Hills – love them, or hate them, you cannot alter the reality that they exist. You can try and avoid them – move to the Somerset Levels, or the Cambridge Fens, or most of Lincolnshire, for that matter, but sooner or later you will have to cycle up some hills. Some refer to monster hills, but are hills actually monsters?
Avoiding hills is simply cheating yourself, as hills make you stronger (assuming you don’t have a medical or physical reason for avoiding them). Avoiding hills is akin to avoiding the gym, or avoiding exercise – you’ll only grow weaker. I have a life philosophy, which originally started as a cycling philosophy:
The hill is not IN the way, the hill IS the way.
Hills make you stronger
Simply put, hills (when cycling, or obstacles in life) challenge us, and repeatedly overcoming them does make us stronger. Some see hills as terrifying, and people often refer to monster hills, but are they actually monsters? And if they are, what makes them so? More importantly, what makes you avoid them so?
I live in Devon, and once – after saying that I love hills – someone responded by saying it’s probably a case of Stockholm Syndrome. There’s a chance they’re right, but many cyclists will tell you how utterly boring cycling along a perfectly flat landscape can be. You see, hills have both climbs and descents, but cycling somewhere flat can be relentless, and the moment you stop pedalling you start slowing down.
We live in an age of Strava, and some will have you know that “if it isn’t on Strava, it never happened”. That’s pure codswallop, of course, but each to their own. Human beings like to have information, though, and the desire to measure hills predate Strava and the digital era by a long shot. Today, we measure hills in percentage and it seems few really understand how that works. Once upon a time, we measured road and railway inclines in the format of 1-in-4, or 1-in-5. A 1-in-4 incline simply means that for any 4 units of measure travelling forward, you will gain 1 unit of measure in elevation, regardless of what units you were using.
Percentage is a better method, and is calculated as (Vertical Distance ÷ Horizontal Distance) × 100. For example, if you gained 100 metres over 1.6 kilometre (equivalent of one mile) then the average gradient would be calculated as (0.1km ÷ 1.6km) x 100 = 6.25%. Usually, we round up or down to the nearest whole number, so in this example it’s a 6% average gradient. Of course, that’s not to say that entire distance will be a 6% gradient – over 1,6 km there can be a great deal of fluctuation. It’s entirely possible that half of the 1.6 km could be perfectly flat, and half have a 100m elevation gain, so let’s do the maths for that: (0.1 ÷ 0.8) x 100 = 12.5%. Rounded to the nearest whole number means now we’re looking at a far steeper hill, rated at 13%.
Gradients become more accurate when measured over shorter distances, as the example above shows, but it becomes meaningless if calculated over too short distance.
Gradients for cars
Today, we also have a cycling-specific way of categorising hills. Rumour has it that the Category 4 (least difficult) through to Category (or Cat, for short) 1 (leg-burningly steep!) originated from – where else – the Tour de France. There’s also Hors Categorie (without category, not “uncategorised”) which means the toughest of all Cat-rated climbs.
In a pre-digital era, when even telephones were few and far between, reporters covering the race needed information about the route. Specifically, they needed to know if they could drive up certain mountain roads, and a system was devised, based on what gear a small, underpowered car would need to be in to have any chance of driving up there.
For a Cat 4 climb, the reporter could keep it in 4th gear, but the only way to make it up a Cat 1 climb was to shift down to first gear! The story was that it’s based on a Citroen 2VC, but apparently the categories predate the Citroen, and it was probably based on a Hotchkiss, the car used at the time by the founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange.
The system for calculating the categories has changed, and Strava is now using a far better system, which is simple, and quite elegant: the length of the segment (minimum 300 metres) times by the average elevation grade. All distance measurements for this system is done in metres, and here’s a breakdown of the calculations:
- Cat 4 > 8 000
- Cat 3 > 16 000
- Cat 2 > 32 000
- Cat 1 > 64 000
- HC (Hors Categorie) > 80 000
Let’s review this against our fictitious examples further above: A 1 600 metre segment, with an average gradient of 6% means 1 600 x 6 = 9 600, so is a Cat 4 climb. An 800 metre climb at 13% is 800 x 13 = 10 400, which is short of the Cat 3 threshold of 16 000, so is still only a Cat 4 climb.
So are all Cat 3 climbs much steeper? Not necessarily – if we have a 15 km segment, with an average gradient of 3% (the minimum required for a Cat-graded climb) we’re looking at 15 000 x 3 = 45 000, so though it’s not nearly as steep as the Cat 4 climb above, this one would be categorised as a Cat 2 climb. The reason is simple to understand – cycling 15km of constant uphill certainly is far more challenging!
Hills are a you problem. That’s because it’s you who have to power yourself up them. It’s exceedingly easy to become demotivated, give up, and go back to avoiding hills. Been there, done that!
Having said that, there are a few things you can do to become better at tackling hills right now. For starters, avoid the most common mistake of going hard early on.
Here’s a hill-climbing secret: start cycling at just your average pace, until you’re at least two thirds of the way up, then put in as much effort as you can. By how much you speed up depends on you, and the hill. Remember, two things are required to cycle uphill: physical muscle strength, and endurance stamina – neither of these are available in tablet form, and can only be acquired over time, by cycling more, further and faster.
A right-now solution is to ensure your bike is correctly adjusted for your body. If you’re unsure of how to do this yourself (and most people are, so don’t think this is anything negative) consider getting what’s known as a bike fit done, but do yourself a favour and ask around before paying someone. Many claim to be bike fit experts, but few are.
Go at your own pace. If your own pace requires you to stop 100 times to catch your breath, then do so, but ride up that hill if you can. If other cyclists overtake you, that’s OK – let them do them, and you do you. Related, if you overtake another cyclist, try to offer them some encouragement, along the lines of “You’re doing great”. Face facts: they are doing great, as they’re cycling up a hill that many run away from!
Your mind can be your greatest ally, or your greatest enemy – which it becomes is up to you to decide. What I guarantee you is that any battle is first won in your mind. If inside your own head you keep telling yourself that you cannot do it, then you won’t, as you’ve given up before trying. Conversely, if you keep telling yourself that you can and will succeed, you’re halfway there.
Your muscles will start burning – this is normal, and is caused by lactic acid buildup. The more you strain your muscles, the better they will become at dealing with this. When you expect the burn, you’re better prepared to deal with it.
Break a hill up into segments, and try to distract yourself. Try to guess how many pedal strokes it will take to reach a certain point not very far ahead, and when you get there, soo how accurate your guess was, then repeat it with another point up ahead. In your mind, break the hill up into shorter segments and tackle one such segment at a time. If you’re exhausted, then stop – there’s no shame in that at all. Just get pedalling again, regardless how slowly, when you’ve caught your breath.
You’ll be loving hills sooner than you think, and as a bonus, there’s always a downhill as a reward!