level to the road, and then let your mind both focus and wander.

Focus on breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth, focus on keeping your feet light; wander into writing. There’s no better place to write than on a hill. Everything I’m writing here I have written many times over already. Hills have taught me patience. My impatience to get to the top was the source of my anxiety, and pain. It’s a pure lesson of Buddhism. The hill doesn’t create the pain, our relationship to climbing it is the source of suffering. Crawling will get you up anything, up most hills without getting out of breath or feeling like your heart and legs are pistons. But it means falling back perhaps and putting pride elsewhere.

I rode for a few days with my friend Andrea, which was so lovely. Her legs are thirty years younger than mine and she used to teach spin. Watching her climb, because, of course, I was generally behind, was a thing of beauty. Legs spinning at 90 rpm, back straight, forward on the saddle, and up she sailed. I just want to get it over with she said, out of breath. And I couldn’t help but smile. And then I gave her the tent to carry.

I’ve learned to love the hills. Everything slows down. My thoughts have become tender instead of anxious, and I know of few things more joyful than when your legs have found a rhythm, the pitch lessens a bit and you find yourself a accelerating upwards, as if suddenly lifted by an inverse gravity. Sometimes cyclists call it a “false flat,” when an incline feels like a decline. It makes no sense but tells you everything about flow.

Cape Breton is hilly, I was warned. If someone had said the island is mountainous, perhaps I would have paid attention. While I can wax on about hills, mountains are something else. There are four mountains on the Cabot trail. The French and Mackenzie are long and steep but not punishing if you ride clockwise (which I would recommend). The North is nasty. It’s a four-and-a-half kilometre climb at a pitch somewhere between 12 and 15%, the kind of pitch up which cars must gear down. I never found a happy place on that climb. It was the one time I wondered who thought this was a good idea as I fought for every pedal stroke and to keep the bike from swaying into traffic.

Before I came to the island I stopped at a bike store in Wolfville. Had a nice chat with guy there, one of so many conversations I’ve had here (there will be a blog on conversations), but he looked at me, my bike, my stuff, my gear ratio, and he said, you won’t get up that mountain. I hate it when people underestimate me because I am, no doubt, a woman over 60. He has no idea how much he helped me up that climb.

The guy at the outdoor shop down the street said exactly the opposite. No problem, he said, you can do it. Just stop at every lookout. And he has no idea how much he helped me up that climb. I stopped, a lot. But I never walked, and I never flagged down a passing truck, and I was very patient, and when I got to the top, where the trees were small and patches of snow still lurked in the woods, I put on my vest over my sweat-soaked shirt and my warm ear-band and steamed and wobbled on for another 60k knowing that I could crawl up a steep mountain and not panic. That was a transformative cycling experience, a life lesson… and a metaphor.

The author in a blue cycling cap, holding a beer, smiling.

Julia Creet is a recovering academic who just wants to ride her bike.

See also Riding Solo, Part 1 (Guest Post) and Riding Solo, Part 2: Baggage (Guest Post).

One thought on “Riding Solo, Part 3: On Hills and Mountains (Or, Learning to Crawl, for Rob West)

  1. Beautifully written! Climbing our short and steep hills is totally different (harder, I think) from climbing mountains. Like you, I do my best writing (and thinking) on a bike. Watching the flora and fauna at the roadside can be fascinating at climbing speed, especially as you watch things change on a mountain. When you stop at those lookouts, it can be to look out (+/- take pictures), with the chance to rest just a bonus;)

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