A Few Thoughts on Climbing

I read alot of nerdy bike magazines. I am constantly entranced by the narratives there – the adventure cycling and the journeys. It isn’t lost on me that the authors are glancing over a lot. Like childbirth, the pain of riding a bike for miles and miles, particularly uphill, is something we block out in favor of how amazing the payoff is. So much so, that we do it again. And again. And again. It’s never surprising, but its is always surprising. We remember only the really good things about the ride, the pain is nothing except maybe street cred.

On New Year’s Day I went on a fairly easy bike ride with my housemate, and we took a not-too-steep-but-consistent hill that never seemed to end. It was during the long, suffering haul up that hill that I realized I have been psyching myself out in a pretty big way about the idea of climbing. I get winded quickly on hills, and of course my legs start to get tired. I have never understood ‘finding the rhythm’ or my breath – I have only understood that I was suffering, going slow, and not enjoying either. I have problems with instant gratification, and I am not ashamed! But recently I have adopted a more neutral stance. Namely, that I will climb whatever is necessary so long as I get a really good decent out of it on the other side. And I don’t mean a coast ride down some gentle hill either. I want to be flying at ill advised speeds. This does not mean I enjoy climbing. Maybe I’ll get there someday, but at this point its just damage control. So, with this new mantra in mind, I decided to try and see what this magical meditative space was all about. In that moment, I realized I had been tricking myself into failure.

When I start long climbs, which admittedly, is not often, the first thing that happens is I start dropping gears. Then I start breathing hard. Then I start to feel like it will never, ever end. Then my legs get tired, or start to feel sore (depending on the previous day’s riding). My brain interprets the combination of these things as bad, and tells me that I need to stop, so I do. But during this climb, I challenged this assumption, and just kept going. It was awful, and I was out of breath and a little shaky at the top of the hill, but I was pleased to have bested it, telling myself this would get easier as my legs got used to it. This is a naive perspective. It’s not about one component becoming so strong it can do anything. This is about the harmony of different systems, coming together for the common goal of not throwing up.

On a recent training ride, there was more climbing than I have ever done in one place. The first hill we encountered was a two mile climb, on a steep grade, with a false summit. Pretty much the worst thing you can imagine. The biggest problem was that this hill was very early on in the ride. There are arguments to be made for and against getting the really hard things done in the beginning, an easing up towards the end. I know people who agree vhemently, and people who can’t stand the idea of it. To each their own – I am too new at this to have a real opinion. But after only three short miles, we came to this hill. No matter your opinion about where heavy climbing should fall on a ride, everyone can probably agree that being able to warm up before tackling something like this is probably a good idea.

The first hill was a lost cause. I had to walk some of it, and stop frequently. Not being warmed up was probably the biggest issue, but in the end, the result was the same. Later in the ride, however, I stumbled, somehow, into this neutral space that everyone keeps talking about; this Zen space so vital to climbing and maybe even enjoying it.

Once my legs found their way into the game, I was able to handle other climbs with a little more grace. While these hills also had some heft to them, they were not extensive. After the break, we got back on the road and even on reasonably flat ground, I could feel that my legs were tired. But again, we had two long hills to climb before reaching our destination. It was on the second of these climbs that I finally started to figure things out.

The last of our ascents was about one and one-quarter miles long, not as steep as that first hill, but 20 miles in to a difficult ride. I got to about the middle of this hill before feeling like I needed to stop – my breathing was ragged, my legs were hurting, I could feel my shoulders and my ears drawing closer to one another, like trying to crawl into the fetal position to hide from the thing currently happening. But a voice crept up in the back of my head, simply asking ‘Why? Why do you need to stop? Get a handle on things, and see what happens. Give this a chance.’. So I did. I took a deep breath and relaxed my shoulders. Instantly my arms, hands and back hurt less, and breathing became easier. I started drawing breath in a more measured way, intentionally letting go of the stress trying to build itself back up in my upper body, and between rhythmic breaths, counted pedal strokes. I also put my head down. I notice that the absence of a summit starts to get inside my head – cars just disappearing around corners, still climbing, no end in sight. That psychology is still too overpowering, so I watch my legs instead, with glances up for road condition and hazards. Looking ahead, I don’t see progress. Looking down, I always do.

Cresting that last long climb was the best feeling in recent memory. This coming weekend will be another in a long series of training sessions before the big ride in June, with more hills and more miles. But I am looking foreword to hanging out once again with my friend Tiny Back Of My Head Voice, who is just now sitting around planning up new ways to ask me direct questions that throw into sharp relief how much more I could be challenging myself.

Climbing is probably one of the hardest parts of cycling. Some people love the climbs and hate the downhills. Some people only like flat ground. Others still don’t want any of that crap – they just want their farmers market and to be left alone about it. For some people, the challenge is mental, for others physical. For me, it’s both. And honestly, I think I always want it to be both. Of course I am exited to be stronger, more and more capable. But once the challenge is gone, so is the fun, at least for me. Even when I am tired, suffering, sore, and lazy – even when that feeling of challenge is not appealing at all – I can at least remember that all of this is an adventure. And I am always game for adventure.

*Featured Image Courtesy of TYWKIWDBI

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