Hills. Hill climbing. Riding up hills on a bike. It is, to me, such a part of cycling that I struggle to see how you can be a cyclist and not at least recognise it’s significance, and you can’t be a proper cyclist and spend your days avoiding them. Riding on the flat and going around in circles is all very well but riding hills is the raison d’etre. Cyclists who say they don’t like hills are the odd ones. You have to like hills. The ups and downs are such a reflection of life that you have to accept their inevitability. Whether you relish or endure the effort, you need a coping mechanism at the very least. You can get off and walk but you’re missing the point.
So, although it’s a given that climbing is an integral part of cycling, where you can argue the toss (and there are plenty of tossers that do) is by disputing what hills are the real tests of a cyclists mettle: hard and fast, short and steep, painfully gradual – they’re all out there. Pick your nemesis. Or borrow Simon’s. That’s what I’ve done. People might well want to dispute his inclusions, and question his ‘marks out of ten’, but Mr Warren, in his book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, has raised his standard and set one for others to aspire to. The book is a real gem. He’s picked his climbs, ridden and rated them. The book, as it stands, is definitive.
It has a checklist too. And although I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen the innocous list, nestled at the back, I did. No going back – the only way is up – so I’ve got me a ‘Munro-bagging’, ‘Hard Rock Café t-shirt collecting’, ‘might take me a while but I’m in no rush’ list to tick. Six so far.
I don’t recommend anyone trying this at the moment (they’ve had a little snow there) but a month ago I was in Aberdeenshire and of the four or so climbs in the area that are featured in Simon’s book it was Number 66, The Lecht, that grabbed my attention. Ten out of ten. Let the arguers toss, I just wanted to ride my bike. And what a splendid ride it was. The Caingorms aren’t short of a slope or two and starting in Dinnet, I sorted myself a very picturesque route with 66 as the turnaround point. Twenty-five miles of undulating autumnal colours, with one steep climb en route (the A939 after Gairnshiel Lodge) should see me top out. Then just ‘turn and burn’ and I’d be back.
I found so much space and tranquility on the roads that day. Not much traffic. Big vistas and an emptying head had me trundling along nicely. I’m sure it’s cheating but my compact chainset meant that although I certainly had to work I didn’t have to contemplate failure – well not often. It was good. I could see the mountain as I approached. I could just pick out the road as it snaked up the side. That would be those early hairpins. And there’s the trees, stopping at their line.
The hill definitely starts. There’s a flat road and a bridge and then it’s up, up, up. No gradual. Definitely a gradient. Time to work. I put in the effort. And then there were respites. Bones of contention for those that want to question Simon’s rating, I suspect, but welcome enough when you are out on the hill. Onward and upward then. Destination summit. And I was there. Job done, and time to head home.
Puncture at the bottom. That was a pain. It was noticeable how quickly bare hands numbed as I sought to roll the tyre back on. A reality check I think. A mechanical and a change in the weather in a place like that could easily turn a bike ride into an ordeal, or worse. I had half an energy bar and one other tube to get me home. I gathered my stuff, my pump and my reserves and focused a little. I was wanting to get home. I’d had enough adventuring. And enough climbing too, certainly of the one in five variety. I’d considered an out and back route but I now knew the A939 wasn’t a road to take prisoners so I took to the valley. It was time to get the head down, the legs working and some miles behind me.
I rode. Quite a pace at first but then more measured. Still a way to go and the climbing was catching up with me. Hills do that. They wait ’til you’re on the flat and then they revisit. Weary and wanting home I pressed on. The last few miles were measured in cusses. Too many false summits and blind corners and pan-flat straights that went on forever. I got there though. A bloody good ride. Damn fine hills. Simon’s book is a delight. And the box-ticking is nothing but an anal aside.