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.
Julia Creet is a recovering academic who just wants to ride her bike.
I finished the Friday night Smash Fest race which had 400 m+ climbing and discovered I was really close. With Sarah’s encouragement I went down the hill and turned around at the bottom and started climbing again. It was late. I was tired. And it wasn’t easy. But I did it!
Even Strava called it a “massive effort.” Thanks Strava.
What’s in it for me, aside from looking cool and bragging rights? The Tron is the fastest all round bike on Zwift. I’m excited. I’m not sure what colour I’ll eventually land on (you can change it easily with a slider bar) but here’s me on the bright pink version.
Sarah got hers the week previous, with less fuss and fan fare. (She’s like that.) She was determined to have it for a race that was on this week and so spent last weekend climbing. We both want to thank Neil at the Bike Shed, where we Zwifted pre-pandemic, who suggested we make the Everest Challenge our first Zwift challenge. It was also Neil who first rented us and then sold us our trainer when the pandemic shut things down. Thanks Neil!
Here’s Sarah’s Tron story:
“The long process of getting the Tron was an interesting one for me. I am really not much of a climber and would never normally have chosen workouts or recovery rides on steep hills, but the advantage that the Tron provides, and the peer pressure from teammates to get one, was impossible to resist.
After spending a year warming up and doing group rides on 10%+ grades (flattened and lengthened by Zwift algorithms as needed), I can say that I’ve gotten better at climbing. Practice makes perfect? Familiarity breeds contempt? In any case, I can say that in my few outdoor rides last year I was less intimidated by the usual hills. And this year I might actually seek them out and practice.
So thanks to Zwift’s “Everest Challenge”. I’ll never be a mountain goat but I’m a better all-rounder thanks to Tron temptation. Like the glowing neon wheels the lessons learned will be with me for years to come.”
Regular readers of this blog know that Sam is not a hill climber, and that Tracy, while she has been assured she *will* be a hill climber, is not one yet. Hills are in short supply in the part of the world where Sam, Tracy and I ride our bikes together: the flat terrain and gently rolling slopes of farmland surrounding London, Ontario (100 miles west of Toronto).
I didn’t learn to ride a road bike in little London, however; I took to riding after my husband and I moved to (the rather larger) London in south-east England in 2012. That means I cut my climbing teeth in the short, sharp Surrey Hills, on the ridges in Kent, and in the South Downs, which features the gut-busting Ditchling Beacon, among other gems. While training for our epic London-to-Paris 24-hour challenge ride (read about it here), Jarret and I also did some riding in the Alps, where I learned the difference between “punching” 12% grades for 1/2 to 3/4 miles, and sustaining 8%-12% grades for more than 5 miles up mountain switchbacks. All in all, I’ve ridden up a lot of hills. I’ve learned what it takes to make it to the top, whether quickly or slowly, tightly and neatly or messily, with plenty of crying en route. But I have gotten up every hill I have ever attempted – though in one recent, brutal case that necessitated me going back down again immediately after a failed first attempt in order to maintain my unbeaten-by-the-hill streak. That hill (Yorkshill, in Kent) was by far the steepest thing I’ve ever climbed, and it has inspired me to write this post.
I want to stress that I am not, like Tracy, physically built for climbing: I weigh more than the average female cyclist, and though I’m extremely lean and strong I’m simply not light. I’ve got a sprinter’s body, and as anyone who watches the Tour knows, sprinters don’t climb hills willingly. So my fondness for the hills is perhaps a bit out of (physical) character; what I love about hills is that I have the mental toughness as well as the physical skills – which I have worked on over time, since they did not come naturally – to climb, and I get tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from reaching the top. The hills are a fun challenge for me, and I love a fun challenge on my bike.
I also want to stress that I know I’m a minority in the cycling world, or at least in the cycling world in which I live: most people I ride with groan at the sight of a big hill in the distance. (Jarret, my husband, is not one of these: he kicks hill arse.) But the truth is that a hill isn’t ever going to be as physically challenging as it is mentally and emotionally daunting; people who hate hills mostly hate them because they fear them. I know what this fear feels like; I felt it on Yorkshill last month, encountering what seemed to me a truly unclimbable grade for the first time in a very, very long time. So what I’m going to do here is tell the story of that encounter, and then I’ll offer five top tips for those who want to work past the hill fear and see what they really can do.
Jarret has this book that features the top 50 climbs in the greater London (UK) area; for those who have never ridden in southern England, let me assure you there ARE 50 proper climbs (more, in fact), and they pretty much all suck. Most hills in the ridge-filled terrain near the Thames and the Channel feature grades in the teens and even low 20s; Yorkshill (henceforth known as The Climb), with two shots of (the book claims – reports vary) about 25% and an average grade in the mid-teens spread over just 500 yards, is one of the hardest in the region. When Jarret told me that he, our friend and coach Jo McRae, and I were going to do this hill on a 60+ mile ride through Kent, I didn’t think he was actually serious. But, alas, he was.
