Friday, March 9, 2012

Understanding Hills

Like Eskimos are said to have many words for snow, it seems to me that cyclists ought to have many words for hills. After all, what does it really mean when terrain is described as "hilly?" There are the short city hills that only seem like hills when I ride my upright 3-speed, there are the long and annoying false flats, the rollers, the twisty hills, the mountain passes. My perception of hills also changes over time. Rides I considered hilly a year ago, I now think of as "mostly flat," in light of some other hills I've ridden. And then I get annoyed at myself, because I remember when others described those rides as "mostly flat" and I felt bad, because to me they certainly seemed hilly. Hills are a fluid concept.

The more hills I ride, the more I realise that steepness and duration alone are not what makes them easy or difficult for me. More than anything, the pattern of grade change can make all the difference between enjoying the challenge of the climb and hating it. On a hill with a consistent grade, I can "settle into" the climb, whereas a hill with erratic grade changes drains my energy much faster. In the picture here I am standing atop of a relatively mild, but much despised hill after just having climbed it. It's hard to explain why I hate this stretch of incline so much, but it messes with my head. Starting immediately after a traffic light near the center of Lexington, it initially acts like a normal hill and as I near the top, I feel a sense of accomplishment: almost made it. But just as I reach what appears to be the crest of it - and this gets me every time - not only does it continue, but suddenly it becomes steeper. That last stretch, usually with my gearing already maxed out, just always manages to drain my morale. By comparison, the nearby Page Hill is a more significant climb. But I find it easier to handle, because the grade transitions it goes though somehow feel more logical.

Lat week I got a new computer and it has this feature that shows the grade percentage. This little toy has made me ridiculously excited and I am finally getting a sense for what different grades feel like. It also allows me to quantify my suffering. A climb starts to feel effortful at 6%, difficult at 10% and when I got the "Mommy can I go home now?" feeling I glanced down to see 14%. I was also surprised to learn that the "flat" Minuteman Trail reaches a 4% grade in a couple of the false flat stretches. Are you falling asleep yet at this fascinating information?

I am told that lots of cyclists start out hating hills, but then grow to enjoy them more and more. It could be that I am in that category... how else could I enjoy making a game of guessing the grade?

47 comments:

  1. I did a lot of cycling in Springfield MO, the edge of the Ozark Mountains, and there was virtually no route anywhere that avoided hills. I did more riding along the same routes over and over than I suspect you do, and that kind of repetition builds familiarity, in "ok, now I have to keep up my speed to get over the next one" or "on this one, I'm just going to shift all the way down and start spinning now"

    The Scientist used to do these canyon climbs in SLC, miles and miles of up and then miles and miles back down. doing that kind of slog always took it out of me emotionally, maybe because of the more "roller coaster" nature of the hills in SW MO.

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  2. I have grown to like hills more and more. It's been gradual, over the last few years, but I think a significant turning point was when I did a long steady climb (2 miles at 2%, then 1 mile at 6%) while trying to keep my heart rate under 150, for training purposes. In hindsight it's obvious that I could climb even a fairly serious hill without exhausting myself, simply by going more slowly, but at the time it came as something as a revelation. I had usually approached them as something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible.

    That said, climbing a half-mile-long 12% hill with two overstuffed panniers last fall did almost make me want to cry, especially when I hit the 17% bit and my front tire started to lose traction....

    If the grade feature on your current computer seems fun, try a GPS unit like the Garmin 500 that records the grade and lets you analyze it afterwards. That has hours of time-wasting potential!

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  3. Hi, what kind of cycle computer did you get? I just started seeing that feature and I would love to know the grade of all the hills I regularly travel. Also as you said every ones perception of what is "hilly" is different. For me the hills don't change but how well I climb them does, some days I have more power than others. There is one stretch of road that I never travel because it is one of those annoying pseudo flats you describe. Dragging up that road that looks like nothing but feels like something makes me made that I'm going so slow.

