Colin Sturgess tack­les the Na­tional Hill-climb Champs

Former road and track star Colin Sturgess lined up for his first ever Na­tional Hill-climb Cham­pi­onships last week — here’s how he got on

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - Words: Chris Mar­shall-bell Pho­tos: Chris Auld, Andy Jones

It’s cold, a proper au­tum­nal day; blue skies, but brac­ing tem­per­a­tures. Leaves are scat­tered on the floor, and the ones still hang­ing onto their branches are rapidly fad­ing in colour.

While most bike rid­ers are en­joy­ing the off-sea­son, the last Sun­day in Oc­to­ber is the cul­mi­na­tion of six weeks of hill­climbs: the Na­tional Cham­pi­onships.

Among the 240 rider-long start list at Hed­ley-on-the-hill, Northum­ber­land, are favourites Dan Evans and de­fend­ing cham­pion Adam Ken­way, but fur­ther up the or­der is a no less il­lus­tri­ous name, Colin Sturgess.

A one-time track world cham­pion, former British road race cham­pion and cur­rent di­recteur sportif with British team Madi­son-gen­e­sis, Sturgess is tak­ing part in his maiden Na­tional Hill-climb Cham­pi­onship at the age of 48. In fact, it’s his third ever hill-climb. “My last one was in 1987,” he chuck­les.

A quick ques­tion, Colin: why? “I’ve never done it be­fore and I’m not go­ing to be able to race much next year when I am Madi­son-gen­e­sis DS, so I thought, why not?”

Prepar­ing for pain

Even though he hasn’t pre­pared specif­i­cally, hasn’t rid­den a hill in recce or anger, his form is good. “I’ve done a few 10s, a few Na­tional Bs and I’ve just come back from the Ma­jorca Masters Week,” he ex­plains.

“I found that I wasn’t go­ing too badly on the climbs, but the big­ger stuff didn’t suit me. Some­thing like this, a power climb, some­thing un­der five min­utes, I’m pretty good on.”

Un­for­tu­nately for the York­shire­man, who now boasts an Aus­tralian twang — cour­tesy of liv­ing Down Un­der for over 10 years when he mixed cy­cling with wine mak­ing — ill­ness has crept up on him. It’s why we speak in his car, out of the cold. It’s go­ing to hin­der his ef­forts, he fears.

“It’s a heavy cold and with­out it, and know­ing I lift my­self for im­por­tant events, I think I could have got top 20,” he con­fides.

He’s a hill-climb novice but he’s seen the pic­tures and read the tales. “If you can’t hurt your­self for a few min­utes, you shouldn’t be rid­ing Na­tional Cham­pi­onships. I just hope I’m not com­pletely cross-eyed at the fin­ish!”

He pins his num­bers on and laughs when the pho­tog­ra­pher points out the fig­ure: 100. Sturgess quips: “I just hope I fin­ish higher than this!”

Great weight de­bate

Sturgess is us­ing Madi­son-gen­e­sis rider Alex Blain’s team-is­sue train­ing bike, with the only tweak be­ing the re­moved bot­tle cages.

A rider nearby is talk­ing to a spec­ta­tor about his weight-sav­ing tac­tics, ex­am­in­ing his seat, which is rid­dled with dozens of holes. “I got a bit trig­ger-happy with the drill,” the rider laughs.

Sturgess, look­ing on en­vi­ously, loves those kinds of an­tics. “Peo­ple are push­ing the sport to the edge of tech, try­ing to get su­perlight bikes and chop­ping things down. That’s ex­cit­ing,” he says.

But he adds a counter-point, one that rarely gets space to breathe amid all the car­bon-shred­ding and paint re­moval: “I could have done more to my body than I could have to my bike. I could have saved a

“If you can’t hurt your­self for a few min­utes, you shouldn’t ride the Na­tion­als”

kilo­gram on the bike, but if I re­ally wanted to do some­thing in this event I could have lost an­other two to four ki­los.”

The fi­nal count­down

His warm-up done, Sturgess is on the start line. A time­keeper to his left counts down the sec­onds. A man be­hind is keep­ing him propped up against a rock, no doubt found in a nearby bush.

