Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Of Mind and Gap



As a teenager, I once saw a black and white photograph of a magnificent landscape in a friend’s father’s study. I didn’t know quite what I was looking at. But, transfixed by the silvery squiggles strewn over the jagged mountain, I knew that it was stunning.

“The Stelvio Pass,” said my friend’s father. And I nodded, the exotic image forever fixed in my mind's eye.



It was not until I was a cyclist, nearly two decades later, that I understood what a mountain pass actually was. A route over a mountain range, it aims to facilitate crossing by snaking through a gap between two peaks. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that a route of this sort is flat, or easy. No matter how you spin it, you are still crossing a mountain range after all. And so I soon learned to expect climbing when anything with the words Pass or Gap in the name was involved.

Still, in those parts of the world where I've lived, the passes and gaps have tended to be rather tame, straightforward affairs: some miles up, then down, with a few sweeping bends. That iconic image of dense bundles of switchbacks was something I'd only seen in photos.

I should have known that this was about to change, when I told a friend about our upcoming trip to Kerry. When I mentioned our plans to cycle over the Connor Pass and asked whether he'd done it himself, he responded with: "Ah yes, the Connor Pass is a must! It's a very ...European climb."

I did not know what he meant by that at the time, imagining vaguely a mountainside strewn with outdoor cafes and art galleries. But apparently, "European climb" means hairpins. Plenty of switchbacks and hairpins! But I'll get to that later.


Located in one of the most scenic regions of Ireland, the Connor Pass slices lengthwise through the Dingle Peninsula at the south-western tip of the country, offering sweeping views of surrounding valleys and waterways. It is known as one of the highest paved mountain passes in Ireland and is a Category 2 climb. That said, it does not actually look too bad on paper: a not-quite-4 mile ascent, at 7-7.5% grade average. We headed toward it on the first day of our cycling tour, fresh and innocent. And as we pedaled into a moderate headwind from our starting point near Tralee, it almost felt like we needed the climb to burn off our excess of nervous energy. Had we packed enough things? Had we packed the right things? Would we find places to stay every night? Would it rain on us the whole time? Our minds needed to be quieted.

The usual route toward the Connor Pass is along a fairly flat coastal road that stretches for about 20 miles from Tralee through countryside that is attractive, but not overly dramatic - not counting the distant view of a mountain range that resembles a jagged knife's edge. The road starts out wide and fairly heavy with traffic. But at some point there is a fork, and a sign diverting lorries, buses, and other large vehicles onto a different road (thankfully, they are not allowed on the pass). The road toward the Pass itself grows narrower and quieter then, attaining a slight gradient. Then, after a sweeping bend, the view of the Connor Pass opens up.

I did not notice it at first. That is, I saw the steep face of the mountain when we rounded the bend, but did not see any road going up it. Then my husband shouted excitedly: "Look! There it is right there, you can see the road!"

"What! Where?"


The mountainside was crumply gray rock. My long distance vision is not great, and the hazy light was not helping. But finally I saw it: A narrow, almost path-like road appeared to zigzag straight up the steep face of the mountain. Gray on gray, it lay camouflaged amidst the stone, like some giant malicious snake. I could just make out the tiny specs of several cars slowly rounding one of the hairpin bends, at a seemingly impossible height.

Next thing I knew, a pool of black began to spread over my field of vision - in that slow-motion way that happens just before you faint. I had the good sense to jump off my bike just then. And soon I was sitting at the side of the road, head below knees, my heart pounding, sweat pouring down my face. It took me a moment to gain my composure and understand what was happening. Was I having a heart attack? No, a panic attack. A panic attack at the sight of that road full of switchbacks!

Well, this was an interesting predicament. My mind began to race with solutions that would not ruin our trip, but really there weren't any other than my proceeding with the climb. I had wanted to do it. I had looked forward to it. But now every time I as much as glanced up the road, tears projectile-sprayed from my eyes and my legs trembled. At the same time, I was somehow managing to laugh at myself hysterically. "This is ridiculous! I don't know why I'm acting like this, I'm so sorry!"


"You need blinkers, like for a nervous horse," suggested my husband pragmatically.

We toyed with the idea of tucking leaves into the sides of my cycling cap. But at length, we decided instead that I would simply try and keep my gaze down on the road and take it one bend at a time, without looking up at the landscape that spread out in front of me. And with this plan, and my legs still atremble, we set off to do the climb.


