I live in an area with a lot of hills. For people like me who ride a bicycle, that means decisions have to be made about how we’re going to relate to these undulations in the terrain.
Some choose to avoid the hills at any cost. It’s fairly easy to do by staying on flat neighborhood streets and the miles of non-motorized rail trails that are within a short drive.
Others choose to attack the hills. These are the competitive cyclists—racers, triathletes, club riders—who only begrudgingly acknowledge the laws of physics that say climbing must necessarily be slower than descending or even time-trialing on the flats.
Neither of these approaches work for me. Avoiding the hills is certainly easier, and may be more relaxing, if a slow, effortless cruise is the desired means of transport. But it misses much of the variety and challenge and some of the most beautiful scenery the world has to offer from two wheels.
On the other hand, attacking the hills just isn’t my style. First of all, I’m an avid but not competitive cyclist. I have no desire to race. One of the reasons I love cycling is because it slows down the pace of life. For me, riding at peak velocity on a climb would defeat the purpose of going on the ride in the first place.
Secondly, the idea of attacking a hill feels wrong spirited and counter-productive. There’s enough conflict in the world already without us turning geography into an adversary too.
Another reason I love cycling is that by traveling at a much slower pace than a car, and leaving us exposed to the elements and environment rather than encased in metal and glass, a bike allows us to connect to the world in an extraordinary and intimate way. You actually see, hear, and smell the world directly as you pass through it. If I attacked the next hill, I would immediately set it apart from me as something to fight against. That’s not the kind of transformative connection I look for in a ride.
I’ve come to think of hills as teachers. They’re Zen masters. Sometimes hard to read, often inconvenient, always ready to whack me on the head or butt. They do this impassively, without judgment (although it sometimes feels like they might be smiling just a little). They give me these whacks to remind me to stay present, to not get ahead of myself, to do the one thing necessary in the moment, nothing more…and nothing less.
Like every other lesson in being present, hills take practice. A lot of repetition is involved. So, I get whacked pretty regularly, surprised out of a lapse in attention.
It happened just the other day on a ride. I took a new route and found myself climbing a winding road of unknown length. As each bend revealed another ascending stretch without a summit in sight, I shifted down to a lower gear and grew impatient with my rising fatigue and labored breathing. I pushed my legs to increase my cadence in an effort to get this over with as soon as possible.
That’s when it came. The whack. It came in the form of a voice in my head. “Patience. Don’t try to finish the climb before you reach the top.”
Oh yeah. Be here now.
I dropped another gear, slowed the cadence slightly, and eased the pressure off my legs. What a beautiful stretch of road, I thought. A few minutes later I crested the top and started down the other side.
We spend so much time going from one place to another, from one task to another that our energy often gets stuck in the getting there. It leaves us just ahead of ourselves, focused on the destination rather than where we are. In that state, we miss a lot of the sweetness and beauty that comes with being here. We sometimes even miss the sweetness of the destination, turning our attention to the next goal as soon as we arrive.
A hill says, “You can do both. Aim for the top, but ride where you are. The only pedal stroke that will get you to the summit is the one you’re taking right now. Be patient. Be present.”
I’ve come to recognize the fact that it’s a good thing there are a lot of hills here. Rather than avoid them, I now seek them out, add them to my rides.
One of these days I might even stay present all the way to the top.