When I think of hills I think of a scenic landscape and great views. I think of picturesque streets and memorable photographs. Hills remind me of movement and of Earth´s powerful gravitational force exercised on my body. Hills make me feel excitement and hesitation at the same time.
When I think of hills in a city the first image that comes to my mind are great views. The reason for this is obvios, an uneven landscape makes it much more likely that the house or apartment where you live will have a beautiful view of your surroundings without you necessarily having to pay a premium for it. And if your main form of transportation is a motor vehicle then distance and elevation changes on your daily commute could not be more insignificant. These characteristics of the landscape around you tend to pass unnoticed when you rely on an engine to move your body, as well as the long list of objects that one tends to carry around on a daily basis.
But if by a miracle you happen to suspend your use of a motorized vehicle for a while, your house at the top of the hill will still probably have a breathtaking view, but your legs will certainly begin to feel the change.
When one uses a motorized vehicle as the primary or sole form of transportation very quickly any type of elevation change in the landscape will generally pass completely unnoticed. I mean, you might realize that you are driving down a hill if you pay some attention, but you will most likely not be aware of the forces acting on your body in that precise moment.
On the contrary, your main concern is generally to make sure that your vehicle has sufficient fuel or energy to keep you rolling, as well as to find enough space on the road to be able to pass through and get to wherever you want to go.
It is only after one decides to free oneself from the complete dependance of the engine that the landscape around you suddenly starts to develop a certain aliveness. There is no doubt that to climb a hill either running, cycling, or even walking is certainly tiring. The reason for this is simple, the Earth exerts a considerable gravitational force on our bodies, and we often forget that to counter this pull actually requires a considerable amount of force.
Our reliance on the motor engine has deeply alienated many of us from how much effort it takes to move our bodies and belongings around. Instead, for many a commute to work or going out for an errand requires hardly any physical effort and generally limits itself to walking a few steps from on seat to another.
However, an important exception should be made when we are specifically referring to non-motorized forms of mobility in places that are characterized by a topography with little elevation changes. It is true, there is no denying it, the flatness of a landscape plays a major role in incentivizing the use of cycling as a form of travel and daily commute.
To ride a bike through a flat terrain requires considerably less effort and allows a person to cover large distances without having to necessarily put a significant strain on one´s metabolism. One can pack one’s bike with anything from the week’s groceries, to a child on the back and you will hardly noticed the difference. In addition, one can make use of heavier more stable bikes with fat bump-absorbing tires which allow for a more comfortable upright riding posture.
No amount of infrastructure specifically catered for cyclist is going to trump the people’s general desire for comfort and ease of use. Few people would argue against the fact that riding a bicycle in countries like the Denmark or The Netherlands is pure joy, but at the same time I have little doubt that the popularity of this form of mobility in Danish and Dutch cities would be greatly diminished if their topography resembled much more that of citifies like La Paz or Valparaiso.
Unfortunately, hills in many ways will continue to represent a considerable obstacle when deciding to continue to use or starting to adopt forms of mobility that rely on our muscles as the main source of propulsion. Hills tend to loom large in the landscapes that we inhabit as imposing challengers that stand in the way of our desire for a tranquil and sweat-free commute.
It should not surprise us why it is so difficult for a large number of people to adopt a non-motorized form of transportation. Having to climb a steep and long hill on a warm day while carrying all of the things that we normally carry on a daily basis is certainly not a pleasant experience.
However, the advantages presented by a certain type of topography do not necessarily mean that the widespread use of bicycles is a privileged limited primarily to flat cities or regions. There are numerous strategies that one can use when riding a bicycle despite living in a place surrounded by hills and mountains. Here are some of the strategies that have certainly been of great help to me throughout the years while I navigate my city on a daily basis:
- Proper use of gears. Simple and obvious, and yet I am often surprised by how some people still struggle when trying to make the best use of gears when traveling through uneven landscape The Danes and Dutch can enjoy their minimalist bicycles with a single gear and pedal breaks, however, if you live in a mountainous area or a city with lots of hills this is certainly not a viable option.
Gears are there for a reason and knowing how to make the best use of them is crucial when navigating through a landscape with lots of elevation changes. The proper gear combination should allow you to slowly climb even a very steep slope.
- Take your time: The more time that you have to spare the slower that you can pedal. In San Jose, as in many cities around the world pedestrians and cyclist rarely see considerable variations in their general commuting times since they make use of the urban landscape in a very different way as compared to motor vehicle drivers.
However, leaving with time allows you to reduce the pace and to considerably slow down if needed.
- Flat routes: This is my favorite alternative to addressing the challenge of hills in your commute. A Flat Route is a what I a call a route designed specifically with the intent of minimizing the number of elevation changes. They are rarely the most direct or shortest route to your destination, but they are essential if you actually want to avoid having to deal with constant elevation changes.
The process of designing a Flat Route is also a fun creative challenge since you have to find ways of circumventing pronounced hills while at the same time choosing roads that feel relatively safe for you to ride on in relation to the number of motor vehicles. Now, if you do happen to be running late you can discard this option and in turn make use of your Quick Route instead.
- Unmount and walk: When everything else fails, unmount and walk. When the hill proves to be too steep, too long, or you simply do not want to start sweating profusely you can always choose to push your bike instead. This certainly will not be of much assistance if you happen to be running late, but it will certainly prevent your body´s metabolism from becoming too accelerated. Although do keep in mind that the time lost as a result of walking up is gained when riding down hill on your way back.
These are all very simple and quite evident recommendations that will help you when tackling those step slopes. Cities like San Francisco and Medellin certainly have some considerable elevation changes, and yet this does not prevent thousands of people in these cities from using bicycles or other non-motorized forms of transportation on a daily basis.
Sure, there are some hills that one simply cannot avoid and we are left with no other option other than to tackle them head-on. In these cases my recommendation is to embrace the challenge; to welcome the extra exercise that will keep your metabolism in a constate state of flux; to see the climb as a reconnection with the forces required to move your body; and perhaps if possible as a meditation in which you are mindful of the amazing power stored in your muscles and their ability to continuously propel you forward.