The only sound was that of the wind rushing past my ears.
Groves of leafless birch and maple and mountain-ash whizzed by in the peripheries.
My friend Jess’ old school Cannondale road bike quivered underneath my weight and the speed of the descent. We weren’t just riding downhill – we were flying.
It was my first time on a real road bike, and I felt like I was riding less of a bike and more of a fence post on wheels.
When is this hill going to end? I kept asking myself, gripping the handlebars.
There are two reasons why I find such discomfort in downhills. For starters, I’m inclined to attract rocks, regardless of the activity I’m involved in. Kayaking, mountain biking, heck even hiking. Rogue rocks seemingly always make their way into my path. As my speed continually pushed toward 40mph, I was certain that a loose pebble would find itself just on the edge of my skinny tire and cause me to fly spread eagle down the strip of paved road.
Secondly, downhills are only the sign of more climbing to come. We were still about a two hour’s ride from Jess and his wife Theresa’s place outside of Champion, Penn., a ride that would total just over 25 miles. Now, as you all are by now aware of, I’m no biker, and Jess and I hadn’t necessarily set ourselves up for success that day – we were both recovering from mild hangovers and a lack of sleep.
“It’s only 25 miles or so,” Jess had casually mentioned at the beginning of the ride, “but 25 miles on backcountry roads in Pennsylvania is like 50 miles anywhere else.”
I’m not sure if he was trying to empower me, or scare me, or maybe just inform me. Ultimately, the knowledge that my already throbbing head would likely throb even more as I huffed and puffed up and down the Pennsylvania countryside was an unappealing thought, to say the least.
Still, it was an unusually warm and beautiful November day in the north with a high around 65 degrees. There was no sense in sitting around in our dehydrated zombie state – we were both far too active to let a rare nice day slip by unattended.
Right from the start we were climbing hills.
Unaccustomed to the pace of road cyclists, I tried desperately to maintain my speed, cranking furiously up and up and up until my breathing turned into wheezing which then turned into gasping.
“Dude, you flew up that thing,” Jess said once he caught up. “Go slower next time, you’re gonna kill yourself.”
Slower? I seriously doubted my abilities to maintain my balance if I went much slower than the sloth-like rate I’d been pedaling. Not only was it my first time on a real road bike, but it was my first time using clipless pedals. If I slowed my momentum, I’d surely topple over and eat pavement.
It was just our first climb of the day, and with Jess’ description of the terrain-to-come lingering in the back of my mind, I was already predicting that I’d be walking up hills sooner rather than later.
After that first tortuous climb, the road evened out into a flowy combination of ups and downs. We rolled through farmlands, passing by old red barns and fields of livestock and freshly cut corn. Aside from the creaking of the saddle, the click of gears changing, it was quiet. Peaceful. I was finally getting in the rhythm of the ride.
“Alright this is the first big downhill,” Jess yelled over his shoulder, interrupting my tranquil state. “Just tuck low, and trust your bike.”
Trust my bike? The thing felt like it weighed no more than 50lbs. I’m surprised it hadn’t buckled beneath my body already.
Without another word, Jess took off, zooming down the hill and gaining speed at an astronomical rate. I tenaciously rolled forward, allowing gravity to do the pedaling for me. I’d been warned about braking too hard, especially with the front brake. Unwilling to fully commit to the downhill but too nervous to use the brakes, I compromised by tucking and holding on for the ride.
Images of my bloodied, battered body lying crumpled on the side of the road flashed through my mind. I was riding neck and neck with cars in the lane beside me – I must have surely clocked close to 45mph.
When is this hill going to end?
Finally, I saw Jess up ahead bank hard to the right and I followed suit, careful to brake gradually. Jess was all smiles but I’m sure my stricken face matched my white-gripped knuckles.
“Dude that was awesome!” he said.
I nodded meekly in agreement.
We trudged on. My thighs were starting to burn from the climbs. It felt like we were going up more often than coming down (which, subtly, I was grateful for). As we neared the end of our ride, Jess turned to me from his perch in the saddle, smiling from ear to ear.
“It’s Snowball Hill then home sweet home.”
Just the sound of Snowball Hill made me cringe. I was starting to get shaky. My headache had since subsided, but my body felt taxed, weak. We rounded a bend in the road and all of my worse fears about this ride came to in the form of one long, stout climb – Snowball Hill.
“No. Hell no. That’s not happening,” I immediately said. “I have no shame. I’ll walk up that thing.”
“No way you’re riding up it,” Jess insisted. “I’m not letting you get off your bike. It’s not that bad.”
Not that bad? I had to crane my neck to look up the climb and it didn’t just level out and end where it rounded around a corner out of sight – oh no. This beast should be called Snowball Hills. Up and up and up it wound, relentless in its pitch and twisty curves.
We started climbing, but I’d abandoned any hope of actually making it to the top before the gradient had even started to steepen. I pedaled slowly, painfully, focusing all of my energy on matching my breaths with my downward push. My heartbeat was working its way up into my throat, the sweat on my brow dripping down my nose.
“Come on you got this,” I kept hearing Jess say but I wasn’t really listening. I was deep inside my brain, pulling every last reserve of mental fortitude to keep trucking forward. My legs could barely complete an entire spin forward, my thighs, my glutes, were screaming. We rounded the bend that was out of sight from the base and I looked ahead at the road, discouraged to find that it didn’t level out as I had prayed it would but continued to climb.
And then out of nowhere, I stopped thinking about all of that. I suddenly stopped noticing how bad my legs were killing me or the tweak in my right shoulder or my parched throat and grumbling stomach. It was like an inner-outer body experience – inner in the sense that my only thoughts were of breathing, in, then out, in, then out – outer in the sense that I quit judging our distance by landmarks. I quit caring altogether about how much further we had to go. I powered on, like that climb would never end.
Eventually, though, it did.
“Yeah Snowball Hill!” Jess said, dismounting his bike and giving me a high-five.
I looked around and found the private lane sign that read its namesake off to my right. Seeing it made me feel quite silly, like we’d just exerted our last bit of strength to summit…what…someone’s driveway? It felt so pointless, so futile. All of that work, all of that sweating and cursing, for a climb that was likely less than a mile, for a hill that a car would have cruised up in a matter of seconds.
But then I thought about the pioneers of the adventure world and the present-day athletes that continue to push the limits of their bodies and unveil the remote spots on the map. Why did they do it? There’s the argument that some pursue these physical exploits in search of fame or wealth, but I don’t know many athletes who are reeling in riches from kayaking trips or climbing expeditions. No, there must be some other answer.
And then, the words of Everest legend George Mallory came to mind from my college honors thesis. When asked, “Why climb Everest?” Mallory responded with,
“Because it’s there…If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
While Snowball Hill was certainly no Everest, it was definitely a struggle. And so, yes, perhaps we could have spent our hangover recovery day lounging on the couch, watching movies, and nursing our headaches. Perhaps we could have hopped in the car and gone for a Sunday drive around the countryside. But instead, we used our bodies for what they were intended for – to move, to meet challenge, and to overcome those obstacles, one
hangover Snowball Hill at a time.