Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Hill

Gasp. Pant. Feel the burn. Feel the burn.

Hills. Many cyclists hate them, and I'll admit I never used to like them.

I don't know if ever there was an exact moment when things changed, but I do now know is that they did change for me. That change was subtle, but massive. I used to choose cycling routes that avoided hills. Now I live in Devon, and down here it's very hard to find a bit of road that is NOT hilly, so as you can imagine, my strategy of avoiding hills soon got watered down to picking the smallest hills I could get away with instead.

When I got back into cycling it was as an adult, with three young kids. My eldest two were old enough to be fed with cycling up and down the street where we lived at the time, and wanted to go explore further afield. That meant I needed a bicycle to go cycling with them and the bike I got was a rather cheap and nasty (not to mention bloody heavy!) full-suspension "mountain bike".

I loved it!

Of course, cycling slowly along with two young kids isn't exactly challenging, and soon I found myself wanting to go out cycling on my own to do some man cycling. One day I cycled with them to Plym Bridge, which was a good 8 miles. They were getting tired, so I motivated them with a promise of an ice-cream at MacDonald's (it's along the way home) and phoned my wife to meet us there. While we were waiting I had a chance to rest too and once the kids and their bikes were loaded into the car, I was free to do some man cycling!

I knew there was a cycle route from the MacDonald's, through Marsh Mills and to Saltram House in Plymouth, but didn't know the route and figured I had a great opportunity to go and explore. If you're familiar with the area, you'd know there's a narrow bridge over the main railway line, which is shared with pedestrians. Once over the bridge, the path is flat for a short while, before heading on to the Saltram Estate.

I was stuck behind a group of cyclists even slower than my kids and it was a great relief when I was finally able to pass them (by going off-road, as I was on a manly "mountain bike", you see). With what I must've imagined were powerful pedalstrokes I went zooming* past them, doing some proper man cycling.
*Zooming past, as in going slightly quicker than a group of older cyclists more focused on sight-seeing than speed. I wouldn't be surprised if they could've left me for dust, had they had the inclination to do so.

In my mind's eye I was invincible as I positively flew down the track. And then, as I went around the curve in the track, I was faced with Everest! In front of me was this huge, no, blinking ENORMOUS mountain!

My fragile male ego dictated that I simply COULD. NOT. STOP. I considered several possibilities: I could fake a puncture (but they'd immediately see my tyres were fully inflated), I could feign injury ("Help! Call an ambulance! I think I'm having a heart attack!" But no, that would ruin my manly cycling image). In the end I meekly accepted that the ONLY way to save face was to cycle up that bloody great big mountain, and somehow I managed to do so.

Once I reached the top, it was still an ENORMOUS 3 miles or so to get home and while I had no more Everests to conquer, there was at least several Alpine peaks I had to ride up. When I finally made it home, I was broken!

Again, if you're familiar with the general area, you'd know that there is NO enormous mountain along that path, but there IS a small hill to cycle up. It isn't very high, and it isn't steep, but that day to me it was Everest!

Gradually I cycled more regularly, cycled further, and yes, I even started cycling faster. In fact, within six months or so I've made so much progress with my cycling that I could admit to myself that what I'd previously thought was athletic, manly cycling really was just the obviously feeble attempts of an unfit, overweight, middle-aged smoker (because I used to smoke in those days) to fool himself.

But, and this is important, those feeble, wheezy cycling efforts were still miles ahead of anyone still sat on the couch. They really were modest beginnings, but they were beginnings.

Not much later I decided to start cycling to work, a distance of just over four miles each way. Work, however, was situated on top of a sizeable hill. Ask anyone who's ever cycled up Weston Mill Hill and if they're honest they'll say it certainly isn't the smallest hill in Plymouth. I nearly died on that hill that morning and had to do the walk of shame from around the halfway mark. When I finally did make it to my desk I was too knackered to do any work for at least an hour! That was NOT the glorious introduction to the glamorous world of cycle commuting I had hoped for.

Still, I kept at it, and s-l-o-w-l-y I got better at it. Mountains became hills, and hills became manageable. I finally wore out my cheapie "mountain bike" and progressed to a hybrid with 700c x 35 tyres. I got panniers to fit the rack of my bike and kept increasing the mileage I was doing. It was during this time that I started looking for hills, ensuring every ride I went on incorporated at least one good hill.

Now I'm no pro-cyclist, and of course there are many amateur cyclists faster than me. Yes, even on hills. Overall though, I discovered I'm faster than quite a few others on the hills and that just made me hunt for more hills.
Slowly, ever so slowly, my whole outlook changed and I started loving the hills.

Today I have a cycling motto that's also become my life philosophy: The hill is not IN the way - the hill IS the way.