As Low as You Can, As Slow as You Need


A couple of weeks ago, I went on a group bicycle ride sponsored by a community organization. I had been told that these were easy rides, all fitness levels welcome, so I decided to give it a shot. The ride leader turned out to be the person who sold me my new bike back in March. He gathered the group together, shouting to be heard above the traffic and the crowds of people there in the busy market. “In case you didn’t know, this is going to be a hill ride,” he called out.

The groans were audible even above the surrounding din. The vast majority of cyclists I know dislike riding hills. Even cyclists who are in good condition sometimes prefer to avoid them. I have a varied history with hills; I hated them until I understood how to ride them. Then I enjoyed testing myself against them, and I got pretty good at navigating even the more daunting ones. However, at this point in time, I’m out of shape for riding, am just building my skills and stamina back up – and I haven’t taken on many hill challenges on the new bike. So while I wasn’t one of the groaners, I was a bit nervous to see how it would go.

Just before we hit the first and toughest hill, slightly under half of the group split off to take an alternate (hill-avoiding) route. I shifted gears and began the ascent. Barely more than halfway up, I was unable to continue on the bike, and got off to walk. The difference between my easiest, or granny, gear on a 21-speed (my old bike) and the granny gear on my new 9-speed is significant. But I was mostly disappointed in myself for losing fitness and gaining weight – both of which are a significant part of why I was unable to ride that hill.

While I successfully maneuvered the remaining hills, and enjoyed the speedy final descent, I was still processing that first hill climb when we reached the park where we reunited with those who had chosen to avoid the hilly passage. When the ride leader approached, asking how it went, I told him that while I love my new bike, I miss my 21-speeds on the hills. He said, “Did I know you were going to ride hills? Because we don’t usually recommend that model for hill riding.” He walked away before I could answer.

I was fuming. Without going into the entire story of my purchase, suffice it to say that his comment was both unexpected and unwelcome. I began to obsess about it, and I was filled with righteous indignation for days. The next few times I went out to ride, all I could think about was that I had a bike that would never meet my needs. This made my rides much less enjoyable, and contributed to a reluctance on my part to attempt any but the most easily navigable hills.

However, it is a truth universally acknowledged by cyclists that a ride in want of daunting hills will never be a truly epic one. Also true? No matter what avoidance techniques you employ there will be hills. So, the next time I was faced with a hill that required me to climb it, I grimly squared my shoulders and kept riding.

I talked myself through it. “Just drop into as low a gear as you can. Ok, doing great. Now, take it as slow as you need to. There’s no hurry.” It wasn’t pretty. It was tortuously slow. Onlookers may have wondered if I would ever make it to the top – and if so, WHEN?! But I just kept repeating, “As low as you can, as slow as you need to.” Eventually, my heart pounding and gasping for air, I crested the hill.

And that’s when I realized that it was an ordinary hill. Not an epic hill, not one for the record books: an ordinary, everyday, hill.

There will be lots of ordinary hills for me to climb. Just as there will, sometimes, be epic hills to get over.

One of the great things about cycling, in my opinion, is that I continually learn things that apply throughout my life, not just while on the bike. In life, we face hills. And we get over hills. Even if we have to go slow; even if we have to walk. In my almost 55 years, I have yet to fail at getting over one…eventually. Sometimes it has been easy-peasey, and other times it has taken everything I had – more than I thought I could muster.

My new hill-mantra, “as low as you can, as slow as you need to”, is one I can generalize and use throughout my life. Drop your affect, keep your anxiety levels down, breathe – in other words, go as low as you can. Ratcheting up the fear, anxiety, or panic because you see a challenge looming on the horizon only makes things worse. More stressful. More difficult. More tense. No job is done more easily with your tense shoulders hunched up around your ears! Relax into the upward climb and it will be a lot less painful.

Then: take the time you need. Life, contrary to what we sometimes glean from our surrounding culture, is not a race. While timeliness can be a factor, it is rarely the only factor. Finishing well is generally more important. I can’t think how many times I’ve hurried through some project or task, only to discover that I could (and should) have taken somewhat more time to do it really well rather than to rush to completion.

Go as low as you can, as slow as you need to. I keep repeating this mantra to myself, on my bike and off, and finding it beneficial in setting a great tone to my days. When I do encounter one of life’s hills, I have a way to approach it that doesn’t incite unnecessary fear or stress. Just the calm, ordinary effort required to keep moving forward.



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