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Climbing Hills on a Bicycle. For Beginners. Pt 2 – The Nuts and Bolts

You know you’ve found the right group to ride with the first time you come to a 16% grade, the group entirely shatters within 100′, but everyone comes together at the top and rides off into the sunset… (Technically, you never ride into the sunset – cars can’t see you as with normal conditions when you ride into the sun and we don’t want to be dead cyclists.  It’s just a colloquialism)

I’ve spent some time thinking about my last post related to climbing and while it was well received, I wanted to get a little deeper.  I simply ran out of space.  Specifically, I wanted to expand on, or better answer, one key point:

The consequences from even a tiny mistake are huge.

Truer words have never been punched into this keyboard, but what are the mistakes and consequences?  That was covered a little bit in my last post, but there’s more to it than that because mistakes can be recovered from and on that very same hill – if we don’t panic.

Now, what’s the first thing you do when you find you’re in too high a gear or you get boxed in around other cyclists – worse, you’ve been sucking a tandem’s wheel all day and you know it’s rude to pass the tandem on a hill but they’re slower than you.  Now that’s a pickle!

Here are some rather simple mistakes:

  1. You get boxed in, cyclists to your left, right and front which means you have to slow down and can’t choose your comfortable cadence up the hill.
  2. The aforementioned tandem rule.
  3. Too high, or too easy a gear for the hill you’re on.
  4. Misjudge the length of a hill, miss a false flat, or turn a corner to see that hill rise into the heavens.
  5. Go too hard into a hill only to [Insert any of the items in #4 here].

In that first post I covered momentum as it pertains to keeping the pedals turning over at a comfortable rate but in each of those scenarios above, you’ll have to think fast and change up your strategy – especially when your breathing starts to pick up and you get close to hyperventilating.  Don’t panic!  Here’s how I handle those situations:

We’ll start with item number one, getting boxed in.  I climb decently so depending where I am in a group when we hit a hill I may have a few slower climbers ahead of me that I have to navigate around.  Know this, it’s a rare day that you’ll stay bunched in a group going up a hill (unless you’re in a race – in which case, you’re reading the wrong post).  If you’re in a comfortable gear for the hill you’re on, stay in that gear and slow down your cadence.  Get out of the saddle and grind for a few seconds while traffic clears ahead of you.  DO NOT try to increase your cadence while you’re out of the saddle, you’ll burn up.  You want to grind easy till traffic clears.  As soon as you see a gap, take two or maybe three good, hard pedal strokes and sit back down…  The momentum you just created should be enough to get your spin started again and you’ll blow by the grinders.  This works meticulously for me, I use it a lot.

The tandem rule, item number two.  It is rude to out-climb the tandem you’ve been mooching a draft off of all day.  If you can grind it out behind them, do so.  If you start overheating, spin up the hill, leave them in the dust, and make your apologies at the top of the hill.

Item number three.  This is for the steep grades – 15% and greater, when it’s tough to simply shift your way out of a mistake.  I always approach steep, punchy hills with care.  Going into a hill that you have to grind up, out of the saddle, is no fun in too easy a gear, it’s almost as bad as too hard a gear (but not quite).  I like to go at these hills with a little momentum from the bottom, then shift to the easier gears right before the incline really goes up.  Just last year on DALMAC, after 90-ish miles, we hit a long, not steep, three mile ascent.  I spun up it easily and came to a sign marking a turn.  I’d left many of my friends in the dust.  Breathing was good, gear selection was good…  When I rounded that corner I was presented with a sign that read something like “Steep Grade Ahead”.  I thought to myself, “C’mon, how bad could it be?”  18%, that’s how bad.  90 miles in, after a three mile climb.  I panicked when I saw the hill.  As soon as I got to the base of the hill, I went all the way down to my granny gear (36/28).  It was too hard to spin in that gear but too easy to grind because I could turn the pedals over too easy.  My cadence kept increasing when I wanted to just plod up the grade – I had to slow my speed to much to grind up the hill in that gear.  I made it about 2/3’s of the way up before I dismounted and walked my bike up the last 100 yards.  18% is not too steep to downshift, but it is to upshift.  It’s not a mechanical problem, it’s a mental problem.  The trick is to start in too hard a gear and quickly downshift until you find the right gear – don’t automatically assume you need the granny gear because grinding out of the saddle in the granny gear is pretty easy.  The trick is to throw the bike forward just a bit to shift.  If your equipment is well-tuned, it’ll work.  Then, do what I didn’t do in that instance:  Become Determined.  I lost my determination because I was tired and wanted the pain to stop.  I could have hip-checked my bike up that hill (I’d climbed much harder hills than that), but I lost focus.

