What could cyclists and mountaineers learn from one another?

Dedicated and driven, thighs and calves that eclipse the sun, upper bodies eclipsed when they turn sideways. Not many hikers or mountaineers would fit that description, but a few cyclists would. There’s some important lessons these two groups could learn from one another, all without having to shave their legs.

What cyclists could teach mountaineers

Heart rate zones

If you talked to almost any hiker or mountaineer about heart rate zones or perceived exertion they’d probably give you a look as blank as Brexit is depressing. And yet talk to almost any club cyclist and suddenly you’re on a rocketship heading to zone 5, via FTP and of course a bit of sweet spot. Heart rates and perceived exertion let you know how hard you are working on a bike: it’s important to knowing whether you can maintain it, whether you’ll blow up, how wasted you’ll feel later. It’s pretty important to know these things in the mountains or on harder routes too, where you need to go fast but must be able to maintain that pace. Using a heart rate monitor might be a bit keen for most people, but keeping your perceived exertion in mind on a scale of 1 to 10 might be a good idea, and if you’re regularly pushing above about a 4 (steady but definitely doing something) on a long day then its going to get very hard at some point.

Bottom line, though, is if you can’t hold steady conversation when you’re out mountaineering then you’re going too fast: you’re no longer efficient and that’ll do you no good on a long day out.

RPE-scale

Some familiarity with perceived exertion is a good way to measure efforts on a long hill day. Many cyclists are used to doing this sort of thing.

Diet

Weighing grams of quinoa, chia seeds, and pomlaa essence into a bowl isn’t for everyone, and the amount of nonsense in some cycling publications about nutrition is staggering (but yet to reach the squashed aadvark, cucumber couli and rabbit anus potions promoted in some triathlon magazines). However, giving at least a bit of attention to diet, especially on the hill, could be useful to many hikers and mountaineers.

I’m not suggesting chugging gels until you void yourself, though some people do like that, but six flapjacks a day is not a balanced diet. I should know, I’ve been there.

And man cannot live on Snickers alone. Just a bit of attention to what you’re eating on big hill days can make a massive difference. Also, cycle-style snacking rather than the torrent-style download of a one-hour lunchbreak is definitely the way to go.

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It’s a vital part of any day – getting in the calories is essential, but pay a bit of attention to what you’re eating too.

Weight

I’m seriously into weight saving on my kit (see here and elsewhere on this blog for example) but even a mediocre cyclist will want to know the weights of everything on their bike. That’s a good starting point for making things lighter and therefore easier to get up a hill. The other thing is spending money… “This bottle cage is 4 g lighter than my current one and only costs £40? Sold!” Some cyclists are an absolute sucker for new stuff, and it’s not an attitude I particularly like (for what it’s worth, relatively few serious racers will spend stupid money on their bike: regular crashes make Dura-Ace a waste of money. Ultegra will be the limit for most people; Dura Ace being for posers or those dedicated and good enough to get free team kit).

But a lot of hikers and mountaineers are at the opposite end of the spectrum, willing to spend hundreds on petrol or beer, or both, but not invest in new kit which will make their life easier and more enjoyable.

If you upgrade all the krabs on your harness from those of ten years ago to modern ones you will save a kilo; if you get a good down sleeping bag you will save a kilo. They are big weight savings, and much better value than the cyclist’s bottle cage.

Bags

Four bags being used on the same overnight trip – size (and weight) matters to both cyclists and hikers.

Training

It’s obvious, and one I covered in a similar post about runners, but training really does make things easier. Not only easier, but it enables you to do more interesting routes more often, and with reduced risk of injury. Surely that’s worth doing?

Cycling

First big bike ride – Stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France route – this was only possible because of training. Training let’s you do cool stuff, so it’s worth doing! And training itself might be cool stuff!

What mountaineers could teach cyclists

How to navigate

It’s a prerequisite of being in the mountains: you can navigate. You might not be brilliant, but you’re probably keen to improve and you realise its importance. You might well know that the hardest part of nav is getting out of the car park, and once that’s over it can only get easier…

Cyclists, on the other hand, are often terrible at navigating.

