When I think back on my earliest memory of a bicycle and a hill, what I recall is the down, the building momentum, wind in hair, the involuntary grin. Turning around to go back up to where I started isn’t part of that memory; it wasn’t part of the fun.

The thought that I might push myself to go faster up a grade didn’t occur to me until I started riding with other people. My ethos was reasonable: downshift and pedal until I reached the top, however long that took.

And then came the day where the paceline I was in hit a hill. I didn’t know to grit my teeth and make a bigger effort, but it wouldn’t have mattered; I was already seeing stars. What that spanking taught me was that hills weren’t meant to be endured, that cyclists treat them like a dog chewing a bone.

Where I grew up the longest hill I could find was about a third of a mile. Friends started taking me there with the express purpose of humbling ourselves on grades I’d never have considered riding otherwise.

Shocked as I was to learn some riders try not to slow down on hills, I was all the more incredulous when I saw a rider stand up and accelerate going uphill. What kind of a good time is that? It would be some years before I felt the satisfaction of looking over my shoulder to see riders trailing me, single file like some ridiculous kite tail.

Then came the day when my understanding changed. My effort on the hill stopped being about getting to the top, or going fast enough to stay with my friends. I learned that the hill was a lab, a way to find out what I was made of, a method to score not just my fitness, but my determination.

That was the day I embraced suffering.

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Image: Jerry Dodrill

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  1. rich says

    I can certainly relate. But sometimes part of me wants to revert the the first version of hill climbing.

    1. Padraig says

      Right? I’ve done my share lately.

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