Where Angels Fly

Mountain roads in the Mount Rainier Valley

When you’re digging deeper into Rock and Roll, you’re on a freight train headed straight for the blues.
– Jack White

The analog for this in Cycling is that as we dig deeper into cycling, we’re headed for The Mountains. Suffering is the altar of our sport, and Rule VV emphasizes the experience: the pain never lessens; the only indication we have that we are getting better is that the pain simply doesn’t last as long. Like some kind of voluntary Stockholm Syndrome, we find ourselves captivated by mountains, fantasising about riding roads that represent nothing but hours of misery.

I sat in a small dual-prop plane this morning, staring at the imposing and breathtaking view of the series of volcanoes that line the coast from Seattle to Portland. So beautiful, yet incomprehensibly destructive, I’ve never seen them in a row like this, a panorama only possible on a clear day aboard a small, low-flying plane. (I’ve got a thing for volcanoes.)

But this twisted mind of mine could hardly allow me the beauty of what I was seeing; in the valleys directly below the plane were wispy ribbons that cut across the hillsides in a complicated web; ribbons I knew to be mountain roads. Snow-covered dome followed snow-covered dome along my journey, scarcely noticed as I made a silent vow to worship these roads in the only way I know how: to submit to suffering upon them.

Which begs the question, why do we subject ourselves to this? We claim to love our sport, but the word “suffering” doesn’t convey nor imply pleasure. I’m not a religious man, so I’m making a lot of assumptions about the details, but when we say that Jesus suffered upon the Cross, I am fairly certain that we aren’t to take from that the idea that he found it to be in some way exhilarating, that he had a desktop wallpaper of his Cross #1 and a screensaver which rotated through all his Crosses – the ones for good weather and for bad, in different types of wood – along with up-close shots of the beautiful joinery work.

The difference is that on rare occasion, the suffering doesn’t feel like suffering. It feels like freedom, like control over ourselves in a way we can’t find off the bike. Yesterday morning, I stole out for a ride before work. Almost absent-mindedly, I chose the route that snakes its way north, climbing and descending along the Puget Sound coast. Summer mornings in the Pacific Northwest can be almost mystical, with the Marine Layer causing the lower-lying lands to be shrouded in fog while the higher areas are experiencing a spectacular clear morning with views of mountains on three sides and water on the fourth. This was such a day.

Ten minutes into the ride, I was rolling effortlessly along Shilshole Marina, ensconced in a blanket of fog. The masts from the countless sailboats formed hypnotic silhouettes as they gently swayed in the waves, tied to their piers. At the end of the marina, I swung right under the railroad tracks, and rolled onto the first climb of the day, the climb to Blue Ridge from Golden Gardens.

I settled into my rhythm and hit the first switchback moving faster than usual; I swung wide and cut into the turn aggressively so I wouldn’t sweep into oncoming traffic on the exit. I reveled for a moment in the fleeting pleasure that comes when I have to coast through a turn on a climb, then slipped the chain onto the little ring as the gradient kicked up and as the climb started its more determined journey to the top of the ridge.

This is where I always take my seat in the Hurt Locker; the middle section is not terribly steep, but the gradient fluctuates and the pavement is bad in places. As such, it doesn’t suit my ‘strengths’ as a (bad) climber, and here I ask the agent for an aisle seat in the hopes that the pain might be less suffocating there, but instead I find my normal seat in the back row, next to the overweight nose-breather.

I pushed through the steep section in a state of simple, one-dimensional suffering. This is the state consisting of the customary leg-burning, lung-searing pain that I feel every time a gradient kicks up. Where the suffering takes on some complexity is when the gradient eases and I am rendered powerless against the urge to drop the chain into a cog with a tooth or two less. But then something unexpected happened; rather than the usual onset of square pedaling, I found that while the pain levels stayed the same, the speed increased. That can’t be right, so I tried again, another tooth less. The same story, the speed increases. I don’t like to look down, but I forgave myself a quick glance to make sure something wasn’t amuck, like that my chain was missing or some such thing. Sure enough, there was a problem: I was so far down my block that I was about to Schleckacnical.

