Near the end of my bike commutes home I’m always faced with one final obstacle. It’s nothing monumental, about 580 feet of Occidental Boulevard that rises some 60 feet over that length (roughly a 10% grade), but after 15 miles across town through traffic it’s a chore to get up on top of it (even moreso after the 22 miles rolled on a very empty tank coming back from Dockweiler Beach yesterday).

On my 24-speed road bike? Relative cake; just granny gear it keep my ass in the saddle and pedal like Dorothy’s wicked witch of a neighbor. But on The Phoenix with its solitary gear, it’s ugly. It’s all standing room only leaning over the bars and sucking wind while slowing to a literal crawl and straining just to keep the forward motion going enough to get a pedal over the top so you can push it back down and do it all over again until finally the worst is behind you and only then can you concentrate on staying upright as you make your way through the hyperventilation.

There have been several times I’ve considered an alternate route up a neighboring street to avoid the ordeal, but I always manage to man-up and tackle it. And only once did I not get all the way and that was due in part to a car double-parked and blocking my path that I used as an excuse for unclipping and walking the rest of the way.

Well last night, I was beat. There were headwinds coming north along the beach bikeway and there were headwinds on National between the Ballona Creek Bikeway and Venice Boulevard and there were headwinds up La Brea and Highland, and on top of all that resistance, I’d used up the calories of the Healthy Choice entree that I’d had for lunch hours earlier — and then some.

Naturally I thought of either walking up or going around.

 

“You deserve a break today,” the devil on my left shoulder told me. And before the angel could pipe up on my right, I was thinking about my first ever real encounter with a hill. It was 18 years ago at the veeeery beginnings of my days as an urban cyclist. I was living in Burbank at the time and working in Tarzana. Though I had a top o’ the line cherry red 16-valve Jetta GLI parked in the garage, for some strange reason I thought it would be a good idea to get a bike and use it to occasionally make the 13-mile one-way commute down Victory and Burbank boulevards.

 Crazy.

So I went over to a shop on Brand in Glendale and bought myself an entry-level Shogun mountain bike and brought it home where it promptly sat locked up in the garage unused for a few weeks until I decided to get up early one morning and go for a sunrise ride to get used to the bike and get me some exercise (and boy did me and my fat ass need to get me some exercise back then).

So over the sleepy streets of sleepy Burbank I rolled casually through the pre-dawn until I ended up biking by Warner Brothers Studios and then across the L.A. River until I arrived at Forest Lawn Drive and found myself facing the climb south up Barham and decided to go for it.

At 24 years old I didn’t make it a fifth of the way up that considerable climb before I quit somewhat discouraged and turned humbly around to coast to the valley floor and back home. I could blame it on a lack of familiarity with the bike or an ignorance when it comes to the mechanics of going uphill. But the fact was I wasn’t able to do it.

It was the first and last time I ever quit a hill.  

Not that I can pedal up every one I face, but if I start it I’m going to get to the top whether it’s in the saddle or walking beside it.  I credit that with the fellow routemen at Sparkletts about a year later who introduced me to mountain cycling for real and I spent a bunch of early Saturday mornings bringing up the rear as they scooted up trails in the Verdugos and the San Gabes. The Shogun though? She was long gone by then but had served me well for several commutes to and from Tarzana as I’d originally planned. I’d left her in the care of my wife after we separated in 1990 only to inquire few months later about it and learn ithad apparently been stolen.

I’m not sure why I triggered that beginner failure yesterday as I paid no attention to the devil and turned onto Occidental to muscle my way to the top (just as I will again tonight on my way home), but it’s important to remember because it’s good to keep a perspective on things. This stuff I can do now as an old man that I couldn’t do then as a punk is the product of almost two decades of trial and error and effort and I have to remember that it’s experience and conditioning allowing me to crank it 16 miles to the job, put in a full day at work then log another 22 coming home and and up a couple football fields of a 10% incline.