I don't want to downplay the physicality of a Category 2 climb. But if you are bicycle-fit, not in a hurry, and have reasonable gearing, the Connor Pass is not a difficult ascent. Climbing it from the so-called "steep side" as we did, the gradient was nearly always a very steady 7.5% - dipping occasionally to below 4% and spiking up to 11% a couple of times. Never anything worse than that. Now, the road is narrow, and there were occasional cars that required some steady nerves to steer around, especially if you happen to overlap at a bend. But if you can handle that, and can sustain the described gradient over <4 miles, you should have no problems with the physical part of this climb. With my gearing of 50/34t front and 11-29t rear, I flicked back and forth between cogs, just to vary the pace, and felt pretty good ...just as long as I kept my eyes on the road directly in front of me and did not attempt to look around. Because no sooner would I look at the many switchbacks ahead, then my heart would start to pound again, my breathing to get out of control, my hands and knees to shake. "Don't look; take it one bend at a time," became my little chant.

For the final few bends of the climb, the road tightened and competing with cars became quite precarious. Not wanting to hang about in this section too long, I switched into "let's get this over with" mode, quickened my pace and was at the top before I knew it. Well, that wasn't too bad after all! The first thing I did of course, was get out my camera and photograph the husband climbing the final stretch.


Dismounting his bike with a tired smile, he complimented my climbing skillz, then put his arm around me and gestured toward the Romantic View of the climb we'd just conquered.

"Look!"

My knees gave out straight away.

"Oh jayzus. Okay, don't look. Don't look!"


Normally cyclists celebrate at the top of a mountain pass. Me, I had to be propped up, dragged to the nearest secluded patch of grass, smacked and pinched till the blood returned to my face. An elderly couple stared and whispered suspiciously. A crow began to circle me eagerly. It was out of hand.

I was trying to understand what exactly was daunting me. Clearly it wasn't fear of doing the climb that was causing the panic, since the climb was now done and dusted. It was the sheer appearance of the hairpins that was having this effect on me. The view was't so much scary, as overwhelming; there was a "too muchness" about it. The reaction was not unlike a form of agoraphobia.


Seeing as I did have to descend the mountain eventually, I decided to try some DIY exposure therapy. I would look at the view of the hairpin road a little bit at a time. I tried to see it abstractly - to enjoy it as a work of art, as I did all those years ago with the photo of Stelvio. After a while (quite a while!) it seemed to work. Or at least I was calm enough to get back on my bike.

Thankfully, the other side of the Connor Pass was not nearly as twisty. The fairly easy descent did little to tax my handling skills and actually relaxed me. As we floated down to Dingle Town all seemed funny again.

"What is wrong with me?!"


Two days later, we cycled over the Gap of Dunloe (pictured in the first and second photos) and Moll's Gap. Each of these magnificent gaps was a bundle of hairpins so tight, so steep, so narrow, so overall "European" - that the Connor Pass, in retrospect, began to seem like mere practice for the real deal! And somehow in the two days that had passed, I had come to terms with the landscape and no longer had the same reaction to seeing the hairpin roads spread out ahead of me.

The Stelvio Pass? Perhaps not just yet. But my mind is learning to step aside and let the body do its magic.

45 comments:

  1. Hahah, not to laugh at your discomfort, but the bit, "Me, I had to be propped up ... It was out of hand." had me giggling.

    Love the first few pics on this post, they are gorgeous vistas.



    Wolf.

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    1. The biggest problem really, is that people were starting to discreetly monitor us, clearly suspecting some sort of abuse/kidnapping scenario. I figured I better get it together before someone phoned the authorities!

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  2. Arresting, candid account of this phenomena. I wonder if the mind/body for some of us goes into defense mode when it's in terrain that it's not been habituated to and is flooded with sensory overload, the "too muchness" as you put it. My sister when visiting me here in Santa Catalina foothills must drive up a short steep road to the top of the ridge where I live, nothing really, except that the road has steep falloff on one side. She has an unholy fear of driving it and even hiking on an easy nature trail in the Santa Rita mountains that climbs vertically quickly. When she leaves here, I must show her a way to drive down off the ridge on another road where she cannot see a drop off. In her case, this fear is very limiting in what she's willing to do. Thank you for the great writing and photos. Jim Duncan

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    1. I totally understand that fear of falling off the edge. It goes back to a traumatic childhood event, and it still gives me the terrors when biking on a narrow track with a steep drop to one side. I just freeze.

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  3. I know the phenomenon, having experienced it while cycling and climbing. It's as if the various parts of your brain are at war with each other on how to process the information.
    You did well!

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  4. You're now understanding why we like these things. Sounds like a good ride. I had a good ride as well, thanks for asking ;)

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  5. Looks like a nice pair of nimble bikes to take on this challenge of a good climb. I trust it made it easier. Yes, looking down and finding a rhythm is also key.

