Cycling, Travel, UK

Redefining “Steep”


A rare ray of sunshine trickled through the window as we huddled over the large scale map covering the kitchen table, my uncle tracing his finger along a road. “ . . . then up out of Clun.” He paused raising his finger to his lips. “I rode up there with your cousin once . . . ” There was no hint in his even voice of the punishment he was dishing out, but as he looked up, I was sure I caught a glint in his eye. A mountain of bananas stared at me from the sideboard. I’d be needing those.

The sunlight continued to dance across the countryside as Colby and I wound our way through the potholed lanes and hedged roads on the route we’d mapped. Beautiful stone churches dotted the countryside, and the crumbling ruins of castles appeared out of nowhere like punctuation marks of history in the rolling green fields. Spray jackets were tucked into pockets, and I settled back into the big chain ring for an enjoyable cruise. We were filled with the kind of unfamiliar lightness that could only be attributed to a sunny day.

Hopton Castle, Shropshire

I enjoyed the steady 8%er that wound its way between the carpets of Canola, spilling down the rolling hillsides. My surprising ability to climb steadily for several kilometres was comforting. Aligning my mind with the gentle rhythm of my legs dissolved the discomfort and I was reassured. Perhaps Europe wasn’t a lost cause after all.

But as we rolled out of the small village of Clun, I braced myself. As if an omen, an icy wind blew. Spray jackets were pulled from pockets and zipped up tight as tiny balls of hail began to fall, blanketing the road like snow, the only sound, the ‘crunch crunch’ of our tyres on the ice. And as I rolled around the next bend, coming face to face with a ‘cliff’, the sound disappeared completely under the commotion in my own mind. Oh Holy Shit.

Never mind spinning. I was already in my lowest gear and grinding to stay alive. I was almost thankful for the cars behind (real or imagined as they may be), whom courtesy dictated I pull over and allow to pass . . . that was, until I began the hazardous process of attempting to restart on a 15% hill. There was no steady rhythm with which to align my thoughts, only the mess of judgement in my head. I had ridden up Newlands Pass with the flu hadn’t I? And my uncle had ridden up this with my cousin! So why was I struggling? I wanted to roll down and do another repeat, just to say: ‘You can’t hurt me,’ but instead I stumbled to another stop and wasted what little I had left fighting the monsters in my mind. If they could do it, so could I. Surely.

We were greeted with surprised smiles as we arrived home. “Back already?” My aunt asked, ushering us into the kitchen where she’d laid out the most amazing lunch spread, the mountain of bananas still taunting from the side board.

A debrief of the stunning route my uncle had mapped out was held over our meal, killer hill and all . . . and included the cutting clarification: “Oh that hill? No we’ve never ridden up that.”

Then came out the map. “So more hills?” My uncle said more than asked, his eyes drifting away as if lost in the spaghetti of roads twisting through his mind. “OK,” he said, transposing his thoughts to words. “What about through Presteigne and up Stone Wall Hill?”

Stone Wall Hill – ‘Get the hell off my line before I hit you!’

Stone Wall Hill? The name alone was punishing. But Stone Wall Hill was in the bag. The long steady climb started out painful, but spin-able, and oh so worthwhile as the bend at the top, crept closer and closer. Only it wasn’t the top. And as I spun around the corner, zig-zagging through the canyon-ous potholes dominating the surface, the grade kicked up and my front wheel lifted off the road. My quads screamed and as I lurched forward, it was all but over. Yet as my mind admitted defeat, something, somewhere, argued. Keep turning or it’s face first into the bitumen. It wasn’t over. I could do it. I found my rhythm, and kept turning as best I could . . . around the next bend and straight into the ‘stone wall’ . . . which bought me to my knees.

I stood on the corner, melting down at the sight of the road ahead. A thin strip of black heading straight for the sky. Between the potholes and the grade there was no hope of getting back on. There was no choice but to walk, all too aware of the farmer in the adjacent field, witnessing my shame.

Stone Wall Hill, was thankfully a single-meltdown hill, and as the grade faded to a puny 12%, I dropped back into the big chain ring and cruised over the crest. Disappointingly I wasn’t even rewarded by the descent. Rain splattered my glasses making it impossible to see even the biggest hazards and my fingertips froze from the constant tug on the brake levers. With sharp bends and blind corners I dared not pick up speed on the epic slope.

We returned home again to surprised looks . . . and it was then my uncle mustered his worst punishment yet: Dave Mechanic’s Hill.

Dave Mechanic’s Hill (No photo will ever do this hill justice)

My Aunt raised an eyebrow, and I knew it was going to be bad. “Goodness,” she said with a concerned look. “That hill’s a struggle in the car.”

My uncle shrugged. “The first bit’s pretty steep, but from then on it’s steady.”

We hadn’t even reached Dave Mechanic’s hill when my heart skipped at the sight of a short, but monumental piece of road ahead. My head however was firmly screwed on, and I concentrated on pulling through my entire pedal stroke in a lame attempt to keep my front wheel on the ground. I was there. Meters from the top. The hill, all but conquered when my front wheel lifted for one final time, tossing me mercilessly into a hedge.

The ‘first steep section’ of Dave Mechanic’s Hill had a similar effect, and if nothing else, I was overcoming my fear of hitting the ground. But after meeting with the hedge for a third time I was forced to reassess my priorities. Did I really want to risk an injury at the start of our journey simply because I had an insatiable pig-headed urge to conquer every hill I came across? There was no meltdown. Just a benevolent acceptance. Even Colby couldn’t make a safe start on the steep grade. And so we walked. And walked. And walked. The climb was so ‘steady’ I lost all perception of steepness and as the grade ‘eased’ I attempted another shot at what was obviously still way too steep for me. Dave Mechanic’s Hill defeated me, but I’m OK with that . . . because everything from here on in will be big chain ring stuff!