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
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.”
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