Friday Group Ride #40

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?

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20 comments

  1. mark

    I have to know what’s coming. The two most frustrating feelings in a ride/race are to have given it your all on a climb thinking you were at the top when it’s only a false flat, and to get to the top knowing you still had more to give and would be in better position had you done so.

  2. Scott

    That’s a good question. I think I like it better when I know what’s coming. I routinely do climbs in the Santa Monicas and I enjoy knowing when I can push it along and when I just have to take what the road gives me. And it’s also easier to, as you mentioned, gauge my fitness. One particular climb I use to do this is the Balcome Canyon wall east of Santa Paula. Unfortunately, lately I’ve been up to half a minute off my best time and although it’s discouraging, it spurs me on during weekly training knowing I have to climb that bitch on Saturday.

  3. Steve Haynes

    What great timing on this thread. I’m 188 lbs and I followed two of my 115 lbs riding buddies last weekend on “their ride”. What a mistake. We went up hills I’ve never thought about climbing before and a couple I’d never even known about. I only had to stop once on a climb but I’m embarrassed to say that as a precaution I put a 29 tooth rear cog on the night before.

    My vote will ALWAYS be I prefer the climbs I know. 22% grade for half a mile is a nasty nasty piece of road, especially when your lightweight friends bound away from you.

  4. Lachlan

    The best – a fresh mountain pass that you have never ridden, but know the general lay of.

    The completely unknown climb can never be ridden well for me…. Without knowing something of the length and gradient etc you either overcook or under perform by quie a margin. Plus you spend mental energy trying to look and plan ahead not on enjoying the ride or getting everything out…

  5. Eric

    New climbs are an adventure. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t but its not about perfection. I can get it all wrong and still enjoy it. What I don’t like is riding a climb for the first time with someone that is a veteran and they give a detailed analysis of what to expect. Yard by yard. Save it! Let me play the chess game with the hill on my own for the first time. Great satisfaction in playing it right.

  6. Souleur

    great question.

    I always try to emulate PRO, and truthfully, I don’t think they care. Minus the Alps, or long climbs in serious tours day after day, they seem to just stomp them out. So, I try to do the same.

    But, the reality is, the roads we ride we become intimately familiar with. The direction of the wind, the pitch of the sun, the temps and how that figures into the days ride, and yes, the climbs. I frankly like it best not knowing, just taking it, and being finished wondering if there is more. I always ride better not knowing, and if I do know, I plan for it, I plan around it, I plan to recover over it. I feel pathetic, unless its a long climb day, and around here, that isn’t more than 3-4k climbing.

    So, there. I would rather not know what pain and suffering is coming, just give the the shot in the arm, the dread is worse than not.

  7. 68GT

    The nice thing about climbs you don’t know is that they are a journey of discovery. What lies ahead may titillate you as much as scare the wits out of you. You can suffer brutally hoping for relief around the next bend or brow only to be hit with more of the same or worse. But in the end, cresting the summit, it’s never as bad as it seemed at the time. The sense of accomplishment brings a smile, and what’s more, now you can’t wait to do it again.

  8. James

    I prefer familiar hills when it comes to going up. I really hate it when I start looking for the finish of the climb and it never seems to arrive. Out here in Oregon the climbs all seem to go on forever, 15-20 miles! Truth be told, I would rather just go downhill all of the time!

  9. randomactsofcycling

    Why is it that cyclists love to suffer so much? I’m currently in the +85kgs class, and there is no such thing as good climbing. The idea is to hurt the little guys as much as possible on the flat sections, go like blazes down the descent, hopefully get a small gap, then pace myself up the other side.
    I like the more familiar climbs. I am in the habit of climbing the unknown ascents a little conservatively whereas I can really hammer a well known climb and I know when to accelerate. I have to admit there is little I find more satisfying on a bike than going all out on a climb and arriving at the top knowing I couldn’t have given anymore.

  10. Alex Torres

    It depends a lot on my mood and also on my form. But I love climbing so much I can enjoy both the surprise and the old familiar alike. And like Robot I have a couple of choices to get home but I can´t avoid the hills, one way or another.

    At 6.03 and 167lbs I´m far from being a natural grimpeur but I can suffer, I can defend myself and I credit it to my love for climbing. Going back to a previous post, of course they´re much better when I´m “on top of it”… but I look forward to them on my rides and races even when I´m out of form.

  11. Lachlan

    Randomacts brings up THE question concerning cycling – why we like to suffer? Psych thesis on that aside I like the implied a bonus question too: why some of us can suffer uphill more than they can on flats… (nd vice versa) and thats not just a question of body weight or speed on said terrain. I think I’m not alone in being easily able to suffer at 190+bpm up a climb, but be basically incapable to reach that effort for a single moment on the flat! Still dont really know why. I guess its just all in our heads ;+)

  12. wvcycling

    @Lachlan

    Could that be that we ?enjoy? the pain in the climbs more because our RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort) is off the charts, as compared to grinding on the flats? I also believe the 120+ years of bike racing has ingrained climbs as being the ultimate test of a man’s worth.

    I’m 5’6″ 130lbs, and not really skinny, but nowhere near being called fat, and I love hurting people on the climbs. Love it more than many other pleasurable things in life.

  13. Scott G.

    I am a tourist, so not knowing the route is a given.
    So I toodle up the climbs, if they get real bad, there
    is always the photo op, stop and take a pic.
    And there is Granny from the Triplets of Belleville,
    she is small and powerful, to get me up those Welsh one in fours.

  14. todd k.

    I’m of similar mind to Lachlan…. I don’t need a lot of information on the climb, just some general information like duration and average grade. The rest of it can fall into the ‘surprise me’ category. But there is a difference in riding a climb for the first time from one you do each week.

