by Marie-Soleil Blais
Mt. Lemmon is one the most famous training climb for Canadian cyclists, despite not actually being in Canada. Looming above the skyline of Tucson, Arizona, it gains 1,662 m elevation over 34.15 km, at an 4.9% average grade. Aspiring racers from across Canada test themselves to reach the 2,795 m summit every year during winter training camps.
I will always remember the first time I climbed Mount Lemmon, on a cold day of January 2017. I was caught in a winter storm, at 8,000 feet of elevation, with just a jersey and arm warmers and a thin jacket for the descent. I didn’t wear gloves or any warmer layers because I didn’t know there was another climate half-way up in the mountain. I thought it was 16 degrees Celsius like the forecast shown for the city, but it was actually zero near the top!
I was so frozen I had to walk because my hands couldn’t hold the bars. There were no other cyclist on the road past the 6,000 feet mark, I was out of water already with 2,000 more feet to climb. Some hikers gave me hot pads to hold in my bare hands so I could reach the general store at the top, and buy gloves for the decent. I put another pair of hot pads in my helmet! Why did I continue climbing? It didn’t make sense to turn around half-way into a climb (a pro wouldn’t turn around, right?), so I kept going, pushed by fierce determination and plain ignorance. Refusing to quit. There was so many things I didn’t know about climbing a mountain such as Mount Lemmon and I had to learn it the hard way.
Two years later, I can’t recall how many times I’ve been on Mount Lemmon as Tucson became my training base to prepare for the racing seasons. As I’m climbing it again, I realize how far I’ve come since that day. And how similar my learning curve into pro cycling have been compared to that day on Mount Lemmon. Pushed by fierce determination and plain ignorance.
I didn’t have the smoothest path to pro cycling, I probably took more detours than others. Maybe it’s coming to the sport late, or maybe I didn’t ask the right questions to the right people. Or maybe that’s just how I am, learning by trying myself, even if it means learning the hard way.
I like to think that learning the hard way has been a good thing for me and a big part of what made me go this far in the sport. It builds character, it makes you stronger. Going through the toughest experience make the rest feel easier. It pushes your limits.
In the same way, plain ignorance has its advantages. They say that ignorance is bliss, I believe so. It can be a powerful mental advantage in training or when facing a difficult situation. Not knowing how hard or challenging an obstacle actually is allows to not doubt or question, to not fear, to not anticipate or to not feed any negative chatter. When you don’t know the risk, you can just go!
For me, it pushed my limits several times. Some things I would have never have done if I knew what the hell I was putting myself into! Looking back, I gained confidence from those experiences. I know I’m capable, and I could do it again if I had to.
How to climb a big mountain like a pro – my tips for a more enjoyable experience
Look at the weather at the « top » of the climb, not just the base. It’s always cooler as you gain altitude.
Always bring gloves and a jacket for the descent even when it seems silly to carry them.
If the climb is over two hours, bring a third bottle in your back pocket– there may not be any places to fill your bottle in the middle of the mountain and it’s always harder than you think to climb two hours in a row.
You should carry extra food bar, or you can have an emergency bar in your saddle bag in case. Being cold will burn more calories too.
I like to bring another base layer, pair of gloves, socks and shoe cover in a bag stuffed behind mu back, so they stay dry for the descent.
Marie-Soleil Blais is a 30-year-old first-year professional rider with the Astana Women’s Team from Centre-du-Québec. She is a seven-time Quebec champion on the road, individual time trial and track. She is a multiple-time winner at theChampionne des Mardis Cyclistes de Lachine and the Criterium National de Montréal.