There is a hill in my mind. It lingers there; not because of its beauty or the fact that it juts up majestically high above a deep blue alpine lake; not because of its rolling, sinuous lines of perfect singletrack, woven through postcard forests of beargrass, Douglas Fir and Western Larch; not for its rowdy drops or fall line pitches of angelic grade, requiring neither pedal stroke nor pull of the brake to descend. It haunts me because of the diabolical, sucker punch of a climb to its tippy top. You know the hill; we all have ‘em. When it comes into view, it provokes an impulsive, "Oh shit, I have to go up that?" Thanks to Strava, this hill now has a name: The Sting. To climb it clean is a rarity.
A roll of the dice
It’s early summer. The trail has been clear of snow now for more than a month and recent rains have left the dirt perfectly tacky. I’ve been riding mostly uphill close to an hour and as I approach a series of stair step climbs, I know it’s go time. To earn the vista, I must dig deep and give ‘er all I got. At this point, I honestly have no idea how the next minute will go.
A short dip leads to the climb, which allows me to gain a bit of speed as I coast into the incline. Almost immediately, I have to ease into a proper climbing gear, and my momentum is quickly snuffed out by gravity. A decrescendo leaves me in my granny gear and I focus in on the beefy task. It’s easy to spin out early if I’m overzealous at the start, so I pedal deliberately, mindful of each rotation. This is no hill to race up, it’s a game of precision, strength and a bit of luck.
Taking a mental read of my tires, I adjust my body to make sure I’m balanced well and not over or underweighting the front or back. The steepness forces me to move drastically forward. I’m sitting on the front of my saddle, uncomfortably on the not-so-padded surface. My chest tucks in close to my bars and I handle the grips in almost a reverse pushup to lock in the mechanics of my contorted position. It’s ugly, but working. My upward movement seems sustainable at the moment and I look ahead, carefully choosing my line. It’s not just a climb, but an obstacle course. I gaze ahead and deftly maneuver over the step-ups, knowing that each one could easily thwart my mission if I overreact. With controlled micro-movements, I adjust my weight to pop up and over each rocky and rooted bench and transition into a positive gripping motion, powered by my rear tire. Almost like scoping out a landing for a drop or hit, my focus is on the runout, but it’s uphill. If I lose momentum or pause for a nano-second, I’m done. My mantra is simple: keep rolling.
Keep your line
I’m about two-thirds of the way up; the grade is getting meaner and my speed begins to wane. The climb is sapping my legs and I struggle to control my front wheel; it takes concentration just to keep it from ‘hunting’ back and forth. It would be so easy to give up at this point. I mean, why not? Most people walk this beast. There’s no pride lost. But cleaning this hill is an epic benchmark; a real convergence of that metaphorical and physical hill to climb. Success would be something worthy of a trophy, or at least a cold beer. I didn’t spin out at the beginning, I’ve made it through the midsection. I’m so close.
To the netherworld
At this point, my heart seems to be driving the show. My body is toast, and my mind is hitting on half its cylinders. I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth to control my breathing (a habit I’ve developed to avoid getting too hypoxic, which I’m clearly at the edge of). I try to focus on the five feet in front of me as the lactic acid courses through my spent quads. Every part of me is screaming and I can feel my heart beating in my temples. So I do what I must: I simply check out, ignoring the sympathetic bodily signals, and go to that "other place."
Over the line
I become a cheerleader outside of my being, cajoling in the third person. I’ve fizzled and spun out plenty on this pitch and know that this is the moment, the one that both haunts and beckons me here. My brain ponders its significance and insignificance, and my silly folly with this steep precipice. And then it happens: I somehow roll past the crux with an unworldly groan. And like a deflating balloon, the intensity quickly disappears as the pitch eases up and I enjoy the low level resistance. As my heady haze clears, so too does the denouement, opening up to the classic vista that marks the ride. I look across the mountainous expanse, down at the deep lake, stoked to be exactly where I am. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve found success here, and today it is sweet. But without a doubt, I felt the sting.
We've all been there; those minor victories are the moments that keep us in love with riding bikes. Thanks to Pete for capturing it so perfectly for us. Now let's go challenge our own version of the Sting.
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