Item number four…  Misjudging a hill’s length.  If you haven’t had this happen, keep riding.  You will.  You turn onto a road and see a steep hill.  Looks to be about 1/4 mile so you start spinning up it.  Your head is down and you’re spinning away as your breathing starts to quicken.  You know your close so you look up to see that the steep part is almost over but the hill actually stretches on for another mile.  Don’t panic.  Rather than upshift when the grade gets easier, stay in that same gear and spin at your normal cadence, maybe a few rpm less, until your breathing slows back down.  Then upshift a gear or two and continue climbing as you normally would.  This works.  All I can say is Brutus Road.  There’s a reason it’s named Brutus.  Sick bastards.

Item number five is the same fix as number four.  Don’t panic.  I broke my chain on a climb last year during Mountain Mayhem:  Beat the Heat.  105 miles of relentless hill climbing and I was at mile 17.  When I shifted going up a hill, from the big ring to the little ring, the front derailleur must have hit my Missing Link just right (and I probably had it backwards) and the whole thing flew apart.  I found half of the link but not the other.  My friends went on and I called the SAG Wagon and waited by the side of the road.  Not content with sitting idly by, or cashing in my day so early, I started looking for the other half in the road.  After a quick prayer and looking skyward, I looked down and there was the other half, right between my two feet (I kid you not).  I called off the SAG wagon, put my chain back together and charged after my friends.  I knew there was a rest stop at mile 22 so if I could just make up a minute or two I was sure to catch them.  I was hoping for a hill but I wasn’t ready for what I got.  I made a left hand turn and there was an 18-20%+ monster staring right back at me.  Now, I had a bit to get to the hill and I certainly had motivation, but I wasn’t without doubt.  That’s a big hill after hammering out three miles to catch my buds.  I knew Mike would be slow going up so I took a minute to spin up to it and recover my breathing.  Once I got to it, I downshifted till I found got one harder gear than I should have been in and I rocked that hill out.  I caught up with my friends at the rest stop and rode the rest of the way with them.

That’s us at the end.

Remember, hills may not be your friend, but it’s kinda tough to get away from them if you ride a bike.  This is a good thing, too.  Practice makes perfect.

Ride hard my friends.

Join Us on the Road… The Assenmacher 100 August 21.



Read that ride cost again…  $15 for a fully supported, rest areas stocked with food, ride.


If you can be in the area, I’ll be the guy on the smokin’ red on black Venge in the Affable Hammers kit…

Unless I’ve somehow pissed you off with one of my Holier than Thou posts.  In that case, I’ll be in the Botrager/Trek kit, riding a leisure bike.  😀

Wednesday Venge Pr●n


Just gotta love it when, after years of tinkering around with different accessories, everything comes together just right.

Ooh, no pun intended.


Oh, crap… It’s Wednesday too.





Tuesday Night Club Ride: Tandemonium Edition

That’s right, my friends.  Tandemonium met the Tuesday night club ride last night.

I was nervous going into this.  My wife and I just managed our first 20 mph ride on the tandem a week or so ago and we are a little slow on our own for the big group with a 19 mph average and we need to be at 20 or better.  I wanted it though.  I wanted to see how we could do with the big dogs on Tuesday night.

The warm up was spectacular.  We pulled the group the whole way at an easy 17.2 mph and all of that worry faded to the background. With the wind, strong as it was (19 mph WNW), and the ease with which we were plowing through it (one of the best benefits of riding a tandem over a single bike), I was excited to see what we could do.

We were off the back inside of two miles.

Now, don’t read that as if I were upset, angry, sad or any other negative at that point… The truth is we got dropped because I wasn’t strong enough to keep us with the group and we just weren’t ready. We weren’t strong enough as a team.

