How not to climb a hill – a hard-fought education

Cycling steep hill walkingThe deconstruction of a hill climb gone wrong. Very, very wrong.

The summit. Finally. My body quivers, arms and legs shaking, in shock, for they know not what their master has just put them through. Dumbstruck, they remain numb. Nothing works. My eyes see double, triple, the many horizons wobbling before me.

Asphyxiated, I’ve climbed to the moon and cannot breathe. What on earth just happened, I wonder, staring accusingly at my legs, my head shaking. The banana I ate two hours earlier does its best to rise and see what all the fuss is about. Mustn’t let the precious energy escape my mouth.

Pain sears through my dead jelly legs. I sit back down. My lungs burn, oxygen scorching my innards with every breath. Pompeii I think, I must be climbing Mount Vesuvius, right? I look back down the minor slope behind me. This is no mount.

It’s just a short, modest climb to the top of Alexandra Palace. Ordinary in fact. This is north London, hardly renowned for its brutal climbs. The name Ally Pally has never instilled fear into anyone. Until now.

Time has gone into reverse. The tailwind appears to have deserted me and is hiding, embarrassed to be supporting this farce. Defiant, I stand and stomp on the pedals as best I can, my loose legs firing blanks, dragging themselves to the sky before plummeting back down to the ground at ever increasingly awkward angles.

Fireworks at Ally Pally

Somebody is glad I made it to the summit. Fireworks at Ally Pally.

Back in the saddle, Must turn the crank, pull and push, legs no longer spinning, my pedals rotate like the second hand on a clock. Tick tock, ouch. Tick tock, ouch. My fingers search for the gear levers but swipe only air. Damn you fixed gear bike. Wake up damn you legs. I cry out, less a roar, more a gasp.

Ugh. How am I still riding this? I stand back up and sneak a peek at the remainder of the hill, refusing to believe the eyeballs popping out of my head.

Half of the hill remains. Every fresh pedal stroke requires a monumental effort. The only thing emptier than my cycling heart are my legs, now overdrawn, more so than Lance Armstrong’s moral and current bank account. I’ve blown and there’s no paying back this debt.

Time and speed stands still and all thought of personal bests is replaced by that desperate feeling of simply making it to the top. Must keep moving, must not put my foot down, must not surrender. I sit back down and think of anything but the pain and how much further remains. My speedo is lying to me but I can look at nothing else. Definitely must not look up.

I’m back out of the saddle, my arms struggling into action and beginning to quiver, crying out in pain as if to say, hey, this isn’t my job. My trembling legs have no reply, they are meek and silent, dead matchsticks, their flame long since burnt out.

Tired cyclistI sit, unable to support my own body any longer. Can’t be much further I think, my pace middling, looking up, the hill curving away in the distance. A trick of the eye, must be I think, for my legs are telling me the summit must be near. Very near. Surely? I look up to check again. The road continues to extend upwards, no end in sight. Have I overdone this, I wonder, still in denial.

Instinct kicks in and I stand, rising from the saddle like a boxer breaking from his corner stool at the sound of the bell, legs pummeling down on the pedals in an attempt to drive my bike down through the tarmac. There can be only one victor.

Slowing. Surely not? But yes, my rhythm is less orchestra and more free form jazz, my pace slackening gradually. Must keep my leg’s turning. I focus on my technique, pushing and pulling, deep breaths in… out. Yet still I slow.

A quarter of the climb done and nothing can stop me. The imaginary crowd gets to its feet and roars its delight. Nobody hears my muscles tighten.

Bang. I fire off like a bullet, a new personal best my only target. Seated, I power away, cranks spinning, a hamster on a wheel, a well caffeinated Chris Froome, eyes glued to his stem. I’m flying. The record is mine. My legs feel strong, two mighty pistons drilling for oil, rising and falling with a machine-like precision and regularity.

A nervous energy dances in my stomach as I approach the foot of the climb, my head full of dreams. Mostly of the finish. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I look up at the famous television tower at the summit and visualise not Ally Pally but Mount Ventoux. Hello old foe I think, a smile on my lips as the wind blows me ever closer to my imaginary start line.

The climb began two days earlier. I’m already tracking the weather and that all important wind direction and speed. I ride easy on my commutes for every kilojoule counts. On the day I eat a carb rich lunch and treat myself to an energy packed banana in the afternoon, water constantly downed to avoid the cramps. The climb is all I can think about. I’m hill sick and only a new personal best can cure my ills. Temporarily.

Climbing Alexandra Palace

All Pally Hill Climb
Truth is, this was only my fourth attempt at climbing Ally Pally from the east and every time I’ve overcooked the start. Climbing from the west as I usually do, the climb is much less severe in gradient, averaging 4% compared to 7% on the east.

I always thought Ally Pally was a tame climb compared to my regular slogs up the nearby Muswell Hill or Swain’s Lane to the west. This being my first eastern climb up Ally Pally on my fixed, I was as overgeared as I was overexcited. Burning out halfway up a hill on a fixed gear bike is no fun at all.

Hills are as hard as you make them. Hit them too hard and too early and any slope soon becomes your own wall of hell. Next time I’ll take it easier on the approach. Perhaps.

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9 thoughts on “How not to climb a hill – a hard-fought education

  1. I have to agree with ragtimecyclist here; gears were invented for good reason *grin* I followed you here from London cyclist and, whilst I prefer comfort and utility to speed, pop in and read here now and then because you write well and engagingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for positive Phil, always nice to hear. I’m definitely a gear man myself, more so after the above! Fixed is great for commuting and low maintenance.


  2. Pingback: How not to climb a hill – a hard-fought education | Biking Humboldt

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