I used to live high in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, halfway up a mountain. Our house sat at an altitude of 8,200 ft. From the kitchen window was a 100-mile view of the Front Range.
I sure loved being in the mountains. I loved to ride my bike too. Problem was, the two didn’t mix very well. There was this itty bitty teensy little problem: Because I lived on a steep mountainside, there was virtually no flat riding to be had nearby. It was either climb the road to the top of the mountain, or ride down to the bottom, and then, of course, climb back up to make it home. Either way, I was climbing, and being Mr. Weak and Slow at the time, it wasn’t something I could do casually.
So, I didn’t ride my bike very often, having to make the effort to load it in the truck and take it to the flats of Denver. But one day, I decided it was time to change this scenario. I was determined to become a climber. I was determined to put some strength into my then 35 yr old legs – to give those legs muscles they had never seen in their lifetime.
How did I plan to do this?
I rode all the way down to the bottom of the mountain, and dared myself to climb home.
I had a heavy Trek 830 mountain bike – a 36 lb, fixed tail beast. It’s saving grace is that it had a really low granny gear, something like a 28×30. In theory, I could climb just about anything with that low a gearing, even if it was at 3.5 mph.
That low gear pretty much did the trick, except for one teensy weensy little corner in the road, about a third of the way up the mountain. This little corner was not only sharp, it was steep. I’d estimate the grade to be more than 20%. Even with granny as a helper, it was too much for my pathetically weak legs. The first few times I attempted to tackle Mr. Steep and Sharp, it, well, it tackled me. I was forced to get off and walk.
But I persisted, and eventually was able to pedal up this steep corner all by myself! I was so proud!
After doing this a few times, I moved on to bigger challenges, like climbing further past my house, all the way to the top of the mountain, which from the bottom was a 1,500 ft climb in the course of a few miles. Once that became old hat, I would do the climb to the top, and then ride back down to the bottom, daring myself to do the whole thing again. Coast, climb, repeat. Coast, climb, repeat.
Even that became routine. I started to get a little cocky about this whole mountain climbing gambit — figured I could climb Mr. Steep and Sharp whenever I wanted.
But one day, I did my usual coasting down to the bottom of the mountain, and began my now customary steady pedalng back up. I came to Mr. Steep and Sharp, and figured, pffffh, I could just blow up this guy, no problemo. After all, this was only my first time up for the day, and my legs were feeling good.
I started ’round the bend and began thinking: Hmm, this hill sure feels hard today. Can I make it? I had a brief moment of doubt, coupled with fears of the bike falling over, due to lack of forward progress. I had a another brief moment of thinking maybe I didn’t want to climb today after all. What was the point?
These were just the tiniest of moments, mere flickers of thought.
Whereas moments before my legs were pedaling away, they instantly seized up. It’s like somebody grabbed the road and lifted it into a vertical wall. I could not pedal another stroke, and nearly fell off the bike.
What happened? What changed in those briefest of moments?
Well, the road didn’t suddenly fold up vertically, that’s for sure, despite the way I felt about it. No laws of physics were violated — gravity didn’t just up and jump two-fold, and no funny quantum tunneling occurred to squirrel me away to some alternate universe where roads change grades instantly. And my legs had not given any indication beforehand that they were about to lock up. They weren’t sore, and they weren’t tired.
All that changed were my thoughts — my belief in whether I could make it up the climb, and my desire, my will, in wanting to do so.
It was for me a very immediate and clear demonstration of mind over matter.