We went from 24 mph down to 18-19 mph immediately, and I had to bust my ass to maintain that… My buddy Mike faded off the back to stay with us but it got ugly and it didn’t get much better over the next 18 miles.  After picking Mike up, we spent the next seven miles up front and I knew we should be able to maintain 18-19 mph, even into that nasty wind.  Eventually we caught Matt who was shaken off the back as well and we split duties up front.  My wife and I were maintaining pretty well, especially when we turned south, with the wind in our back right pocket.

We struggled up the first set of hills with a missed shift (I have to get the front derailleur adjusted in a little better – it was a mechanical problem) and I was starting to run out of gas from the extra effort.  When we turned east, with a tailwind, things got worse with a series of hills, even with the tailwind.

Mrs. Bgddy was fading fast and I wasn’t doing much better.  Fast forward and once we caught up with our friends Mike and Diane on their tandem, things got better.  We were able to hide for a bit and that recharged my batteries considerably.  Unfortunately, as soon as they pulled off the front and we assumed the position, my wife stopped putting power to the pedals.  Our speed dropped from 21 all the way down to 18-1/2 and I knew she was done.  I tried to keep our speed up but it was, strictly speaking, impossible.

We ended up waving everyone along and finished the ride at our own pace – and I got pretty snippy in the process.  Some of the issues we bumped into had nothing to do with the engines, but some did.

We learned a lot last night and before the bike was in the trunk of my wife’s SUV I’d apologized for allowing myself to become agitated.  I knew she’d given it her best and I was simply frustrated that my best wasn’t good enough to make up the difference.

Riding tandem isn’t as easy as I’d hoped.  As good as we both are on our single bikes, I’d assumed we would progress a little faster but that’s my big problem.  The truth is, and I came to this at the end of the ride, we’ve been riding a tandem for all of a month.  We’re just not “there” yet.

Even though we struggled through the last half of the ride, I’m looking at the whole thing as a plus…  At least we know where we are.

Besides, that was my biggest problem yesterday – and that’s definitely a good thing.

I Built My Own Pop-up Camper Bike Rack that Holds Four Bikes… For Under $160.


Nothing beats a cycling/camping road trip.  Nothing.  Well, except when you can camp in a pop-up trailer instead of a tent…  Your old bones need a good bed anyway (well, at least mine do).  The trick with many bike racks is that you can’t use them and pull a pop-up camper.  While there are some racks manufactured to go on top of the camper, most are extremely expensive…

After some trial and error, I’ve come up with an excellent, solid bike rack for four road bikes that cost less than $160 to build.  And it took all of a couple of hours.


What I needed:

Four Ratchet Straps (1,200 pounds, preferably):  $30
Two 2×6 Pressure Treated (Wolmanized):  $12 (give or take).
Four bolt-on Fork Mounts (I used Sunlite):  $25 ea – $100 total
1 small box 2-1/2″ coarse thread screws.
Self-adhesive Felt Pads (Four total):  $6
Eight each, 2″ nuts, bolts and washers for the Fork Mounts:  $10


Circular saw
Router (or chisel)
Screw Gun
Tape Measure

I cut the 2x so that it doesn’t overlap the trailer (see photo above).  I routed out a groove for the center spine of the roof (also, see above).  Cut two 12″ end pieces and a 24″ center piece out of your second 2x.  Then I screwed the end pieces and the center piece to the bottom of your 2x.  If you notice, mine has a piece on top as well.  This is for structural support because originally my wife thought it should be two pieces so we could store it in the storage compartment at the front of our camper.  This is a very bad idea and ended up giving us fits.  Don’t try to two-piece it unless you can devise a neat way to take the pieces apart that will hold up to some incredible forces from the wind/air hitting that rack.  We screwed everything together using several screws so everything is solid.  Finally, place the felt pads in strategic locations so the wood doesn’t sit directly on the camper…

Now, to strap everything down securely, we used one strap across the rack and camper and two more from the front frame channels to behind the rear wheel wells.  Those last two are essential so the rack doesn’t slide back under the force of the wind.  Now, some people epoxy a channel to the roof of their camper to take the rear wheel.  While laudable, we didn’t think it was necessary so we just ran a ratchet strap through the rear wheels to help keep them in place.  We experienced no trouble on the road, skipping the rear wheel channels.  Do as you perceive best in this regard.  With a bad crosswind, you don’t want one of the bikes shifting into one of the others, scratching paint jobs – or worse.