The Climb appeared about 2/3 the way through our ride. We hadn’t been hitting it too hard and I wasn’t that tired, but I was jet lagged from my recent flight over to the UK, bike in tow, and I was well aware that I hadn’t been doing a lot of hill work over the autumn in Ontario. So as we approached The Climb, I wasn’t feeling my usual confidence. If anything, I was feeling an unusual level of apprehension. Jo, who had done the ride before and knew what to expect, talked us through the terrain leading up to the really tough part of the hill, and she warned us that there would be mud and slick bits (it was late October). Then, we took a photo at the bottom near the sign marking the start of the climb, agreed it was every rider for her/himself, and set off.
The road was pleasant and barely inclined for the first portion; the tree canopy was lovely, and I let myself think, briefly, that this wasn’t going to be so bad. Then the road narrowed, the trees closed in, and the wall of road that is 25% steep reared into view. I panicked. I could not imagine making it. Nevertheless, I knew I had to try; Jo and Jarret were up ahead, their climbing bodies slipping from view. I did what I always do when I climb a tough new hill: I grabbed my handlebar tops, settled back on my saddle, started breathing deeply and rhythmically, and repeated my hill mantra. Every Hill Ends. Every Hill Ends.
Jo had warned us that this was one of those rare climbs where you simply cannot reach the top without standing. Many climbers stand, of course; it’s easier to use the weight of your body to propel your legs around the pedal circle. But climbing is also high-intensity cardio; you will hit your VO2 max heart rate quickly if you don’t moderate your time off saddle. (This is why lots of inexperienced hill climbers punch and then blow up, struggling desperately to finish the job.) Personally, I prefer to climb on-saddle, keeping my heart rate under control, with very brief bursts out of the saddle to get speed and power up. I knew that this hill would necessitate me getting up when *it* dictated, and not when I chose, which made me even more nervous. As I saw what looked like the worst bit approaching, I rose and rode; I hung on for as long as I could, watching my HR hit 180bpm, very near my max. Then, as things levelled a touch, I sat, imagining the worst was over.
But I was wrong. I’d misunderstood Jo’s description of the hill; there was another very, very steep bit coming. I panicked again and started to cry a bit; there’s no shame in the crying, but it doesn’t exactly help the heart rate or breathing. I knew I was in trouble. I rose, and at that minute my back wheel skidded out; I hadn’t kept my body positioned far enough back over my saddle, and thus there wasn’t sufficient weight over the back wheel to maintain traction. I put my foot down.
This was the moment I had a choice. Keep going, or start walking. I’ve never walked a hill; I didn’t want to start now. But I was also realistic about the situation: this would be the ugliest hill start ever. I was on a slope with at least a 12% grade at this moment, if not a higher; I might fall off again quickly, especially if I couldn’t clip in immediately. I made a deal with myself: we get on again and ride as well as we can. If we come off again, we walk, and that’s ok.
I made the hill start. I got another 50 yards or so before skidding out again and coming off. That was it; I could see the top but couldn’t imagine getting there on the bike. I walked, feeling defeated but knowing it was the only option.
Jo and Jarret hadn’t been at the top long when I got there; it turned out Jarret had also skidded near the top and walked the last few yards. Jo knew we both had the skill and the fitness to make the climb; what we needed was to psych ourselves up and talk ourselves through the technical bits, the bits with the traction-challenging standing climbs. She encouraged us to go back down and tackle it again right away; we both knew we’d likely never attempt this hill again if we didn’t do it immediately. Before I had a chance to rethink the idea, we were on our way. Jo stayed at the top; she would coach us as we came into view around the last bend, the most mentally gruelling part of any climb.
The ride down was terrifying; I leaned into my brakes the whole way, riding my drops with gritted teeth, body well back on the saddle for balance. When we reached the point where the trees opened into a wider canopy we turned around. Jarret went first; I let him ride out of sight before I started, knowing that otherwise the climb would become a race rather than a personal challenge for me, and it wasn’t a race I’d win today. I also took a moment to remind myself of everything that would be different this time: I knew what to expect; I knew there were two hard standing climbs and that I’d have to moderate my exertion on the first in order to make the second; I knew what the top looked like and what the bend before it looked like; and I knew, most importantly, that this hill ended. It really ended.
I made it. Here’s how.
(NB: this is an impressionistic list for those with The Fear, not a technical one for those very new to climbing. I recommend looking here and here for some thoughts on gear choices, shifting while standing, different cassette options, etc. All these practical things matter – especially if you haven’t really climbed before.)
