THE MAG­NIF­I­CENT SEVEN

The au­thor of Cy­cling’s Great­est Climbs, Si­mon Warren tack­les the stu­pen­dous, ma­jes­tic, spec­tac­u­lar, bru­tal, re­lent­less gra­di­ent-rich event

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS -

Seven hill climb races in one 26-mile route around Sh­effield, is not for the faint-hearted. Si­mon Warren rides the Steel City’s sportive/hill climb mash-up.

Let’s get this out of the way, Sh­ef­frec CC’s Mag­nif­i­cent Seven is ar­guably the most en­joy­able and most painful cy­cling event in Bri­tain. Look­ing back on the en­dor­phin high in­duced by this year’s ex­pe­ri­ence, I can hon­estly say that the 2018 event re­in­forced the opin­ion I first formed over a year ago.

In March 2017 I en­tered what was the sec­ond edi­tion of the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven with­out re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to what was in store. I was due to be in Sh­effield to visit rel­a­tives and it looked like a fun way to spend a morn­ing on the bike – a short, 40km ride but packed with hills. Per­fect. What I didn’t read was that all the seven hills were to be raced up, each one from a stand­ing start – ef­fec­tively turn­ing the event into seven hill climbs.

A hill climb is some­thing you race once a week. You spend a week pre­par­ing for it and a week re­cov­er­ing from it; it’s not some­thing you ever do seven times in one day. All of a sud­den some­thing I’d as­sumed would be quite ca­sual was go­ing to be deadly se­ri­ous, so out came my best bike and my best wheels. The event turned out to be very hard but the over­whelm­ing thing I took away from it was just how much fun it had been. The at­mos­phere, the crowds and the for­mat had all come to­gether to cre­ate one of the best days on a bike I’d ever had.

Amer­i­can­in­flu­ence

In­spired by the Pitts­burgh Dirty Dozen (see op­po­site page), the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven is named as such be­cause Sh­effield is fa­mously built on seven hills. The event takes place in early March as part of the an­nual Out­door City week­end, which pro­motes ac­tiv­i­ties across the city and nearby Peak Dis­trict.

It’s or­gan­ised by Marc Etches, the very heart­beat of the lo­cal cy­cling scene and a man with so much on the go you some­times think there must be more than one of him. Each year he tweaks the route to make it harder and for 2018, he’d de­cided to start things off out­side the city in the beau­ti­ful, quintessen­tially York­shire vil­lage of Low Brad­field. Nes­tled in the cen­tre of The Strines, bike-racing fans may recog­nise the name as the 2014 Tour de France passed through the very same vil­lage, so we’d be racing over hal­lowed ground.

Although the start and fin­ish of 2018’s race were dif­fer­ent, many of the climbs from 2017’s route were back again, in­clud­ing the in­tensely short and steep Blake Street, the ran­dom chaos of the cob­bled Fern Street and the sadis­tic gra­di­ent of Hagg Lane.

There was a mix­ture of emo­tions in the vil­lage hall dur­ing the rider brief­ing. Those who had rid­den the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven be­fore were start­ing to ques­tion why they were here again and those rid­ing it for the first time were full of fear and trep­i­da­tion. As the first climb of the day, Mill Lee Road rose di­rectly out of Low Brad­field, Marc had built a brief warm up into the route: a loop of the Dam­flask Reser­voir.

The 130-rider field was split into three groups: young men first, women sec­ond, then us vet­er­ans bring­ing up the rear.

As we sat at the base of Mill Lee Road, we watched the young­sters sprint off up the nasty-look­ing slope. The women were next to go and then it was our turn. It had all been friendly chit chat on our warm-up lap but now a deathly quiet had de­scended.