I did the only thing that seemed reasonable under the circumstances: I moved Sur la Plaque. Again, the speed increased. I swung onto the last stretch of the climb, where the gradient increases again. Out of the saddle, and I was over it before I even realized where I was.

As I reached the top, I broke through the clouds and was bathed in sunlight. The change in light broke the spell, and the magic was gone at once. As I began the descent, I realized that what I experienced was a visit from La Volupte; that was as good as I would feel the rest of the ride, if not the whole season.

She won’t visit again soon, but one short visit from La Volupte is enough to remind me that those fleeting moments are worth countless hours-long sessions under the iron crush of the Man with the Hammer.

There is a place where my soul rests, and that place is in the Mountains. To climb well is to walk for a moment where angels fly.

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99 Replies to “Where Angels Fly”

  1. Did a ~32 km out to and up a small mountian today, only about 800m of climbing. Like I said earlier, I’m not a great climber but I try.

    At any rate, I pass a guy wearing a king of the mountian polka-dot helmet on the way up. I stopped to snap some photos and he passed me. I then passed him a bit later up the road, again!

    I though about asking him for his helmet. I certainly hope he was on a rest day or recovery ride.

    Regarding warmup times, I take a while as well. At least 10 miles, but more is better and a nice climb certainly gets the starter pistols primed.

  2. @Dr C

    Thanks – I will double check the BB. I haven’t serviced it since the bike was new; over 4000 miles now. I suppose it is time to disassemble, clean and relube?

  3. @frank

    The VMH takes for ever to warm up, but Merckx, then she just goes and goes. .

    Maybe try some soft music and scented candles? That can often get their engines started a bit quicker

  4. @frank

    @Dr C
    I have almost nothing to base this theory on, by the way. But on the sample size of those I’ve ridden with throughout my life, it seems to be pretty accurate.

    That would be interesting to look into – my fello velos often tell me I have a “great” (no context offered, but I suspect bottom of the range diesel) engine, that I am like a really crap version of JensV (I take that as a complement btw) and I can’t sprint for shit – but I can grind it out thereafter – certainly great to hear others struggle over the same startout

    sincere apologies over the Rule #24 indiscretion indeed – 16km as you say

  5. @Dr C

    By the way, how long does it take everyone to loosen up? – I can’t get my guns firing until I’ve done at least 10 miles and a 1000ft climb – is there some way to bypass this, as it is hateful suffering, albeit transient – after that, whatever comes next is fine, throw it at me, but Merckx do I suffer until then, but not in a pleasant way….. any advice welcome (apart from Rule #5 suggestions)

    After todays climb I felt the same way, I really struggle on that first big climb. The ride out to the gap felt slow, and then the climb was slow as usual (I’m not at “climbing” weight, as my name would imply) but then the ride back feels quite easy.

    Maybe on the next ride to the local gap I’ll time my accent up and then repeat, see if the time improves. My guess is it will.

  6. @frank

    Great words!

    Once I was an athlete (as the saying goes) and I sadly miss those few days as an active when there simply was no stop. When you could do your ordinary hill climb intervals in gears that you on an ordinary day just couldn’t manage and you arrived at the top laughing, turned around and did it once more just for the hell of it. In a good season I probably had 2-3 such days spread over the year, never at a race though.

    I miss that feeling of completely harmony with myself and my bike and like a junkie longing for the feeling of that virgin fix I seem to forever strive to gat back into that swat spot.

    Man and machine, the way it should be!


  7. 3 weeks ago I was invited on a 200km ride with 3,000m vertical. This summer has been the end of a 3 year quest for a fitness and ideal climbing weight that I have not seen in 10 years. I had hit the weight goal a month ago in time for a 160km, 2,500m ride. So I knew that I was ready.

