Friday, June 27, 2008

The Zen of Hills

I like to say that cycling is the best way to see a country because you see it up close, no glass window between you and it. But that also means you feel it, every change in grade. And that means climbing hills.

There are the usual hills you run into everywhere (everywhere, that is, except Maryland's Eastern Shore, where distance riding is a delight unless the winds are blowing). For our trip, though, we're looking at the Carpathians, a curved swath of mountains we have to cross twice -- or even more, depending on how we make our way across Romania. The adjacent map makes the Carpathians look weirdly like a map of Vietnam. Or is that flashback?

Hills focus the mind. A favorite spinning instructor likes to tell us to "relax into the hill." Which is partly good advice. If you actually relax your body, of course, you won't get up the damned hill. But you need to relax your mind, simply accept that this part of the ride is uphill and a whole lot of work, and concentrate on turning those pedals over. I have a few rules for hill-climbing, which work for me. Mostly.

-- Don't think about how much more hill there is left to climb. We went over a volcanic mountain in Sicily on which there must have been a dozen switchbacks, and I was looking up the hill all the time, waiting for the top. Bad technique. Just turn those pedals over.

-- Anticipate changes in slope. It always amazes me how much difference a slight steepening makes in my effort. If I anticipate it, I gear better and handle it better.

-- Don't stop! Starting again, going uphill, is really bad.

-- You may not walk your bike up the hill. Don't even think about it. Just not an option. I've never done it. But I might have to someday.

The journey has some intimidating parts, starting with the "High Tatras" (see photo above) -- we don't mess around with no Low Tatras. Well, they also run trains through these areas, too.
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