Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The decadence of pedaling fast and going slow

One of the things that's been hardest -- but most satisfying -- to learn about riding my bike up and down hills has been shifting gears.  It's not that learning how to shift gears is all that tricky (although I've made my share of gaffes at that).  No, the hard part is learning that I should shift gears, and often.  In particular, when the going gets tough, I should shift to a way easier gear.

By now, I've been cycling enough that I can recognize from far away the painful form of an amateur cyclist going up a hill -- one who is laboring hard, moving forward on sheer muscle and grit, climbing the hill as though each pedal stroke were a stair-step with treads two feet high.  The whole body moves, and the poor person's legs look like . . .  pushhh . . . . pushhhh . . . . pushhhh . . . . . while the experienced riders spin their legs like propellors: whup-whup-whup-whup-whup-whup.  The pushhh-ers feel like they're full of power, but they tire themselves out.  The whup-ers are the ones who can talk going up hill, switch back into a higher gear at the top, and take off.  And now when I go up hills, I try to be a propellor, not a stair master.
One of the hills I ride once or twice a week.
Because of the headwinds and the hill, I'm always in a super-low gear
by the time I get to that danged barn.
My bike-gear-education has changed the way I run up hills, too.  I get to a nasty hill on one of my runs, and I make myself take teeny-tiny-baby-steps.  I jog up the hill bip-bip-bip-bip-bip, looking like a bunny rabbit who wishes she were a gazelle.  It feels so silly.  It feels like I lack power.  But I do it, and somehow I can bip-bip-bip my way to the top of the steepest hill and still have energy left to run some more on the other side.

I love the word that goes with this concept: cadence.  It sounds like "dancing", and I think there is something dance-like about whirring my legs while the rest of my body barely moves, gently moves, steadily moves itself over the crests and past the obstacles that had risen up before me.   But the word itself -- cadence -- comes not from dance but from music and rhythm.  Its ancient roots lie in the concept of falling, of descent.  "Cadence" shares its origins with "decadence".

Riding has started me thinking about how the metaphor of cadence might apply to my larger life.  When things at work start piling up, I should . . . go slow.  Fill my to-do-list with silly little things and cross them off my list speedily, bip-bip-bip-bip.  When kids and house repair start to seem overwhelming, act like it's all part of a dance.  Forget about power or pushiness.  When bills pile up, take time to talk and laugh out loud as I whup-whup-whup my way through the small details, knowing that the big details will take care of themselves.  And eventually, I'll get over the hump, and I'll have the joy of letting all that earlier effort mingle with gravity to take me zooming, decadently, down the other side.


  1. I didn't really ride a bike much as a kid, and as an adult most of my cycling education was in famously flat Houston and Chicago. The biggest hills I had to do were bridges that went over highways! Doing some cycling on vacations and now living in extremely not flat Salt Lake City, I have been trying to educate myself on how and when to downshift so I don't end up completely spent at the top of the hills. My natural inclination is to be a stair master, but lately I've occasionally downshifted too soon instead of too late. Progress! It does feel good to be a propellor when I get the timing right.
    I'm traveling right now, and writing this comment made me itch to get back on my bike. We rented bikes on Saturday and had a nice ride, but it wasn't *my* bike that fits me just perfectly and whose gears I know so well.

    1. There are a *lot* of hills in my area, so I get a *lot* of practice on shifting. I've discovered that when I start up a gradual hill (for me, at least), shifting into a harder gear on the front and then almost immediately into the small ring on back works well at not slowing me down -- and the small back ring seems to give me a lot more choices while I go flat/up-hill than the large back ring does.

      I'm not sure if that makes sense. -MM