by Our Bicycle Lives
Do you want me to try a new cycle route? Tell me that it’s flat. I like a landscape on a human scale, the valleys, lowlands and unassuming rural villages rather than the more dramatic highs. I am aware, though, that ups and downs are the law of geography, just as joy and sorrow are of life, and that you can’t get one without the other. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Belmondo in Itinėraire d’un Enfant Gatė* (‘Happiness? That’s when hassles take a break’), I know that plains are when hills take a break and that they are short-lived unless you happen to live in the heart of London.
Climbing a hill is a test of strength: I am using my physiological potential and the power of my leg muscles to go beyond my limits and aim for the sky. Hills connect me deeply to my body. I feel my breath going in and out of my lungs, my heart pumping blood through my arteries, my hands gripping the handlebars, the soles of my feet pushing hard against the pedals. We rise beyond the aches and pains of effort to conquer the hill and ourselves too. No wonder the sense of achievement is huge and that other cyclists describe uphills as well as downhills as exhilarating.
Going down, on the other hand, is a pure question of weight, mass and forces in motion, of physics rather than physiology. It is like taking a parachute jump into the wide expanse of space in front of me. I crouch on the bike, adopt a mock aerodynamic position and fly down to sea level. What an adrenalin rush speed can be! I love free-wheeling downhill but a steep slope that is driving me forcefully forward can be terrifying, as I lack the swift reactions needed to control my movements. I can’t even imagine having to struggle with a bad case of shimmy (i.e. severe wobble of the front wheel at speed). Like I said, I am a small-town girl, not one for scaling new heights.
My friend Lilli shared her experience of the all-night Dunwich Dynamo thus: ‘It’s pitch black and you can’t see how far the hill is stretching, so the only way to get to the top is to relax and keep pedalling.’ The trick to master a hill, it seems, is to look just a few metres ahead and to take it slowly. But this is beside the point: I find hills not just off-putting but pointless. What goes round comes round, what goes up comes down. Big deal! To quote another friend who took part in a tougher than advertised ride, ‘There came a point when you saw yet another hill to climb and thought: that’s just not fair.’ Too many hills and it feels like the world is against me. And yet there is nothing to be done since hills, like Transport for London, are an unmovable, unfeeling body, an inert mass. My rogues’ gallery of most miserable uphill moments would include being red in the face and overtaken by another cyclist; pushing my bicycle all the way to the top (never have both body and bike felt so heavy); turning a corner without any kind of momentum to come face-to-face with an unexpected hill; false flats; a gradient so steep that I start to roll backwards. I could go on. On the other hand, my best hills are easy to describe: the flat ones with good views! Basically, I’d like a room on the ground floor please. With a view.
I look at cyclists who profess to like hills with a mixture of awe, incredulity and incomprehension, the way I look at people who like going to the dentist. ‘You’re mad!’, I think. In company with these hill riders, I am getting a glimpse of a different world, a dim view of what cycling could be like if I was fit, had the right sort of disposition, was training hard and above all if I owned a fast and snazzy, lightweight but strong machine – since reading Robert Penn’s riveting book, I know that It’s All About the Bike. As for mountain cyclists, they are like a different species aspiring to transcend the human condition through gruelling self-mortification. There is something primeval about our desire for hills. They are obviously striking a deep chord in us human beings. Our ancestors often invested them with mythical powers, perhaps as the abode of the divinity like Mount Olympus for the Ancient Greeks, and today the cyclists who master them seem almost superhuman.
* (Claude Lelouch, 1988)