Sunday, August 26, 2012

Over the Hill…but in a good way!

I suspect one of the chief obstacles (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) to many people biking is hill-climbing. Biking can be challenging enough for new utility cyclists, what with rules of the road, gears, braking, dealing with traffic, the weather, &c. Add to this some steep-ish hills that heat a person up and make special cycling clothes seem unavoidable, and it all gets to be too much for many people to “make the leap” into regular utility biking. I do have a suggestion, though:

Get off and walk your bike up the hill.

Unless you live in a very hilly location, walking a bike uphill is legal, sane, and perfectly reasonable. To me, the interesting question is: why is walking a bike up hill so difficult for us today? It wasn’t always this way.

I can remember seeing lots of people (except young men out to prove something to themselves or others) walking their bikes up hill when I was young. Then came ten speeds. Suddenly, cycling was only about sport, fitness, and intensity. To dismount from your bike and walk up the hill was a sign of being a sissy, a wimp, a fatso. So, people had to strain, sweat, and nearly kill themselves to stay in the saddle at all costs so as not to imply they were abject physical failures. This all happened about the same time as it became rare to see middle-aged and older people on bikes around town. These two things seem related to me.

Utility cycling is a great way to get out of the “rat race” by opting for transport that is slower and healthier for the total person. It should not (in my opinion) be about substituting one obsessive compulsion for another. Using a bicycle needn’t always involve getting covered in sweat. It can be a fairly mellow activity. Sure, exercising via bicycle is great, but is that the only way we can justify things in our society? Must it always involve some tangible “product” or “benefit?”

Just a few days ago, I was walking up a hill when I met up with a neighbor walking his dog. It turned out that we were both going the same way, and the block or two we walked together proved both interesting and enjoyable. Yes, I missed a little cardio exercise, true; but a connection was made that I would have missed had I treated cycling as yet more hyper-focused American foolishness. So many of us say we want to live a more European-paced life: perhaps we ought to start doing so in the myriad little ways we are able. I’m beginning to see more seniors out on well-made, multi-weather upright bikes going at a reasonable pace these days, and I think it is a sign that sanity is returning in the cycling world. Let’s add walking bikes uphill to the Utility Cycling Manifesto (if such a thing exists)!

Cycling where I live involves some moderate hills. I’ve become able to go up most of them in the saddle fairly comfortably…but there are a couple of routes that have me walking up the hill, especially in warm weather. When I do so, someone driving or pedaling by is probably thinking “poor fellow—he can’t even make it up that hill.” But I could be thinking at that same moment “poor soul—s/he is more concerned with speed than living.”

Perhaps we all ought to be thinking less about the judgments and more about how we can lead healthy, balanced lives.


  1. What a great post. I have to admit, I always kill myself going up the hill and I'm usually on a time crunch but you have totally hit the nail on the head. Thank you!

  2. I have to disagree with you that getting off your bike and walking it is a good solution to get older folks out of their cars and onto bikes. Didn't work for me. But this did work:

    A few weeks ago I got a Hill Topper electric bike conversion kit installed at the eBike Store in Portland. For $399, my old bike is now an ebike. It doesn't replace pedaling -- just helps you get up those hills. I love it! My car has been sitting in the driveway most days every since. I use my bike to run most of my errands around town. I wish one of our good bike stores in Salem would sell these. If they market to older folks (I turn 60 this month) I think they could sell a lot of them.

  3. Hey, Jim. Thanks for the link. Looks like a neat product. I'm very supportive of the eBike concept, and think it can be a great way to extend range and promote biking. I guess I'm just thinking about something a little less expensive and a little more "basic," along with the thought that sometimes we really do benefit by getting off the bike (or out of our cars) and walking, visiting with people, chatting, or otherwise dallying. Hills can be a great excuse for this. However, I'm all for your solution and encourage others to look into it. Anything to get us beyond a reflexive automobilism.

    And thanks, F & F. I have had much the same experience...time crunches promote all sorts of unwise actions (speeding/poor driving in cars, eating poorly, lack of exercise, inattention to spiritual matters, multi-tasking, &c.). I am really thinking about this a great deal as we head back into the school year and all that means societally around here. Keep biking in Salem!