It was the first decent day after a long winter of rain, and I was desperate to get out on my bike, away from the wind trainer, and onto real roads. A little too much beer, wine, and one mystery drink the night before meant I was starting a little slow, and the speedometer wasn't working at first (note to all - don't bump the transponders during maintenance).
The plan was for a two hour ride, and I had roughly planned out where I wanted to go: a few shorts miles through the city roads (avoiding, of course, any intersections where I would have to stop and unclip) before getting into some smooth roads and undulating slopes. There would be nothing more than a thirty second pedal uphill at a time.
The temperature was good - only a few days short of spring, winter nearly gone - and it all felt good. I convinced myself after a few minutes of testing that I was just as fast in the upright position as I was in the aero bars, so I decided not to hurt myself too much by forcing my hung-over body (with the tummy overhang) down into an unnatural position. I also convinced myself that using the lowest gear on the bike was still a workout.
Thirty minutes in, I got to the most troublesome spot of the ride, where I had to cross a state highway (which can be a bit nerve-wracking). Normally I do that, turn right, and head for home, making for an hour’s ride. But I went straight ahead into Old North Road.
Old North Road is a beautiful road, smooth and winding, with nice houses dotted around (how do those people afford those houses anyway?) and a slow climb past some pine forests. I passed a kid on a mountain bike, so I did my very best Cameron-Brown-Ironman-in-training impersonation, nodding to him and powering off into the distance like a hero. There's my random act of kindness for today: one kid hopefully inspired to take up triathlon. Or he may have thought that it is embarrassing to see old fat guys in tight clothes trying to ride tri bikes.
Then I got to "The Hill." At first I just rode around a blind corner, musing about the nice milk tanker driver who had slowed down to let me cross the one-way bridge, so I wasn't really paying attention. And then I saw it. It looked a bit innocent really, in reflection - just a little hill, with the road bending around to the left, bushes and trees on a little bank on one side, a hillside tumbling away to a dairy farm and a dirty creek on the other.
Immediately I had to downshift - left shifter down, right shifter all the way up - small cog front, 27 tooth rear (only put that on last night—good move!). “Hmm,” I thought, “the bike is getting slower. Old fat rider in tight clothes stands up and starts pushing cranks harder. This is not good, still getting slower.” I looked up briefly, and the road was still bending left, still going up. “Looks a bit steeper now.” I thought. “OK, standing up, breathing hard, can't see the end of the hill, one minute in. Tired. Bike getting a bit wobbly. You can do this, just watched the TDF and am all inspired, just keep pedaling. Maybe I should have a rest? I wonder where this hill finishes. If I stop I might not be able to start again - at least not pointing this way. Keep pushing, if you can't ride this how the hell do you think you will get through the half Ironman in 12 weeks?” But the body beats the mind, so I decided to stop for a mental realignment of priorities.
Now, I have laughed at people who have fallen over without unclipping - it's so easy to do, right?! Unless you are knackered, and halfway up the world's steepest hill (note: this last comment regarding the steepest hill may or may not be true). So I gracefully fell over sideways into the gravel, just as a car on a Sunday morning drive came down "The Hill" in the other direction. The driver was grinning but said nothing and just winked. I thought bad thoughts about him.
Deciding this was a good time to turn around once I had my breath back, I headed home, quietly angry at myself for this unmanly display.
One week later, I tried again. I read a few articles on BT about hill climbing. Pretty much, the consensus is “just do it.” I was not hung over this time, and even had energy drink and a gel first. “Hehehe,” I thought, “I will knock this off, a piece of cake.” I didn’t even make it as far as I did the first time before I had to stop. Hmmm.
Two weeks later, I read more articles, and even oiled the chain and tightened all the rattley bits on the bike, thinking that would help. I got around the next corner up "The Hill," and had to stop. I then thought, “Maybe I need compact cranks?”
Three weeks later, the sky was grey, but I rode anyway. I talked to a bike shop guy about "The Hill," and he didn’t know it. He asked if I was sure I was on Old North Road, since he didn’t recall any tough hills out that way. “Yeah, right, you skinny moron with shaved legs,” I thought. This time I took a different route to save energy (I drove to the base of hill in my car and got ready to ride). But I got to the same place and my body shut down again. I didn’t like this. Not..one...bit.
Four weeks later, I read more articles, spun on the trainer, wore compression socks to work, watched other riders carefully, watched Lance on YouTube, changed the saddle angle a bit, pumped up my tires to the recommended pressure, read more articles about climbing, saved my legs by running slowly, drank no beer the night before, got my calf muscles massaged, and went easy in the swims at Masters on Wednesday night. I felt ready, like this is the Olympics. Four years of training, for one moment, my glory, leave nothing on the bike. Blood, sweat, tears. This was the pinnacle. All or nothing. If it didn’t work now, I would sell the bike and take up Morris dancing.
And I glided up "The Hill." Well, if you call gliding being out of the saddle and weaving the bike around like crazy Jell-o under me, and taking up most of the lane as I weaved around like I was looking for a lolly in a chocolate shop. Sweat - yes, Tears - no. The top was just around the next corner. Total climbing time was probably three or four minutes for this soft old fat man in tight clothes.
I collapsed onto the grassy berm at the top of "The Hill", panting and heaving for breath. If this were a comedy then a group of cyclists would have come past now looking fresh, chatting to each other, and making me feel stupid. But they didn’t. So I stood up and picked up my bike. I wondered where the grinning and winking driver was now.
It's not "The Hill" anymore, it's just a hill. The sky is just a little bit less grey.