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  4. False flats! I love that. Those are the WORST. Throw in a headwind and I'm in hell. I'd take any other kind of hill any day.

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  5. I agree 100%. It is easy to "forget" what seemed hard as one becomes more experienced. Would you mind sharing your computer model for those of us who might want to know what grade we are suffering up?

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  6. I understood those hills on my way to work pretty well by now. In fact I understand them so well that I refuse to ride the last ~300ft stretch of the ~16% grade in front of my house. I just walk my bike there. 3-speed can't handle it anyway and I don't want to ruin my knees.

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  7. I wonder about this all the time. Since I ride mostly heavy three-speeds and one lighter single-speed, I dread hills slightly and avoid many of them when I can. But I'm surprised sometimes by how easy it is to get up a stretch that seems steep and how difficult I find one particular street in my neighborhood that is a barely perceptible hill but stretches out just long enough that it completely exhausts me every time. Is there a formula? Or is it just that some of us prefer a quick, standing crank up a short, steep incline than a gentler but longer slog?

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  8. Off topic slightly, but I for one would be interested in a post on cyclecomputers for people who aren't super techie.

    I'm thinking of getting one for the Shogun, but don't know where to start looking. I don't need a supercomputer, just time, distance, avg speed. Would enjoy your perspective on the benefits and drawbacks of having a computer.

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    1. CatEye makes a nice simple computer that in 2010 was only like $20. It shows current speed, average speed, distance, and time.

      As far as techieness/geekieness, there are different directions you can go - one being "performance" oriented features such as heart rate, power, cadence, etc. The other being gps, maps and directions, which can be very useful for long rides even for the non-techie.

      There is also the issue of how you want the computer wired. Some computers (the least expensive) literally need to be wired to your bike. Others are wireless, but still need to be calibrated for specific bikes. And others do not need to be calibrated at all and can be freely moved from bike to bike without any wiring.

      I am not sure I know enough about all of this stuff yet to write a post about it, but maybe in the future.

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    2. That may be confusing. Both wired and wireless traditional cyclecomputers get their stats from wheel magnets and need to know wheel circumference (calibration refers to entering that in). Cateye Strada is an excellent one that offers 2 distances and has average speed. I prefer wired because they are cheap but wireless may look less fussy. I am not aware of any that can tell you grade, but some can tell temperature and those with additional sensors can pick up cadence (crank magnet) and heart rate (chest strap). Those that are wired to pick up the rear wheel can be used on a trainer.

      Non-traditional (because they don't use wheel magnets) GPS-based computers get their speed/other metrics from GPS. They can't be used on a trainer and generally are way spendy. The advantages are routing/maps, recording of trips, knowing your grade, amount of climbs, etc. There are also smartphone apps that do (some of) that, but they need to be turned on every time and will eat battery.

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    3. I found a basic wireless computer that I liked so much, I ended up buying one for each of my road bikes. It's the VDO C1. It has all that you mention plus a few other features.

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    4. MDI - I got a nice wireless computer for the customer of the Randonneur last summer and it was under $40 with a bunch of features.

      somervillain - The VDO C1 shows maps and directions, or do you mean just the "performance" features? Grade %?

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    5. +1 on the CatEye basic. I put the Enduro or mity on all of my and my family's bikes. They're basically the same computer with about 8 basic functions and are very durable.

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  9. Hills have a rhythm, just like music. There are many different types of hills (and music), and we all form our preferences. I really suffered on the long, constant grades of the Pyrenees last summer, because I am used to our Cascades, where most climbs mix short, steep stretches with shallower parts that allow me to recover.

    You are right about it being mental: The worst hills are the ones where you don't feel like you are accomplishing much. If you soar above the valley, looking down and realizing you just have climbed all that gives a great boost.

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    1. Going with the music analogy, I would say that I don't like acid jazzy hills...

