That Uphill Battle

Though we’ve had a brief respite from the usual July heat these past few days, summer is the season when the hilly terrain of Nashville really gets to me.

Caruthers Ave., courtesy of Google Maps

Caruthers Ave., courtesy of Google Maps--a gradual, 2-block incline

Lately I’ve been trying to look at it philosophically—the sense of accomplishment, building strength and endurance, etc.—but that can be hard when you’re dripping in sweat. I guess I’m not the only one who has trouble with this. Yesterday the Guardian‘s Rick Williams shared some strategies for climbing efficiently on their bike blog. A few were surprising, others were useful reminders of proper technique. Among them: standing up does help, but makes you tire more quickly; your heels should remain level with your toes for maximum force.

And today, my friend Jason shared a blog post from Seth Godin (who rides a recumbent) that gave another perspective, and a nice reminder that lessons learned on a bike apply elsewhere in life.

I look forward to the uphill parts, because that’s where the work is, the fun is, the improvement is. On the uphills, I have a reasonable shot at a gain over last time. The downhills are already maxed out by the laws of physics and safety.

So true! Unfortunately for my athletic career (ha), I’ve never been good at taking the long-term view when it comes to physical suffering. I have seen some improvement in my hill performance over the past year, but I still can’t learn to like them. Any hill-climbing pros, please feel free to share your secrets to success in the comments.

ETA: my route elevation map, which might show the ups and downs better than Google streetview. Thanks to commenter Catherine for the site! How does your route compare?

Picture 2

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22 thoughts on “That Uphill Battle

  1. baldsue says:

    I wear a billed cap under my helmet. When I’m going uphill I only look as far ahead as the bill allows when my head is tilted down. I don’t think of how much further I have to go, but only the terrain in front of me. That’s worked for hill climbing and is also helping me with hills of life.

  2. Tom says:

    Down shift into a lower gear. That’s why you have them.

    • Elaine says:

      Agreed! I have an elevation gain of a little over 200 ft over the course of my morning commute, with several ups & downs, and I find I use almost the full range of my gearing over the course of the ride. (That’s why I’m always so boggled when I see people riding fixies.)

      • Same here. The current office bike is only a 7-speed, and even that’s not quite enough for comfortable riding. The chainring is smallish, so it’s better for uphill than for high speeds. Ironically, the previous office bike was a cruiser with 7 speeds and a large chainring — better for higher speeds, but combined with the cruiser seating position to be completely horrid for even mild uphill riding. Call me a wimp, but I think 12 speeds is about the minimum for me to be happy.

    • dottie says:

      I’m sure most people know to down shift. Hills can still be challenging, especially long ones.

  3. Melissa Hope S says:

    I totally agree with Seth! On my commute, there is this horrible hill. But, on the way there, I see it as wake-up time. On the way home, I try to see if I get up it faster than before. I’m improving. Slowly but surely!

    • Trisha says:

      @baldsue: love the mind-over-matter technique. I need to incorporate more of those.

      @Tom: so that’s what those numbers mean!

      @Melissa: hills are definitely wake-up time. I have seen my speed (and cardiovascular fitness) improve over the past year.

  4. Do you feel a significant difference between the Batavus and the Peugeot when going uphill? Because on my Marianne (Motobecane mixte), going uphill feels like nothing, whereas on my Pashley Princess I am covered in sweat and panting in no time, even in first gear.

    • Trisha says:

      Funny, I just rode Le Peug to work today. There is a small boost with the lighter bike, but not as much as I expected. My Bat is really an excellent all-purpose bike.

  5. E A says:

    Just think of how much less of a climb you have than the Tour de France riders this week… ;-)

    And smile all the way. It’s better than driving uphill.

  6. Catherine says:

    I suddenly don’t feel so bad for not being able to wear street clothes on my commute into work (and therefore am decidedly unchic for my commute). A lot of these hills discussed/pictured are not really in the realm of what I’d consider a hill at all!

    I’m not saying this out of competitiveness, believe me, and I know that any incline of any length makes a real difference. I guess that I’m only now realizing that I underestimated how hilly my area actually is. Compared to where I grew up (near Valley Forge, PA–“valley” being a key clue to the terrain of the area—mountainous in the East Coast kind of way (aka not the Rockies)), Washington, DC (where I live now) is flat as a pancake!

    Using this elevation map (, I just discovered that I ascend 85 feet over the course of my 9 mile ride, the vast majority of that elevation (69 feet) is in the last 1500 feet. I also live at (nearly) sea level, then have to ascend for a while, but lose it all at the Jefferson Memorial which is also at (nearly) sea level, then I have the length of the National Mall to gear up to climb Capitol Hill (which is what that last 69 feet in .3 miles is about).