They will blindly follow their Garmins off a cliff, cycling into the sea and wondering if they might get a Strava KOM for their troubles. Reading a map on the bike is a pain but having some idea of where you are going is a good idea. It just takes a few more minutes of planning, rather than being the rat to the Garmin’s Pied Piper bleeps.

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Navigation with a map is a pain while on a bike, but having a rough idea of where you’re going is a great idea. Don’t blindly follow the Garmin.

How to dress for bad weather

Cycling clothing is generally pretty good at being aerodynamic, and cycle shorts are remarkably good at what is an extremely difficult job. In fact, cycling clothing is excellent except for one thing: in severe weather, it is rubbish. There are exceptions, but cycling clothing is so far behind mountaineering kit when it comes to foul weather performance it is laughable. However, that is a whole other post. Regardless, cyclists should stack things in their favour and at least wear the most appropriate kit available.

The traditional layering system for outdoors doesn’t really work for cyclists – you can’t take off layers easily and where would you put them? – but the basic concepts of baselayers, insulation, and shell layers don’t seem to have reached a lot of cyclists.

Also, don’t just put on a million layers because you’re cold when you set off: you’ll melt later then freeze when going down a hill or sitting in the bunch.

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Cycling in nice weather is easy. It’s when the weather’s rubbish that it gets harder, and unfortunately that’s when the kit is often least effective.

Traveling for a trip

Mountaineers, unless they are lucky enough to live in the mountains, are used to traveling about to get to where they want to climb. They will travel across countries in their knackered cars and across continents on budget flights to get to where they want to be. Cyclists don’t do this. Many cyclists will do the same routes day in day out from their front door and never think to ride somewhere else. That’s mindless; it can’t be good for you. Putting a bike in a car is a pain, and on the train has its limitations (especially if a big fat man is sat in the bike reservation area), but once in a while it’s a great thing to do, opening up new roads. Do it once a month, and be thankful that you can do your hobby from your front door as and when you like.

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Packing your bike for a trip away is a pain…

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…but a whole lot easier than packing for an expedition. Go somewhere!

There you have it. Be brave, go in that cafe, go in that pub, and talk to the weird Lycra-clad people with their espressos. And you cyclists, talk to those weathered Gore-Texers drinking the ales. We may all just learn something.

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You are a Weeble

First impressions are all important. That first climb, first hike, first fell run… your first times outdoors make a lasting impression on your enjoyment, how far you’ll push, and how good you’ll ever get. You are a Weeble, centering on where you began, where you first wanted to go.

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A Weeble. He’s grounded and steadfast, but will always return to his roots. That’s reassuring, but it can put a limiter on ambition.

Dave MacLeod
Dave MacLeod is almost certainly the UK’s best all round climber. In fact, his CV would stand up against the very best in the world: Scottish XII, M13, WI 7, trad E11, 9a sport, 8C boulder, alpine ED++, etc etc.. He’s said that the first time he ever went rock climbing, by chance he watched the first ascent of what was then Scotland’s hardest traditional rock climb. He didn’t realise that what he was watching was exceptional, that it was far from typical. As he watched he thought ‘I’d like to try that one day’. For many people there thoughts would more likely be: 1) that looks too hard; 2) that looks scary; 3) hell no. So obviously his ambition and drive were there from the start.

But from that first day out his framework for climbing was built around ‘I want to climb the hardest route in Scotland’.

That he achieved that and far more besides is only half the deal, the other half is wanting to get there, and that first impression, that first day out, was crucial.

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Dave Macleod training hard in his garage. Training hard is what makes you the best, but those first impressions can prove vital in determining how good you want to be.

The environment you grow up in has arguably the greatest impact of all on how far you’ll go in life, which is either tragic or empowering depending on how you look at it. With fairly specialist facets of life (e.g. sport, music, needlecraft, painting, etc.) that effect is seen in microcosm, and the more I’ve thought about Dave’s story the more I’ve realised that it is typical of so many people in various different pursuits.