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    1. The bikes indeed like climbing, despite weighing around 40lb each with the light touring setup. Having a handlebar bag, I find, is particularly nice on the steeper climbs, as it keeps the front end better planted.

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  6. As a sufferer from a mild form of agoraphobia, I relate to this. Cycling through flat open spaces is more challenging for me than tackling steep climbs and new riding partners are initially confused as to why I am panting, cruising at 15mph! The beautiful thing about cycling is that it presents different challenges for different people. There is no end to what we can learn about the world, and ourselves, through pedaling a bike.

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  7. You are completely hooked. You will do an HC climb just as soon as you can get to one.

    A 7% climb is a real climb. There aren't a lot of climbs steeper than that. Short sections steeper, sure. Long sections steeper than 7 it is likely HC. If you can do this one you can do anything.

    About the descents. Be safe. Never push beyond your skills. The lower you sit the less you need skill, the more you can do with the skill you have. This is why mountain bikes use dropper posts. A road version of dropper post was used in this years Tour de France. Those riders have the skill and they still want to drop the post. If on the other hand you are even one millimeter too high the descent will always be nervous, unsteady, hazardous. It wouldn't matter what your skills were, with high saddle the bike is not very stable. A long steep descent can work your arms and shoulders hard, it should always remain basically relaxing.

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    1. As far as the purely physical aspect of things, I am kind of "spoiled" in that there are category 1&2 climbs right in my own back yard which I have apparently been doing regularly for the past 3 years. I only realised they were "serious," categorised climbs when my husband began using Strava last year and I saw the labels. But while the gradient can be brutal (20% is now within my realm of normal!), most of them are fairly "easy" handling-wise, compared to the stuff with switchbacks.

      Regarding being low on descents: That's one I hear quite a lot. But it seems to contradict the fact that I am most comfortable descending on an upright bike. Believe it or not, my fastest and most confident descents are actually on my Brompton (and also now on the Rivendell Clementine I have on loan for review)!

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    2. The heft of the Clementine is nice on descents, but you pay for it (unfortunately) on the ascent!

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    3. The Clementine should be wildly stable, like oldtime MTB. No reason upright should not descend well, up to the limit where aerodynamics slows you down.

      Mostly it is saddle height that matters. Your center of gravity is darn close to the saddle. If you are stopping at the top anyway, just take out the hex key and move the saddle. Very likely you won't put it back up.

      Danny Mac does what he does with a low low saddle. Mostly he stands and can put his CG anywhere. To move your CG you need the wrench.

      If you have a 20% handy you aren't descending if you are not doing 80kph. That doesn't happen on Bromptons. When you first make the speed you will be amazed how easy it is. If it is hard, be safe, keep using the brake.

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    4. Nope, never done 80kph. Around 70 would be my top speed so far, and even that doesn't happen often.

      The Clementine is surprisingly good on the ascents as well. Not fast-good, but casually-capable-good.

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    5. There are a couple very good reasons for going slow downhill. Visibility is a problem in the mountains more often than not. If you can't plainly see what is around the next bend you had best assume there is a landslide, a washout, an oversized lorry. You had better be ready to stop if any of those unseen possibilities materialize. It is often possible to go faster on relatively small straight shot hills than in the twisties.

      Then there is fear. Pay attention to that. Don't ever try to conquer fear. Not at 80kph. If you are fearful you will make bad decisions. Often enough even if you are not able to identify or articulate the source of your fears something is going on that should be addressed before you just let go of the brakes. Figure out the problem at the bottom of the descent, not on a 20% down ramp.

      With all those reservations your bike should feel as stable steady and secure at 80 or 90 as it does at 20. Plenty of flat landers make good speed the very first time they try mountain roads. It is easy in the right conditions.

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  8. Chapeau!

    I love your pragmatic assessment of the climb. I learned some of those lessons on the Isle of Skye in 2014 and it's pretty much what my other half told me about Mount Ventoux -- which he assures me, is totally do-able for me, provided I attempt it on my road bike not the Brompton!

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    1. Stelvio, on the other hand, is apparently quite Brompton-friendly!

      http://www.brompton.com/Events/Posts/2016/Event-Stelvio-16

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    2. Wow! I'm not sure I consider "Brompton do-able" equivalent to "Brompton friendly" but recognise everyone has different points of reference!

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  9. I cycle up there a few years ago on an old 5 speed city bike, thankfully assisted by the push in the back from a rather strong tail wind.All seemed calm at the carpark at the top to take in the views, but on leaving, it seems the wind that had ramped up the pass, came crashing down again like a waterfall with such force that I had to struggle to stay upright to push the bike downhill towards Dingle till I could find shelter to ride down the other side.

