Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ode to the Pseudo-Wall, Its Joys and Hidden Dangers

As cyclists grow familiar with hills, in their countless iterations and guises, a reliable favourite is what I shall call here the Pseudo-Wall.

Recall those times you've cycled, at a good clip, on the rolling terrain of a vast open road as yet unknown to you - perhaps as part of a brevet, sportive or other organised ride - when suddenly, in the distance, you see this very road you are on turn vertical. From your vantage point it looks not so much like an incline or even a steep hill, as literally a wall - stone gray and perpendicular to the ground beneath you, pointing heavenward and of an impossible height.

The first time you encounter such a sight, it fills you with dread and panic. Perhaps a strange taste builds up in your mouth. For surely what looms ahead is unscalable. Oddly, the other riders beside you are not screaming, writhing, or turning back in terror. Perhaps they are made of stronger stuff than you.  Or else they hide their true emotions, just as you attempt to do.

Contemplating this, you advance toward the fearsome giant and stoically brace for impact - for the burning pain in your legs, for spinning wildly or standing on the pedals and stomping, for the possibility even of having to unclip and walk. But as your approach continues, something rather odd happens: The point of impact never comes. It is as if the transition toward the wall's gruesome incline blurs and softens as you draw nearer. And just as you start to wonder When will I finally reach this knee-breaking monster?! you glance over your shoulder and see you are already half way up it. In no particular order, you cycle through feelings of joy, surprise, suspicion, relief and anti-climax. And by the time you are done with those, you've reached the very peak. Did you even climb a hill at all? The dizzying view behind you says yes indeed. But your body does not feel anywhere near the anticipated effects.

Such is the wondrous phenomenon that is the pseudo-wall. Some call it a false climb, for it is a climb that looks far worse than it feels. Possibly the effect is a visual illusion, having to do with perspective and limitations of the human eye. Like when we see a huge setting sun and excitedly snap a picture, only to capture a tiny spec. It can also be that we underestimate our momentum on approach, which proves sufficient to carry us over the steep parts. But no matter what we call it and how we explain it, what a rush it is to know, when we see the thing ahead and recognise it for what it is, that we can conquer it with relative ease despite its menacing facade. Once familiar with the pseudo-wall, we storm it with fearless confidence. And it is then the new riders who steal glances at us and wonder how we can be so calm when heading toward that thing.

In that implicit, visceral way that bypasses rules and checklists, we learn to recognise the pseudo-wall, to tell it apart from hills that will truly feel brutal. We get quite good at this over time. But on occasion, mistakes are made. Unlucky is the cyclist who encounters the False Pseudo-Wall. Doomed is the cyclist who attacks it blithely, only to feel their speed and energy drain so quickly it leaves them breathless even before the pain hits, even before the cold panic of having misjudged their gearing sets in. Having witnessed cyclists fall prey (literally falling over, having failed to downshift in time!) to the false pseudo-wall, I will never underestimate its sinister ways. With respect I eye every new looming hill, for their power to surprise is awesome.

23 comments:

  1. I was noticing this effect, on a 300K I rode last Saturday. I knew the route, and knew that once I got to the bottom of the hill, it wouldn't be nearly so bad, but looking down at it from the crest of the previous hill it did look steep. After a while, though, I started getting used to it, and tried to ascend with Velourian gearing -- not quite making it to the top, but partway up, at least.

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    1. I was thinking 50/11. As far as low gears go, I have you beat. I go down to 24/32, and it is awesome.

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    2. That's handy. I hear the hottest trend is to alternate between 50/11 and 24/32, with nothing in between.

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  2. Varied Topography - My Nemisis !
    Being of a deluxe size (decreasing yay!) and always having to carry a bunch of stuff here and there, yeeesch, I dread positive changes in elevation! However, getting better as the season progresses.
    My ride to work is rather flat except for the bridges. And being familiar with them, I know the chess game of effort and gearing I have to play with my eyes closed.
    On occasion I take the ride from Brooklyn, NY to my girlfirend's place 10 miles northwest of the GW Bridge in New Jersey. Crawling up from the bicycle path on the Hudson River to street level is ok, if there are no people around ... once I stop, that's it, triple or no triple up front. Across the George Washington Bridge is nice. Then on to 9W with the "fit crowd". Going North is fine. Going home through Englewood NJ to the Hudson is where it appears. Heading East on Palisade Avenue out of Englewood, there is a series of hills. Has the vertical look to be sure. Cars, jeeps, people slide down it in winter uncontrollably if the road is not treated. So here goes 235 pound me, 20 pounds of clothes/shoes/tools/etc plus 25 lbs of bike up this thing. Almost up to the crest and Bam... there's another. Shift out of the little ring for 200 feet and climb climb. Here's the crest and then - guess what? More gratuitous climbing! Come on, who put this road here? The Marquis de Sade? Then, with the spots before your eyes and tunnel vision, there's the Hudson River and route 9W. The bridge traffic, taxi cabs and i-pod zombies are almost welcomed experiences. The comforts of flat earth!

