The hill leading to my house is not that long, but it features a couple of steep ramps, no matter which direction you come from. I know, because I have tried coming from virtually every direction in a vain attempt to avoid having to climb them.
The nice part is that you can put together almost any kind of climb you want if you know which way to go. One approach is well-paved and fairly gradual. Another is brutally steep, but short. There is one way to go that keeps you off the super steep until the very end, but some of the access to it is paved in a fashion similar to the Arenberg Forest. I go that way when I want to pretend I’m riding a Belgian Classic.
Each route I’ve chosen affords a different profile. There are some that are roll-y, up and down. There are some that give you good flats to rest in, in between lung-busting pushes skyward. And there are some that manage to be both long-ish and steep-ish in a way that makes me want to cry blood.
As I was churning away at my smallest gear last night (and I’ll not disclose that gear’s ratio in order to preserve the illusion that I am not a complete waste of saddle space), I was wondering which is better, a climb you know intimately or an ascent you’ve never seen before.
The familiar climb is nice, because you know how to pace yourself. You know when to rest and when to push. You know when you’re nearing the top and can access that little bit of pre-relief that’s just around the next bend. At the end, you can assess your form, because you can compare it to past ascents.
On the other hand, the familiar climb can be a killer, because you know exactly how much further you’ve got to go. You can judge your lack of form because you know it ought to hurt less than it already does. You know all the potholes and asphalt scars, all the odd, roadside trees, so there’s not much to distract from gravity’s brutal crush.
A climb you’ve never seen before can be terrifying. You feel good at the bottom, but how long will that go on? Will it get harder? Will you have pumped yourself out before the hard part? Can it get harder than it already is? For a brain already fighting with oxygen debt, legs already filling with acid, the unknowns can cause a lot of unhelpful anxiety. A strange hill is like a bogeyman, stuck behind a tree, waiting to knock you out of the pedals.
On the other hand, sometimes I climb best when I have no idea what’s coming. On the most brutal steeps I’ve ventured, it is almost always the case that my mind has been more settled, that I’ve been more in the moment, and thus more in the pedals, than I would be if I knew what misery awaited me. I have done things I’d have thought not possible through simple, blissful ignorance.
So this week’s Group Ride is about climbing. Which do you think is better, the old familiar or the surprise left hook? Would you rather know what’s coming or just deal with it when it comes?