How Seattle riders deal with hills

Last weekend, Joe and I took the train up north for the giant Seattle Bike Expo. We were only there for two short days, most of which I spent either riding or talking about bikes.

The highlight of the weekend by far was getting to meet and talk with dozens of people — Seattle seems to have in the last two or three years fallen head over heels in love with bikes, and the excitement was palpable.

I pedaled through more of Seattle in two short days than I’d previously explored in the past decade, and nearly every inch of it was at an intense grade. My legs were jelly and I was perpetually out of breath, ravenously hungry, and amazed and impressed by the sheer number of riders everywhere we went, going about their daily business up and down these monstrous inclines.

When we got home, I asked on Twitter:

@ellyblue: Dear Seattle, it was amazing to meet/see/bike with you all this weekend! I’m smitten. But your hills kicked my butt. How do you do it???

The flood of responses demonstrated the amount of thought and the variety of approaches that goes into navigating Seattle’s topography. Below is a selection, lightly edited for punctuation:

@kentsbike: For going up hills: chocolate covered espresso beans. For going down hills: KoolStop brakepads.

@sognrider: The hills kick our butts too, just a fact of life. (well, they don’t kick @kentsbike butt, he just pedals like they’re not there)

@ambrown: I’ve never cursed so much in my life, biking over Capitol Hill. Seattle’s a great example of importance of bike/transit links.

@ameliagreenhall: It just takes a few weeks of riding every day to get used to them.

@svrdesign: Our gears go to -11

@patrickbarber: The trick is to shift to the small chainring BEFORE you start climbing

@jenlitowski: Don’t be too proud – shift down. There’s a reason why my city bike is only rated for Crown Hill, not Phinney Ridge.

@familyride: Personally, I go 40 blocks out of the way to scale Phinney Ridge.

@seditiouscanary: 1: Shift early, shift often. 2: Think and Plan. Attacking a hill head on is great as a workout, but not for getting around.

@velobusdriver: #ebike or selective route planning

@seabikeblog: One pedal in front of the other….

@transitdude: Strong ass, legs & lots of sweat

@nein09: They flatten out eventually. Really!

If you’re interested in more thoughtful meditations on hills, you can find plenty of that –here’s a recent example– on the Lovely Bicycle! blog (one of them has been adapted for issue #6 of Taking the Lane zine).

So there you have it. How about you, how do you handle hills?

Like what you’re reading? Check out the zines.

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19 Responses to “How Seattle riders deal with hills”

  1. Kelli March 13, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Deep breathing and determination will get you up most hills. It is incredible how quickly you get used to certain hills and routes after a week or two.

  2. Mike Lindblom March 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Cool post!
    I’ve taken the beachbike to work a couple times, in rain or snow, up the West Seattle peninsula (from Water Taxi) and up Belltown. But if you pedal too heavy, the chain will break or wear out! So ride partway uphill and walk the rest. It’s only embarassing to walk your bike in Seattle when it’s multigear.

    • Merlin March 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Never embarrassing to walk your bike in Seattle.

  3. Craig Harlow March 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    slow, deep breathing :^)

  4. daniel jeffrey March 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    a fixed gear really helps (less aerobic uphill, more aerobic downhill)

  5. Steve March 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    I have yet to find a hill so steep that I can’t walk up it.

  6. Gary March 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    practice, practice and walking until you can make it. Mostly I just stand up, shift down, and just grind up. Once you are at the top, a steady pace for 50 ft then I’m off again. I find that these hills clean out my arteries whether I want to or not. That and a 32 x27 low gear.

  7. Riko March 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Relax, breathe, sit and spin…or just cuss.

  8. Jovino Santos Neto March 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    I bike often from Madison Park to Capitol Hill as I commute to work. Started getting serious about it in September. 6 months later, it does feel better, but I still need to stop for a few breaths halfway up the Madison slope. The effects on my body are totally worth it. Feeling great!

  9. Mark March 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    The nice thing about hills is that every time you ride a hill, you get better at it. Eventually you don’t really notice. Living on top of a hill helps too… i mean, i’ve got to go home every day!

  10. Keith March 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    The best way I’ve found to make a hill seem flatter is to have spent the previous month climbing steeper ones.

  11. George March 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    As a 64 year old fat guy I can appreciate that the hills are a pain. I started biking to work about 3 years ago. I live on top of a hill, ride through downtown and climb another big hill to go to work. Then down and up to go home. For the first month I thought I was going to die, but just keep working, get a bike with LOW gears, and eventually you’ll get it. I did. Commuting on these hills year round are good for getting you in shape for the Chilly Hilly ride in February. Once you’ve completed that ride, without walking any of the hills, and you know you’re good.

  12. patrick March 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Elly, I already gave you some sage advice but reading everyone else’s responses reminded me of some advice given me when I first moved to Seattle in 1991. I was working at a fair with another slightly-less-new Seattle resident. We were both using bikes to get around. I asked her what she did about the hills. “You just get used to it,” she said. I thought that wasn’t very helpful advice, but years later I recalled her words and realized she was right. “Getting used to it” involves a lot of specifics, including the counter-intuitive practice of being able to climb grades _slowly_ rather than as quickly as possible (a skill that took me a long time to master, half mental patience and half leg muscles). But in the end, getting used to it is the best thing you can do, and it does happen after a while, as long as you keep trying.

  13. Merlin March 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Elly, I love it that you came to Seattle, that you rode our streets including the hills, and that you blogged about how intimidating the hills can be. That reflects your whole approach to riding a bike – you love riding, you know you don’t know everything, and so you ask questions, listen, and respect what you get back from the world of other people riding bikes. You’ve gathered some great comments here that will be useful to other people new to our hills and got us thinking about it too: how DO we do it? We just do it – we don’t stop to think about HOW until someone like you comes along and asks the question. Thanks!

  14. Erik Sandblom March 16, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    Someone mentioned stripping at the bottom of a hill and bundling up at the top. I find scarves and tubes/headbands good for this. You can tie them to the handlebar or slip them over when it gets too hot.

  15. Elly March 20, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Just wanted to jump back in belatedly to say thanks for all these comments! Hopefully some folks reading this are encouraged to see hills as a little less daunting. I know I am! Keep climbing, y’all.

  16. Doug March 21, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Hills are the best part. Shift and crank.


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