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