QUESTION: What is a false flat in cycling? I’m new to cycling but I’ve heard experienced riders moaning about these. —Alan R.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: A false flat is a section of road that looks to an approaching cyclist to be flat or nearly so, but is an optical illusion, because it actually goes uphill. Often false flats are part of a longer climb where the terrain before and after the false flat section is steeper. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with that climb and you’re struggling upward, seeing the false flat but not the continuing climb beyond it can deceive you into thinking you’ve reached the top, only to have your hopes dashed when you round the bend and are greeted with more steep climbing.
In a 2004 thread about false flats, someone identified only as “Treebound,” posted the following:
Your eyes tell you it’s flat, maybe even a little downhill,
Your heart hopes it’s flat, maybe with a little tailwind,
Your legs have their own opinion, and your lungs are in agreement,
a false flat is a hill in repose.
Yup. That’s true.
A false flat was part of my personal nemesis near where I lived in my early years as a road cyclist. It was a hill so nasty that I tackled it only when I wanted a measure of my hill-climbing conditioning, and it took me three seasons of attempts before I could reach the top without dismounting and walking the bike the last few hundred yards.
This particular hill was deceptive, because the first sight of it came while wheeling down a spectacular decline that allowed a good speed buildup. But, like an armed camp surrounded with land mines to deplete any force moving against it, this hill guarded itself with speed-sapping topography.
First, the entrance downgrade concluded with a tight “S” curve that forced me to slow down so as not to careen off the edge of the road. Then the road ascended a short but steep foothill; I was standing on the pedals by the time I topped that.
But the real killer — the final approach to the big slope — looked like a gentle downgrade, but it was actually a false flat. When meeting it for the first time, I relaxed a bit and tried coasting, but that led to my bike slowing significantly; I quickly realized that if I didn’t resume pedaling, I’d soon be rolling backward. I couldn’t figure out how such a substantial incline could look like it went down, but the result was that when I finally got through it and reached the big climb beyond, I’d lost absolutely all momentum.
It was in that tired, near standstill state that I tackled the final grade, a struggle of downshifting, grunting and copious perspiration.
If you want to get philosophical about this and apply the false-flat concept to other parts of your life, read the article at this link, which is subtitled “What Cycling Teaches Us About Resilience, Perseverance, and the Climb.”
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.