Climbing hills is a necessary evil, though Johnne Pinks reckons it doesn’t necessarily have to be evil. You might even like it.
It’s a cramped little place, our island. But then any land mass that jumps from sea level to mountain top and then back to sea level again in less than 100 miles is apt to be a little squashed. In fact, it wouldn’t be unkind to say that it resembles nothing as much as a crumpled piece of paper; chip paper, probably, left on the side after last night’s fish butty, sporting healthy grease splats over the Lakes and lochs of its northern half amidst an otherwise prolific coating of crumbs.
All those folds and creases give us great trails to ride but there’s only one problem; they do not all point down hills. And, in this land of certifiably non-Alpine height gain, there’s little in the way of assistance. Chairlifts remain mostly the stuff of dreams and occasional forays to foreign climes; the rest of the time you’re on your own. Which is ironic, given that I don’t know anyone who’d choose a climb over a descent when given the all or nothing choice.
Oh, I know plenty of folks who love to climb, make like rockets when the terrain tilts upwards and pride themselves on their mastery of onemorehillism* but I also know that if we had one ride left in us, then its profile would trend mostly down. We’re inherently lazy creatures and there’s something about getting maximum grins for minimum exertion which appeals to our, er, efficient side.
Still, love it or loathe it, climbing’s not an optional extra. It’s a required tool for those practising Proper Mountain Biking and you might as well try to make friends, because you don’t get the good stuff without it. But one of the problems with a climb is that you never know exactly how it’s going to turn out.
That’s the thing about the loving and the loathing; they’re an unpredictable, interchangeable pair and when they decide it’s time to work you over, there is nowhere to hide. You might hit the bottom with lungs heaving and a troop of hamsters tap dancing across your neural cortex, only to watch the bad day slip effortlessly away as the climb ticks by, leaving you smiling comfortably at the top with the merest hint of a healthy glow about your cheeks.
Or you might grab yourself a rare good day, attacking the pack as the riding myth suggests that you should and pushing hard, too hard, right up to the moment that you lose all sense of feeling in your limbs and crawl limply to the summit with your chin grazing the top of the stem and the lights going out one by one. Or you might start out feeling average, put in an average climb and finish up feeling average, too. Just another day at the office.
Even on your own there’s no peace, although the soloist is always first to the top. Still, you’re needled by the ever-present absent wheels; then your conscience notes the conspicuous absence of goading. Before you know it the dreaded hammer and tongs are out as you race the shadows of previous beatings, oxygen suddenly in such short supply you’d swear you were at 3,000m and not still within spitting distance of the bike shop’s roof.
Up the wheel count and ascent can get to be a truly dirty business. Tactical gear slippage, half wheeling, line blocking; set a bunch of your closest mates on the same hill and you can forget about that friendship temporarily, because you have to get to the top and you have to get there first. And even if you win this one, the next is never certain; victory is often fickle and a win a little hollow as a result.
Pushing, though, pushing’s strangely satisfying. Everyone knows someone who treats an unrideable climb as a personal insult and throws himself at it repeatedly, suffering failure after failure and apparently confusing it with some sort of domination of the landscape, his bike, body and mind. In the meantime, the rest of us have sloped off up the hill for a virtual fag break whilst waiting for the novelty of smacking pedal against shin to wear off.
There’s a certain dignity in pushing up a hill. Admitting it’s too much for you. Or, better still, that you just can’t be arsed. Choosing to saunter happily up a hideous climb you know you can ride but are not going to invest the effort in today is a great way to get your point across.
And this is the key to climbing well, climbing smoothly, climbing faster than your friends; like the bikes that excel at it, you have to know when you want to do it. You have to learn to like it. And know that the more you do it, the less it hurts. And there will always – always – be a view at the top. Even if it’s of the inside of a cloud, the air is different and the light is more, letting you know that you’ve won.
And then, of course, you get to go down.
*onemorehillism: the practice of plotting a route that will deliver you to the point of complete collapse exactly one hill from home.