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  10. Ooh, what kind of computer tells you the grade? That sounds nifty!

    Those false flats get me every time. When I started commuting to work, I thought that the ride back home was mostly flat, aside from one steep incline, but I was tuckered out before I got to that incline. It took a couple of weeks for me realize that I was slowly climbing over a mile or toward that big hill.

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  11. You describe well why cycling remains fun, whether touring or commuting. It's all about being in the moment and surprises along the way. Expectations usually get adjusted and isn't that what life's about?

    When I raced hills where a strength...Well, ascending was b/c I was light and loved the challenge, but any gains climbing were lost on the descents when all those fearless types would zoom right on by...Going up hills always means going down hills on the other side :)

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  12. I know the kind of hill you speak of...at our old house (the one that burned before the big move last summer) where we lived "out in the sticks",the only viable and semi-safe road riding I had option for was Page Road,which connected my county to the next.

    It's a twisting,curvy (barely) 2 lane country road that goes up to the county line and back down to the connecting road 6 miles later. As an out and back,it goes up to my county's line,and down to my house,for a total of 25-ish miles out and back.

    The last distict hill leading to the county line going from my house is one of those deceptive hills. It's easily 5 miles long,and though it seems to begin gradual,and often lessens it's grade,there are lots of feet climbed-per-100 ft at any given point,and to those new to it (yes,I would take new people to ride it,giving them no forewarning,teeheehee-I'm evil,LOL!),it did seem that each hairpin curve should end it,yet I would always see the same look of defeat on friend's faces when they realised it continued up-and I'm positive I shred their look at times,hahaha!

    There was another route,that branched off from this one to the left at mile 3.9 from my house. Route 626 (most people called it "the Devil's Hill Route 666") that just decided 4 miles into it's already-has-your-HR-maxed-grade that it's just going to go straight up. It is as vertical of a road as this former 48 state + Canada and Mexico truck drive rhas ever personally seen...for it's last 2 miles. It's fun to ride back down at any rate,though I would torture myself and ride it twice per month,LOL!

    Hills...yeah,everything you said :)

    The Disabled Cyclist

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  13. Hills grow on you... the added dimension (sorry) helps make the rides more memorable. It's a slippery slope, in fact. After a while you start to relish rain, wind and mud for the same reason!

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  14. Well I live on top of a hill (a Seattle hill) and my daily bike ride is down the first hill and then UP the next hill. So my daily ride involves two hills.

    I have to day after 15 years I don't find it any easier really going up it.

    But then I'm sure being forced to tote groceries up that hill has probably added years to my life. I find I cannot live without a low-geared bike. Even the Shimano 8 speeds don't seem to go low enough for me.

    When I get to the really steep parts I have to actually pull up strongly against the handlebars just to keep turning the crank... so I'm looking for a new bike with a 'granny gear'.

    :0)

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  15. I have a simple explanation for why the hills in my city seem to be getting so much steeper as the years go by. It's called Plate Tectonics.

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  16. I agree. Nothing worse than thinking you reached the top then realizing you'rve still got a ways to go. For me long and gradual is my favorite but long and steep can be completely demoralizing. It's definitely a love hate thing.

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  17. Hi V your going to Southern Cal check out some real climbs Glendora mountain road to Mt Baldy and Azusa to Crystal Lake you'll have a different perspective about climbing "Hills" you'll want more.you can see these through the Incycle Bike Shop rides and training this is a nice area to ride in the LA area these are rides that take hours to climb.!!One day Stelvio in Italy will be yours. Glenn in NW

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  18. 14%!!!!!!! No wonder you complain 39x26 is too high. A short 14% ramp can be done on that gear but most of the time I would take the long way around.

    In my experience New England has the screwiest non-grading of roadways you will find. It's the miniature golf version of hill-climbing. Makes the learning curve steeper.

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  19. Oh, what's the computer?