From the gun, James Allen (aged 40 and in his come­back sea­son) set the pace, a pace we

all tried to fol­low, but failed. There was to be no easy in­tro­duc­tion, no gen­tle begin­ning and within 100m sud­denly it was real and painful. The pal­try warm-up had done noth­ing to pre­pare my body for this, I’d not rid­den a bike up­hill this hard since the pre­vi­ous Oc­to­ber. The shock was like jump­ing into a freez­ing ocean. With James forg­ing ahead, the fol­low­ing line of gasp­ing and wheez­ing rid­ers rounded the first cor­ner. One spec­ta­tor of­fered an en­cour­ag­ing “Nearly there!” But even though we were now strug­gling to breathe, we found enough oxy­gen to turn and shout, “No we’re not! We aren’t even half­way yet!”

Like last year, the first climb set the tone, sep­a­rated the pack and placed the rid­ers in a rough peck­ing order that would con­tinue through the morn­ing. James, show­ing his class, reached the top first with the rest of us fol­low­ing a few wheels apart and me tak­ing sixth. The line could not come soon enough. It was agony and there were six more races to come…

Breath­ingspace

At the top of each climb we re­grouped, hunch­ing over our bars and cough­ing up our lungs. But faces that, mo­ments be­fore were con­torted with ef­fort, soon broke into smiles and laugh­ter. 130 rid­ers pumped full of en­dor­phins make for a jolly crowd and on the wave of this nat­u­ral high, we be­gan the jour­ney to the sec­ond climb.

And here was where the next fan­tas­tic fea­ture of the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven came to the fore. To get us safely from venue to venue was a team of Na­tional Es­cort Group out­rid­ers, the sort that usu­ally top and tail events like the Tour of Bri­tain. Not only were each of the hills closed to traf­fic, but we were also ex­pertly shep­herded be­tween them and through the city by an ar­mada of lead cars and high-vis jack­ets.

Climb num­ber two, com­ing a lot ear­lier than the pre­vi­ous year, was 2018’s ‘Queen stage’: the in­fa­mous Hagg Hill. For those of you un­fa­mil­iar with its par­cours, it rears up from the main road di­rectly to 20 per cent, then sticks to that gra­di­ent for close to 500m. If you go too deep up the first part of the climb to the wicked cor­ner, you’ll die a thou­sand deaths when it turns abruptly right onto Bole Hill Road. Which is why, even on this cold day, it was packed with scream­ing spec­ta­tors, all wait­ing to wit­ness the pain. Once around the cor­ner though,

“IT HAD ALL BEEN FRIENDLY CHIT CHAT ON OUR WARM-UP LAP BUT NOW A DE AT HLY QUIET HAD DE­SCENDED”

“A RIDER EX­PLODED PAST ME. I COULDN’ T RE­ACT BUT THEN HE SUD­DENLY SLOWED, HE’D POPPED”

you’re still a long way from the fin­ish and it’s a hideous grind up the mul­ti­ple changes in gra­di­ent to the even­tual sum­mit of this se­ri­ously tough climb.

At the top you could taste the re­lief of get­ting that one out of the way. But we were only two climbs down, there were an­other five to go and next up was the stupidly steep Blake Street. This is a pure power climb, re­quir­ing an ef­fort that I’m sim­ply not ca­pa­ble of, a 1000 watt ex­plo­sion of force from its base to the rowdy lo­cals pour­ing out of the pub at the top. And yes, the pints were flow­ing at 9.30am! I tried to make amends for my poor ef­fort from the year be­fore and got my­self right to the front. It didn’t help, I just don’t have the brute force needed for this one and turned into an al­most sta­tion­ary ob­sta­cle for other rid­ers to pass.

Next up, and still in the heart of the city, was the joint peril of Fern Road and Thrush Street with its dreaded cob­bles. Like Blake Street, this short com­bi­na­tion has to be rid­den at full gas right from the base, first on the smooth tar­mac, then through the dou­ble bends as you hit the stones. Do you stay seated for more trac­tion or get out of the sad­dle to put more power down? Nei­ther seemed to be the an­swer as I bounced left and right in my fu­ri­ous at­tempt to keep mov­ing for­ward. This climb had the best crowds of all, the roads lined ei­ther side with hordes of scream­ing fans all lov­ing the spec­ta­cle. No mat­ter how much it hurts, it’s an awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence just to ride.