    The day had been predicted to be overcast and intermittent rain. It turned out to be 90F degrees and humid with sun for 60% of the ride. At 16km we climbed 300m in 2.5km and then did hard rolling and climbing until 125km. After a short food and water stop Mount Greylock was tackled.

    I had driven up the easy side of Greylock years ago but we did the hard side and I have to admit it was more than I expected… 10km and 1,000m. I am going out on a limb here but it was for 4-6km harder than Mount Washington. Ok it’s almost 3km shorter and the top 1/3 is almost flat in places – but the bottom 1/2 is a very tough climb.

    At the 2/3’s point of the climb I had to stop and cool down. But a little excuse could have been my gear… I ride old school just out of cheapness and cussedness – 42X24 is my twiddle gear and so far it has played a key role in gaining fitness. Also the old Bertoni (don’t ask) is no feather weight and with 2 full water bottles…

    Coming so close to a Ventoux experience was a first for me and after 20 minutes I limped to the top where I found a buddy stretched out on the grass totally pale, gaunt, incoherent and disorientated and another guy also shaky.

    1/2 hour latter we are good to go and the last 50km’s were fairly flat. The irony was that the last 35km’s we covered at 38kph and (not bragging – no really, but this was the cool part) on the grass guy and I did most of the pulls with 2 others. The four doing the work at the end were the four slowest on the climb (and oldest).

    The nine of us finished the ride and agreed with the heat and elevation it had been EPIC! So Ned Overend, aged 56, just won Mt. Washington with a very respectable time, this gives me hope that next year with some more hill repeats under my belt, better weather and a 39×27 I will be there with the young bucks…

  8. @Rob


    This site has profiles of a bunch of climbs including Greylock (which is 40 miles from where I grew up in NY.) Also there’s an article on there about age and how fast you climb, and also an article comparing other climb times as prep for Mount Washington.

    Great site overall.

  9. @King Clydesdale
    Awesome K.C. – Thank you, the home page with “Dougs” personal story is great! 230lbs down to 165lbs and overall winner of the BUMPS northeast hillclimb championship series title – whoooa. Puts my little jaunt into perspective…

    P.S. I was bummed to see that Greylock from the north’s average grade was only 5.9% but if you go be prepared for at least 15% for some of the tough bottom sections. I believe the fastest time up it is 36 minutes, low 50’s for Mt. Washington and then 2:30’s for Franks little bump…

  10. Great stuff Frank! There is something amazing about the way the human body reacts and adapts to physical stress… To put yourself into physical duress and feel your body react (sometimes magically and sometimes with a bonk) is really living. It’s what keeps me coming back for more!

  11. @Marcus
    Well, we know he’s got plenty of candles….

    Late to the thread, but a fantastic discussion. Climbing has long been my favorite discipline, even though I’m the wrong body type (taller, short legs, long torso) and lack the high tolerance for pain necessary to be truly proficient at it. I still dig it and am lucky to live around any number of routes that offer long/short/steep/gradual or any combination of the four, in sequence. And while I love the long, meditative suffering of road climbing, I have lately become entranced by a very different beast: climbing on the mountain bike.

    Long climbs on the road at their best are transcendent. You find the gear and cadence best suited for the gradient, settle in and suffer, adjusting only when The Man With the Hammer pays a visit, the slope eases or it’s time to go Sur Le Plaque. On the mountain bike, what might be a long meditation on The V becomes a cage fight. I constantly have to be watching the terrain, monitoring stroke and effort, recovering where possible for the big efforts that are going to be required, moving forward and back to maximize traction, handling, manual-ing, etc. No time to think, no time to talk, no time to even enjoy the scenery beyond a quick peek. But the payoff is SO worth it. Rule #55 applies double for mountain bikes. This weekend I had the pleasure to do both a 80 km club ride on the road Saturday and a 35k mtb ride (17.5km, 1300m climb out and back) on Sunday. And loved ’em both.