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  20. I think we all want to quantify hills. Last year I made it my personal goal to go over the steepest pass crossing the Green Mountains. Well, I ended up throwing up because of the grade and maybe too much lunch only half an hour before. It was embarrassing and I had to walk.

    In England my husband and I road loaded touring bikes up a 17% grade just because it displayed the incline and we'd never ridden anything of that steepness before. We did it too.

    The worst hills for me in Vermont are the type I call "ski jump hills". They're the ones that get steeper as you crest the top. I hate this type and end up standing every time in my pedals to get over it. I have one of these on my commute. Now going down it is another matter altogether...yippee!

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  21. A few years ago, when I was on one of FixiePixie's Vermont rides, I made the observation to her that my appreciation of hills is similar to Kubler-Ross model of Grief.

    Denial: Oh god, that climb cannot be as bad as it looks

    Anger: Why the hell am I climbing this? Who thought this would be good idea?

    Bargaining: Maybe if I change my gearing, I can make this easier? maybe next time I can find an easier route?

    Depression: Oh my god, will this ever end?

    Acceptance: Oh, this is a nice view. Look, descent! Whee!

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  22. It is indeed fascinating - but only to us cyclists/your audience. I'm on the proverbial 3 speed and I hit a very short (maybe 3 urban house lots wide) not very steep hill in my first half mile that absolutely drains me, but then 2.5 miles into the ride (on one route) I hit a sustained hill of probably same grade for 1/4 mile that I easily do in 2nd, being more warmed up. I think about this every time.

    Our perception of what is a difficult hill changes with experience just as our perception of what constitutes a long or short ride changes. Until we "conquer" the hill maybe we fear it and thus loath and avoid it; then we embrace it. Like you, I've only been back in the saddle about three years so it is a process of experience and mental calibration with ever increasing self confidence.

    I didn't know some bike computers come with inclinometers.

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  23. I have found if I adjust my perception of where the hill (or a particular section) 'ends' then the hills become more manageable. There are a few I climb regularly that I used to think of finishing because I had completed the steepest point or rounded a corner. By consciously picturing the end of the hill just beyond where it really flattens out I manage my legs expectations better. Makes little sense but really works for me...

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  24. Harknott and Wrynose in the Lake Disrict, the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia, Winnats Pass in Derbyshire, Rosedale Chimney (30% for a short stretch) in the North York Moors and Applecross Pass in Wester Ross are my favourite hills.

    I love the challenge of a good hill, but sometimes resent the short steep climb over a humped back bridge crossing a canal or railway.

    Thank goodness for triple chainsets.

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    1. Mine too, although I have wept bitter tears on nearly all of them.

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  25. I could see myself having WAY too much fun finding out the grades of the hills here. I second Ryan M, what's the computer?

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  26. Northeastcycling.com has a guide and elevation profile maps for New England climbs. Notable hills included too.

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  27. who cares about hills. I love the pict of you with your bike in a N.E. winter.

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  28. Most cyclocomputers that can record altitude and gradient use barometric altimeters. Even higher end cyclocomputers that utilize GPS tracking, also use barometric pressure to calculate grade percentage and altitude numbers, there are exceptions, but barometric pressure based altimeters are the most common. I'll spare the details of what's needed for altitude & grade accuracy and consistency. It's a great tool for quantifying the climbing experience.

    Since I've begun recording grade and climb totals, 50,000ft of elevation gain for 650 miles. Elapsed ride time no longer has as much relevance as distance to elevation gain in evaluating the day's ride; average mph is less important to me also.

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  29. I too didn't like hills when I started cycling,but when I'd tried ridiculously low gears and found that this wasn't the answer I had to have a re-think. I came to the conclusion that a combination of correct riding technique and respect for hills usually worked. And anyway I've yet to come across the hill I can't walk up ! When I learned more of the Code, I realised that you should always regard climbs as honourable opponents, sometimes you win, sometimes not. Never take a climb personally, if you can't do it in the saddle, think calmly why you can't. Don't let temper and pride cloud your judgement. If you're determined to best a climb but can't, give in gracefully, get off and walk. The climb will still be there tomorrow if you want to try again.

