Climbing Hills on a Brompton & Knowing When to Quit
Riding a fully-loaded Brompton folding bike from sea level up to 1700 meters (5600 feet) elevation is possible, provided two key requirements are met. First, give yourself plenty of time. Second, let go of any semblance of pride. We did climb the hills from Thattekad up to Munnar on our Brompton bikes over two days, but it wasn’t always pretty. The first day we planned to ride 70 km (43 mi); the second day was meant to be a much shorter 12 km (7.5 mi) of pure ascent. Our route took us into the Western Ghats, a mountain range that spans the entire west coast of India. The name also causes Dmitry and I to sing “Come on fhqwhgads” to each other. Which is fitting, because it did take me to the limit. Day One: Knowing When to Quit (57 km in 5 hours 55 minutes – 9.6 km/hour) The first day turned out to be a lot more brutal than I expected. I had anticipated a relatively easy 50 km followed by around 20 km of hard climbing. Instead, the climbs began first thing in the morning and lasted all day. We left Thattekad around 7:30 am, and by 10 I was already feeling exhausted. We stopped frequently for water, snacks, coconuts, and rest, but as the day went on, with the sun scorching and the humidity rising, it became increasingly clear that I wasn’t going to make it all of the planned 70 km.
I guess you could say that I “bonked” – though electrolytes and snacks had no impact on my energy levels. After taking a rest, I would feel fine for the first few seconds and then realize that my legs just were not working. It was like when your phone battery is dead, but still comes on for a second when you push the power button.
Our bikes have 6 speeds, the maximum for a factory-made Brompton. Most cycle tourists have at least 21 speeds, serious hill climbers usually have more like 27. But, if you are not in super impressive physical shape (like me), there is always one other method: just walking the bike. For uphills, I pushed the bike. In the rare event of a downhill, I coasted down.
We had always known that we (I) might need to bail out of this ride, and had joked that Dmitry could keep riding and I would take a tuk tuk to the hotel. [Dmitry: There was no way either of us were making that last 13km that day.] After 6 hours and 57 km, Dmitry pulled the trigger and hailed a tuk tuk – for both of us. The driver initially refused, but Dmitry did one of the fastest fold-ups I’ve ever seen to show how easily the bikes would fit into the vehicle and the driver relented.
The tuk tuk ride that followed told us we had made the right choice. It was 13km of nonstop ascent. Thirty minutes and 250 rupees later, we were in the small town of Anachal, where we both pounced on giant plates of biryani. I felt like I had failed – at least a little – but I also felt good that we bailed out before things got too crappy. Part of the reason to have a folding bike is so that we can utilize alternative options if necessary. This time, it was necessary. This is the Brompton superpower! What we lose in gear range, we get back in easy portability. For anyone wondering, two Bromptons DO fit comfortably in the back of a Piaggio tuk tuk.
Day Two: Taking it Slow (11.6 km in 2 hours 22 minutes – 4.9 km/hour) We were a little more prepared for the final climb up to Munnar, a hill station nestled amid the emerald hills of tea plantations. The climbs were rough – sometimes more than 20% grade – but with less than 12 km total distance, I figured I could walk the whole way if necessary.
I did walk a lot of it, especially because my legs were still so tired from the previous day. But, with so little distance to cover and such beautiful views while we did it, we were both in great spirits. This was easily the slowest average speed we’ve ever had – less than 5 km/ hour when we usually do 15 km. But it was also one of our most enjoyable rides, with frequent photogenic views providing ample excuse to stop for a breather.
When we reached Munnar, we tucked into the largest meal I’ve had in India (which is really saying something). At 225 rupees (around $3.50) it was also one of the most expensive, but it was delicious, and very well-earned.