Zen and the Art of Hill Climbing

Hill climbs. Striker of fear into many cyclists, whether beginner or seasoned. Which is a shame since they’re to be found almost everywhere, therefore incline-avoidance can seriously paralyse route planning in some of the most beautiful places. Becoming a climbing beast doesn’t happen overnight, so I’ve written down some of the things I learned along my journey from Hill Fearing Female to Embracer of Altitude…

~ Before you set off ~

Know your nemesis. The ascent out of the Nant Gwrtheyrn Welsh Language Centre in Llithfaen in North Wales at the end of a big day was far from the best way to enjoy it!

It is better to overestimate a hill climb than to underestimate it, and there’s plenty of things you can do at the planning stage to enhance your experience of that hill you fear. You might wish to plot a route that gives you a get-out option in case your hill flogs you a bit hard. It might be better to get the big hill out of the way early in the ride rather than save it until the end (if nothing else, you won’t spend the easier miles with a belly full of dread). On a breezy day, have a look at the wind direction before deciding which side to take your nemesis from – a hill can seem like a walk in the park if ascended with a brisk tailwind but can be an entirely different beast into a headwind.

You may be one of those people who likes their ride stats straight-up, who needs to know the details of the route so they can pace themselves accordingly. Alternatively you might be a Pedal Pocahontas who would rather not know just how many ‘just around the riverbends’ they are from the summit. Either way, it helps to keep your powder dry until you’re sure the end is in sight. It took me a long time to shake off the ‘Fabien Cancellara’ moniker because I used to try and horse up any hill just to get it out of the way, but my cycling enjoyment and performance has come on a long way as a result of pacing myself. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with selecting your easiest gear early on in a climb and then just spinning it out – in fact, I’d actively encourage it.

Speaking of gears, it’s amazing how many hill-phobic cyclists wheel out a bicycle with a gear ratio which is totally unsuitable for the terrain where they live. No wonder the hills strike fear into heart and thighs! Before blaming your lack of fitness/cycling aptitude/grit, consider that you may not have the right gear ratio for the job. If you’re not sure if your bike is set up for the hills you want to ride, have a chat with your local bike shop. Don’t listen to the absolute w*****r who tells you ‘a triple is for p***ies’ – a triple is a gear set-up with three gears at the front rather than the conventional two, with the third being an easier climbing gear, and yes, that is a genuine statement someone has said about my triple set – they make cycling in lumpy areas so much more enjoyable. Another antiquated bike attitude that can take a long walk off a short cliff, is the idea that using an e-bike (a bike with a battery boost), is somehow not proper cycling. If it gets you places you wouldn’t otherwise have the fitness or confidence to go, then who cares?

~ Developing the mental aptitude for altitude ~

It’s easy to be zen when your surroundings are this incredible! (But there are snow poles all the way up, if you need them)

But what if it’s too late for that, and you’re halfway up the Stelvio and starting to lose your mojo? In my experience it’s the mind that usually goes before the legs do. I’ve tried and seen various distraction tactics used, with varying success, so I guess try a few out and see what sticks. Counting is a great way to break up a seemingly endless suffer-fest – try counting down the lampposts or snow-poles to the top, grind out 100 pedal strokes then evaluate your progress, or break up the monotony by alternating twenty pedal strokes seated with twenty standing. Pedal to the beat of a song in your head and reassess how you’re feeling when you get to the chorus. Follow in the pedal strokes of one highly determined cyclist we once rode with who, pushing her way out of her personal pain cave on a sportive hill, pedalled along to the mantra “B-A-D-A-S-S I’m a badass”. YES, YOU ARE!

~ ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body’ ~

Perhaps you’ve got the climb psyche locked and loaded but it’s those pesky legs that just started to feel like you’re cycling through wet concrete that’s setting firmer with every pedal stroke. Making sure you’re in the lowest gear your bike has should be your first manoeuvre. If you’re still pedalling squares*, try weaving from left to right across the road as you ascend (if the road is quiet enough) as it will reduce the effective gradient you’re pedalling against and give you some recovery time. Take any bends as wide as possible even if that means moving onto the wrong side of the road (traffic permitting, obvs). If you’re on a longer ride make sure you’re well fueled for a feared climb, remembering that even simple carbohydrates can take 20 minutes to get taken up into the bloodstream and absorbed into the muscles where they’re needed. Have you mastered getting the most out of standing climbs on the bike? British Cycling has produced a great video with tips on efficiency of effort when you’re getting out of the saddle. If nothing else, it makes a world of difference in post-ride backside pain if you’ve spent some of your ride standing!

~ No person is an island ~

Sometimes you’ve drawn on every resource you can muster and the only thing that will break the back of that monster, is a bit of encouragement from the fan club. This might take the form of a friendly toot from a sympathetic driver (if you are ever in a car behind a struggling cyclist on a big hill, consider giving a motivational beep and wave, it will make their day!), or a select team of cycle cheerleaders you’ve assembled to help distract you from the lung or leg burn. Extra brownie points go to friends who will follow you up that hill playing the Tour de France theme tune or something by the Vengaboys out of a speaker in order to keep you going. For some people the very best external motivator is locking onto a competitor who’s ahead of you and not letting them leave your sight, or even trying to beat them to the top. You’ve got to be discreet if that’s what you’re up to though; if you overdo it and blow up before you’ve caught your target, it’s better for your ego if you can keep it to yourself.

~ Own your victories! ~

What better motivation than a smiling team and a Belgian cafe stop to celebrate with. #squadgoals

Make sure you take some time to reward yourself at the top. Stop to take in the panoramic views, take a selfie and send it to a friend who’s sure to shower you with praise, have a picnic, watch the sun set over the horizon while you stretch out your fatiguing limbs in an Instagram-friendly yoga pose that all your haters will envy you for. Make sure you take some time to be grateful to yourself for what you’ve achieved.

And if all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with getting off to push, or turning round and rolling all the way back down again! Just remember to make a mental note of where you got up to, so you can slay that beast next time…

Saturday 14 August, 2021

*Pedalling squares is a term used in cycling when you’re too fatigued to maintain a smooth circular pedal stroke

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