To his right, a por­ta­ble toi­let, , com­plete with an­other com­peti­tor chuck­ing up their lunch. It’s a lit­tle less glam­orous than the Lyon velo­drome where he won the in­di­vid­ual pur­suit World Cham­pi­onship in 1989 but the count­down is the same. “Ten, nine, eight,” the time­keeper calmly calls out. “Three, two, one.” He’s off.

His own pre­ride thoughts are ring­ing in his ears: “I can’t get too ex­cited at the start, not go too deep too early. In 10s I al­ways go out far too hard. It’s some­thing I used to do as an 18-year-old; I can’t do it to­day.”

The road ramps up, with chalk mark­ings in­form­ing him there are just “1,542m to go”. A few pedal strokes later, past the first fans, the chalk en­cour­ages him to “smile”.

The climb shal­lows, and then it swings to the left. “Yes, it hurts,” the road can­didly of­fers. But Sturgess isn’t in a world of pain.

“I went off the ramp and was rel­a­tively steady un­til the first kicker and I thought, ‘I’m not go­ing fast enough here.’ It flat­tened out, I booted into a 53x15 gear, into the next ramp, think­ing I had to make time up for a slow start.”

He swings around the first hair­pin, in and out of the tree cover and through a fe­ro­ciously en­thu­si­as­tic crowd. “I come around the cor­ner and the sound of the crowd is phe­nom­e­nal,”

“I can’t get too ex­cited at the start. I did that when I was 18. I can’t do it to­day”

he re­flects. “The com­men­ta­tor is there and it’s, ‘Ph­woah.’”

A wolf, a devil, a di­nosaur and two men in mank­i­nis roar him on. “Up, up, up,” the crowd scream. The com­men­ta­tor an­nounces Sturgess’s pres­ence, over the ca­coph­ony of pop mu­sic, cow­bells and drums.

“There was a bloke run­ning along­side me with a horn shout­ing, ‘Hey, come on!’ I haven’t seen this since I was rac­ing in France,” Sturgess later re­flects. “You pick up and feed off the vibe of the crowd. It’s phe­nom­e­nal.”

Red alert

But by this point Sturgess is strug­gling. “I put my­self in the red,” he says after he strug­gles to the top, record­ing a time of 4:35.3, plac­ing him 46th fastest and 41 sec­onds slower than win­ner Evans.

“I should have lis­tened to my­self,” he as­sesses, pant­ing with ex­haus­tion at the top of the climb that over­looks Northum­ber­land and Ty­ne­side. “I do it ev­ery time, get geed up at the bot­tom.”

It’s a prob­lem he rarely had in his track ca­reer, where he had a rep­u­ta­tion for late surges in the pur­suit rather than stick­ing to more con­ven­tional even pac­ing.

I’ll be back

What has he learned to­day? “It’s ex­pe­ri­ence, isn’t it,” Sturgess says. “Not hav­ing rid­den many hill-climbs at this level, you for­get the ba­sics, which are not to put your­self in the red too early!”

There is a bonus, though: rider 101, young Thomas Heighton, didn’t catch him. The young­ster an­nounces that he was promised a Col­nago if he caught Sturgess. “You should have said,” Sturgess tells him. “I would have slowed down!”

Next year’s Na­tion­als is a steeper un­der­tak­ing, a two-anda-half-minute ef­fort at Shel­s­ley Moor. Will Sturgess be back? “Def­i­nitely. It’s magic, isn’t it? If I can get five or six ki­los off, I can be in with a shout of some­thing like this.” He’s se­ri­ous, too.

“The sound is phe­nom­e­nal. You pick up and feed off the vibe of the crowd”

The strain shows after the ef­fort

Get­ting ready for the big push

It starts to get real when you col­lect your num­ber Sturgess uses the clas­sic num­ber pin­ning tech­nique A look of de­ter­mi­na­tion as he un­racks his bike

Colin Sturgess in­ter­view, p22

Last shout: Sturgess comes scream­ing up the hill

100 and knocked out: the legs be­gin to fade

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