It happened to me on a “just out for a ride” kind of day. Since it was late fall, I wasn’t pushing hard or actually training or really try to prove anything. I’d had a lousy cycling season, but there is still joy in riding a bike even in chilly weather.
I was riding the Aviation Parkway beside the Ottawa River—a nice, scenic route full of grassy knolls, trees and views of islands in the river—into the Nation’s Capitol. It’s an easy 20-km (12 mile) loop that I’ve done for years. Branching off the parkway is a bike path that leads to Blair Road, an un-important road except that Blair Road goes uphill. A steep uphill that’s followed by a false flat and then another steep pitch and finally a few rollers. It’s intimidating to look at if you don’t live in the mountains or are not into vertical challenges. I bike by, pausing to glance at it from the parkway.
Geez, how did I ever climb that? But I had, six years ago, when I was training with a cycling friend who was 19 years my junior and easily 80 pounds lighter.
On the way back, I thought oh what the hell and turned towards onto the path facing the hill. My plan was to simply go up as far as I could without feeling my heart beating in my eyeballs and then simply turn around and head home. I assumed that I could not make it to the top. Six years had put a lot of aging into my now 60-something legs – and ambition.
I huffed and puffed up the first pitch thinking it was as hard as I remembered and was trying to catch my breath on the false flat. I was about to turn around and fly back down. It didn’t feel like defeat, just the reality of my crappy season and where I was in aging life. But then I saw a cyclist speeding down. She yelled on her way by: “Don’t quit. It’s worth it.”
So, I kept going.
Knowing the second pitch was tougher, I shifted to an easier gear and then another. I remembered to “cycle in circles”—both pulling up and pushing down on the pedals. I did 10 strokes with one leg pulling up and then 10 on the other, then 10 together. I tried to breathe fully and to stay relaxed.
There was no anxiety because it really didn’t matter whether I made it up or not. I did not look up at the rest of the hill, instead I kept my eyes focused in front of my wheel so it looked just like a regular flat road and I pedalled. And pedalled. I had one more easy gear left—the ultimate granny combination 26 x 32. I’m sure some cyclists could climb Mt. Everest with that gear! Surprisingly, I didn’t need it. I cycled over the top of the pitch and the road flattened for a bit and I knew I had made it. I knew the last few rollers were nothing in comparison.
When I reached the top of the escarpment, I was winded but not dying the way I felt in previous efforts six years ago. How odd. I was actually better even though older. What an ego-building surprise!
I turned around, zipped up my jacket and cranked down into my hardest gear and took off.
Yes! What a rush!
I’d climbed at 9 k/hr (4.5 mph) and here I was descending at 68 k/ph or 35 mph. Wowza. That other cyclist was right, it was worth the effort. It was also worth a whole new mindset about hills and it set my confidence soaring. I’d exceeded my expectations with just what I had – a good cycling foundation and a willingness to try.
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