The View from the Bottom of the Hill

When I was a kid, I had a biking nemesis – the One Mile Hill. It was on the Warren County Bikeway, a rambling nine-mile trail through the woods that ended in downtown Lake George, a wonderland of arcades, ice cream shops, and mini-golf. My family biked this trail often enough that I knew it from start to end – every hill, every bridge, every dumpy amusement park we passed. Despite that, these days I wouldn’t be able to identify the One Mile Hill. In fact, I tried to a couple of years ago and failed. However, my lack of orientation isn’t because I don’t remember the trail – it’s because the section doesn’t even register for me as a hill anymore. The slightly rolling terrain that my eight-year-old self interpreted as a serious challenge is unremarkable now. Similarly, I now bike in serious car traffic that I would have never considered a few years ago. I’m in the process of realizing that in biking, the definition of a “hill” or “traffic” is simply a matter of perspective.

This issue is becoming particularly important to me as I organize and lead community bicycle rides. My town’s bicycle advisory committee leads outreach rides to help people become comfortable on our town’s roads and paths, particularly those who are new or uncertain. My rides focus on biking to specific places, helping participants see that you can use a bike for transportation, not just recreation. Because they cater to new riders, I plan routes that aren’t too difficult or involve a lot of traffic.

This weekend, I tested out a route for a May 12 ride through the Rockville section of the Rock Creek Trail. (If you’re in the DC area, RSVP for my ride on the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee’s Facebook page!) The first part was great – down residential streets and wide, comfortable multi-use paths. However, the second part required me to think like a newbie. While my “tough bicyclist” persona tried to shrug off the substantial hills as “a whole lot easier than the ones on the Climate Ride,” I envisioned how threatening they would look to a novice. It’s fine to walk up hills occasionally, but when every hill requires you to get off of your bike, it’s pretty discouraging. Similarly, once I got on the main road, the traffic seemed pretty normal to me – no shoulder, cars zipping by at 40 miles an hour, but wide enough for them to pass me easily. But if I had never used regular roads before, it would be terrifying. Although it’s a route I would be totally comfortable with taking an experienced cyclist on, I decided against using it for my community ride. I don’t need to scare the crud out of people who are entrusting me to lead them somewhere safe.

Beyond community rides, I have to remember to keep this perspective in mind when I talk to anyone about cycling. I remember a few years ago, I was talking to a friend who shared that he had just gone on a five-mile bike ride. Inconsiderately, I remarked, “Oh, that’s not very far!” In reality, it was pretty challenging for him. In fact, biking at all can be difficult for an adult if he or she hasn’t been on a bike since childhood because of the balance required. Chris jokingly claims that he’s “scarred for life” because of the ill-considered trip I dragged him on back in high school. Rather than dissing someone’s efforts, whether it’s going for a short trip or riding on the street for the first time, I need to remember to be as encouraging as possible without being demeaning. After all, no one benefits from acting out Pearls Before Swine’s Jeff the Cyclist racer stereotype.

So whenever I feel I’m approaching the annoying veteran cyclist event horizon, I’m going to look through the eyes of my younger self facing the One Mile Hill. There’s no question things will look a lot different from down there.

How has your perspective on bicycling (or other outdoor activities) changed over time? Have you ever had to step back and rethink your current point of view?

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2 Responses to The View from the Bottom of the Hill

  1. gleomstapa says:

    My hometown was flat and my family didn’t have a car, so I grew up biking everywhere I didn’t walk – mostly short distances, and mostly on the sidewalk, but at least I was used to thinking of bicycles as transportation. The first time I got on a bike in my current town it was so hard I thought something was wrong with me, because I wasn’t used to thinking of hills as a factor! On the other hand, there’s less traffic and it’s more respectful of bicycles, and the county roads have beautiful shoulders – so I’m taking longer trips now, biking faster in more traffic (since I don’t bike on the sidewalk anymore), than I ever did in flatland. At first it felt like a challenge, but I’ve done it enough that while it’s still somewhat physically difficult the thought of it isn’t intimidating anymore. The map in my head is still flat so when people get impressed/tell me I’m nuts for biking to some event, it’s hard not to reply “Oh, it’s only five miles!” even when those miles were slightly uphill. Especially when I know that some people drove longer to get there than I was biking …

    I do now check topo maps when planning routes, and actually use the gears on my bike. That was a bit of an adjustment. I do still walk up the biggest hills. Above a certain slope, pedalling just isn’t worth it.

    • That’s great that you’ve managed to make that transition. It can be discouraging to make that jump from the short distances to the longer ones and from the sidewalk to the road. We have hills no matter where we go in town, so even a short ride involves at least small ones most of the time.

      And I’ve definitely responded, “Oh it’s not that far!” before. In relatively bike-happy D.C., I rarely get that reaction, but when I lived in the suburbs of upstate New York where no one biked for transportation, it was a common refrain.

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