The high life: the allure of cycling uphill

Why cycle up hills when there’s a flat way round? Rob Ainsley has some reasons...

Illustration cycling brain

There are two types of cyclist. Given a steep hill, one will do anything to find a flatter way round. The other will race you up and post a summit selfie on Facebook.

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Although by nature uncompetitive, I’m rather keen on cycling upwards. Almost as much as the Youth Hostel Association, whose establishments are always up hills. Or NCN routes that take you over 200m peaks because the council won’t fund a safe junction on the A road.

But here’s a thing. When I drove down Glencoe on a motoring holiday in Scotland, I thought the scenery was somewhat average. Later, on a cycling holiday – or, as we everyday cyclists call it, a ‘holiday’ – I did it on my tourer, climbing up from Tyndrum. In the intervening decade, somebody must have rebuilt the mountains. They were now awesome, thrilling, ecstatic.

What’s going on? Perhaps the psychological phenomenon of ‘effort heuristic’: the more work involved, the more enjoyable the results. It’s related to the marketing effect known to every sharp-suited upseller, that more expensive goods feel better.

Give people the same wine twice, but describe the first as cheap and the second as expensive, and most will enjoy the ‘luxury’ one much more. They’re not kidding themselves, either: MRI scans show their brains are genuinely more lit up by fun-loving dopamine. (MRI scans are horrible; frankly, I could’ve done with a calming glass of wine during my last one).

Hence, unearned downhills don’t work so well. In Ecuador once I bought such an experience. They bus you up to 3,000m on the Abra Malaga road. You coast down nearly 30 miles of descent, over an hour, on MTBs with 27 gears (26 more than you need) and no mudguards (two fewer than you need). Pleasant enough, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Rosedale Chimney, clambering up the side of a North Yorkshire moor, is ‘only’ 33 percent, but is inspiring, with scenery, majesty and a sense of achievement

Back here, Cragg Vale – south of Todmorden in West Yorkshire – is signed as England’s longest continuous downhill: 5.5 miles and 295m of steady drop. (If mixed units are good enough for OS maps then they’re good enough for me). You can freewheel it all, and I know because I did.

Not as breathtaking as Ecuador, past an industrial estate down to Mytholmroyd, but I enjoyed it more, because I had to get up there in the first place, round the back road by the reservoir with views off Blackstone Edge.

There’s something feelgood about effortful ascent. Hill-guide author Simon Warren is unlikely to extend his series with 100 Greatest East Anglian Cycling Climbs, but gradient alone guarantees nothing.

The ‘steepest street in the UK’, and recently confirmed ‘steepest street in the world’, for example, is Harlech’s Ffordd Pen Llech. The twisting side lane down to the castle is signed at the top, perhaps uniquely, as 40 percent. Cycling up it is not suggested. Particularly because it’s one-way… going the other way.

The bottom of Vale St in Bristol’s aptly-named Totterdown area feels at least as precipitous. And the cobbled bowels of Church Lane in Whitby below the Abbey – signed ‘unsuitable for motors’, which fails to prevent the occasional sat nav farce, and subsequent local-press schadenfreude – rake up to 50 percent or more, my photos suggest. Good luck with that.

But these are essentially curiosities, not rides. Rosedale Chimney, clambering up the side of a North Yorkshire moor, is ‘only’ 33 percent (the only genuine 1-in-3 of the UK’s many signposted ones, evidently), but is inspiring, with scenery, majesty and a sense of achievement. And exciting warning signs: ‘Dangerous hill cyclists please dismount’ – an appeal, which I’m pleased to say, has no legal force.

So here’s to hill climbing. Fleet Moss from Hawes, Bealach na Bà from Applecross, Bwlch y Groes from Llanuwchllyn… all easier said than done, except perhaps the last. But we love them all. Well, almost. Maybe not the A6 at Shap.

Not just for the summit view. Or post-downhill cake. Or Strava boasting. But for the effort heuristic, the mental zing, the dopamine, the being alive. In fact, it’s a metaphor for life: we struggle up but enjoy the ride. Then it’s all downhill.

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With regards to the wine thing, personally, I enjoy the cheaper bottle more, quite happy in the knowledge that there’s cash left over for some new brake blocks. I’m going to need them.