The rack above, in the configuration shown, made a 350 mile round trip at 65 mph without a hint of an issue – and it sure beat the $400 alternative.

Legal Note:  This post detailing a Quick and Easy Bike Rack is for your benefit.  I assume no responsibility for anyone using what I did to build their own rack.  Your bicycles and your carpentry knowledge, along with the installation of all tie-down straps and the proper use of the fork mounts are entirely your responsibility.  Not only do you risk damage to your bikes, but other people and their property as well if you do something stupid, ignorant, incorrectly or try to skimp with cheap products.  All responsibility for what you do falls on you.  This post is expressly for informative purposes.  If you do not possess the intelligence to build your own, you should absolutely buy a proper bike rack for your pop-up.

UPDATE:  I added another post with better photos of the ratchet straps here

Climbing Hills on a Bicycle. For Beginners.

Climbing big hills, and I mean big ones, double digit grades for miles, is no easy proposition.  It’s scary as hell for some beginners. Some may even consider a triple crankset just to get up hills without having to walk.

Relax.  It’s easier than you make it seem.  Kind of.

First, I’m no lightweight, 150 pound rail.  At 170-180 pounds, there’s definitely more weight on me to lose than I can get out of the bike, at any price.  I can, however, climb with some exceptional climbers.  There are tricks to climbing fast, and they do not include zig-zagging up a 10% grade.  That should not be necessary.

Getting up a decent hill is no different, theoretically, from cycling on flat ground other than these facts:

The grade makes it a little harder.
It’s slower.
The consequences from even a tiny mistake are huge.

Climbing a hill is all about momentum. When momentum is maintained, a seemingly hard climb can be accomplished with less effort than you might think. Lose momentum and you can get stuck trying to grind it out. There’s a reason they call it grind.

The momentum I’m talking about here is not going up. Dude, you can’t beat gravity. Gravity is not a Theory, it’s the Law.

The momentum is in your cadence, how fast one turns the pedals over.

I have a friend, Mike, who is incredibly strong on flat ground. You put that fella on an incline and he’s a completely different cyclist. He loses momentum in his cadence and tries to grind up hills.

He’s regularly one of the last guys up a hill.


Now, to keep that momentum, there are a couple of things that are important to know:

First, contrary to popular belief, you’re not stuck with the gear you’re in unless you’re in the last gear you’ve got. To shift, up or down, you have to relieve some pressure off the pedals/drivetrain for the derailleur to shift. Do this by getting out of the saddle and picking up your cadence and a little momentum. Then, when you’ve got a second of steam built up, put your fingers on the sifter and throw your bike forward as you plop down in the saddle and shift while continuing to pedal. As your butt hits the saddle, ease up on the pedals (pressure) slightly to let the derailleur complete the shift.

Second, pushing too easy a gear is just as bad as too hard a gear. Spin too fast and you’re going to run out of juice just like you will trying to grind too hard a gear.  The idea is to be able to turn the pedals over a little easier than you would on flat ground at cruising speed.  You match the gear you want to that feeling.  From there, you just keep your cadence between, say 60 and 80 rpm.  This is going to seem a little fast at first, especially because you’re going up a hill at slow speeds…  Trust it and give it a go.  If you’re in too hard a gear to get the pedals moving, downshift one and try it again.  If you’re in too easy a gear, get a good head of steam in the gear you’re in, let up on the pedal pressure just a bit and upshift.  Then spin away, and don’t worry about speed.  The main concern is with breathing and maintaining your momentum so the gear you’re in stays relatively easy to push (compared to your normal flat ground cruising).

When you get the cadence down, all you have to worry about is breathing.  This can be a little tricky but if I look at it as though I’m just spinning normally on flat ground, I know where my RPM should be for an easy cruise – as long as I keep the cadence near that, I can fly up a hill while others are left behind trying to grind it out.

Now, as a final note, one should never look at climbing decent hills as “easy”.  No matter how good your climbing Kung Fu is, it’s still hard work.  On the other hand, there’s an easy way and a hard way to get up a hill and once I figured out the proper cadence and how to incorporate my breathing into that rhythm, I became instantly more proficient.