    Once I get to 'get out more' and do some purpose climbing and conquer a little knee, wrist, and neck fatigue, I will feel better about doing more distance.

    I also make it a point either on the flat or incline to spin more. That has definitely helped.

    vsk

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    1. Oh my. Just imagining cycling on the NY/NJ roads you're describing gives me the heebie-jeebies, hills or no hills.

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  3. Kickstart Opportunity: a spirit level device that attaches to the glasses that indicates true level.
    Would this help gauge the slope of a hill?
    Relieve anxiety?
    Over-complicate a good thing?
    Maybe I'll duct tape a carpenters level to my head today and look into it - HA.

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    1. Don't laugh, this thing exists for the handlebar.

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  4. False pseudo-wall? Mamore Gap. You turn a corner and you're looking at Mordor.

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    1. Aha. No wonder my "friends" keep enticing me to ride there.

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    2. That's exactly what came to mind when I read the post title - the Gap of Mamore ski-jump!

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  5. Can't pseudo-walls take all forms of moving about one's day? I don't do epic bike rides like you yet still find pleasure and surprise when managing something I feared would be difficult or the opposite when struggling with what I felt would be easy. It's what makes each day and moment interesting and that practice prepares for being open to the next.

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  6. That picture! I would not ride in that weather, but then again in Ireland you probably have no choice. Kudos!

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  7. Looking at that picture, I'm thinking you have material for a sort of bike-centric take on the Bulwer-Lytton bad fiction writing contest.

    http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

    False pseudo-wall? Funny phrase.
    My legs quail thinking of a few that have fooled me.
    Marshall Wall
    Leggett Peak
    Ascot Drive in Oakland CA (I used to live on it, too.)
    parts of Ice Cream Grade in Bonny Doon, CA

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    1. Thanks a lot for that link. I will not get any work done this morning.

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  8. On my commute I have a false-pseudo-nonwall. It looks like nothing more than a slight rise, but sucks the life our of my legs as soon as I hit it. I dread this rise more than the 3 km climbs on my weekend recreational rides.
    I tried to explain the feeling to my wife as we drove up it last weekend, but the sheer non-descriptness made me look a fool.

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  9. "Ode" implies a poem. I demand a poem; a haiku in the least.

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    1. Beware of
      the pseudo-wall.
      You misidentify,
      you fall!

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  10. Strange picture (nice as usual), was it touched up ? I’m thinking over the unusually shade (sort of grey with a touch of purple) of the road.
    Once, instead of pushing my body to climb a bad hill, I gave up without shame and walked near my bike: too many smoky cars and trucks on the road, deep breathing is probably unhealthy.
    L

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    1. It's an inphone pic filtered in instagram. To my eye, the roads here often look unnaturally blue or purple, so I was glad this captured it.

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  11. There is a hill on my commute that always sucks the life out of me. It's short and definitely not classified as pseudo. I call it "the ski jump hill". It looks flat as i approach then gets steeper as I crest. I'm often unprepared (even though I ride it every day!) and stand to get it over with or shift into my lowest gear, but still stand near the end. There's no graceful way to surmount this bugger!

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  12. Try the wall with downtube shifters, freewheels with no gates, no ramps. Somewhat random assembly of freewheels even creates anti-gates occasionally. Learn to shift early or walk. Learn to read the road or walk.

    For all the wonderful learning opportunities riding vintage creates the first time uphill on brifters is a revelation. And faster. Until you start to forget all that's been learned. And forget pedal technique. The brifting advantage wears off. At which point doing it the old way is a revelation. The old way is still slower, it does create a different relationship with the landscape. And a different relationship with your body.

    Then there's the club that does hilly all day rides on fixed. I can only wonder how they perceive terrain.

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