Fol­low­ing this was climb five, Birch House Av­enue, which I felt good on. But, to be hon­est, this climb was on no one’s radar. It was sim­ply a tran­si­tion to the hor­ror that was wait­ing on Back Lane. I’d checked out Back Lane two days be­fore and hadn’t slept since. What was wait­ing for us was close to a kilo­me­tre set on an av­er­age gra­di­ent of 12 per cent. In short, a beast.

Flat-out­fun?

The pelo­ton was all laughs and gig­gles be­tween climbs but ev­ery time it ap­proached the base of the next one it went strangely quiet. One by one, rid­ers would start zip­ping up the out­side to gain po­si­tion, grad­u­ally in­creas­ing the pace, and with­out re­al­is­ing it you’d sud­denly find your­self in the red be­fore you’d even reached the climb. It felt like proper racing.

Those who knew the route knew how nar­row Back Lane is and that po­si­tion­ing would be key. The same pro­tag­o­nists set the pace, while each rider be­hind strug­gled to hold the wheel in front. At one point, a rider ex­ploded past me. I couldn’t re­act but then he sud­denly slowed. He’d popped, so I started to grad­u­ally reel him in. The fin­ish, along with the ubiq­ui­tous crowd on the brow, was in sight, close enough to touch, but still far away. I’d burned a whole box of matches to pull that rider back and now I was toast. I glanced be­hind and there was day­light be­tween me and the next rider, my con­sis­tent neme­sis Jon Wild. But that day­light was clos­ing. I had to dig in again if I was go­ing to beat him on this one. I glanced back once more. Damn it, he was clos­ing fast! I mus­tered what passed for a sprint but his mo­men­tum was too much and he pipped me to the line, an­other place and an­other point lost.

By now the sum­mit of each climb be­gan to re­sem­ble a scene from a war film with the grass verges cov­ered in bro­ken bod­ies and scream­ing limbs. We were all near­ing the edge, but there was still one more climb to go: the ‘fa­mous’ Cote de Brad­field.

On the ap­proach, as we plum­meted down into High Brad­field, it was clear that those at the front knew where and how the climb was to start. As the de­scent bot­tomed out the road im­me­di­ately banked left and kicked back up to over 20 per cent. The chains clat­tered to­wards the larger sprock­ets as every­one gave it all they had to tackle the early bends. At this point, half of you wants to rel­ish ev­ery re­main­ing sec­ond of the event but the other half just can’t wait for it to end. You can see the sum­mit from about mid­way up the climb, with the crowd of fin­ished and elated rid­ers mass­ing just past the line. I started at a mod­er­ate pace, then as I started to catch rid­ers I gave it some more gas. Once clear of them and af­ter a glance be­hind I as­sumed my po­si­tion was safe. A fur­ther glance back told me it wasn’t. A rider was clos­ing in on me so I had to push again. I had to push all the way to the fin­ish line and I had noth­ing left when I crossed it, but he didn’t catch me.

What an ex­pe­ri­ence! My poor legs. My poor body. Ten days af­ter mov­ing house and re­lo­cat­ing to Sh­effield, dur­ing the worst weather Bri­tain has seen for a gen­er­a­tion, I was more than happy with my re­sult: sev­enth vet. There could be no bet­ter start to my life rid­ing around the city than this. I urge you all to try the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven once. If you can get a en­try ( the­out­doorcity. co.uk), you’ll never for­get it.

Keep breath­ing, keep pedalling, keep the bike up­right

A mo­ment of quiet while the rid­ers pon­der the next hill

Left Si­mon Warren gri­maces his way up an­other gra­di­ent

Right Ex­pect road­side sup­port on ev­ery climb

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