As we challenge ourselves on the bike, nothing compares to the pain, the elation, the strength of mind and body that mountains require. We love them and we hate them but the rewards are addictive. Whether we go up, down, or simply admire the views, we know we earn the spectacle.
Some climbs become legendary, both for the cycling pros and amateurs alike. Waxing lyrical about a particular col, cima, picco, pass, is at the heart of most conversations between two-wheeled colleagues. And descents are variables of the same equation. Both climbs and descents create an experience that is unique to cycling, a free rollercoaster of pain and delight.
The first time I came across a climb on a bike, during my first participation in an organised ride, I was struggling to stay in touch with fellow riders. I didn’t know how to approach it, how to pedal efficiently, what posture to assume. All I was thinking was to grind those big gears and I came to the conclusion that cycling quite possibly was not for me.
Back to the future, and I now love climbing. I’m by no means a mountain goat now but I have braved some of the toughest climbs in Europe and survived to tell the tale.
After a few you simply get hooked.
You learn to control the pain, to raise the threshold of that pain, to pedal without panic, to hydrate and eat without asphyxiating.
Relaxing is key to a successful climb. Eventually you master all of that but never enough to be fully satisfied. As the great Greg Lemond said,
"It never gets easier, you just go faster".
The mountain teases you with beautiful views and sinuous roads. Gradients goad you on, rear up, give you a few metres of respite, then repeat this sadistic ritual many times, all the way to the top. You remember to drink but it’s a battle of wills as drinking restricts breathing. You fight for breath, manage the pain in the legs, find more strength and slowly make your way upwards. The mental technique differs from rider to rider. Some choose to look down and concentrate on the pedal strokes, some look ahead and hypnotise the road into submission, others look around at the landscape, trying to fool the mind into disconnecting from the task at hand (that’s usually me).
Gravity becomes real and numbers don't make sense. You try to work out distances but your mind fails you. Fatigue, heat, altitude and gradient, they all conspire against you and your forward motion.
Eventually, exhaustion gives way to delight and pride: the top is reached, crested, conquered;
the climb is overcome, defeated, mastered.
You might have gone slowly or slower than others but you’ve not given up and that, sometimes, is enough. With practice the task doesn’t get easier, but you learn to enjoy those mental and physical challenges that climbing throws at you and the recovery speeds up.
Mother nature welcomes you with stunning views and gives you a gift to be unwrapped there and then: the descent. Just the time to wear a gilet, or stuff a newspaper inside the jersey to keep the chill away, and you’re off.
The start is akin to the moment your body accepts fate at the apex of an amusement park ride. You give way to joy, danger and lunacy in equal quantities. You go low, hands on the drops, fingers poised to feather the brake levers to the right amount of speed control. Too much speed and you lose the corner, too slow and you lose momentum.
Then it happens, you feel total synchronicity with the road and you dare to accelerate and push your limits. But the road is unforgiving, respect it or it punishes you. Gravel, the wrong camber, traffic, obstacles and wayward wildlife, all require your full attention. Adrenaline rushes through your body and you can’t help but smile at the sheer speed and unmitigated madness that is the compromise between danger and racing lines. Split second decisions become easier as the descent gets longer and more familiar.
Until the road flattens and like during the end credits of your favourite programme, a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment takes over.
Climbing is the main course of cycling, descending is the dessert with a swig of prosecco for good measure.
The hangover is just around the corner and you sober up, ready for the next climb.