Hill climbers anonymous.
Given the Tour has hit the Pyrenees in the last few days and Mont Ventoux has had its say, it would be mildly funny if I started this piece with “My name is Peter and I cannot climb hills”. But I felt it too hackneyed and actually, slightly untrue as in moderation, I can climb or ride up a hill as a non cyclist might call it. Elvis Presley sang “I’ve never been to Spain” and in turn, I have not been to Mont Ventoux. I do however know my limits when it comes to the term famed by Disney’s lamentable line, defying gravity.
But imagine a support network, the location a church hall in the early evening. Faded plastic backed chairs unstacked, facing each other in a circle on loose floor boards. A small stage concealed by a home-made curtain, a pin board near the fire exit advising all on the next flower arranging meet and the Sunday’s Church parade announcement by the local scouts who share the hall with us. One by one, bike riders arrive, cleats clacking the wooden floor. Welcome to Hill Climbers Anonymous. Pro cyclists need not apply.
Cue the line “Hello. My name is (insert name) and I cannot climb hills”.
I have always likened climbing hills on a road bike to society. The haves and have not’s, with a few dotted in between. Over the years, I have always been a heavier bike rider and I classify myself as a non climber due to this. Even at my lightest, leanest and fittest I topped out at near 14 stone though in my defence I enjoy weight training. My weight remains an eternal mystery which has even flummoxed my doctor - though I digress. Personally, I think the hard thing about being a non climber as such is that the skilled climber has no real grasp or consideration of the non climber. Have had many conversations over the years with good to great climbers (Adkins, Dawson, Sastre, Armstrong to name but a few) who all advise the non climber that it is about practice, practice, practice, the fabled hill repeats, manning up and so on. I call it hyperbole. Being heavy sucks, not being able to monster up a climb sucks but life goes on.
The sad fact is that gravity works one way on a road bike. However, here comes the science bit. Suddenly things have changed a little bit. Having spent the best part of three years riding in Devon, suddenly my perception of a hill has changed. It is never any easier or will it ever get that way, but what was once a hill is now a blip.
I set myself the challenge of riding from Bristol to South Devon in June, and, frankly, nailed it with a decent mph average and a sub 5 hours clocked for the 86 miles. But those of us who ‘really’ know the Mendips know that you can effectively ride full gas for miles dropping down the levels and missing the hills such as Cheddar, Belmont, Burrington and so on.
On my ride, the road I used to classify as a climb, situated in between Sandford and Churchill is ‘Hill Road’. You know it, not far from the cider factory at Sandford. The name is a give away. In years gone by Hill Road was a ploddy climb, but having not turned a circle on it in over four years, this June I flew up it. It is a funny thing to explain, but one has these rubicon moments where I look at my Garmin and look back at the road wondering what’s occurred. Where did the hill go ? Sadly, I turned right at Cheddar and carried on through to Wedmore, but the legs were excited by the thought of a hill like Cheddar. I used to do Cheddar three times a week and it’s crazy to think I have not be up it since 2012, when a sideburn shod Wiggo claimed yellow. So, what has happened?
Well, in that time, I have had to reassess a climb. Re-learnt the art of suffering and had to realign my cycling lingo. The false flat, the roller, the puncher, the drag, the steady climb, the tap it out, the ramp up, the kicker and the monster, have all taken on new terms to me given the locality of my riding. It is absolutely no easier, hills hurt and I am still a ‘heavy rider’, but my perception has changed and in turn, what was once a tough climb mentally, does now not bother me. I think. I have now got the word brutal in my cycling vernacular now though and to my mind, Mamhead, one of my local climbs is just that. Cat 3, 200 feet to 800 odd feet in 1.4 miles. It is a steep one for sure, and reminds me my membership card for hill climbers anon is still in use.
Ultimately, this piece is a waving of a white flag to the climbers out there, and I do, in part, concede that you can indeed get better at riding upwards. Also, it is for the newer bike riders who are now part of the Le Sportif collective. Perhaps forget going to hill climbers anonymous? Ron the caretaker can use the cold hall for something else. Just ride your bike to the best of your ability and get up by hook or by crook.
Strangely, for me it happened without a huge amount of effort and knowledge as I simply wanted to get back on the bike. Rider weight will always determine how quickly you go and how much you suffer on the way up. Frankly I would love to be a 9 stone Slim Shady but that’s another story. I’m off out on the bike later, 32 miles around the lumpy Devon coast which I will conclude with a cheeky pint of crisp, cold Thatchers Gold in the garden watching my cats on the trampoline. Perhaps therein lies the paradox?
Take care. As Trek said, it’s just a hill get over it. Til’ next time, thank you very much.