HILL CLIMB HE­ROES

AS TEM­PER­A­TURES DROP, FOR MANY THEIR THOUGHTS TURN TO HILL CLIMB SEA­SON. SO LET THE TOR­TURE BE­GIN AND THE AGONY COM­MENCE…

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS - WORDS: JOE NORLEDGE | IM­AGES: MATT GRAYSON

One of the most niche - and dis­tinctly Bri­tish - scenes in bike rac­ing is hill climb sea­son. Our man, Joe Norledge, gives us the low­down on a sport where pain is plea­sure

FOR MOST CY­CLISTS, the months of Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber rep­re­sent gen­tle tran­si­tions from sum­mer events and rac­ing. To more masochis­tic rid­ers, Septem­ber means the start of pain, hill reps and ob­ses­sion over the weight of body and bike. Wel­come to the Bri­tish hill climb scene, a happy (some would say strange) band of like-minded in­di­vid­u­als, of which I’m a fully paid-up mem­ber.

The con­cept is sim­ple, find a hill and ride up as fast as you can. This has been go­ing on since the 1920s form­ing a vi­brant, al­beit niche, scene. Names such as Syd­ney, Danger­field and Hen­der­son sit along­side venues such as The Rake, Dovers and Jackson Bridge. You may not have heard of them, but to a hill climb fa­natic, these names and lo­ca­tions hold as much sway as Wig­gins, Ar­mit­stead and Alpe d’Huez.

Rid­ers set off at one-minute in­ter­vals and the quick­est time wins – like any other time trial. Within this sim­plic­ity, lies an all-en­com­pass­ing bru­tal ef­fort I’ve found isn’t repli­cated in any other form of cy­cling. The sea­son may be short, but it leaves a last­ing im­pres­sion.

SEA­SON OPENERS

Bar a cou­ple of Au­gust skir­mishes, the hill climb sea­son starts in Septem­ber. It’s the first chance to see old friends/ri­vals from sea­sons past and ar­riv­ing at the car park brings ner­vous glances at lean rid­ers and feath­er­weight bikes.

The chat is fa­mil­iar, “how light’s that bike, mate?” “Been train­ing much?” And the an­swers are nearly al­ways the same, “not sure, haven’t weighed it yet” and “I’ve done a bit, but not as much as I’d like”. Ba­si­cally ev­ery­one’s keep­ing their pow­der dry. It sounds very com­pet­i­tive, but it’s not, there’s a dis­tinct lack of egos in hill climbs.

Per­haps it’s down to the set­ting. The head­quar­ters is nearly al­ways a vil­lage hall, with tea and cakes for 50p. Events are or­gan­ised by lo­cal clubs and vol­un­teers do­ing it for the love of the sport. Cou­pled with an en­try fee of around £10, I doubt you’d find a more af­ford­able way to get your gurn on. Or­gan­iser and rider Tony Kiss echoes this sen­ti­ment.

“I re­ally en­joyed or­gan­is­ing my first hill climb this year. It’s great to give a lit­tle back to the sport, the com­ments and feed­back were fan­tas­tic.”

The hill climb com­mu­nity is also ex­tremely di­verse, with rid­ers find­ing their way in through a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines. “Be­tween hill climb sea­sons I com­pete in a bit of ev­ery­thing. Duathlon and mountain bik­ing through the win­ter, road rac­ing and time tri­als in the sum­mer,” keen hill climber Jo Jago says.

Age is no bar­rier ei­ther, with many rid­ers over 60 com­pet­ing on the same course as the teenagers. Women are well rep­re­sented in hill climb­ing too, so you could never ac­cuse the sport of be­ing elit­ist or ex­clu­sive. I’ve even seen some­one rid­ing

in heavy work boots, cot­ton shorts and a heavy shirt. It’s safe to say most stick to Ly­cra.

INTO THE GROOVE

By Oc­to­ber the sea­son hits its groove. Au­tumn leaves lit­ter the steep climbs, ready to catch out any rider who pumped their rear tyre up too hard with the dreaded wheel slip.

Whether you’re there to win or sim­ply do your best time, a peck­ing or­der has been es­tab­lished. Rid­ers know roughly where they should fin­ish and are aim­ing at a rider that was just in front of them the week be­fore. It’s not about vic­tory or glory, but see­ing small plac­ing gains and im­prove­ment earned from all that hard work. “I think it’s all about the sense of push­ing your­self as hard as you can and hav­ing some­thing to com­pare your­self to,” says Ox­ford CC’s An­gus Fisk.

The fact is hill climbs are a bat­tle in the mind. There are few tac­tics and not many vari­ables; it boils down to how hard you’ve worked and how much you can hurt.

Mid-sea­son brings the shorter events that draw big crowds. Most well known are the Cat­ford/Bec dou­ble header in Lon­don and Mon­sal in the Peak District. Both climbs are bru­tally short, com­ing in well un­der two min­utes.

