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Bike to work: How to survive Seattle’s hills

The annual Seattle Bike Expo, one of Cascade Bicycle Club's largest events Credit: Cascade Bicycle Club

It’s Bike to Work month, so you dutifully get on your two-wheeler and coast on in to the office whenever possible. But oh, man, that climb to get home! Your quads (those squishy things on the front of your legs that seem a bit too much like two-liter bottles of pop) are screaming, and your heart is heading toward ER levels.

You realize that regular cycling in hilly Seattle might take a bit more preparation than just oiling the chain. Maybe now is the time to think about improving your technique.

“Climbing is kind of the holy grail of cycling,” says Coach Craig Undem of Cycle University, the bike coaching group with locations in the hilly neighborhoods of View Ridge and West Seattle. Cycle U offers a month-long hill-climbing “boot camp” to get riders up to the challenge.

Here are some tips:

  1. Clear your mind.
  2. “We start with the mental side,” Undem says. “Start to accept where you are right now. Don’t compare yourself to other people.” Especially if they ride by you like you’re standing still, or send you a sidelong, superior glance as you’re walking up that final grade. Hey, even walking beats sitting in a traffic jam.

  3. Start easy.
  4. Once you’ve accepted your plight, don’t try to attack each rise like you’re Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.

    “Start off easy,” Undem advises. “Most people will start off too hard at the beginning of the climb, and then they get out of breath or the climb gets steeper and they have to get off and walk.” Which triggers the tape loop back to advice item 1.

    Instead, picture your effort in a hill-shaped curve too, pacing yourself, with your effort rising along with the altitude.

  5. Churn up, gear down.
  6. Call upon your inner Pilates instructor and use your core strength (stomach and butt muscles) as well as your legs to keep the wheels turning. If you find yourself hunched over like Quasimodo, try standing up to get help from your body weight.

    Simultaneously, as your muscles are gearing up, your bike should be gearing down. Click through the gears to offset the climb, getting down into the “granny gears” on the small chainwheel if you get onto a really steep grade.

    Common mistakes, however, are gearing down too quickly, which results in loss of momentum, or waiting too long, which makes gearing down impossible.

    Caution: some bikes don’t downshift well under pedal pressure. Test your gearing out on easy grades. Shift on the upstroke, and bear down smoothly until you feel the new gear click in. Too much stress and you could jam or snap the chain, snap off a pedal or damage other parts of the chainring and derailleur system.

  7. Relax into it.
  8. “The only thing you can really control is breathing,” Undem says, “so try to relax and breathe.”

    Take longer, deeper breaths to get full oxygenation into the lungs, he suggests. For more capacity, “sit up a little bit taller, try to relax your jaw and face, and breathe deep into your abdomen.”

While you won’t be scaling the Queen Anne Counterbalance after your first inner pep talk, that last block home from work might become a bit easier. Time and consistent effort may even make the ride enjoyable. If you enjoy the hill endorphins, try more sophisticated techniques like working on posture, cadence, or zone training.

Since climbing is a feat of strength — essentially pitting your muscles against your weight — it could even encourage you to lose a few pounds. Which would make the climb easier, even as you get stronger. And it might help send those withering glances in another direction.

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