The Ups and Downs of Life in the Saddle

April 12, 2016

When I got serious about riding long distances, I quickly understood it included climbing, lots of it. You want to go somewhere. You want to see the world on a (properly) loaded bike. You want the experience. Well, you will climb and descend. And like any new skill, it took study, coaching, practice, time, and letting go of childhood notions of just “get on and go.”

You’ll hear plenty of advice on climbing technique. Along the way, I asked experienced cyclists for advice, and studied and practiced lots of climbing techniques, but there was a missing piece: the attitude and fun. 


I’ve never had a classic cyclist’s body and I’ve had beat-up, surgery-wracked knees full of hardware for most of my adult life. I used to be one who almost stopped at the idea of going up a steep gap or a long mountain pass. 

But I finally learned that it doesn’t have to be intimidating:

  • It doesn’t have to be a competition with yourself or anyone else.
  • It doesn’t have to be guilt-ridden teeth grinding if you get off the bike and walk some of it.
  • And it doesn’t have to be a constant focus on the top of the hill and how far away you are from it.


Attitude. Fun. I learned to stop. (I pick carefully where I know I can get back on the bike and not fall over trying to get going again!) I take pictures (photos get you a few bragging rights) and I take in the scenery.

I stretch. I open my arms wide and look up at the sky, rain or shine. I take a couple bites of a bar and a swig or two of water. It’s a butt break. It’s a “stop and smell the roses” thing, and on really long pulls I may do it every mile or two to keep my legs rolling.

I focus on my rhythm, my alignment, my bike handling, and my surroundings. I relax my upper body, open my chest to breathe, and keep my pedaling nice and circular like an old steam locomotive. 

I try not to focus on how long it will take, what anyone else is doing compared to me, what the grade is, or how many miles. I do a “be in the moment” biking meditation when I climb. 

I also remember that climbing adds spice. Endless, straight, flat miles get boring and disconnected for me really fast. Climbing adds a level of engagement with the journey. It’s a hill. Metaphorically, there are a lot of those in life. 

Climbing: It was a long road from abject terror to almost my favorite thing to do, but now I roll along on whatever road life gives me.

Yes, there is technique to the downhills too, especially if you load up your bike. Learning descending tips can help with the downhill jitters.

Comment and tell us your climbing ideas, descending hints, and other up and down experiences.

Photos by Linda Baldwin


ON THE ROAD is written by the tours team— Paul, Mandy, Emma, Mike, and Arlen — tours specialists and intrepid bicyclists, helping you bring your cycling dreams to fruition. Check out our 2018 Guided Tours today!


Paul Larsen July 5, 2016, 11:21 PM

I have always enjoyed climbing. I love the slow pace. I love seeing everything around me. I like the feel of my heart beating and sweat running down my cheek. I enjoy the fatigue in my legs. I think about all the potential energy that I am storing for the ride down.

Colleen welch July 5, 2016, 5:26 PM

On long climbs, I find listening to music (from a Bluetooth speaker attached to my handlebar) helps take my mind off the climb. It also helps get me into a pedaling rhythm.

Joel Gerwein April 15, 2016, 12:02 PM

I actually prefer climbing to descending because I feel like I have the time and attention to appreciate the awesome views on the uphills, while the downhills require more attention, although the speed is fun! The key for me is to not be in a hurry at all- I just get into my lowest granny gear and begin to sing my granny gear song:

O Granny Gear, o granny gear,

with you on board I have no fear.

O Granny gear, o granny gear,

with you I climb up slopes so sheer.

You may be slow and not so hip

but let's chill out and get a grip

O Granny gear o granny gear

What would I do without you here?

Robin April 12, 2016, 11:22 PM

Thanks for that. I could use some coaching on climbing. I have a mantra,"I get to do this, I get to do this, I get to do this..."

I just spent a couple of days climbing into the Andes from the coast of Peru. I climbed the first 2.500 meters with no real problems. It was around 3,000 that it got really hard. I walked and walked and walked... My knees started to hurt and I got caught in a fog. Stopped for the night. The next day I hitchiked to the pass the other 1,000 meters. Could sure use some advice on what to do different next time.

Because there WILL be a next time.

John Sieber April 12, 2016, 4:39 PM

Well said!

Raymond Wishart April 12, 2016, 6:14 AM

Very nice, and very healthy approach to touring in general.

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