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  30. If you don't want to get a new bike computer just for measuring the gradient or you are just a retrogrouch in general, you can buy an analog inclinometer on Amazon for 20 bucks (I've seen them for less before.

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    1. Thanks a lot. I am now tempted to get one for walking... Although wait, it's possible that there is an iPhone ap for this as well.

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  31. How right you are! I used to live and ride in far northern California. We were lucky to have multiple rides right out our front door - we could ride in the valley or the foothills or both. There were plenty of rides with steep or long hills. But there was one ride that had a hill section I could never quite figure. It came late in the ride and was long. It always punished me. I never could get comfortable with it. The incline looked so gradual. And it was sprinkled with these super-mini downhill sections that were never the break they appeared to be. Rather they were just enough to disrupt my climbing rhythm. And maybe that's the rub. To go with the music analogy - for me, climbing hills requires rhythm. And hills that have some sort of discordant rhythm to them are tough for me to master.

    Last summer I rode to the coast from Portland and had a gnarly long steep climb over the crest of the coast range. But the part that was the hardest was the extended false summit with the same sort of hill picture - gradual grade, small descents, more uphill grade, little descent. Throw in a strong coastal headwind - ugh.

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  32. I think I know the hill you are talking about and it's no fun at all!

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    1. It's a fairly minor one, some would not even call it a hill. It's on Mass Ave, immediately after the Lexington Green toward the Minuteman Park.

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  33. Check out Cyclemeter on iTunes. It is a pretty awesome cycling app that keeps track of your current ride as well as your fastest. Keeps statistics over the course of the ride including speed variations between current and fastest times over the course of the same route. This app also keeps track of elevation gained and can send emails to your spouse to let her/ him know where you are over the course of your ride! I used it all of last season and really enjoyed having it for the hills of West Virginia map out my ride and watch the elevation gained. We have some two mile climbs that range up to 28 percent and don't drop below 20!

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  34. Last weekend we did attempted part of the 10 worst hills in Los Angeles ride. The worst being 32% grade. We were destroyed.
    Check it out, its an annual ride. I hope to be able to ride it all someday.

    http://truelovehealth.com/2012/03/06/feel-my-legs-im-a-racer-7-date-and-time/

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    1. No. I did not just read that number. No no no!

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  35. The only time I really hate hills is either when I'm already feeling tired, or if it's a heavy-traffic street and I'm being pressured up it faster than I can or want to take it.

    That being said, I'm definitely not a huge fan either. My ride home from work everyday involves a 200-300ft elevation climb, and depending on the day, that may bump up to 400-500ft, which, at least to my "well-fed" body, doesn't seem insignificant on a heavy city bike.

    But, on the other hand, it is what it is. You have to get somewhere, and if you need to get off and walk for a short period, so be it. If you get a little sweaty, so be it. I've yet to meet a hill I absolutely couldn't get up one way or another, even the Albina Ridge in Portland that climbs about 200 ft (just guessing) in a couple short Portland blocks.

    I've never really felt much need to quantify the hills I ride up, except just to explain them objectively to someone else. I might complain about them, but I'll just say they were 'big-ass steep hills' and leave it at that :)

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  36. I am not sleepy at all having come from a cycling-hills-is-good-but-hard perspective. I assume the hill in Lexington that you describe is Mass Ave before it crosses 128 and, if I am right, I certainly agree. For pacing reasons, I prefer to take a left there and get on Lincoln St to bypass much of 2A on my way west.

    Take your bike with computer with grade feature up Hurricane Mountain Road in North Conway, NH. There has to be a short stretch with an instantaneous grade of 20% that caused me to lift my front tire I was pulling so hard (I just stopped to check on a buddy who was bailing on the climb).

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