Crowds get whipped up into a frenzy see­ing rid­ers on the edge of pain and suf­fer­ing. For the rider, the ex­pe­ri­ence is fleet­ing, but gives a taste of what it’s like to be a cham­pion. Tony Kiss sums it up: “The sup­port rac­ing a hill climb re­ally helps and is our lit­tle slice of what it must feel like for pros rid­ing the Tour de France.”

But rider be­ware, the bay­ing crowds can in­voke poor pac­ing and the blow-up. One minute you’re rid­ing great, suf­fer­ing badly, but right on the limit. Then you hit the cheer­ing crowd and it all goes wrong. You be­gin sprint­ing, but there’s still 200m to go. Your face goes numb and your arms feel weak. There’s sim­ply not enough oxy­gen left in your body and you end up drib­bling across the line in a semi-co­her­ent state won­der­ing why you do it. For the crowd, it’s both hi­lar­i­ous and bril­liant, who doesn’t like see­ing some­one painfully gurn­ing their way up a 25 per cent ramp?

Rid­ing up hill fast is about max­imis­ing power while min­imis­ing weight, so hill climbers be­come ob­sessed about shav­ing ev­ery last gram off their bike. Go to any event and you’ll find mod­i­fied ma­chines that dip way un­der the UCI’s 6.8kg limit. The most com­mon mods are saw­ing bars, re­mov­ing parts and rid­ing fixed. If it’s le­gal

“Then it all goes wrong. You be­gin sprint­ing, but there’s still 200m to go. Your face goes numb and your arms feel weak”

and might make a bike a tad lighter, a hill climber will have tried it. Per­haps the most ex­treme mod I’ve heard of is cut­ting brake blocks in half, sav­ing a few grams. Sure the bike would be dan­ger­ously slow stop­ping, but it’s go­ing up­hill, right; a mar­ginal gain even Team Sky would be proud of.

END OF THE AF­FAIR

The sea­son cul­mi­nates in the na­tional cham­pi­onships on the last week­end in Oc­to­ber. Ev­ery rider brings their A game – there’s no point in hold­ing back, as come Sun­day night you’ll be fin­ished and all that lies ahead is a long win­ter of dark nights.

Rid­ers try to peak for this day. Al­though tired from the long sea­son they must be ready to give it their all one last time be­fore get­ting back to a nor­mal life. Like many com­peti­tors, I felt that way in 2016.

This year the na­tion­als were on Bank Road in Mat­lock. It makes a great cham­pi­onship course: steep, av­er­ag­ing 14 per cent, with a town cen­tre lo­ca­tion en­cour­ag­ing a huge crowd. Be­ing short, around 2.5–3 min­utes long, it re­quires to­tal com­mit­ment to­wards lac­tate obliv­ion.

Know­ing what you’re about to in­flict on your body when the mar­shal says 15 sec­onds makes your adren­a­line spike, but at least it will be over soon and you can lie on the floor/be sick/cry or all three.

It passes in a blur of noise and colour. I re­mem­ber lit­tle but peo­ple shout­ing and an un­re­lent­ing fo­cus on main­tain­ing the gut-wrench­ing ef­fort. It’s a cliché, but those last 30 sec­onds seem to last for­ever.

The scene past the fin­ish is strangely calm. Many rid­ers are quite un­steady and have to be helped off their bikes. They hit the deck and start retch­ing; gulp­ing in lung­fuls of air.

Once it’s over most rid­ers look for­ward to the treats they’ve been de­priv­ing them­selves for the last few months. “I tend to go into a full-on cho­co­late coma for about seven days and make sure I get out with friends for a dirty curry and a few beers.” says for­mer na­tional cham­pion Dan Evans. “Suf­fice to say I don’t touch the bike for at least two weeks.”

Talk of cho­co­late co­mas may sound full on, but I’m ex­actly the same and had a big cake waiting for me af­ter the race. It’s funny how much plea­sure you can de­rive from the prom­ise of sug­ary goods.

In a time when cy­cling is be­ing her­alded as the new golf, the hill climb scene stands out as a purely am­a­teur pur­suit with a quintessen­tially Bri­tish style.

It’s a low-key af­fair propped up by the love of the sport, not money. And per­haps that’s the rea­son hill climbs are boom­ing, with com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors alike com­ing to watch peo­ple turn them­selves in­side out all in the name of fun. It sounds weird and it is, even for cy­cling; I think Dan Evans puts it best: “It’s a raw ef­fort, the purest of all maybe and the re­sults can be spec­tac­u­lar. Faces crum­pled in pain, rid­ers gasp­ing for air and col­laps­ing as they cross the fin­ish line all un­der the gaze of the en­thu­si­as­tic spec­ta­tors just inches away from the ac­tion. What’s not to like?”

The brick means there’s no slip­ping and no turn­ing back!

The only way re­ally is up…

Joe gives it full beans on his 4.8kg bike from Bris­tol’s En­gi­neered Bi­cy­cles

The lone­li­ness of the hill-climb­ing cy­clist…

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