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