    As I say above, I am topographically blessed, not to mention the fact that I live on a hill. So any ride I take on the road bike ends with a 1km, 150m grunt. And I’m OK with that. But if I leave my house and go up, I’m on the mtb. And I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I’ll leave you with my summer obsession; a little 5k / 500m climb I’ve been doing repeats on after work.

    PS Rule #29 violation…

  12. @minion

    Introduce yourself properly if you’re going to promote an event.

    Example? No I am not the race promoter or in any way associated with the event except as a participant and if I don’t die a finisher .

  13. Bravo Frank! Even though gravity tugs at me at the rate of 84 kilos, I always head to the hills and mountains. I believe there are two reasons why. First, the more I climb, the more I can eat & drink (Team Ride to Eat). Secondly, having grown up in SoCal during BCC (before catalytic converter), I am subconsciously drawned to the rarefied air in the mountains.

  14. @dnolletti
    Apologies for being brusque, and welcome aboard.

    Do we have a derivative for Crossers, BTW? If we can accept Velomi – doggies, going on velomi – walkies, do we have a name for crossers? (Ron? Ron? Anyone?)

    DNoletti – not aimed at you bud, bit of an historic topic.

  15. @mauibike
    Kudos to Frank as well. I have been considering my first post here and this seems to be calling me to do so. Number one Frank put in words very eloquently the connection we have to the sport…suffering. It’s something only we can share amongst ourselves. Most others have no reference to draw from as an example. As I like to say “embrace the pain”. I also wanted to say to you mauibike it seems we have a bit in common. I currently carry about 84kg as well ( but I do plan to be peaking in two months ). I currently live in SoCal and own property and love to ride in Maui. Perhaps we can get out for a ride on one of my trips to that part of paradise.

  16. Next up: eightzero (and my badass VMH Mrs./Dr. eightzero) vs. the Other Volcanoe: http://ride542.com

    @Frank not seeing you on the provisional start list?

    For the local VSP – trying to better my time of 2:20 to Heather Meadows last year. Weather report this year is for much better than the deluge/epic of 2010, so take the under if you can get the bet down.

    May Merckx have mercy on my soul!

  17. The view from the top of Monday morning’s climb

    Sorry about the crap blackberry picture and stitching

  18. @eightzero
    That looks like too much fun? Didn’t Gianni live around there years ago, so maybe he has done this – this volcano thing is maybe getting out of hand, no? Good luck and send in a report especially Mrs/Dr. Eightzero’s!

  19. @frank not to overstep my bounds as a newcomer, but may i suggest adding Hurt Locker to the Lexicon? I see you used it in describing your ride in Where Angels Fly. It’s often used by the group I ride with as well. While I don’t have the gift of pen that you have I think of the Hurt Locker as that “physical and mental state you willingly enter and embrace the pain to the point of cleansing and exhilaration. VV is practiced here.” * Not to be confused with the state of pain a rider is in when he is Too Fat to Climb. *

  20. @Rob

    @eightzeroThat looks like too much fun? Didn’t Gianni live around there years ago, so maybe he has done this – this volcano thing is maybe getting out of hand, no? Good luck and send in a report especially Mrs/Dr. Eightzero’s!

    Will do. I just saw this on ride542.com ‘s web page:

    “Director’s Note: 9/6/11: Please Register now. Day-of will be available (this year only!).”

    Cool! So ‘Day-of’ registration available in 2011. Sure would be fun to see more v-kitte’s out there on the hill this year. Mine will be!

  21. @Dr C

    nice one – you need the Witte Kitte though – chequebook out sir!

    I think you are right, but the witte kitte can wait till next year, LS Jersey on order and any other spare budget will go on some warm long bibs. Unless @frank comes up with some long V-Bibs.

  22. nice thread here. i don’t have much as much experience with europe but the best mtn roads in usa/can are dirt – logging, mining or forest service roads. if you’re on a reg road bike, you always get to a point where even if you managed to get up, you won’t be riding down. i’m still looking for a really great bike that can handle those conditions (that isn’t mtb nor cross). the hampstens have the right idea but they’re a bit too pricey. btw, traveled around a bit this summer and the pika packworks thing worked great and saved me a bundle. i’d be a bit uneasy about putting an expensive carbon bike in there though – mostly because of how the tsa goes through your stuff and never puts things back properly. travel with something not too pricey that can also handle a bit of a beating should it need to. final word of caution. take it easy coming down. the last thing you want is to crash hard out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone signal and no traffic. it really sucks. cheers.

