Google+ Followers

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Hills

This time last year I was out in Texas training for the Annual MS 150 Houston to Austin Ride.
I was out with the Mules and we were cantering around the plains close to Zube Park.

Paddy (Who by his own admittance was not in great shape for cycling at that time) became quite disconsolate about me 'Racing up the hills'. He insisted that if I had to approach such terrain in that cavalier way, that I should maybe 'slow up at the top'.

I was slightly disgruntled at the time as my speed had not changed and the slight incline that he described as a hill (under 4%) would be flattered to have been regarded as such.

Yesterday I cycled up to Scarborough via Dalby Forrest and Hackness and introduced myself to many hills.

For those of you that know Hackness there is a 'hill' that goes up to Silpho which is about a mile long with an average of 15% gradient. It is an absolute beast and not at all polite, trying to trip you up at every opportunity.

I was with Simon and Bob who see hills in the same way as I see cream cakes.

Upon viewing the ascent, they lick their lips with eager anticipation then devour them.

I however struggle with the forces of gravity, my legs pumping hard, the rest of my body wanting to go down hill.

Although I always enjoy such challenges 'Silpho hill' engages both the masochistic and macho sides of my personality - at the same time.

Not wanting to spoil my other Mulees fun I told them to wait for me at the top.

(Constitution Hill - Swansea featured in Tour of Britain)

The question that is raised from my two experiences is what actually constitutes a hill?

The official definition is vague A hill is a land form that extends above the surrounding terrain. Hills often have a distinct summit, although in areas with scarp/dip topography a hill may refer to a particular section of flat terrain without a massive summit (e.g. Box Hill).

Ok so when does a hill become an actual Mountain?

The actual distinction between a hill and a mountain is unclear and largely subjective, but a hill is generally somewhat lower and less steep than a mountain.

In the United Kingdom geographers historically regarded mountains as hills greater than 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level, which formed the basis of the plot of the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.

In contrast, hillwalkers have tended to regard mountains as peaks 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level: the Oxford English Dictionary also suggests a limit of 2,000 feet (610 m).

This has led to Cavanal Hill in Poteau, Oklahoma, receive billing as the "World's Tallest Hill" due to its height of 1,999 feet (609 m).

Mountains in Scotland are frequently referred to as "hills" no matter what their height, as reflected in names such as the Cuillin Hills and the Torridon Hills.

In Wales, the distinction is more a term of land use and appearance and has nothing to do with height. A hillock is a small hill.

One thing that most people agree on is that cycling up hills (or mountains) is the hardest part of cycling when you are just starting out. (great article from

Ignoring problems of speed, most new cyclists can manage to go along a flat road for a reasonable distance without any terrible difficulties. But what happens when a hill turns up? Even a small hill can be a big challenge if you don't know what to expect and haven't prepared.

To put the record straight first - hills never get easy.

They get easier with experience, but then you go faster. However casual that cyclist might look as he races past you on the hill, be assured that he is also suffering.

Suffering faster, it is true, but suffering all the same. Hills hurt. Hills for me, are still the greatest pleasure of cycling. They are the best time to really push yourself to the limit, and the pleasure of going 'fast' up a hill that you know you would barely have got up at all a couple of years earlier is very real.

Once you have recognised that hills are and always will be difficult, how should you approach them? Getting Started Find a positive attitude and a hill.

(Not this One 'Mow Cop' on Cheshire cat left me traumatised for three months)

Ideally your cycling practice will start with a hill 2-3 kilometres long and rising about 30-50m per kilometre, but we all have to take what is near us. Choose a nice relaxing gear, at which you can pedal up your hill at 65-80 rpm, keeping a consistent speed, and try to go up steadily.

At first, you don't need to worry about racing up, just focus on maintaining a constant speed. You should be able to speak if necessary, but singing should be beyond you. Depending on your fitness even a small hill can be very difficult at first.

Remember: it is better to start out too gently and have some energy left for a last minute surge than to start cycling up the hill too fast and then completely run out of steam half way up. Over-exertion for the first part of a climb is very common, especially when you are unfamiliar with the hill. Try not to look at the top of the hill until it is quite close.

I always stare at the road immediately ahead, or the side of the road, or an intermediate point on the road. The goal is to avoid panicking about the hill, but to just take it one section after another. For the time being try and do all this while remaining seated on the saddle.

Focus on breathing out regularly. Don't worry about breathing in, that will happen naturally when you breathe out!

Most hills have several sections, try and think about finishing the section you are on, rather than worrying about the whole hill.

If you can look down, and concentrate on your breathing and the rhythm of your pedalling, the hill will pass in no time. Initially the goal is simply to reach the top

- nothing is more demotivating than failing to reach the end of the hill, so first worry about finishing the hill, then later about improving speed.

Getting better

The next step is to slowly improve your cycling speed. After a few weeks of the above, you will find that hills are becoming slightly easier, that your speed (and more importantly your confidence) improves, and you can use slightly harder gears.

Now would be the time to start setting goals. Find a hill that you are familiar with, and two or three times a week do the same hill, noting which gear you are in and what average speed you can do. Try and do it a little faster by using a harder gear. Sooner or later you will reach the point where your willpower and new found abilities takes over, and you WANT to go and beat that hill.

You will know what speed you can keep going at, and be able to judge for yourself if you can go faster. The hill is no longer a scary place, it's where you want to be! Getting even better At this point you can think about interval training on the hill. More or less, this means cycling up the hill for perhaps 10 minutes, then going back down gently and doing it again. Perhaps three times. This stretches your legs to the limit, because just as they finish recovering from one exertion along comes the next.

Standing up cycling

Sometimes it is necessary to stand up

(cycling, not pushing!) for the steepest parts of a hill, but this uses more energy and raises your heart rate, so it should be saved for occasional use only. Having said that, when I restarted cycling after several years away from the sport, I found I couldn't cycle more than about 50 metres up-hill standing-up. If this is the case, you should practice this skill also. Probably your hill has one or two shorter, steeper parts. If you change to standing position for those sections, it uses different muscles and gives the others a brief moment of welcome rest. But ultimately, standing-up is more demanding than sitting down. Change to a harder gear when you are about to stand up, and an easier gear when you are about to sit down again. Try and maintain the same cadence (number of turns of the pedals per minute) whether standing or seated. Pull up on the handlebars as you push down with your pedal. After a few tiles, try and use a harder gear. Soon you will be able to burst up short sharp sections of hill on your bike. Standing-up cycling is also commonly used for short-sharp hills, especially when you can maintain the gear you are already using. Instead of changing to an easier gear for the short climb, stand-up and keep using the same gear. Keep pedalling until you are over the top of the hill.

Many cyclists stop the effort a few metres before the top, and 'cruise' over the brow. You lose valuable seconds doing this, and also lose important speed for the following section.

Overall With regular practice, the shallower hills that you once struggled up will start to seem like flat sections of road, and big hills will get much easier. If you really have no hills at all near you, there is one way that you can still practice. Wait for a windy day, and go and cycle straight into the wind. Almost as much fun as a mountain.

I got this book for Christmas and its now my in bucket list to complete all 100

Happy cycling

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! Riding across Kansas offers many small hills in a row. I'm not fond of that. Colorado offers mountains, and while my speed suffers on a sustained climb rather than rollers, my enjoyment increases.


Feedback welcome