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    1. Impressive choice of vehicle!

      Ah yes. I did forget to mention that it was windy up there. Everyone local (to the climb) warned us about this. But one benefit to living in the windiest region of Ireland, is that the "winds" in Kerry seem mild and playful in comparison!

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  10. I am confused by the "European" references. Does Ireland not consider itself to be Europe?

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    1. Heh. It does of course. But it also sees itself as inherently different from the main continent. In any case, it is common here to refer to Continental Europe as simply "Europe".

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  11. After looking forward to it for weeks during my cross country tour, the only I could manage my climb of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park was focusing on the pavement only as far ahead as I needed to see to navigate safely.

    I understand I missed what many consider some rather spectacular vistas.

    Interestingly the phenomena does not effect me while on foot. The next day I managed a hike on a trail close to the road parts of which are so steep there is a wire to hold onto.

    Whatever you were feeling, you managed to take some very lovely photos. Connor Pass (or I'm guessing An Chonair)looks very beautiful. And that raven setting the mood!

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    1. Funny, it does not affect me when on foot either. And I am normally scared neither of heights nor of open spaces.

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  12. The category of a climb is usually in the eye of the beholder - the INRG does a great job of explaining how it's calculated at the Tour.
    http://inrng.com/2015/07/tour-climbs-category-formula/

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    1. Interesting. I wonder then whether Strava uses its own formula, or whether local cycling clubs/ race organisers submit the categories.

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    2. Race organisers would most likely set their own cat based on the length of stage, position of climb etc - Strava do this: https://support.strava.com/hc/en-us/articles/216917057-How-are-Strava-climbs-categorized-For-Rides-
      Racing up a hill is a lot different from cycling up a hill.

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    3. Ah right. Very interesting. And of course to race up a hill is a little different than to meander up it, cameras in tow.

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  13. Interesting that you chose to forego the helmets for this jaunt. Here in the US you're practically considered to be reckless if you so much as venture onto a quiet country lane without a helmet. I'm wondering whether the prevailing ethic in Ireland and perhaps all of Europe is completely different from that here in the US. That is, is it common to tour in the hills without a helmet over there?

    I'm not making any judgment, just wondering.

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    1. I generally do not wear a helmet, except for on formal club rides and organised events where they are mandated. This does not necessarily reflect the current prevailing ethic in Ireland (which varies quite a bit regionally and urban/rural-wise, based on what I've observed).

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  14. Sympathies! Panic attacks are horrible and very debilitating, made worse because they strike out of the blue for, seemingly, no sensible reason whatsoever and usually in front of other people when you so don't want to make an idiot of yourself. If you've never experienced a panic attack, you won't understand just how frightening they can be, the whole world is turned upside down. Our brains are so complicated *sigh*. You did brilliantly!

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  15. The picture of you is priceless. You look like someone who is facing a firing squad. And this is AFTER the ride?

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  16. Perhaps it was an experience of the romantic sublime rather than a panic attack?
    I have just spent a week in Sigale in Alpes Maritimes an was eyeing the switchback and cliff-edge roads with envy/terror; it would be an amazing/exhausting landscape to ride.

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  17. I´m pretty sure it´s a rook, not a crow. Probably more interested in left overs from cyclists lunch than left over cyclists

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    1. I don't know. Thats a pretty beefy, mean looking rook!

      (No, he was very friendly - made into a sort of pet, it seems, from years of attention from visitors)

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    2. It's definitely not a rook, rooks have light grey beaks and slightly scruffier feathers. Also they tend to be in groups, whereas crows are more solitary. Sorry ornithological rant over!

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    3. Okay, you made me look it up. Looks like a Carrion Crow.

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  18. “With my gearing of 50/34t front and 11-29t rear...” So what happened to the ‘frying pan’ cassette, then? Presumably went the same way as your ‘old’ legs... :)
    http://lovelybike.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/go-anywhere-gearing-srampagnolo.html

    Incidentally, you mentioned Dingle. I’ve never been to Ireland (yet) but this video was shot in Dick Mac’s pub in Dingle. Maybe you went there?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WwaPv1rZiQ
    Whatever you’re into, it’s just glorious – real proper music – the drummer is playing a newspaper...

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    1. Ah yes. See:
      On Vestigial Gearing

      I did go to that pub, among others! The music in Dingle is the best I have heard in Ireland so far.

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  19. Wow! PTCD (Post Traumatic Cycling Disorder) is not a myth. Fortunately, therapy is available.

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  20. Okay, you made me look it up. Looks like a Carrion Crow.

    I'm late to this party, but likely all for the best you didn't know that at the time.

    -Christopher Fotos

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