“Yes,” I reply, “but I like cycling in the hills.”
This raises eyebrows. And when I go on to explain that it’s all about positive thinking, about learning to love the hills, those eyebrows disappear into the hairline. The reaction turns to incredulity, even derision.
Quite right, too, for positive thinking alone never got a cyclist up a slope. What you really need to be a good climber, in fact, is (i) to be fit, and (ii) to be underweight.
Fitness is the obvious one. When I first got back into cycling after a hiatus of many years, I rode half way up the nearest hill and ground to a halt, exhausted. All I could do was turn around and freewheel home, full of self-loathing for letting myself get so out of shape. Now, six years on and a whole lot fitter, I sail up that climb with a smug smile on my face.
But why does being underweight help? Well I’m no physicist, but clearly the less excess baggage you are carrying, the less work you need to put into pedalling uphill. Bradley Wiggins puts his success in the mountains in last year’s Tour de France mainly down to shedding over 10 kg in weight. I confess I have an advantage in this respect, as I’m underweight myself. I know this because Czech people keep telling me I’m “hubený” (skinny) or even “vychrtlý” (scrawny). This, I’m told, is meant as a compliment. I’d be more inclined to believe that if they used words like “slim” or “svelte”. After all, I don’t go around telling people they’re fat or flabby. Still, I'm on shaky ground when I start spouting off about “loving the hills”.
Nevertheless, many fit, lean riders still hate climbing. The way I see it, hills are a fact of cycling life. You have to get over them both literally and figuratively. You have to incline towards inclines. If you can’t enjoy them, you can’t enjoy cycling to the full.
Look at the pros of hills: they get you fit, they burn off the calories, they’re far more interesting than the plains, they offer fine views, and there’s the payback of the downhill to follow. And the cons? There’s only one: climbing is painful. But a bit of pain never hurt anyone.
...and a headwind. Which would you prefer?
Of course, none of the above positive-thinking malarkey applies to the other great nemesis of the cyclist: the headwind. Headwinds are the spawn of Satan. They are relentless and unlovable. They offer no pros, only cons. Unlike with hills, there’s no payback. Even if you’re travelling in a circle, Sod’s Law guarantees that the wind will turn against you whichever direction you’re going. On a long tour, this can go on day after day. Even a long climb, by contrast, is over in just a couple of hours.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s an ill hill that blows no good. Ill winds, on the other hand, are good for nothing.