Finally, and this is very important, don’t judge yourself on someone else’s performance.  You have no idea how hard someone else trained to get that fast, so don’t assume that you can, or would even be willing to, give up what they did to get to where they are.  Ride your ride, not theirs.

Some Insights on Cycling a Century; 100 Miles or BUST!

I am a century cyclist.  I’m actually a multiple-century cyclist.  Two, three, even four days in a row.  No worries.  Sub five-hour century?  Check.  Five hour centuries, many – and usually with as few as four or five guys.

Cramping, nausea, inability to sleep afterward?  Check. Check. Check. Of course, it’s not so bad anymore, whether it’s that I’ve just grown accustomed, better fitness, or wiser nutrition, I don’t know but I don’t suffer like I used to afterward. Though the first two (cramping and nausea) were fixed nutritionally, the third is what it is.  I usually have to wait several hours to nap, or till the evening to simply crash.

This post reflects my experience with cycling’s marathon; The Century.  This post is for Karen, who inspired its writing.  Thank you Karen.

There’s no doubt 100 miles is tough and cool to most normal folk.  Those who don’t ride will think you’re cool for being able to do it in under 14 hours.  Their jaws will drop when they find our you’re faster by more than half. As with everyone I ride with, something magical happens about 80-85 miles in… My friend Mark put it succinctly, “I hit 80 miles and I just want to get off the frickin’ bike.” We hit the wall. Ride through it and a fourth or fifth wind is usually in the not too distant future.

Proper nutrition after the ride is also imperative. Eat too soon and, well, it’s ugly. Wait too long and recovery is slowed. I also have to eat the right stuff. Some watermelon immediately after is excellent, followed by a decent carb/protein balanced meal which aids recovery.

Then there is the multiple-day centuries. If you think one is tough, try three or four in a row, all at your best pace. The third day is toughest for me… If nutrition is important for one, eating properly for four takes that to a whole new level.

After enough centuries, they’re really not too bad. Almost enjoyable. The operative word in that two-word sentence is “almost”.

That said, there’s a twist.

I don’t particularly like or dislike a century ride. I always feel like I’ve accomplished something but I have to wonder if the pain of riding through the proverbial wall is really worth it.

After discussing this with most of the guys I ride with, it’s almost unanimous across the board. It’s not.

While we all still do the distance, and will continue to, the 62-1/2 to 75 mile distances are far more preferable, if for nothing else, just being able to skip those several hours of feeling hammered afterward. As far as I’m concerned, personally, I prefer 70-75 miles. Too often, 60-65 just seems like it’s over too soon. That extra ten to fifteen seems to get me to that spot in my head where I think, “Yep, that’s good enough”.

In the end, I suppose it’s about preference. Our club used to have a guy they called “hundred mile Rick”. Everything was a century with that guy. You’ve got your double-century folks, your century folks, double metrics and metric century folks… all the way down to the ride around the block club.

While centuries are shy of “too much of a good thing”, four or five hours up to ten hours in the saddle is a long time. It’s not for everyone.  While many cyclists will embrace and enjoy the century ride, if you’re not one of them, definitely don’t sweat it.  You won’t be the first or the last who says, “Meh” to the whole thing.  I have several friends who would much prefer a 70-75 mile ride over a century.  The trick is, at 70-75 miles, you’re not likely to hit the wall, you still feel like you did something exceptional and you’ve got some gas left in the tank.

Humorously, my position on this has evolved quite a bit.  Four years ago I’d have sworn up and down that the century is a must as far as cycling accomplishments.  Now that I’ve done dozens upon dozens of them, well let’s just say it’s not all that big a deal any more.  Do them or don’t.  All that really matters is that you’re riding the miles you do with a smile on your face.

Oh, and one last thing…  As a cyclist, you are likely run into people who will judge another cyclist by whether or not they’ve ridden centuries.  First, you don’t want to ride with those people anyway.  Second, if you need to provide them a good reason, a simple “I don’t find a need or desire to go that far” or “I have no desire to spend that kind of time riding a bike” will suffice.  Keep it simple and short… and simple – and above all, enjoy yourself.  There’s too much pressure off the bike as it is, no sense in screwing up a perfectly awesome leisure activity as well because you don’t want to spend 4-10 hours on a bike.

