Northern California was my playground last week. The Siskiyou Mountains, to be more specific. Pedaling up hills and whizzing down them was how I spent most days during “The California Bike Ride”, a seven-day bike tour hosted by Bicycle Rides Northwest. Together with 300 other cyclists, my husband and I biked over 400 miles and climbed over 24,000 feet (total elevation gain). And guess what? The group’s median age was 60 and forty percent were women! Only eight percent of the riders were younger than fifty and the oldest woman was seventy-eight.
So let’s talk about hills.
Hills are scary. Or not. Like so many things in life, the challenge of a climb (long or short) is made easier with a light-hearted perspective, a few helpful techniques, and a little attitude adjustment.
Why Not Just Avoid Them?
Portlander and NW Butts on Bikes cycling group leader, Paul Johnston, says,
You can’t get anywhere [in Portland] on a bike if you don’t climb hills. Truly flat land is really rare, and if you went downhill all the time, well, that would be too much like life itself… . All the good stuff is not just on the other side of the hill, it’s right there in front of you, on the very hill you’re climbing.
While my early biking experiences were defined by hill avoidance behavior I have discovered that conquering my fear of them has opened up the world to me. I no longer have to drive to a starting point. I no longer have to be afraid of an unfamiliar route. And as strange as it may sound, I now prefer routes that include climbing. Learning how to climb a hill is empowering. It makes you feel strong. And the downhill is such the sweet reward.
Back to California. During my hilly tour I thought of how many of you are just like I was – holding fast to the hills are bad paradigm. And then I looked around at all the women climbing alongside me; some faster (usually younger) and some slower. It inspired me and I knew it would inspire you. So with my iPhone recording app in hand I randomly surveyed a dozen women on the tour. I asked this question: “What tips, advice and suggestions would you offer a girlfriend who is just learning to climb hills?” Here are a few of those tips from the road:
- Take your time. Pace yourself. Take breaks when you feel tired. Just be careful to look for a safe place to pull out (so you are not in the way of other cyclists and vehicles). -Emily, (age 27)
- Do not be afraid. Start with smaller climbs. – Susan, (professor, age 65)
- Take it one pedal stroke at a time and eventually you will be there. It does not matter how fast you are going. Ignore other people that pass you. -Carol (registered nurse, age 59)
- Sit back in your seat and use your upper leg muscles. Don’t over exert! If it hurts, stop, rest, then continue. – Liz (program manager/analyst, age 60)
- Get good gears (I have mountain bike gears on my bike). Go slowly, steady, and learn how to balance at two miles per hour- this is what I do. – June (age 78)
- Pedal at a fast rate and get it over with. – Barbara (retired librarian, age 64)
- Follow someone. By following someone I learned to shift to a low gear at the bottom of the hill versus trying to power through in a higher gear. – Stephanie (age 46)
- Go at your own pace and stop when you need to (I do frequently!) – Chris (age 41)
- Practice sitting and standing. The different positions allow you to use different muscle groups, using one set allows the others to rest. – Muffie, (sports retailer and former bicycle racer, age 53)
My Best Tip. Besides practice, the one thing that has significantly improved my ability to get up a hill is changing my rear cassette (pictured right) to a 12/32. The numbers refer to the number of teeth on the smallest and largest cog (ring) on the rear cluster, often called a “cassette”. Most road bikes come with a standard 11/25 or 11/28. Depending upon the type of rear derailleur installed on the bike, you can usually swap out the cassette for one with a bigger cog, making it easier to pedal uphill. My bike came with a 28 but when I rented a bike with a 32-cassette in Hawaii, I felt like I was cheating on the hills. It was soooo much easier. On my birthday I asked to change my cassette and it was the best gift ever! (post updated 8/17/14).
Back to Paul. I want to include a few additional tips from Paul. He has been coaching many of us up the hills of Portland for many years. His encouragement may help you too. Here are just a few of his suggestions:
- On fear: It does no good to be scared of the damn hill, but I do it all the time. I worry that I’ll run out of steam, that I’ll have a brain hemorrhage …, that it will last longer than I can stand, that it’s going to HURT. But now that I know what to expect from myself and from most of the hills around here, I have less fear.
- On pedaling: The key to survival … is to find a comfortable cadence. 80-90 RPM (pedal rotations per minute) is my preferred climbing cadence and a comfortable effort level, and stick with it. …shift up or down to maintain cadence and don’t worry about your speed. Pedaling too slow puts too much strain on your legs, like driving a car in too high a gear, and pedaling too fast wastes energy and makes you bounce around on the saddle.
- On position: Relax your hands on the bars, keep your arms and shoulders loose, grip the handlebars gently, loosely, and slide back a little on the saddle. You want everything to go into the pedals. You are about to experience some discomfort, but I don’t think you’ll actually die…
- On attitude: Don’t grimace! Keep your face loose, it helps everything else relax.
- On breathing: Rest where you can. Most hills have easier spots where you can regroup and catch your breath a little.
- On focus: Don’t be always looking for the top. Just stay on the road and give yourself little goals, that flat spot up ahead where you can ease up a little, that tree just past the hairpin, etc. Looking for the top is demoralizing and makes the climb seem endless.
There are a lot of do’s and don’ts here. Don’t be overwhelmed. Pick the one, two or three suggestions that make sense to you and give them a try. I would love to hear what is helping you get up and over the hills that previously scared you.