1. I talked to myself the whole way up. Mostly silently, but sometimes out loud. I reminded myself of all the steep climbs I had already done, and that I knew I could do; I reminded myself that this hill was no different, just a bit steeper in spots. I reminded myself constantly that this hill ended – that in a couple of minutes it would be all over. Every. Hill. Ends.
2. I took my time. Sure, I’ve raced up hills and nearly puked at the top, but mostly hills feature on races because they separate those who can climb from those who can’t – they aren’t, except at elite levels, about speed. I worked on rhythm, on balance, on breathing. I focused as much as possible on the road immediately ahead of me – not on the road around the bend. (This is Jarret’s trick, too, and I think it’s crucial on really steep climbs.)
3. I didn’t speed up when I stood up. I kept one eye on my heart rate monitor, which is incredibly useful in situations like this. I saw my HR remain steady in the low to mid 170s – high, but nowhere near the puking stage. If I could keep it there, I knew I’d be fine. With my HR mostly in check I could focus on the technique required when standing: a low push-back climb, with a flat back. (When I got to the top Jo reminded me that I need to practice moving my body side-to-side across the handlebars, using the bike like a lever as I climb. Also good advice: that’s a skill that will need some practice but, Jarret assures me, will really help with really hard gradients.)
4. When I felt myself about to panic I talked myself right back down to my mental pace line. I spent a moment with the panic – it’s a natural reaction to having to ride your bike up a 25% incline! – but then I reminded myself again that I was going to make it. I just was: I kept telling myself that I was, and that made it, in the moment, true enough for me to keep going. (When, near the top, I started to doubt my own voice, Jo took over for me. And then I was there.)
5. I made it because I was ready for it – in all respects. This isn’t a hill I could have done 18 months ago. I have ridden a lot of intervening hills, all of them increasingly challenging, so this one was a natural progression upward for me.
Everyone with hill fear has an ascent they believe they cannot do but feel compelled to return to, because somewhere, deep down, they know they can, they will, make it up that hill, someday. My best advice is to use your own version of The Climb as a medium-term personal challenge. Set a day or a week to make it happen. Be ready to fall off, go down and try again, maybe more than once. If you don’t make it, spend some time thinking about why, dissecting the ride both technically (were you in the right gear at the right time?) and emotionally (when was the moment you felt yourself giving up?). Perhaps bring a friend along who has made it up that hill, and who can watch you from the top and talk you through it, like Jo did for me. That person will also help you see trouble spots in your technique that you can’t focus on when you’re really exerting yourself hard.
Above all, don’t get stuck in your belief that you can’t ride up that hill. You can. I know you can! It’s just a question of time, patience, practice, and faith – in yourself.
It’s a fun debate among cyclists. Which is worse, wind or hills?
The bright side of a hill is that you can see the end. It’s true that they don’t go on forever but personally, I prefer the wind.
I’m what other cyclists call a “strong rider.” That’s not a compliment in every respect. I’m not a particularly smooth or graceful rider and I don’t spin that well but in the wind, all that’s forgiven. When we hit a head wind, I tend to do more than my fair share of turns at the front. It’s partly size and power, partly it’s a good attitude. Into the wind, I can be tough and resilient. That’s an attitude I lack on hills. I’m not a hill climber. I weigh far too much to ever be a strong climber. And of course, it’s also psychology. I look at the heart rate data and I don’t work nearly as hard on hills as I know I can. I reach some great spikes sprinting but just trudge along climbing. That’s partly because the gains from the extra effort are so small. And now I’m whinging, so I’ll stop here.
After enduring an incredibly windy ride on Sunday (wind steady at 30 km/hr with gusts to 50 km/hr) I, of course, posted the news to Facebook. The weather was pretty miserable. Sleet touched my good road bike! (I washed it after.) And all variety of athletic friends were posting about having run, practiced football etc in these conditions. A friend, a fellow cyclist and a serious distance rider, commented, “Wind. Hills without character; hills without soul. The breath of a demon and the delight of Satan. Wind. Best reason for pacelines ever!”
What’s so bad about wind?
“A headwind will significantly increase your pedaling effort and affect your cycling performance (particularly if you are riding at competitive speeds). Why? The relationship between your effective air speed (ground speed plus head wind speed) and the resistance to pedaling (energy needs to overcome this resistance) is an exponential one. This means that doubling your air speed will MORE THAN double the Calories expended per mile traveled.(This graph visually demonstrates that relationship.) And the graph also shows us that adding a 5 mile per hour headwind to a ground speed of 20 miles per hour has a much greater affect on you total energy requirements per mile than if you are riding at a recreational pace of 10 mph. Are there any secrets to dealing with a headwind? A good attitude is probably the best. You can’t do anything about it till the road turns, so welcome the wind as an aid to becoming a better rider. Think of it as a form of hill climbing (at slower speeds, each 5 mph of wind speed equals ~1% of grade i.e. a 20-mph headwind would equal a 4% hill). Then it becomes a challenge rather than something to hate for part of your ride.”
