Part of the sadistic side of cycling seems to be the love of punishing one’s self, and that usually comes in the form of riding great distances and climbing hills.
Now, everyone loves going fast on a bike. Everyone loves screaming downhill (in control), periodically peeking at the computer to see their speed. I find great joy in this as well, occasionally busting through 70-75 km/hr. It’s a rush! But that’s easy. For better or worse, especially when you start putting 40+ kilometre rides together, you discover that every sweet descent eventually bottoms out and then you’re faced with a climb that pays you back for what you just whipped down.
What separates greatness from mediocrity is a cyclist’s ability to suffer. Riders striving for improvement must seek out these climbs, embrace them, and conquer them. And not only conquer them, but with practice, progressively conquer them faster, easier and more often. Pick any summer evening between 4 and 9pm, and you will see dozens, if not hundreds of cyclists doing “repeats” up and down Spanish Bank hill at UBC in Vancouver’s west side. Pick either day of the weekend to visit one of the three North Shore mountains (Cypress, Grouse or Seymour) and you will again be over-run by cyclists tackling some of the most gruelling roads in the region. They struggle their way up, scream down, and repeat.
For me, the emotions of climbing are paradoxical. Climbing many of these hills – whether Spanish Bank, Prospect Point at Stanley Park, Burnaby Mountain at Simon Fraser University or any of the three North Shore mountains – sucks. Complete, unadulterated, inalienable suckitude. In one of your easiest gears, you’re cranking with every bit of effort you have short of terminally exhausting yourself, crawling up a hill at about 12km/hr and meanwhile cars are driving past you and you’re thinking of what it feels like to be in them, just sitting back and taking in the scenery. And yet within minutes of finally ascending the hill, whether it’s 2 kilometres long or 12, you get a feeling of exultation and joy. Your pain and suffering is wiped away and nearly instantly you feel like taking up the challenge again. So, after flying down to the bottom at 75km/hr, you do! And when you finally arrive home from your ride, your enthusiasm and self-belief is at an all-time high, you’ve burned a few thousand calories, your legs and core hurt in all the right ways and everything is right in the world.
From this newbie’s perspective, successful hill climbing seems to be equal parts psychology (confident enough), physical strength (fit enough) and aerobic condition (strong enough for long enough, aka stamina).
When you see or think of the hill ahead, are you scared? Are you nervous? Are you defeated or pessimistic? Or are you excited, determined and confident? When you get to the hill, or part way up, are your legs screaming at you? Are they filled with jelly? Or are they handling the climb in stride, offering you quick piston-like movement and instantaneous response to your mental effort? Half way up, are you gasping for air? Is your heart attempting to leap out of your chest? Or are you in rhythm, your breathing calm and deep, and your heart pounding, but balanced?
Chris, my Gran Fondo clinic coach, sent around a great blog post from a local rider who is evidently a pre-eminent climber and overall excellent cyclist. A lot of his tips I arrived at inherently and agree with 100% (like relaxing your grip on your handlebars, deep, steady breathing, and when standing up on your pedals “out of the saddle,” treating your pedal strokes like a stairclimber). Have a read and next time you’re out on a ride, look forward to that hill, know it has a summit and trust yourself that you will overcome it.