Click Down, Pedal Up

When everything seems like an uphill struggle, just think of the view from the top.  – unknown

There were a lot of things that I was naive about when beginning our cycling adventures and my eventual transition to becoming a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra).  I grew up riding bikes for fun and to play at friends’ houses as a kid.  I rode my bike two miles each way to high school for most of my freshman and sophomore years (including rides home for lunch).  I rode through my college years and even had a pretty good crash into a car on the University of Florida campus as a freshman.

I was familiar with bicycles and thought that I knew enough about cycling to get by on the rides.  As you prepare for long-distance rides, you expect that riding up and down hills will be a certain part of any journey.  We love and hate hills.  Downhills are wonderful and uphills are opportunities to grow stronger.  As BRAT cyclists, we’ve learned a  few little secrets about hills.

While riding in a car over hilly terrain, there is not much difference in the effort that the drivers and passengers exert when rolling up or down hills.  In fact, most of the time that I’m driving on rolling hills in my automobile I perceive the time to go up a hill to be about the same amount of time required to go down the same hill.  The automobile maintains a relatively constant speed going up or down and the physical exertion for the passengers is also constant–and pretty close to zero.

Riding hills on bicycles is quite different.  Downhills are fast and usually require no effort to roll down.  However, there are times when you feel like pushing your speed to see how fast you can go or to feel the risk and exhilaration of flying down a hill.  Such was the case on BRAT3 when we dropped down into Canadian, Texas on Route 83–that was the first time that I surpassed 45 mph on a bicycle.  Again, sometimes you just have to push it.

On our rides of 7-16 days on bicycles, we often use downhills as a chance to rest our legs, shift positions on the saddle to give relief to our rear ends, or stand on the pedals while going down hills in order to break the monotony and enjoy simply rolling along.  Far too often, those downhill coasts are too short and over with too quickly.  And most of time, you end up looking at an upcoming uphill that is waiting to meet you at the bottom of the downhill.  Rolling downhill is fast and requires little to no effort to cover those sections of road.

Uphills are quite different from those experienced in an automobile.  The legs and lungs of cyclist are the bike’s engine.  Sometimes you will feel compelled to attack a hill and pedal hard and strong until gravity and the slope of the road eventually slow you down–you then click down into an easier gear and keep fighting.  This is a fun strategy when you have a nice tailwind or when you approach the uphill from a fast downhill.

Most of the time on long rides, it is a prudent strategy to conserve energy and simply meet the hill as you come to it.  Use your gears, keep you cadence up, and try to avoid looking at the distance to the top.  I like to keep my head down and use the brim of my helmet to shield the road beyond 20-30 feet in front of me.  An occasional glimpse at the road ahead to check for obstacles is okay, but getting a look at the never-changing distance to the summit can be disheartening.  Once your body is in cycling condition, you can usually ride next to someone on flat-ish roads and carry on a regular conversation without breathing hard.  Going up hills at a decent pace, even in the easiest gears, will make you breath hard.  It can be tough.  To succeed, don’t look at the top of the hill, keep your head down, keep your cadence up, click down to the easier gears, and pedal up the hill.  Don’t be in a rush, but don’t dawdle.

Downhills take no work and go by quickly.  You pedal down them in your hardest gears and cover a lot of distance with each cadence.  Uphills take a lot of work, go by slower, involve more pedal revolutions, and require time and patience to reach the top.  You pedal up hills and do nothing going down hills.  On long rides with rolling or hilly terrain, it seems like you are nearly always pedaling up hills.  Rest is quick and work is slow.  It is not like the nearly 50/50 situation in an automobile.  The greatest proportion of your time on a bike is going up hills–one after another.

Car engines don’t get stronger as you use them.  Legs and lungs do.  It is always rewarding to see my teams of students get stronger, faster, and less intimidated with riding up big hills over the course of our rides.  After facing and conquering hundreds of hills over earlier days of our rides, the hills in the final days almost seem negligible and nearly overlooked.  It’s crazy how individual perspectives on what is difficult and easy change as earlier victories accumulate.

There are a number of important life lessons that can be taken away from the love-hate relationship with hills.

  • The bulk of your time and energy is poured into the challenges.
  • Look down, don’t focus on the top, keep focused on what is in front of you.
  • Remember that you’ve conquered every previous hill, the next one won’t be any different.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to rest.  More challenges await.
  • When you feel like attacking, make it glorious!
  • Hills, and the challenge of getting over them, make you stronger.
  • Click down and pedal up.

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