Afraid of Riding Hills? You Don't Have To Be.
Here in the Great Pacific Northwest on Vashon Island exists some of the best road cycling terrain one can find, which is why so many cyclists come to the island year round to challenge fitness goals, to establish new ones and to generally have a fantastic experience. If you ask anyone who rides here with any regularity, it is not necessarily for the faint of heart, they come away with an overwhelming sense of enjoyment. And while you won't find long sustained climbs found in say, the Cascades or the Rockies, you also won't find five thousand pound vehicles flying by you at freeway speeds or the poor air quality that comes with it. Vashon does, however, offer nice flat stretches such as Wax Orchards Road, the rolling hills of Westside Highway and Dockton Road, to the up to 25% grades of Gold Beach, Burma Road and others that will make you lick your front tire!
<Gold Beach, Vashon, WA
Every year about this time, folks start thinking about dusting off the trusty steed that sat untouched in the trainer all Winter. They come asking about installing easier gears because they swore the ride, getting out of their half mile long, uphill driveway, was ten times easier last year! I live on one such driveway so I can relate. While we certainly don't discourage converting to easier gearing, it is often that we as riders forget the bicycle still needs a reliable motor and that becomes a bit of a mental barrier for us as we face the reality every Spring that the motor is still us.
So how does one prepare for their next great riding season? First, it is very important that your bike be mechanically sound and that it fits you properly, which includes a proper and comfortable position on the bike. Most people take this for granted and are often working harder than they need to because they're out of position on the bike; either out too far over their pedals or their saddle is not high enough, etc. They don't realize how easy it is to achieve a proper fit without breaking the bank. The important thing is to find someone experienced you can trust and who will work with you even if it takes a couple of tries to get comfortable with optimum pedaling efficiency. Some riders, for instance, have injuries that need consideration. The key isn't necessarily to be fit by someone who has five thousand tools in their back pocket that will charge you hundreds of dollars an hour, because at the end of the day, you still need to be one comfortable on the bike. Now I'm not saying that the many highly compensated, certified fitters out there are unqualified as many of them are fantastic and provide reassurance for riders needing all the technical information. I have been doing fits for several years with little more than a plumb-bob and a measuring tape. Plus, as you gain endurance, strength and flexibility, you often find your positional needs require small tweaks, mostly having to do with hand height and/or reach.
Once you have a bike that fits, we want to make certain that getting back on the bike is a sustainable experience for you. Too often I see and hear about people who go out and try to crush their personal best time on the biggest hill they can find, thinking it will be a bigger deposit in the fitness bank. Then, they miss 3-6 weeks, recovering from their heroic effort. Again, I can relate! What I always tell people when they are starting out again is to A) Leave the cape and the ego at home B) Challenge yourself in small doses....it's much better to ride Burton Loop once or twice and call it a day than to ride intervals on Burma Road and not be able to walk for a week! In other words, work from where you are and increase the dosage gradually. You'll feel better mentally and get there physically, quicker than you think.
Burma Road, Vashon, WA>
Here are four quick tips that should help you gain some ground on your goal of becoming a better climber:
1) Always make sure you and your doctor are on the same page before starting any training program, homegrown or otherwise.
2) If you haven't made the switch to clipless pedals, you'll thank yourself when you do and if you are hesitant to commit to the move, you can always start with a campus pedal (flat on one side, clipless on the other). This will not only make your pedal stroke more efficient, it will make you a better climber because you're developing leg muscles that not only push, but also pull.
3) Once you're ready to tackle that hill that you dismounted your bike to walk up, position yourself on the bike so that your chest is open and your back is flat. Then simply find your chosen climbing gear (usually your easiest one to start), dig your mental "yes I can" heels in and pedal away. You'll likely do this from a sitting position to start. You can then incorporate some stand-up climbing as you advance.
4) Most importantly, always make sure to keep it fun, though you may think your legs or your lungs have other ideas at first. If you commit yourself to sprinkling in some recovery rides (flatter terrain with minimal wattage/effort at the pedal) to go with your what should be already, a varied training schedule, your body will thank you, particularly if you remember to stretch!
Have fun...be safe!