 

Me
I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who are keen hillwalkers. As a result I’ve been out in the hills for as long as I can remember. Big walks in all sorts of terrain have come completely naturally to me. To me, to be a decent hill walker isn’t being capable of hiking a few miles and then going home. No, it’s big walks in rugged terrain and up plenty of peaks.

My parents are both musicians, and my dad a very good one. As a result, I see the basic standard of a musician to be much higher than what most people might consider. It might be an elitist view, maybe unrealistic, but basically unless you are Grade 8 standard on an instrument I see you as a beginner or relative beginner. For other people who had friends or parents who were less musically talented, to reach what I would regard as proficient would be seen as an almost unachievable goal, maybe an unnecessary waste of time.

Again, my early experiences defined how far I thought you had to get to be ‘proficient’, or skilled enough.

Me as a climber
I started rock climbing as a way to progress up more routes in the Alps and in Scottish winter. Along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake, but those early impressions – this is training, I need to be just good enough – have stuck with me and influenced me greatly.

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Me on terrain I’m very at-home in – easy rock climbing on a big mountain. That’s climbing for me, and that’s because of where I started.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a great rock climber, primarily because I don’t want to be, but also because the standard I have always seen as being a decent rock climber is someone who can lead about VS, or about 5.7 in USA terms, or maybe 6a sport. That’s not very high in the grand scheme of things. A major factor in this reasoning is because most of my friends who I spent my early times out climbing with were in the same boat as me: hikers seeking to get better on harder scrambles.

As a result, grades like Very Difficult were interpreted literally, and Extreme grade climbs discussed only in revered and hushed tones.

I’ve since seen that Extreme grade routes aren’t necessarily all that hard, and some of the people I now climb with have plenty of E-points racked up.

But for me I still have an anchor in my head, a Weeble which pulls me back: these climbs are too hard for me.

If I were more driven, more like Dave MacLeod, this would be no obstacle, but that younger me, the hiker me, is still at my core. And those routes aren’t for a hiker.

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On a big rock route – didn’t ever think I’d be doing this. With the right people around you the Weeble effect can be reduced, even removed.

Me as a cyclist
Over the last few years I’ve done a fair bit of cycling. I’ve always enjoyed riding a bike, but over the last three or four years I’ve put a bit of effort in, going on regular social and training rides. In this, my mate Adam was instrumental, pushing me from someone who enjoyed riding a bike occassionally to someone who wanted to get better at it and do more challenging rides.

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Adam, in Spain on a recent training camp.

 

From my first times out with Adam I thought ‘I need to keep up with him’ and ‘I would like to be among the better riders in the cycle club’. I was lucky in that I’d picked a pretty good benchmark, someone extremely good at cycling. Adam and I have both improved as riders, but I still considered (and still consider) myself pretty mediocre as a rider, average at best. However, I did have a moment of clarity a few months ago when I realised that I’d got a lot better at riding my bike, and was now better than most other riders.

Because the people I ride with are strong, I assume that is a typical level to be at.

It’s only when you ride with a more widespread group of cyclists that you realise that’s not the case, and you’re a bit better than average. It’s the polar opposite of my climbing background: I thought to be average I had to keep up with riders like Adam and the mates I ride with on training camps, whereas in reality these people are the equivalent of those leading the big Extreme climbs.

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Me riding (almost) alongside Andy, one of the country’s best hill climbers. If you look hard you can tell that here, nearing the top of Fleet Moss, Andy is cruising while beneath those sunglasses I am on the limit…

First impressions
If I were to have my initial impressions as a climber again, would I change them? No, not in the slightest. They have kept me safe, grounded, and I enjoyed them immensely.

But one thing I now try to do is, when I am lucky enough to introduce someone new to a sport, I am careful not to define things as hard or easy, because those terms are meaningless.

Instead, I try to give a beginner the best supportive introduction I can, one which not put the brakes on them and will make that Weeble a little less grounded, allowing themselves to choose exactly where they want to go, how far to push it. Oh, and to tell them just how important hard work is if you want to get to be good.

 

I wrote a related post, more tongue-in-cheek, on the expertise of hikers and climbers a few years ago. Here it is.