Riding the Waves
Cyclists are planning their summers right now, asking each other for recommendations on recreational rides. “How hilly is it?” someone asks when they hear we’ve cycled a particular event. Mr. Spoked usually jumps in with “Not too bad,” while I hesitate and recall the recent past, when every ride seemed hilly to me.
It was about this time two years ago when the Spoked household negotiations over summer rides had stalled. He wanted challenges; I preferred fun. Disagreement led to procrastination and when we finally got around to posting registrations, our first choice was full. So was our second choice. And that resulted in a fateful decision that at the time I believed would haunt me for the rest of my riding life. We signed up for Border Raiders.
Every multi-day bicycle ride includes phrases on its website like, “Must be able to ride at least 50 miles.” It’s boilerplate, and means the organizers don’t want to haul your under-trained butt around the countryside in their vans. The Border Raiders website, though, warns, “a challenging ride for even the most experienced riders.” I’ve overheard cyclists discuss Border Raiders in hushed tones reserved for such topics as death, destruction, and the devil. One day of the ride in particular is awesome–the Serpent’s Back, 90 hills in the final 30 miles. Picture the rippling waves of an ocean, only much taller and grander, and you get an idea of the landscape. Hill after hill after bloody hill.
Given the ride’s reputation, then, it should come as no surprise that Border Raiders’ registration was still open while others were booked up. Mr. Spoked gleefully paid the fees while I swallowed hard and considered my inadequacies as a rider. I thought about the hills I’d walked up with my bicycle. Then I remembered the statement on Border Raiders’ website: “If you train for this ride, you will have the time of your life.” As D-Day approached, Mr. Spoked and I devised a training plan. The result was two weeks of riding rolling hills, also known as rollers.
At that time, there wasn’t a hill that didn’t intimidate me. Although I put in a lot of miles every year, hills were a physical and mental challenge I neither sought out nor appreciated. There’s a saying among experienced bicyclists: “The hills aren’t in the way, they are the way.” Two years ago, I was a member of the in-the-way club. That had to change.
One reason rollers had me in their gnarly grasp was that I didn’t have a clue how to ride them. Like many others, I would coast down the backside of the previous hill and wait until the bike slowed going up the next hill before commencing to pedal. Then I’d quickly cycle through the gears to the easiest one. At this point there was still a good third of the hill left to ride. I’d punish my legs by grinding up the rest of the incline until reaching the top, whereupon I mistakenly believed I’d earned a rest, and coasted downhill before repeating the whole painful cycle.
I happen to be married to a good cyclist, a smart guy who has observed and learned from other strong riders. For two weeks preceding Border Raiders, I took leave from work every morning and spent the hours riding rollers in the county with him. Part of the time he rode in front of me so I could see when he changed gears. The rest of the time he rode behind me and offered instruction. We rode the same 20 miles of rollers over and over again, twice every morning, until I learned them inside-out. First I memorized where I needed to change gears, then I analyzed what I was doing and why. Once I understood how to ride the waves, I actually came to enjoy them.
It’s hard to find useful hill-riding tips online for rollers. Most of what’s out there deals with gear ratios, body stance, and equipment. These things help you ride rollers, but if you want to dominate them you’re going to have to use your brain. Rollers are not mountains. You cannot put it in one gear and power up without thinking. You have to read the hill and constantly adjust to the conditions. Here’s how to do it.
Do not coast down a roller. Instead, shift into a higher gear and keep pedaling with easy resistance as long as possible (this gives added momentum for the coming uphill). Only near the bottom of the hill, when you’re in the highest gear but feel no resistance, can you cease pedaling. The coasting phase of proper roller riding will last only a few seconds. Yes, it’s disappointing; get over it.
Although your legs are resting for this brief blip of time, your mind should be working, reading the uphill to come. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the uphill a uniform grade?
- If not (and it’s probably not), where are the steepest spots? the flattest spots?
- What are some landmarks I can use as benchmarks for changing gears?
Shortly after you’ve passed the valley, and as soon as you feel resistance in your cadence, you must begin pedaling. Use the landmarks you observed to set goals for yourself, determining when you’re going to shift into a lower gear. Challenge yourself on every hill to stay in a higher gear as long as you can (but without grinding). Say there’s a mailbox halfway uphill; try to reach it before you downshift. Or maybe the highest part of the hill is the steepest; decide you’re not going to stand up on the pedals for that final kick until you reach the telephone pole 10 feet from the peak. Study the roller pictured at top/right–you can see that there’s a steep but short uphill followed immediately by a little dip; I wouldn’t downshift at all until after that dip. Always read a roller and quickly devise a plan that suits your riding style and abilities.
By cultivating proper technique, I was able not only to survive Border Raiders but even enjoy parts of it. My proudest moment came while kicking back with other riders at the end of one day. I asked when we were doing the Serpent’s Back, and they said, “You just rode it.” Ninety hills in 30 miles with heat indices of well over 100°F, and I didn’t even know it. Sweet. And ever since, I’ve been proselytizing on the glories of rollers. Hills are indeed The Way.
Goals update: One commute, plus trips to the bank, grocery store, and recycling bins.