Of course the best part of a windy ride are the tailwind stretches. So fast, so effortless, and you can talk. Of course, if you have enough cycling experience that love of fast quiet is tinged with apprehension about what’s ahead.
All cyclists have a story of being deceived by a strong tail wind. I once headed out from the university at lunch with my friend and training partner, a young German mathematician named Martin. We met in a triathlon training group and while he was a faster runner, on the bike were pretty evenly matched. We got talking about work and we were making great time. Wow. Zoom. I think we both thought that were finally getting seriously fit. Such speed, such little effort, we were talking while going fast. And then it dawned on us. But by then we were a good 25 km from campus and had to teach in an hour. Of course, zooming had been courtesy of a very strong tail wind. We ought to have known better.
Turning around we could barely make 20 km/hr into the wind. But we did it. Made it back in time. But there was no more talk of fitness or speed. We suffered silently, heads down, working hard, taking turns the front.
I like this quote: “You never have the wind with you – either it is against you or you’re having a good day.” It’s from Daniel Behrman, The Man Who Loved Bicycles.
When I was riding lots in Canberra, Australia a few years ago I noticed the absence of wind and the presence of serious hills. Mostly the riding there was in every way superior–more women, more racing, more group/bunch riding, more hills. I was out on training rides three or four mornings a week and racing at least twice a week. But people at my level didn’t ride as close and didn’t ride rotating pace lines the way we do here. Without the wind it just wasn’t essential.
I felt, at the end of the ride on Sunday, like these windswept trees from Slope Point on the South Island of New Zealand. You can read more about them here.
As a big/fat/whatever person who rides a very light weight bike (made of carbon fibre, it’s a Cannondale – Super Six Hi-Mod, a few years old now and bought used) I get this question a lot. I ride the kind of bike that people are surprised when they lift it at how little it weighs. It makes a big difference to the weight when I take the water bottles off. And given the light frame, I don’t load it down with heavy components. My other bike bits are on the light side too.
Light bikes aren’t cheap and you might wonder if it wouldn’t have just been easier to buy a heavier bike and lose a few kilos? Put the way it’s often asked, isn’t it easier just to lose rider weight? (All the bike forums where this question is posed also add “and sexier” to the question about losing weight. Of course.)
Why buy pedals made of pricey “unobtainium” someone once jested when you could just drop a few pounds?
That question was then repeated by a friend who speculated that it’s easy to buy things. Anybody with money can do that.
Now, he did admit that it’s also hard to lose weight. But the contrast stood, between fat people who take the easy route and just buy things and other people (with discipline!) who work hard and lose weight. At the heart of the question I fear though is the thought that fat people don’t deserve nice things. We ought to save them for rewards, you know for after we get thin.
I’m a frugal person about many things and I’m not that sensitive about my weight. So let me take up the challenge here and try to answer the charge, why should a fat person care about riding a lightweight bike?
First, rider weight isn’t easy to change. I won’t detail my efforts at getting leaner but I work very hard to lose very little weight or stay the same. Of course, I want to be leaner, of course, but my options are limited. If I could buy the weight off, I would. Instead, I’m settling for slow progress with nutrition counseling, mindful eating, and moving lots. You can read about that here.
The reason the fat/big/whatever person wants the light go fast bike is the same reason as the thin/lean whatever person does: It’s lighter, it’s faster. Whee! Zoom!
Second, some bike weight matters more than rider weight and rotating weight matters most of all so my light weight wheels are definitely worth it.
Third, as for the bike itself. I bought a carbon bike for a variety of reasons, weight is just one of them. It’s not the only characteristic of carbon fibre that I care about. It’s a smoother, less jarring ride than my aluminum frame. It accelerates nicely. It’s stiff. It’s a thing of beauty. Yes there are lovely steel frames out there but I crave acceleration, not just steady state speed, and my carbon bike is very frisky in ways I quite like.
In the end the reasons a fat girl rides a lightweight bike are the same reason pretty much anyone who rides a light bike does. Yes, I take note each time I climb a hill how much easier it would be if I weighed less but I’ve done that, had that same thought, no matter what my body weight is. I think if I approached the hill on a heavy bike, I’d wonder about losing bike weight too.
Luckily, I don’t have that excuse. It’s you and me hill, here we go!