Cycling the Flats vs the Mountains

Who's really the winner?

I see a lot of people asking about going from Flat elevations to mountainous/hilly areas - then the lot of snarky comments about how riding the Flats is for pussies, real cyclists need elevation, etc. blah!

I moved to Tampa, Florida 24-months ago after being in Colorado Springs, Colorado for 23 years and I call bullshit! Here is my take.

I ride, Road, Cyclocross and MTB. I lived at 6,500 feet above sea level and my “home riding trails” typically started between 8-10,000ft with anywhere from 2-4,000ft of climbing (a lot for me). There were also times where I would be riding overpasses at 12-14,000 feet. I rode the plains out east with short rollercoaster type of climbs. Basically all different climbing types, but zero flats. While in Colorado 40-50+ mile rides with 2-4K of climbing were my normal weekend Road/CX rides. On the mountain bike, a 1,000 foot of climbing every 3-4 miles was as common as pine trees!

Wind, blah!

First, let’s get the “wind” aspect out of the way. Wind is wind and sucks no matter where you are. Wind has no relation to hills! Let me say that again, riding in the wind is NOT the same as rising up a hill! It seems to always be in your face and never at your back! It never stops, it pulsates and is loud, and that my friend, will suck the mental life right out of you.

All my friends said, “it’s all flat you’ll be able to ride hundreds of miles no problem!” Before I got here, I also thought the same thing. Nearly a year later, boy was that statement so wrong!

While coming from altitude did have its benefits, within 2 weeks that was all gone. Going from sea level to altitude is much harder as you’ll initially feel a huge difference in oxygen, but the body will acclimate rather quickly - typically within a couple of days.

Now let’s look at the physics: riding flat for long distances takes superb cardio. Mountains take strength. Two completely different body conditions. It’s that simple!

The Flats

On the flats, it does not take too much strength to start moving, but takes a lot of cardio to produce and deliver energy needed to keep moving! There are no “moving breaks” on the flats, so the body needs to sustain that supply of energy for the full duration of the ride, and that can be hours long. Your legs never stop moving, never get a break, ever!


Mountain/hills need muscle strength and sometimes lots of power, typically in short bursts followed by a recovery period. You climb then descend, many many times during a full ride. Some climbs might be short 5-10 minute bursts, some might be a 2,000-foot 7-mile grind, but there is always a recover descent on the other side.

Cadence is king, gearing for your riding style is the difference in success or failure for either. Fitness, fueling, training, and gearing for power is far different than for cardio! Personally, after 20 years in Colorado and now almost a year here in Florida - sustained Mountain Riding is much easier than the long-distance Flats! Apples for apples, the flats will kick your ass faster than the mountains!

Chris Sgaraglino

Over the past 37 years of my adult life, I have gained a very diverse portfolio of adventures from which I have been blessed to be a participant. This wealth of experience and knowledge has defined my character, my morals and values, and my healthy respect for people and the great outdoors. It is a true definition of an Outdoorsman!