Ever rode up a mountain on your bike? Or was it just a really, really big hill? Such thoughts were spinning through my head as I climbed the mini Serra de Tramuntana mountains on a recent cycling holiday in Majorca. I’d always thought a mountain needed to be at least 1,000 metres high, but then I began cycling up 800 metre high ‘hills’ and changed my mind!
Every cyclist has their own definition of what a mountain is, what’s yours?
Official definition of a mountain
There is no precise definition of when a hill becomes a mountain. Nobody can agree. Here in the UK, a hill becomes a mountain when it tops out at 2,000 feet. That’s 610 metres to you continental types. Two thousand feet. A bit of a convenient round number, non?
Elsewhere the United Nations has pulled out their crayons and had a go at defining a mountain too. They consider both height and gradient. If your slope is 1,000m high but only four degrees steep then those suits in New York say you ain’t climbed no mountain. But since when did we begin listening to grey haired men in suits? As any cyclist knows, none of the above is true.
Gradient has nothing to do with it. Hardknott Pass in the Lake District hits 33% in places but is not a mountain. It’s a b*stard. Yet at some point we can no longer claim that the 10 mile, 800 metre climb is but a hill. We arrive at the top breathless. “That was no hill,” we might whisper if it were at all possible to talk between the heavy breaths, the vomiting and blood spitting.
It’s all about goats
So what is a mountain for the dear cyclist? Can it be measured in feet? No, the Velominati have seen to that. Metres? Nope. Height is only important to the gatekeepers of white knuckle rides in theme parks. Distance? Try again, length is only important to teenagers.
How about the amount of snow at the summit? Maybe but what about summer? Goats are usually a good sign but don’t be confused when you see them grazing at sea level too. Semi-naked men dressed in mankini’s chasing you? Sure, but many a cycle commuter in any British town could be greeted by such sights when riding home late on a Friday night.
The cyclist can differentiate a hill from a mountain by a number of things. Below is my list.
If the slope in question takes over half an hour to climb it is no longer a hill. Does this mean a mountain can become a hill if one is strong and quick enough? Of course. Reducing the earth into ever-manageable pieces is a cyclist’s privilege. Ask Nairo Quintana what a mountain is and he’ll give a very different answer to you or I (or Mark Cavendish!).
If you feel the need to stuff newspaper down your jersey in the middle of summer then you’ve climbed a mountain. I once climbed Great Dun Fell in July. At 848m it’s the highest road in England. As I climbed into the mist, the mercury plummeted from 16°C to 4°C. Brrr. This is the only time in my life I found myself dreaming for a copy of the Daily Mail. Yet such a mountain barometer is hard to support once winter arrives.
With the leaves turning brown, many a cyclist in the UK has turned their attention to the National Hill Climb Championship. These short and steep lung busters must certainly feel like mountains to the thin whippets who scale their dizzy heights at break neck speed but they’re a different proposition when you amble up on the granny ring.
Mountains or hills are as hard as you make them. I’ve climbed Ventoux with relative ease when compared to a few repetitions of my local hill. And what of the tired cyclist who quickly makes a mountain out of a molehill?
Logic is defied as the merest of inclines turns your legs to jelly and you reach the point where scaling a speed bump becomes an effort. Before you know it you’re out of the saddle and jumping on the pedals on the flat, staring in disbelief at the zero percent gradient reading on your cycling computer.
We all have our very own local mountain. The one you tackle daily or weekly, the one you know is a hill on paper but a mountain in the mind. My local mountain goes by many names. Swains Lane. Swines Lane. Swine’s Pain. A mere 71m high, you’ll find no Sherpas or ski chalets at the top.
Yet no matter how many hill repeats I notch up on Strava, the climb never gets any easier. Nor do I seem to follow Greg LeMond’s maxim: “It never gets easier, you just go faster”. I know my local bump is no mountain but on repetition number five the legs don’t lie. And yes, I know, there’s no such thing as mountain repetitions. I hope.
FACT: 24% OF THE EARTH’S LANDMASS IS MOUNTAINOUS
Simon Warren’s to do list just got longer
So what about you?
What’s your definition of mountain and where is your local mountain?