The Hills, Part I

In a two-part guest post, Don Blount expresses thoughts I’ll bet many of us share when it comes to climbing hills.

Part I

Beautiful scenery goes along with riding in the hills, including this view of Camanche Lake in Amador County, California.

I have always suspected that hills hate me. Maybe not when I am walking or driving a car, during those times they seem friendly enough. But the moment I approach a hill while riding a bike, it seems that hill’s goal becomes to not allow me to get up to the top of it. Sometimes it throws me down with a vengeance, causing me great pain and suffering.

Being a peaceful man, I usually take the path of least resistance and avoid hills. That’s easy enough where I live as I can ride for miles and not approach a grade of more than 4 percent.

For the most part, I am fine with this. I do not consider myself a climber. At 5-feet, 9-inches tall and 194 pounds, I am much more comfortable on the flats and inclines. If it is short enough for me to power up with my compact crankset and 12-25 cassette, then I am game to ride it.

But people keep uttering the benefits of riding hills. “Hills will make you stronger,” they say. “Hills will make you a better rider.” And they always end with the same words: “To become stronger in the hills, you have to ride in the hills.”

To get to real climbs with grades of 8 or 9 percent or more, I have to travel about 23 miles east to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California.

Rarely are those hills friendly and allow me to leave with my dignity. Most of the times they are hard and determined to show me that I am not welcomed there.

So wanting to test my fitness I joined a late May club ride of 40 miles with about 2,300 feet of climbing. I survived but barely. Most of the ride I had a good look at just about everyone’s back.

After that ride I decided to commit to becoming better in the hills. A few weeks later I returned alone and did a similar solo ride of about 40 miles with 2,300 feet of climbing. I completed it.

I became a student of climbing. I read what I could find I watched videos. I watched real climbers. I meditated on climbing and channeled those who had worn the polka dot jersey.

And I went out on the club ride that kicked my rear earlier. I was in better condition, I used what I had learned, and I completed the ride successfully. Progress I thought. Maybe the hills did not hate me after all? Maybe it was time for another test, a club ride?

I put it on my schedule but oh, how little did I know that deep down hills are evil.

Watch Bike Noob for the second part of Don’s saga of the hills.


  1. don c. says

    I have ridden with you on the Wallace ride and I have ridden with you out to Walnut Grove. I remember Rob Dewitt, yourself, and myself hammering down Thornton Rd. You are a strong,athletic rider. Drop 10 pounds and the hills will be your friends.
    Don C.

    • Don says

      Don C.

      I remember Thornton Rd as the ride we cut short because of all of the flats. I am working on the weight, 4 down, 6 to go.

  2. says

    Reminds me of a recent club ride where we hit a short, but steep hill about three miles into the ride.
    Friend: “I can’t believe how the group separates on the hill.”
    Me: “Yeah, a lot of them like to sprint up it.”
    Friend: “I just want to get up it.”

  3. Veer says

    Riding up the hills is a sensitive topic for me. I see all these bikers in Austin climbing these hills and I want to do it too. So I try, but man, do I suffer!! Somewhat built like Don writing this article, I am 6 ft, 190 lbs and love climbing but just can’t seem to climb without killing myself. I will keep trying though.

    On a related note, I have finally saved up enough dough and brownie points with the in-charge to get the green light for a nice road bike and I have been thinking of my gear set for the drive train – I so want to get a compact chainring and not a triple though on some hills around here I can see myself dying with the compact. I like the simpler gearing with 2 chain rings in front and I want to get better with the hills as well. I am thinking a compact with a wide rear cassette with a long cage derailleur might do it so I get a 2×10 with say 50/34 and and a 13/32 rear derailleur. Such a config might mean slapping on a MTB rear derailleur with a MTB cassette like Shimano’s XTR on a road bike. Any thoughts? Thanks..

  4. Mel Hughes says

    It seems my life is filled with hills. I have a triple front chainring and currently run a SRAM PG-1070 10-Speed 11-32 Cassette. I originally was using an older Dura-Ace long cage derailleur but it was not happy with the wide range so I put a Shimano RD-M772 XT Shadow Rear Derailleur GS on instead. I went with the GS as it has a slightly shorter rear cage though the long would have added a 34 tooth maximum rear cog capability. If you look at the Shimano XT series derailleurs, stay away from the ones labeled for 10 speed. They only work with the XT or XTR shift levers, not with 10 speed road brifters. The 9 speed series of XT derailleurs like the RD-M770 and RD-M772 work perfectly with my Ultegra 6703 (for the triple chain ring) brifters.

    • Veer says

      Thanks Mel, that is valuable advice. Did not know of the 10 speed XT derailleur – road shifter incompatibility. Do you like the SRAM Apex cassette – I looked at the sprockets in the 10 speeds and thought the jumps would mean shifting back and forth the chain rings too much to be able to get a ~10% ratio difference / down shift or up shift. So, no issues with using the Ultegra 9-spd shifters with a 10-spd cassette?

      Btw, this weekend I did a 20 mile ride that went up and down Mt. Bonnell twice – once up Balcones and once up Mt. Bonnell drive. I had to use every last gear on the triple and 12/25 cassette to get up the second time. So, I might be able manage most of what Austin can throw at me with a 50/34 as long as I have a wide rear cog with 32 teeth and ride out a 30 rpm cadence!

  5. Mel Hughes says

    The SRAM works great. I have no issues with it. I have it on a Dura-Ace rear hub. I ended up staying with the Ultegra triple crank over the compact double avoid big jumps. I really don’t find myself shifting back and forth too much. When you are as slow as I am, the small front chainring and the larger rear cogs are my closest friends on long, slow climbs… You pay a slight penalty in weight as well as expense (for a brifter that works with a triple.) But you always have the right gear (or as close to it as you might be able to get.)

    When dealing with rear derailleurs, just remember that they are essentially ignorant of how many cogs you are using (EXCEPT for the new XT and XTR “10-Speed” rear derailleurs – they have a different activation movement than other shifters.) The shifters are the real brains of the operation. If you have a rear derailleur that will operate with your largest toothed cog, and your chain is the appropriate length, then it should play nice with your shifter with very little trouble. Once it is set up and ridden for a bit, then re-adjusted to compensate for cable stretch, it requires very little attention.

  6. Mel Hughes says

    I am running a 10-speed rear cog and use Ultegra 10-speed brifters – just the ones that are compatible with a triple front crank.

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