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What I Learned about Climbing Hills, Gears and Shifting on My Cycling Sabbatical

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Last year, my friends Mike and Chuck went on a three-day trip up north to Boyne City where a few hard sportives are held every year, the series is called “Mountain Mayhem” and it lives up to the name, at least for flatlanders from southeastern Michigan. I was bummed I couldn’t go last year, but this year the stars aligned and I made the trip with them. Camping, good food, great friends and all of the cycling I could handle – with great weather as well. And more climbing than I could shake a stick at.

Mike has always struggled with hills. He sucks at climbing them. The dude is exceptionally strong on the flat ground, but you put anything more than 5% in front of him and he drops off the back like a lead weight. I’ve tried to work with him in the past, because I can see why he struggles plain as day, but he’s tough to bring around.  He’s one of my best friends on this rock, but that boy is stubborn.

This year, though, I got through to him after the second day of the sabbatical.

I rode behind him leading up to many of the hills on day two and I watched how, and more important, when he shifted. I was typically three gears lower (easier) than he was, and about 30-45 seconds faster at shifting to easier gears.  I would spin right by him as he started grinding his way up a climb.

Anticipating hills

I anticipate hills and assume I’ll need an easier gear than I likely will. I don’t have a Garmin so I have to go by look and it’s better to be in too easy a gear and shift up than be in too high a gear (especially up front on the chainrings). Say I’m looking at a 10%’er as I round a corner. I might very well be able to climb it in my middle ring and the biggest cog in the back (42/25). On the other hand, with eight cogs behind that on the cassette, why not be prepared and shift immediately to the small ring up front (30t)? Mike stayed in his middle ring and ground up the hill. I’d shift to the baby ring long before and spin right by him with a smile on my face.

There’s no big d*ck prize for grinding up a hill in the biggest gear.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no points for grinding the biggest gear up a hill if you’re the last one to the top every time the road goes up.

Shift early into the baby ring.

Anticipate a low gear because you’ve got a full cassette of harder gears that you can up-shift to if the climb is easier than you thought… downshifting to the baby ring in the middle of a steep climb could end in a dropped chain – in fact, that happened to Mike.  Twice. That’s often followed by a descent to a place where one can turn around and climb the hill in the right gear rather than trying to start out from a stop on a 10% grade.

Now, Mike and I were both riding triple cranks – in fact, we were both riding Trek 5200’s with 9sp triples, so anticipating a hill is a bit of an urgent a matter.  Trying to climb a hill in the middle ring can be an absolute bear if you guess wrong.

Sitting down to dinner on day two, Mike and I had a talk (and Chuck backed me up and filled in some blanks I missed).  I led with the “no big d*ck prize for climbing in the biggest gear” comment and I got through to him.  The next day, Mike followed me up many of the hills and shifted when I did, especially into the small ring.  Lo and behold, he was right on my wheel up most of the toughest climbs, including a couple of brutal “granny gear” hills.

After the ride, I mentioned to Mike how much better he’d done.  Chuck chimed in, right on time, “Well look at that, you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

I don’t know how long that small victory will last, but there are more than enough hills out there to find out, and you can bet we’ll ride them.