Loving Hills Outdoors is Not as Easy as Indoors!

By Jennifer Sage On December 2, 2013 Under General Advice

Tom-in-MauiI love to climb. But I have to admit, there are times when I have a love/hate relationship with them once they start getting over 30-ish minutes long, or steeper than 8% for longer than a couple of minutes. I’ve had to nurture and caress my love for climbing over the years, and in fact, it actually needs more nurturing as the years progress!

Elly Blue has written a great article in Bicycling magazine on how to love hills.

Indoors, I think we get a little complacent when on a “tough” climb. I mean, yeah, we can make it “hard,” or what we think is hard…but it’s never really quite as tough as a steep or really long climb outdoors. I’m not sure our non-cyclist students really get that. They might be in for a rough awakening if they spend a lot of time climbing indoors, and declare that they love “hills” (or what they think are hills), and then get outside on a bike for the first time and completely self-destruct on the first minor upward break from horizontal.

Indoors, we always have a way out, even if we never or rarely use it. The knowledge that sits in the back of our brain that reducing our suffering is only a short tweak of the resistance knob away allows us to push through the physical challenge. I don’t want to diminish that, it’s a great thing when we choose to not resort to the “way out.” There’s most definitely a mental benefit when we learn to delay gratification. But there’s also the fact that that little turn of the red knob can be kept a secret from everyone else. It is possible to fake it indoors.

Outdoors…there’s no faking it. And there’s no way to delay gratification (gratification being the ending of the suffering that going uphill causes) short of two things happening: either making it to the top, or stopping.

I learned a long time ago how enthusiastically some people can hate hills, as Elly describes herself a few years ago. I used to lead bike tours in France for a luxury bike tour company. My first year, I was leading a tour in the Loire Valley, the flattest and easiest riding destination of all the tours we provided (although being a river valley, it is not pancake flat). Prior to the tour, my co-guide and I would drive all the routes to make sure we knew them well, so we could describe to our clients what their route that day would entail.

Riding along the Loire River is very flat, but leaving the river valley required a climb of 5–10 minutes, depending on where you are. On this one particular day, I had described that day’s route as having two climbs, mostly flat, and a lot of castles to visit.

That afternoon, as the riders were coming back to our chateaux hotel, I had two women clients who were very angry with me. Seriously angry. One of them said, “Jennifer…you said there were two hills today,” her eyes glaring at me as she continued, “but there were THREE!”

It was as if I had ruined her vacation.

That taught me a very important lesson about beginner cyclists and hills. Patience!

One can learn to love hills, like the author or the Bicycling magazine article. It’s as much of an attitude adjustment as it is a training issue. While climbing indoors in a Spinning® class is an awesome workout, and can certainly assist in the development of muscular endurance so crucial to climbing, to really get good at climbing longer or steeper hills outdoors, you really need to get on those outdoor climbs. And as Elly says in the article, when you get to the top, stop, and mark the moment with celebration and appreciation.

I wish I had been able to do that 25 years ago in the Loire Valley with those two women. It might have changed their outlook on their entire vacation.

1 Comment Add yours

  1. Barry
    March 4, 2014
    3:31 am #comment-1

    Very True Jen. Nothing compares to getting on the bike and climbing for real. Wher I live we do not have long alpine style climbs but rather shorter 2-4km climbs at gradients of between 11-14% with the odd 20% for good measure. The city of Bath is surrounded by 7 steep hills so no matter where you set off from you have to tackle a hill. In my 30 years of cycling I have certainly done my share of hills which do strengthen the legs and do feel different to class “hills” Like you I have a love/hate relationship with them but relise the training benefits from climbing them

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