Elly Blue: How do Seattle cyclists deal with all those hills?

Elly Blue — whose brilliant bike culture critiques and bikenomics essays end up cited all over this blog — was in town for the Seattle Bike Expo over the weekend (more on the Expo soon). She stayed at the luxurious Seattle Bike Blog estates in the Central District, biked to the Expo in Interbay and went on a bike ride with a crew of neighborhood greenways activists in Ballard. So, basically, she got a good (but not complete!) look at our city’s hills. Her review?

From her blog Taking the Lane:

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.

Seattle’s ability to have so many people biking despite the seemingly unfriendly territory is, on some levels, phenomenal. There is no obvious reason for Seattle to higher rates of bicycling compared to our nation’s many flat, grid-connected and far less rainy cities. But we do.

One explanation might be that you all are just awesome. Obviously, that’s true. However, I wonder if it isn’t more simple than that. Like every other choice in life, it’s about rewards.

When I bike up a big hill, it’s hard and slow. Sometimes I get in a headspace where I can appreciate the small details around me and I really enjoy climbing. Other times (if I am tired, hungry or late, for example) I wish I had a bulldozer to just flatten the hill towering above me. But when I get to the top, the experience of relief and the reward of a spectacular view and exhilarating, easy downhill on the other side seems to erase all the negativity I had built up.

Just as biking up hills seems to be an impediment to cycling, biking down hills is among the greatest experiences a person can know. Moving swiftly without hardly using any muscles, letting the city just pull you along the roadway closer to your destination… There’s nothing like it. When I’m in the middle of gliding down a hill, every other way of getting around town just seems like nonsense.

Maybe that’s why two of the nation’s top five large cycling cities — Seattle and San Francisco — are also among it’s hilliest.

Below are some of my favorite responses from you all. Got anymore advice? Leave it in the comments!

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

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

@svrdesign: Our gears go to -11

@nein09: They flatten out eventually. Really!

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16 Responses to Elly Blue: How do Seattle cyclists deal with all those hills?

  1. Pingback: Elly Blue: How do Seattle cyclists deal with all … – Seattle Bike Blog | Bicycle News

  2. Smitty says:

    I moved to Portland in the fall. My legs appreciate the flatter terrain but my soul miss all the awesome and often surprise views. Sure I get the occasional peek-a-boo of Mt St Helens or Mt Hood, and Downtown PDX is beautiful viewed from the east bank esplanade across the river, but none of it is as grand as a panorama of the Olympics from Phinney Ridge.

    I’m loving the Rose City but do sometimes miss Seattle’s hills.

  3. wave says:

    I think the main thing is that a lot of people generally don’t ride up and down those hills. We live on Capitol Hill, and while I have to go downhill to get to work downtown in the morning and back up to get home, my kids and I have a very flat ride to the elementary school in our neighborhood up on top of the hill. Lots of other people ride along the Burke Gilman between Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford, and the U District, and never have to deal with a hill for their whole ride, other than maybe a block or two, and there are tons of other folks who ride between the U District or Fremont or Eastlake and downtown along the east or west sides of Lake Union and, again, hardly ever have to deal with a hill. I guess the point is that we Seattleites have become quite good at figuring out ways of avoiding those big hills that we’re so famous for. And, as indicated by others here, when it is necessary to just go straight up some big ol’ incline, we also know that there’s a reward waiting at the top — a feeling of triumph and often a really nice view.

  4. Gary says:

    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.

  5. Ted Diamond says:

    Gearing. Familiarity. Each hill has its own character. The more your ride it, the more you understand it. Eventually, you develop an intimacy with it that is, well, downright unnatural. It’s not unusual for some of us to name our hills, and to make a point of visiting them so they don’t miss us.

  6. merlin says:

    Just knowing that I can always get off and walk if I feel like it makes the hills less intimidating. I live on the east side of Capitol Hill and work on the west side so my commute is pretty steep up and down both ways – but it’s not very far. And if I’m in the U district or points north and have already ridden too many miles in the rain and just don’t feel like pedaling up from Montlake to the top of Capitol Hill, I toss the bike on a bus for the last climb. Plus, as has already been said, those hills all get flatter the more you ride.

  7. Troy says:

    Hills are your friend, just make sure to go down them. My morning commute from South Beacon Hill to Greenlake is the best because the hills I climb are shallow and the ones I go down are steep. Bombing down 12th to the Jose Rizal bridge and then later on down Roanoke are two of the best parts of every day. On the way home I just take the long flattish way through downtown and only have to climb Jackson and 12th. There is not rule that says you have to go the same way you came.

  8. charles says:

    I swapped out my inner chain ring for a smaller one so that I can easily tackle the steeper hills.

  9. Doug says:

    I think it’s a conditioning thing. Having ridden to the top of Capitol Hill hundreds of times over the past four years, how could I not be pretty good at it by now? I have come to appreciate the benefits and joys of the hill climbing experience.

    I finally understood that joy riding a loaded camping bike to the top of Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics. Riding out of the top of the cloud cover into the evening sun was transcendent and utterly lung busting. While there’s nothing quite like that in the Seattle city limits, I do enjoy surveying Lake Washington and the Cascades from Louisa Boren Park on my way to work.

    • Timmy says:

      Hurricane Ridge? If you’re interested, I’m trying to get together a group of people with vintage and or randonneuring bikes to do this year’s Ride the Hurricane as a “tweed ride.”

      Should be a lovely jaunt, what what!

      Be worth it just to see the gaping mouths of the hard-core roadies.

      • Doug says:

        You should have seen them as we screamed down the hill the next day with our fully loaded campers. Another one of the joys of bike touring!

        I would love to do that. While none of my current bikes are vintage, I am planning on building up an early 80s Univega as my sportive. If it works out I would be very interested in doing that! I have wanted to ride it again!

  10. pqbuffington says:

    Hills are a funny thing…What I have come to understand is that I am much better at some hills than others; this does not necessarily equate simply to overall elevation gain.

    I find this perplexing, but if you happen to watch pro-cycling, most especially the upcoming hilly and somewhat hilly classics, you can see the same thing playing out. Some riders can jam up long subtle climbs, or short steep climbs, or excel on the flats, but very few are the fastest in all facets.

    As Ted-D says, familiarity is the key, including familiarity of self, and always route accordingly if at all possible.

    Also, try to stay light and wear stiff soled bicycling shoes and the respective clip-in pedals; this will not only allow for much improved energy transfer, but is much healthier for the foots, even stylish these days.

  11. Timmy says:

    I live in Port Angeles. I work downtown, basically at sea level, and my 4-mile commute home has a net gain of almost 1000 ft. When I ride in Seattle, I don’t really notice the hills all that much.

    So I guess the answer is practice, practice, practice.

  12. Jack says:

    Practice, practice, practice.

    Two weeks of riding around and the body adjusts. Always fun to feel the power after a day or two of rest.

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  14. D. says:

    I appreciate I am coming late to this particular party, but I live in Bristol in the UK and just wanted to add my half-penn’orth.

    Trust me, that this is a very hilly city (by British standards – we have Park Street, the “steepest shopping street in England”(TM)), and I have colleagues and family who are always saying “I don’t know how you do it, with all thos hills!” (I suspect the hills aren’t the real reason they won’t do it, just another excuse…).

    Answer: you just do! Getting up some hills is a bit of a chore, but once you are up one hill, you get to ride *fast* down another, and that makes everything worth it. ;-)

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