I was looking to suffer. For some reason, this cycling season I was motivated to get better at climbing. Hills are simple: there they are, now go up to the top on your bicycle. You either make it or you don’t. The outcome is binary. But the variables constituting each hill are infinite: length, grade, weather, road surface, as well as the cyclist’s fitness, all blend into the individual character of the particular climb.
We were on a family vacation in southwest Virginia. I had not scheduled any activities for the kids on the morning of the 4th of July. At 5:45 am I got out of bed at the hotel, gathered my gear, and drove to Emory & Henry College near Meadowview, VA. From a previous internet search I had set my sights on Hayter’s Gap, a nearby route over a ridge of the low mountains north of I-81. The weather was clearing after an early am shower and the temperature lingered about 68. After hydration and caffeination I set off.
Because of the holiday there was almost no traffic. I was passed by less than five cars on the out leg. I saw more birds than people. Even the dogs were still asleep-not a single bark. It was serenely quiet, just the sound of the pedals, the wind in my ears, my breathing. The route initially descended into the Holston River valley and when I crossed the bridge over the water I knew the warmup was over. The houses gradually disappeared, the woods closed in over the roadway, and the curves began. The higher I climbed, the slower I went, until the last cog on the cassette was reached. Every 20 to 50 yards the road curved away, around the corner and up. Always up. I prayed that each next curve would be “the one”-the one that disappeared over the top instead of revealing yet another stretch of up. I alternated sitting and standing out of the saddle. I chanted on successive revolutions of the right pedal, then the left, using the Jesus prayer, then the names of my children, then counting, and finally nothing, nothing except the turning.
I was tempted. Places where I could pull off the road beckoned. I came close to quitting. But my training to date was just enough to keep me aerobic at the turtle-like pace I was keeping up the climb. There was a small cabin on my left. I started to see more blue sky through the trees, and I knew I was close. But how close? I gave up hoping on the next curve, and began to just accept the effort for what it was. It had its own way, one that anticipation could not alter. And then, there was a sign-literally, a road sign marking the county line at the apex,
and the sunlight glistened on the downhill slope of the descent on the far side. I pulled over to the side of the road and my quivering legs gave thanks.
The descent was quite a thrill as well, since there were so many switchbacks and hairpins. I kept my hands on the brakes and by no means was it a TDF performance but I got to practice following a line through the curve, keeping my head up and sighting my way out of the turns. I took a leisurely pace back to my car and savored my small but discrete achievement in the ages-old story of man vs. nature-aided by carbon fiber, low gears, and good weather.\