Life is always easier if you're in the right gear.

Hills Are Your Friend

There I was on a group ride that was beyond my ability level. I was the only woman in a group of “old guys”. Never mind that most of these “old guys” were flying on two wheels faster than I have the courage to go at this point. Never mind that they were flying on the flat and barely slowed on the climbs. These people, ten to fifteen years older than me. were absolutely dreamy in their fitness levels and cycling abilities. I decided, as I gasped for air in my efforts to keep up, that I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.

Anyone who knows me knows that I hate hills. I’ll ride a thousand miles, as long as there are no hills. I can even ride fast, if the course is flat, but put the hills into the mix and suddenly I don’t just slow down, I stop. Part of the reason for this is my weight. I’m packing about 45 pounds more than I should if want to be at my ideal weight. The other reason is that I haven’t quite mastered the skill of the “uphill shift” which is more important than I ever imagined.

As I struggled up the hills on that embarrassing ride that day, watching my weight drag slow me down, and as my anxiety that I would be holding other riders up increased, one of the guys glided up next to me…on his recumbent (that has to let you know how slowly I was climbing). I looked over at him and gasped, “I hate hills.”

He laughed and said, “Hills are your friend.” I would have responded, but I was gasping desperately for my next breath. I was hoping I wouldn’t slow to a complete stop.

It was on that ride that I realized, I had to do things differently. I had to view hills differently if I was ever going to be the cyclist I hope to be. Hills have to be a part of every ride, or almost every ride, from here on out. So, I’ve made some changes. Mind you, I’m not a professional cyclist. I’m merely a middle-aged single mom who wants to keep up with these “old guys”. (They’re really not that old, but they are old than I am and they are in great physical shape.) I read a lot and I’m trying to apply what I learn to my cycling game, but it’s slow going. I just don’t have hours every day to train. I did come up with a couple of things I thought I’d try to improve my game.

The first thing I decided to do was to view hills differently. Oh, I still hate them. I can’t go up them fast, and there are some that make me feel like I’m going to puke, but I definitely view them differently after that ride. Instead of viewing hills as an evil to be avoided at all costs, I now view them as a necessary part of my workout. Face it. I might be 51, but when I go out for a ride, I’m not riding like I’m on a beach cruiser heading to the corner market. I’m riding as fast as I can with the goal to improve my average pace, or my distance or something. If I’m going to get any better, I have to develop my ability to climb. I also have to develop my endurance on climbs. Fortunately, southern Oregon has plenty of opportunities for one to develop their climbing legs. I’ve decided that I need to deliberately include hills in just about every ride, unless I’m out for an easy spinning ride after a very long ride the day before.

The second thing is something that I’ve been working on this summer, and that is, I just have to drop the weight I’m packing around. I read somewhere this week that for every pound of weight a cyclist carries they lose 15 seconds off their ride time. I did the math. This adds up to a ride that is 11 minutes slower than it otherwise would be. This would make the difference between me struggling far behind the fast kids, gasping for my next breath, and staying with the peloton or at least close enough behind them that they don’t have to stop and wait till I catch up. That alone is a motivating factor to say no to that glass of wine at dinner or that cookie my kid made for dessert. It’s enough motivation to get me to really be purposeful about what I eat. That’s a huge shift for me (no pun intended).

The last thing I had to do was to give myself permission to use all the gears available to me on my bike. As I think about it now, I know it seems silly but, up until now, I’ve limited myself to about three or four gears that feel most comfortable to me. I’ve tried to stay in that range, even though it meant mashing on the pedals whenever there was a incline. I figured I was building muscle so it was okay. The more I read and learn about cycling, the more the word cadence comes up, and with it the idea of keeping your pedaling reps to a certain number per minute no matter what the terrain. This means you’ve got to learn to use your gears effectively. I still don’t have this down completely. It’s all about timing as much as knowing what to do. I have, however, freed myself up to use all my gears instead of thinking I was not really improving unless I could ride in these certain gears. (I’m not sure where I came up with the notion that I wouldn’t need all my gears, but this was a monumental psychological shift for me.)

I still have work to do. I miss the uphill shift on occasion and am lucky I don’t fall completely off the bike. Today, I took on some hills and felt like I was going to puke when I reached the summit. I am seeing successes though. On the long gradual climbs, I can manage to keep up a decent speed and last weekend on a ride, I even accelerated on a climb and overtook other riders. The same hills that I had to stop twice to get up last year, I can now climb without stopping. It’s not easy, it’s hard, I feel the burn, but I notice the improvement. It’s a good feeling.

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Hi, I'm Cat A.Olson, @According2Cat on Twitter, or @TheDigitalCat on Instagram, and I write about my cycling adventures. In 2010, after 25 years off the bike, I decided to get a bike and start riding again. In 2012, I was diagnosed with DCIS, an early and completely curable form of breast cancer. I had five weeks of radiation treatment and I rode my bike to nearly every treatment. In 2013, I decided to get a faster bike. I'm finally getting serious about losing weight, and riding really fast with the cool kids.

I ride every chance I get, as fast as I can, for as long as my body will allow. I'm learning how to embrace challenges like helmet hair, padded pants, clipless shoes, flat tires, bugs in my teeth, and...ugh...hills. I'm learning that both cycling and life are easier and a lot more fun when you're in the right gear.

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