In fact as a more extreme example, I have many friends who will do the Michigan 24 hour challenge every year.  Each year I’m asked if I will join them, to which I respond the same, every time:  “Dude, it’s awesome that you want to do that but that’s a little too much of a good thing for me.  No thanks.”  I have absolutely no desire to ride a bicycle 24 straight hours.  That’s a hard pass.


Another Hundred Miles with Friends… Well, not quite.

Saturday’s ride, at the Northwest Tour with my friends, was the hardest century I’ve ever done, by a long shot.  It was so hard, I only needed 2-1/4 miles to make it a full century… and I didn’t care.  97.72 miles was good enough for government work.


We had long climbs, short climbs, steep climbs, gradual climbs, and more rollers than one could shake a stick at.  It was harder than the Horsey Hundred in Kentucky, harder than any one day of DALMAC, harder than Mountain Mayhem Beat the Heat.  My friends, that one hurt.  Our average speed was 17.5 mph when all was said and done – and that was 1.3 mph faster than last year’s group did it (of which I was not a part).

However, I did have an exceptionally cool moment… Rounding a corner, coming off an awesome descent, I looked up to see a green sign but it didn’t signify a City Limit… It was the 45th Parallel. Now honestly, how often can you take the midway point to the equator or the north pole?! I was out of the saddle instantly and I sprinted like I meant it. Even Mark acknowledged, “Yep, you get extra points for that one.”


The last ten miles, Chuck said to me, “I think I’m running out of gas”.  The last five it wasn’t a matter of “I think” – and I was glad because I was smoked too.  I’ve only seen Chuck run out of juice twice in four years, so if he’s hit, I know we worked hard

That said, as far as a bonding experience with my cycling buds, it was about as good as it gets.


On the other hand, I was a little shy on the photos for that ride because I was more concerned with riding…

That all changed for day two. My friends all said this was the flatter day. They got me.


We had a solid eight man crew and only two were notably stronger than the rest of us, and not by much. We worked well together and really had a grand time ticking off the miles.


In the photo above we are rolling toward Bear Lake in Manistee County…


Then came Arcadia Bluffs and the two biggest climbs of the day… They were pretty tough, a couple of miles each at about 12%. This is Chuck pulling into the scenic lookout…


I was third of the eight up the hill so I had a second to take some photos of my bros hitting the parking lot…


My buds Mike and Phill…


Truthfully, no picture can do that climb justice, it was simply awesome.


Of course, when one climbs something like that, a descent isn’t far behind…


From there, we had another ass-breaker of a climb into Frankfort and this…


The end of the line, baby. Chuck’s wife was at an art fair in town so she spared us the 35 mile ride back to camp. We ended up with 72 miles and some change. I could have gone the distance but after an awesome lunch at Dinghy’s, the ride home sounded a lot better than trying to hammer out the remainder in the near 90 degree heat.

My Venge has 20 gears. I used every one this weekend. Top speed, 45 mph. Low speed, 7 mph.


…and it was awesome. If you’ve ever thought about a multi-day tour in Michigan, the Northwest Tour is the best thing going. Utterly spectacular scenery and an incredibly challenging ride.

Another Beautiful Morning for a Bike Ride…

It’s 59 perfectly calm degrees.  Literally no wind.  By the time we’re done it’ll be 81 with a 3-4 mile an hour tailwind.

A nice lunch out, a shower and we’ll call it a day. 

For dinner last night, I grilled burgers and hot dogs, Chuck made some phenomenal grilled asparagus, we had mac and cheese, green beans.  We capped that off with a cup of coffee and four Oreos with a cup of milk.

I’ve read a lot about diets over my blogging career and not a one looked like that. I truly love a diet of more miles. It always beats actually watching what I eat.

I can’t out-ride a bad diet… but I can definitely out-ride a good one, even with a few Oreos on top.


More later…

A Hundred Miles Between Friends…

A strong group of my best cycling buds went out for a bike ride.  Mike, Phill, Chuck, Kevin and Mark.

It was only supposed to be 92 miles but it turned into 98 in a hurry.  Easily the hardest century I’ve ever done.

More climbing…. damn.  I’m just too tuckered out to write about it.

Oh, and I got the sprint for the 45th parallel.  Halfway point to the North Pole.  I got bonus points for that one!

More later, my friends.