  23. We came; we saw; we laid down the V: http://liten.be//KXupz The course was shortened slightly because of 50′ of snow in the upper parking lot.

    Mrs/Dr Eightzero pushed the tempo on the second Cat 3 climb, and gapped me. I was able to recover on the flat past the powerhouse to get on her wheel before the final Cat 2 climb, then we made the deal – if she’d pace me up I wouldn’t contest the stage win. And so it was – a beautiful, perfect day for a climb – and we crossed the line with hands together and high, as her wheel crossed first, just like the Badger’s did on the Alpe.

  24. @eightzero
    Oh man, that brings back some memories of life in Vancouver.
    Used to ski at Baker 3-4 times a winter and I admit that until now I had never thought about riding that road. It is the one up to the ski area, no?
    Such a fantastic road, and finishing up in the parking lot looking at Shuksan. One of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascades in my opinion. Shame I lacked the time / courage / skills to climb it.

  25. @mouse


    @sgtSo your bike has balls…

    I’m still waiting for a proper explanation about that one…

    I just got it – don’t people of a certain sunburnt disposition in parts of America (don’t want to cast aspersions) have truck nuts, a version of the same you hang off the tow ball of your pick up truck?

  26. @Minion



    @sgtSo your bike has balls…

    I’m still waiting for a proper explanation about that one…@Sarge?

    I just got it – don’t people of a certain sunburnt disposition in parts of America (don’t want to cast aspersions) have truck nuts, a version of the same you hang off the tow ball of your pick up truck?

    In case you were suffering from envy…

  27. I’ve just been made privy to a whole new world, one which I’m grateful not to be a part of.
    To wit:
    2nd Generation Balls are shorter and lighter, however they have not lost the hefty, fullness of the O r i g i n a l 1st Generation Bulls Balls® and Big Boy Nutsâ„¢
    Thank the good baby jebus for that.

  28. Yeah, that didn’t come out quite the way I meant it. I’ve no desire to cast aspersions on those who hang testicular simulacra upon their vehicle of choice.

  29. @mouse

    I’ve just been made privy to a whole new world, one which I’m grateful not to be a part of.To wit:2nd Generation Balls are shorter and lighter, however they have not lost the hefty, fullness of the O r i g i n a l 1st Generation Bulls Balls® and Big Boy Nutsâ„¢Thank the good baby jebus for that.

    Truth is stranger than fiction. I don’t make this shit up.

  30. @mouse
    always keen to expand my vocabulary, I shall rearrange the kids plastic lettering on the fridge to read “simulacra”, which will be our word of the week, to be used by the kids as often as possible in conversation

    btw, what does it mean?

  31. @Dr C
    Simulacra; From the latin meaning “similarity or likeness”, a word gleaned from my University days when studying the intellectual stylings of Jean Baudrillard. Makes you sound more cleverer than you really is. Try it.

  32. @mouse

    I’ve just been made privy to a whole new world, one which I’m grateful not to be a part of.To wit:2nd Generation Balls are shorter and lighter, however they have not lost the hefty, fullness of the O r i g i n a l 1st Generation Bulls Balls® and Big Boy Nutsâ„¢Thank the good baby jebus for that.

    Question for @Sgt:
    Do you subscribe to the ‘hefty fullness’ of the original, or the new and improved ‘shorter lighter’ version?

  33. @mouse
    It is that road. It gets immaculate maintenance because the uber-rich ski dudes with their big shiny new fuckin’ 4 wheel SUV’s demand it for their ski trips. And we get to ride it once a year with no traffic. Merckx bless me but its a beautiful climb.

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