Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire
Why do we climb? Why do some of us seek out the mountains, the steepest, hardest bits of road that we can find? These are questions I ask myself reasonably often, usually just after really pushing it up a climb – one of those efforts where your legs are absolutely burning and your heart rate is at its max, or one of those long, long grinding ascents of a big mountain.
My love of mountains began when I was a kid. It started as a fascination with the early explorers of the Himalayas. My mother, who was an actor, had a friend who was about to make a film in the area around K2, one of most infamous Himalayan peaks. I don’t know why, just that for some reason this piqued my imagination. This was in the early 80s, before the days of the guided expeditions. Climbers were picked because they were the best, not because they could pay the bill. Sure, these clients have to make an amazing effort but it’s very, very different now.
Leaving home after I finished high-school I headed straight for Mount Everest, not as a climber, but on a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Over the centuries many hermits and spiritual orders, like the Tibetan Buddhists among others, have found sanctuary on the slopes of the high peaks and I too found a peace and solitude in their presence. They filled me with awe and gave me a true sense of the scale of things. It was one of the most extraordinary periods of my life and one that I’ve longed to revisit. It was like walking among giants, among gods no less. I’ve never experienced a deeper sense of reverence and wonder, except witnessing the birth of my child.
In a strange way, they also gave me a feeling of safety and certainty. In what? I don’t know, because the dangers were ever-present. As much as they humbled me they also spoke to my ambition and as when I returned to Australia to build a life for myself, the ascent of the mountain became a powerful visual metaphor for the challenges of the ordinary life, a natural corollary to the hero’s quest….
As a cyclist it was a different story. Only a couple of years ago, I would go out of my way to avoid hills. I certainly didn’t seek them out. That would’ve been nuts! I mainly rode along the bay, though I had to tackle some hills to get there and to get home again. For years, the hills weren’t a challenge they were a deterrent. I can vividly remember the first ride I went on when we moved here – through Westerfolds Park and along the Yarra trail until I got to Heidelberg. On the way home I had a series of steep hills to get over. On this day I didn’t have the legs for it and ended up walking the last couple of kilometers. I loved being on the bike, but I didn’t love the hills. Seven years later, I find myself 12th on the Strava leader-board for one of these hills, Bonds Rd which is at the end of every commute home.
About three or four years ago though, something changed. I started seeking out hills. It started off just riding to our friend’s cafe in Diamond Creek, a 20km return. My mate James and I would do this each week. The hills were hard but they started to become a regular feature of our rides. Then when I finished my PhD I started to use my newfound freedom to expand my horizons. For years my wife and I had driven out to Hurstbridge and Arthurs Creek to spend time with our friends and their horses so I knew the country well. It’s really beautiful country but some of the hills were really very intimidating, like the climb from Wellers. But I gradually rode further. I extended my Diamond Creek ride to go up to Hurstbridge, and some days I’d do laps of this extra section. Now my weekly 20km ride had become a 50 which I was doing several times a week. With this regular riding on a moderately hilly course I started to get stronger and faster so when a new riding mate introduced me to some more serious hills I was up for the challenge. Mount Pleasant Road, and St Andrews became a regular part of my week. Bigger climbs beckoned.
Challenge is what it was about really. As I got stronger, I would link up the different routes I knew. Once I’d been introduced to a new area I found it was important to go back and ride it alone without the support and encouragement of other riders. The country started to open up. I was no longer afraid of the hills, I knew I could survive and even thrive out there. The first time I had a go at Kinglake, the biggest local climb, I was by myself. At 7km it’s long enough at a very steady 4% gradient. It felt like a massive achievement and on the day it was, for me. It’s also a 75km return ride for me. That was big at the time. That was 2011. The next year I did Kinglake over 24 times often adding in other similar climbs on rides as long as 160km. The more challenging the rides became the greater the sense of validation, of conquering my own perceived limitations. This was all the more important in a time of life transition, coming to the end of my thirties, starting a family, new career. The climbs were my way of coaching myself to handle the challenges of life.
But there’s more to the hills than the challenge alone, much more. In the suffering of the climb and the exhilaration of the descent I feel truly alive. Tyler Hamilton sums it up well in The Secret Race “I discovered when I went all out, when I put 100 percent of my energy into some intense, impossible task – when my heart was jack-hammering, when lactic acid was sizzling through my muscles – that’s when I felt good, normal, balanced.” You can get this on a flat section of road too but it’s different – no descent, and certainly no real challenge.
Another big part of it, especially when my rides take me beyond all completely controlled environments of the city, is about the connection with nature that climbing opens up. As Hemingway put it:
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
On a final note. Just remember one thing, climbing is never easy. The fitter and stronger you get, the faster you will climb but it will always be hard because odds are if you have an appetite for the hills you will also want to go faster. This is the nature of climbing and the climbing cyclist.
I invite you to comment below on why you climb, and what your favourites are.