    The new ones are best able to surprise me by providing a new learning experience and they give my cycling flavor. They are like a nice Pinot Noir. You knowyou are going to get something great, but it will always be different and somewhat unexpected. Example: A few weeks ago I was on a nice new climb. I knew only that it was a 20 mile climb and the grade averaged 3%. From that I expected to use just enough to force to make for a challenge at a pretty decent pace and if things went well I would feel that I could stay on top of the pedal forever. And that is how it started. About 15 miles in I had just motored past this other guy and he says “you are doing great”. And I am thinking, ‘Yeah, this is going very well, I’m right at my threshold, but not going over! How fantastic is that!?’ Immediately after this thought we turn a corner and run right into a nice 12% grade. Totally catches me off guard! It was a short but relatively abrupt change that was entirely unexpected and it completely altered my situation from one in which I was in control to one in which I was forced into damage control for the last 5 miles. To make matters worse I try to keep ahead of the guy I just passed. So I blow up a bit. The guy eventually blows by me and I could only utter “Well, that was sure short lived!” I spent the last of the five miles right in the red zone trying to rediscover that place I was just moments ago. All that said, having to overcome that unexpected situation left me with a much higher degree of satisfaction once I hit the summit. These are things I just don’t encounter on a climb I do weekly. There is something about novelty makes riding into the unknown and overcoming unforeseen challenges that makes those rides most memorable. They certainly create memories that are distinct from something the rides in the hills I do locally each week.

    My weekly climbs are like comfort food. They are like mac and cheese. They tell me where I am at physically. They tell me how I am doing mentally. They give me an opportunity to ride with a certain degree of confidence because I am more intimate with each bend in the road, each grade change and how long it takes me most of the time to get to the top. I can ride these roads with a bit more abandon and experimentation. I can try to attack in different places to see if I can lower my times, knowing if I fail today, I will be riding it again next week. They also give me a slightly different piece of mind because they feel more like home. I know where the mean barking dog is that will run out and try to bite my wheel. I know that if I blow up a bit on the steep grade, that there is gentler grade in a few hundred yards that will allow me to recover. I know that if for some reason I don’t have it that day and need to cut the hill all together, I will be able to do it next week and I won’t feel like the ride was a complete waste. These familiar climbs often allow me to ride with a more clam, zen-like mind and in many ways they more accurately represent why I cycle than do those exciting rare rides into the unknown.

  15. michael

    i prefer the mystery of an untamed climb. it keeps you on your toes and the added visual stimuli of new scenery keeps your mental state from degrading into a puddle of mush (much like doing repeats on your local hill does).

    i just participated in the King Ridge Granfondo this past weekend and had never seen or ridden any of those climbs – I was happy I never had, as the feelings of wonder, excitement, fear and pain would not have felt the same if I had.

    I like not knowing where the next lull in the action is to allow you recover a little. I think knowing how to pace yourself according to how your body/bike geometry changes in relation to the undulations of the terrain is an undervalued skill. If you constantly go up and down the same hills you never work on refining this ability and consequently you leave yourself exposed to frailty in the future.

  16. slappy

    a climb you probably haven’t attempted.. but should!
    after my radio show in telluride a couple weeks ago, my pal from durango and i, got our pugsleys’ ready and headed up at about 1:30 in the morning. He had never climbed it and the last time i did was on a single speed. Ascending from 8985′ up next to the waterfall where tesla’s plant still putters, we had perfect moonlight, and after we passed the gate atop the falls and up into bridal veil basin, we had enough energy to try and ride, although it’s barely all rideable on a geared bike, a loaded pugsley is not quite an advantage. About three hours later we reached the bottom of the basin right at tree line and bivy’d. My pal claims he was happy to tackle the wall so late at night without ever seeing it. When we awoke we still had a couple hours of climbing, but we took the long route. The next two days, riding around the basin, exploring, camping, bopping around, the best payoff i’ve ever had from a climb.

    1. Padraig

      For me, I want to train on climbs I know so that I can work on pacing and strategy … and on bad days, cut down on anxiety I experience after getting dropped. But the big, memorable days come on climbs that I may only do once a year or ever. I’m glad to have options.

  17. Lachlan

    @ wvcycling
    :o )) ha, yes the only thing better than enjoying our own pain, is knowing we just served up a whole big plate of lactate to the guys behind us! I guess cycling is a bit cruel in that respect, compared to team sports perhaps….

    Sadly I’m most often on or off the wheel rather than dancing away in front these days!

  18. Pingback: FGR #40 Wrap : Red Kite Prayer

  19. Asher

    I find it edifying to know that I’m not the only cyclist out there who suffers happily on the climbs at levels he can’t begin to muster on the flat (thanks, Lachlan and everyone! I really do feel better now!). Give me a good climb, and I’ll fight all the way up. Give me a town line sprint at the end of a long flat, and I’m rather more likely to think, “Meh,” — especially if I’ve spent the ride smoking my friends on the climbs.

    What I find myself wondering is whether this is because I know I’m a pretty decent climber but not much of a sprinter, or whether I continue to be a mediocre sprinter because I prefer climbing and consequently don’t concentrate enough on sprinting.

    It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. If I put more work into becoming a better sprinter, would I enjoy sprinting more? (The answer: probably “Yes,” but also, “I don’t think I really care enough about being a great sprinter.” Of course, now that I’ve admitted that, The Little Voice that lives within me and routinely insults my prowess in all things bike-related now has new sneer-fodder, and I suspect on my ride home from work tonight I will hear no end of it.)

    As for me, I like new and old climbs about equally. The old ones become like old friends, and are great testing-trees (I can think of at least four climbs within easy riding distance of my home that make excellent instant form assessments); the new ones are great adventures.

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