As a kid, I grew up in the relatively flat inner Melbourne. From about the age of 8 my bike was like my set of wings. Often me and a good mate from school, also called James, used to explore not just our local area but go on what were then long trips to the other side of the city. I was particularly fond of riding through the campus of the University of Melbourne after hours and on weekends, going as fast as I could. Then there was the time I rode back from a Cubs meeting in Princes Hill (the smaller version of Boy Scouts). It was after dark and the route I took was along the back of the big old cemetery. Man, I don’t think I had ever peddled harder than that night.
Even into my late twenties, the bike was my principal way of getting about – only got my licence when I was 28 or so. Not long after that we moved out into the hills of Melbourne and my bike riding stopped. I would go for the occasional ride, and even string a few together, but I always sought out the flattest routes. The hills were in the way. They were both a physical and a psychological barrier.
Then last year I started riding again with some more determination. As it happens, I was accompanied by my old riding partner, James, who as chance has it had moved out into a nearby suburb. Our bikes are a bit bigger and more expensive than they were in the mid-eighties, and we’ve both acquired a taste for good coffee, but in a way it felt a bit like we were continuing where we left off all those years ago. So we started to tackle some of the local hills around Eltham and Diamond Creek. As my strength and confidence grew I ventured out to Hurstbridge. Occasionally, we would try a new route through the back streets and hit some stunningly steep climbs, but then we’d return to the usual route.
There is no flat. It’s either up or down. On the first ride out to St Andrews markets, a 50-something kilometre ride, there are a good 15 memorable ascents. Completing it I felt like a champion, even though I was completely exhausted. I had ridden a course that had challenged my belief about what I was capable of achieving. I also realised that on my old route because there are so few climbs each one seemed even harder and was more of an event. On the much longer and much harder ride, the climbs are just one after the other. Taking the more challenging route, each climb is just another climb.
Now, it’s one thing to accomplish something when you’ve got a mate encouraging you on, it’s another altogether to face it by yourself. So to test myself, that’s what I did. I rode the route a second and a third time, taking 2 and then 5 minutes off my time, and even adding in some extra climbs. With each ride, I felt stronger and more confident.
On Sunday, we did another short 20 km but with some really tough little hills, one after the other. Even on the recovery sections you’re still going up, just less so. At a couple of points I even had to stop and just get my breath. Starting the downhill to go home, Ben asked me whether I was up for another hill. I thought I was finished 5 ks back, but I’d recovered enough and was feeling strong, so we turned the corner into Reynolds Rd. to be greeted by a long strip of asphalt that seemed to go virtually straight up. I don’t know how to measure gradients, but I’m guessing there wouldn’t be much change from 20 degrees.
Then the other day, I linked up these two rides. It was really beautiful. Tackling each hill one at a time, and then flying downhill. The recent book about Cadel Evans by Rob Arnold Cadel Evans: Close to Flying, captures it. It really does feel like flying. Actually, it also feels like downhill skiing. There is even that sense of satisfaction pulling into a country town, knowing what it has taken to get there like the satisfaction I get at the bottom of a challenging slope at the snow.
The thing is that over the last few weeks I’ve really started to appreciate the hills. You really suffer going up them, and it was comforting to hear Cadel saying that the hills still hurt him, but you get so much satisfaction from it, to the point that I am now starting to actually seek them out.
The thing is that I really see this as having direct relevance to the way I approach life. I’m not a stranger to challenges, but this is a time in my life where I know I have to embrace experiences that will challenge my idea about what is possible on a regular basis. Stepping up to a new level in life is all about embracing the challenges that lie between where we are and where we want to go, knowing that each hill is a gift, because it makes us stronger and more capable of taking on even bigger challenges and realising our vision.