I learned a lot about climbing mountains on vacation, and now that I’m back and have had a minute (and a connection to the internet) to check how grade percentages are figured out, I know why I had such a hard time on our mountain road in Georgia on my first two attempts.
Endomondo shows that the rise, over 4 tenths of a mile was 420 feet. If I check my handy-dandy grade calculator, that’s a 20% grade average, and if I break that down even further, there are sections on that road greater than 25%. Suffice it to say, that’s a big freaking hill. The two climbs I did over in North Carolina were 8% over 3-1/2 miles and 12% over 1 mile respectively and they were no walk in the park – especially for a first-timer (and I don’t even know if I figured those correctly, they could have been worse) – but they were absolutely doable.
That said, climbing is a lot more challenging but it’s also a lot of fun – there’s a trick to it. I’m not talking about some sadistic “it’s all about loving the pain” thing either. There’s a happy balance to it. For my first attempt, I went entirely too fast. On my second, and after a short conversation with Matt back at the bike shop, I slowed it down quite a bit – a little too much on the really steep sections. In both instances I absolutely tried to bite off too much too soon. Once I got to more reasonable terrain and got into a rhythm, I had the time of my life. And that was just climbing, I haven’t even gotten to the descents yet.
The first thing I had to get over was my expectation to be fast. Every time I tried to speed a climb up, I’d blow up and wind up in first gear limping along (or walking). However, as it is with any other type of exercise, once I found my rhythm, my speed increased quickly. On the same 16 mile stretch, from Thursday to Friday, I knocked eight minutes off of my time on the climbs alone (I couldn’t descend any faster, believe me, I tried).
The second thing I had to get over was the fact that I was so new to climbing that I was bound to make a few mistakes – and I did. Fortunately the remedies for going too fast on a climb are pretty much the same as going too fast on the flats – you slow down until you can catch your breath.
The last thing I had to accept was that I just wasn’t strong enough to tackle the really big climbs right off the bat. It would take some time to work up to the bigger hills.
Once I got my brain in order with what my body could do, riding in the mountains far exceeded my expectations.
Now, for the descents… The fastest I’ve been in Michigan was 34 mph – downhill with a tailwind. There are a few “hills” around here, but with the best one we’ve got, you’ve gotta pedal like hell just to make 35 mph. I had three awesome descents on the 16 mile ride that I chose in North Carolina. They were awesome because they were fast, yes, but also because they were straight. No breaking for curves – in fact, I only used the brakes once going down a hill in four days of riding at Lake Nantahala… That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it. I tried that new-fangled crouch position, where you sit on the top tube to get lower, too… It didn’t seem any faster than sitting on the saddle with my chin 1″ from my stem, but I really didn’t try it when I was going really fast either. I didn’t find it necessary to test the emergency response system of Lake Nantahala – even with the ambulance depot on my route.
I literally can’t wait to get back to the mountains to do it again. If you get a chance to load up a bike for a vacation in the mountains, give it a try. I absolutely loved it.