    I honestly had no idea, I was just embarrassed that there seem to be people who can pull off commutes in work clothes when I just….can’t. I’m wondering if those folks are the ones who live in Columbia Heights….everything’s downhill from there!

    • Trisha says:

      Yeah, not the best picture — it’s hard to snap a hill! My ride is short, just over two miles, but has some steep grades (a couple of 5.5%ers). In the first mile and a quarter I go up about 90 feet. Most of the year I can wear normal clothes though, probably because the ride is so short. How long is your ride?

      • Catherine says:

        Yeah it is hard to get pictures of hills and make them accurately reflect reality. The Google street view of Capitol Hill (both up and down) doesn’t look half as steep as it really is. For reference, when I’m going home (at top of hill, preparing to descent), I’m basically looking at the top of the Washington Monument (2 miles away) at eye level.

        It’s a big hill, basically, and it comes right at the end of my ~9 mile ride.

        I love my ride in, and it doesn’t seem all that long because it’s so pretty (mostly a protected bike bath through woods and marshes, then ’round a bend in the Potomac to see the view of the city, then up and over the river, then past all the memorials and monuments and museums–it’s the kind of thing people pay to do as part of a tour while visiting DC, and I just get to do it as part of my day). But as much as I love it, I really just don’t see myself doing it in a work dress and heels. But, my cardiovascular fitness is improving every day–so here’s hoping that maybe one day I’ll be able to pull it off! As it is now, I wear “yoga pants” and a long sleeved fitted tee shirt. I refuse to join the spandex mafia :)

  7. E A says:

    Catherine, I like that elevation map… not much to profile in Chicago, but a useful “tool” nonetheless. Thanks!

  8. You should move to Chicago. Problem solved! ;)

    As for heavy bikes, I’ve changed my opinion because I have come to see the advantages that they provide. One of them is, a heavy bike is more stable. When I switch between my old Schwinn and my light Gary Fisher, my trust level goes down. Much less stability, especially if I’m hauling something in the panniers. The other thing I’ve noticed is my Schwinn has made my legs a lot stronger. I guess heavy bikes could put more strain on your legs, leading to injuries, but that’s where the upright position my Schwinn puts me in, comes in. I find I’m not in as much of rush when I’m upright, and looking around at what’s going on. When I get bent over on my zippy bike, my racer persona comes out.

  9. Andrew Duthie says:

    Our office is basically at the top of West End in Nashville, so anywhere I ride for lunch is going to be downhill. That’s nice if I’m meeting people for lunch, but it also means I’m sweaty when I get back from lunch.

    The cool weather of late has been nice — I can ride three miles out for lunch and not be in bad shape when I get back. When it’s 90+ degrees, though, I keep it to about a mile (and dream of an electric front hub to drag me back to the office).

  10. Doohickie says:

    Some riding companions have been advising keeping a constant cadence in general, and don’t worry about speed. I’ve been doing that the last few commutes, and it makes long shallow rises and also the steeper hills much easier to deal with. Just stroke-stroke-stroke-stoke all the way up, stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke when it levels out, and stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke on the downhills. Even though I’m working the whole time, I feel fresher at the end of the ride.

  11. Cosmo says:

    I am not commuting regularly yet largely because I am afraid of the hills, LA is sorta crazy with the hills. I mean that hill with the Hollywood sign on on it, people live on that and there are roads on it and stuff. This post has made it seem slightly less intimidating. Besides if the hipsters on their fixies can do it there is no reason why I can’t. I mean they don’t have any gears to down shift to and they carry those huge heavy looking messenger bags. The tip about sitting to climb is good to know though. I had no idea. Not sure these hills are best for the beautiful and fabulous 3 speed Gazelle which makes me so sad.

  12. dottie says:

    I checked my elevation profile and it’s extremely flat, thank goodness for that. As long as there’s no headwind making me feel like I’m on a 5 mile hill, I’m fine.

  13. Dean Peddle says:

    Actually…I will give you the opposite advice of Tom…not that it will help. Recently I rode my fixed gear in a Century that was pretty hilly just for fun :) Anyways when I would come to the hills with a group of people I would notice them all downshifting and losing their momentum. Because I couldn’t downshift and had a pretty big gear I would just blow by them and power up the hill. I think people downshift too much and too early and lose their momentum….you need to keep the momentum going. Just another angle to look at it… you will build up those legs…but I don’t know if it will help with the sweating problem.

    • dottie says:

      I’ve noticed this, too. My only two hills are actually long and steep ramps into the park, but I’ve noticed that when I stay in a higher gear, I don’t lose momentum and expect to work my legs hard, so I do. In contrast, when I move down to a much lower gear near the bottom of the hill, I have to really slog up it.

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