If I were to follow a professional cycling mould and make a laughable comparison of myself with a lycra-clad demigod, I would be more of a “Cavendish” than a “Froome”. I can’t climb hills to save my life, and hate them with a passion. As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about a hill is coming down it.
Of course, I can actually go up hills – but I ride a heavy hybrid and not some sleek carbon-fibre road bike. I guess many of my readers are the same. Recently, I put my (limited) climbing skills to the test down in Mortehoe, North Devon, which has a very steep 20% (1 in 5) hill on approach to the town, rising 654 feet according to my Strava stats.
I descended down this hill from my caravan site nearby and had to do much of it on the brakes. My little Garmin practically had smoke coming out of it when I hit 33mph, and I didn’t feel comfortable pushing it any harder. Country roads may be generally less busy than city roads like here in London, but drivers tend to occupy more of the centre of the road in my experience, and are generally driving at speeds closer to 60mph. The steepness of the hill was greater than any other I’d ever ridden down, and the photo here doesn’t really do it justice. I had to adjust my weight by sitting back in the saddle (keeping my back wheel closer to the ground) and making myself more horizontal, rather than my more traditional “sit-up and beg” riding position, so that I didn’t lean too far forward on the handlebars. Once the hill changed to a shallower gradient, it became a pure pleasure to descend down from the hill onto the far eastern end of Woolacombe beach.
This pleasure was fairly short-lived, as I pushed myself too hard coming up a hill on the other side in an area called “The Warrens” and had to stop and collapse on some grass nearby after only riding three miles. I was so out of shape, I even dry-retched a couple of times – something that happens to me quite a lot when I push myself too hard, too quickly, but something I usually get over very quickly. As I sat on the grass, it dawned on me that I would have to climb back up that same hill to return to my caravan. Pride prevented me from calling Mrs Tubby on a rescue mission.
I decided to take a longer route round, but climbing up a slightly shallower hill through the edge of Woolacombe itself. This had the added advantage of making my ride into a nice loop.
For the first half-mile or so, climbing out of Woolacombe with spectacular views over the coast, I felt fine and left my retching behind me. My legs were tired, but nicely warmed-up by now. Unfortunately, my ever-present companion, fatigue, set in after only another few hundred yards, and I found myself sitting on the edge of a hotel flowerbed, desperately gasping for air and contemplating Mrs Tubby’s rescue mission. Then, I made a decision that will seem like the most basic common sense to most cyclists, but had never really occurred to me up until that point: I was pushing myself too hard, and needed to go slower. It didn’t matter if I completed the course in pigeon-steps – the aim was just to complete it. This basic thought hit me as a revelation in its stark simplicity.
I cranked my gear down to its lowest setting of 2-1 (I don’t use the first front gear) and concentrated on each turn of the pedals, inching myself up the hill. Sure, my speed was no longer 10mph (more like half that), but I was going up the hill – and much faster than if I were walking it. I stopped worrying about being quick or pushing myself and just went slowly, enjoying the ride. I made it all the way round the course with only one more stop on a Cat 4 climb (briefly). Having stopped three times in the space of a mile before my simple thought, I now stopped only once in the remaining five miles – despite that being the section of the course with the steepest gradient.
My advice to fellow Two Wheel Tubbies? If you’re struggling up that hill, crank it down into a low gear and don’t worry about it. Go as slow as you like – just enough to keep your balance – and you’ll feel better than if you get off and push your bike along. It worked for me.