Fear of gaining heights

by Gautam Raja

There comes a time in every cyclists’ life when he loses his fear of climbing. A time when hills stop becoming objects of dread, and are looked forward to as challenges. Once this happens, hills and mountains start to hold a very special place in a cyclist’s life. Climbs are collected like stamps, elevation profiles of rides are discussed and dissected. Cyclists even travel to places just to “conquer” challenging climbs. Mont Ventoux in southern France for example. Or Kalhatti in southern India.

Beginning cyclists always focus on distance when evaluating rides—but as they gain experience, talk shifts to elevation gain, unless it’s a flat or rolling ride, of course. A cyclist might say, “I climbed 3,000m today!” and not even mention horizontal distance.

I still remember fearing climbs in my first years of cycling. This was not only before the legs developed, but before losing too much weight, the pounds being the biggest bugbear when it comes to going up hills. Pro cyclists who are climbing specialists weigh a ridiculous 2lb or less per inch of height, which means that for my six feet, I would have to weigh 65kgs or less, more than 10kgs lighter than what gets me called ‘skinny’.

I don’t remember the exact day I lost my fear of hills, but I do remember the transition. It’s a combination of growing fitness, weight loss and general comfort on the bike, and one day it all comes together and you find yourself relishing the constant tug of war with gravity. The result is a surge in confidence, because suddenly the road and world hold no demons. You can point your front tyre and follow it anywhere. You can sign up for rides or tours deemed “Challenging”, you can go up hills all morning fast on your race bike, or slowly on your loaded touring bike, and still be fresh enough at the end of the day to explore or meet friends for dinner.

And best of all, once you’re at the top, you feel you’ve really earned the view. I’ve stood in awe at the brink of many a stunning vista, but the ones that were gained on my bicycle or on foot have been the most precious for they feel as if they were made just for me.

I’ve been thinking about hills a lot because we don’t have much climbing here in Bangalore. Sure, we’re 3,000 feet up, but it’s on a plateau with largely rolling terrain. Our one big climb is Nandi hills, about 60km out of town and a measly 500m or so gain over 8km. Every weekend, cyclists from around the city flock to Nandi for their hill training—there’s nowhere else to go. But if you’re willing to make a weekend of it, some of the best climbing of my cycling life is all around Bangalore in the Nilgiri mountain range. I recently went on a large group ride through these mountains and was amazed by how good both the scenery and the cycling was. (Cycling after all, is more than the view—it’s a factor of road quality, traffic density, and tea and snack stops, among other things.)

I came back to the big city with a new lease of life in the legs, the heart, the head. Some days can be just awful in the city—especially the city that Bangalore has become. It can be ugly, brutal and poisonous, in every sense of the word. Did I say we don’t have much climbing in Bangalore? I take it back. This city has become a hill that I’m not sure I want to climb.

First published in Gulf News, February 5, 2013