How to nail a hill-climb

Oliver Bridge­wood ex­plains how he honed his train­ing, body and bike to pre­pare him­self for an as­sault on the UK hill-climb sea­son

Cycling Weekly - - Contents -

ill-climbs are a dis­tinctly British tra­di­tion. It’s a dis­ci­pline that sim­ply doesn’t ex­ist in any other ma­jor cy­cling na­tion. If you tried to ex­plain to an Ital­ian the logic be­hind driv­ing four hours to ride a one-minute up­hill time trial, he’d as­sume you were try­ing to crack an un­trans­lat­able joke. Only in Bri­tain, with our love of ec­cen­tric­ity, could it be con­sid­ered per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate to put on a spread of cakes and treats wor­thy of the Bake

Off fi­nal at events where lean­ness is a pre­req­ui­site for suc­cess.

I de­cided to throw my­self into the quirky sub­cul­ture of hill-climb­ing this sea­son and probe its ap­peal. For many peo­ple, the idea of turn­ing your­self in­side-out with a lung­bust­ing ef­fort up a bru­tally steep climb in au­tum­nal British weather at 9am on a Sun­day is the op­po­site of fun. But I wanted to ex­plore what it takes to suc­ceed in these in­tense events. If I stopped eat­ing cake, got a mega-light bike and trained like a pro, could I go from zero to hero? Prob­a­bly not, I thought, but let’s give it a go any­way.

The bike

With­out the con­straints of the 6.8kg UCI weight limit, mak­ing your bike as light as pos­si­ble is an es­sen­tial and fun part of hill-climb­ing. Con­tes­tants metic­u­lously make ev­ery in­con­ceiv­able weight wee­nie sav­ing on their equip­ment. In the days of steel frames, rid­ers would joke that their bikes were made of ‘drillium’ — ev­ery­thing be­ing so full of drilled holes. Nowa­days, with car­bon fi­bre, that’s not so easy.

The cul­ture of mod­i­fy­ing bikes re­mains a large part of the sport’s unique ap­peal. Sim­i­lar to the Hot Rod or boy racer cul­ture in mo­tor­ing, mod­i­fy­ing your steed and dis­cussing mod­i­fi­ca­tions is all part of the fun. For my bike build, I started with a Can­non­dale Su­per Six Evo Hi-mod Black Inc frame­set weigh­ing roughly 800g for the frame and 290g for the fork. To save weight, we sent the frame to Fat Cre­ations, who painstak­ingly re­moved the paint and re­placed it with a thin, clear lac­quer. This re­sulted in a beau­ti­ful fin­ish that not only re­vealed the in­tri­cate car­bon layup, but also saved 130g, a sur­pris­ing amount of weight.

Fixed-wheel ma­chines are com­mon in hill-climb­ing, as fewer com­po­nents means less weight. I have never rid­den fixed and I am a novice hill-climber, so de­cided to stick with gears. Free­wheel ma­chines are re­quired to have front and rear brakes, so in or­der to save weight, I opted for Jag Wire hous­ings and EE Cy­cle­works brakes, which at 162g a pair are less than half the weight of Dura-ace.

Tak­ing cues from ex­ist­ing hill-climb ma­chines, I opted for a sin­gle chain­ring. SRAM etap is not de­signed as a sin­gler­ing groupset, but it does work, and chain drop is avoided by us­ing a nar­row wide front chain­ring with longer teeth.

Some rid­ers opt for bull­horn style bars and use TT style shifters. Though this can save weight, I much pre­fer the shape, feel and er­gonomics of a con­ven­tional shifter, so I stuck with what I knew. In an act of au­da­cious deca­dence, though, I did chop the drops off my bars, which saved around 40g. For power mea­sure­ment, I opted for a 4iiii pre­ci­sion me­ter fit­ted to the non-drive side crank. The ad­van­tage of this me­ter is that it weighs just 9g.

Light­weight pro­vided the wheels, which came in at un­der a kilo­gram a pair; the firm in­sisted we opt for the Meilen­stein be­cause of its ex­cel­lent stiff­ness.

What was the bike like to ride?

Rid­ing a bike that is around three ki­los lighter than you’re used to is a rev­e­la­tion. The faster ac­cel­er­a­tion off the line is par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able. I was wor­ried that such a light build would feel twitchy and want to wheelie all the time, but I had no such is­sues. The com­bi­na­tion of Can­non­dale frame, cranks and light­weight wheels made for an in­cred­i­bly stiff pack­age that felt very ef­fi­cient even when I was push­ing out rel­a­tively high torque and power over short ef­forts.

In fact, I couldn’t fault the bike in any way. It rode even better than it looked. Of course, with such a bike came added pres­sure to per­form. There was now a very real dan­ger that I could turn up and be ‘all the gear, no idea… Great bike, shame about the rider’ etc.


As a hill-climb novice, I en­listed the help of Matt Clin­ton of Clin­ter­val Coach­ing. He’s a former na­tional cham­pion of the dis­ci­pline and, given the depth of his hill-climb­ing knowl­edge, he would be, I hoped, the Yoda to my Luke Sky­walker. Clin­ton pre­scribed very spe­cific train­ing that was to­tally dif­fer­ent to the time trial, road rac­ing and long-dis­tance train­ing I was used to. Qual­ity over quan­tity was the mantra he in­sisted on, set­ting me short ses­sions of around an hour with killer in­ter­vals, de­signed to build strength, burn fat and in­crease my VO2 max. Ta­bata in­ter­vals, rid­ing 20 sec­onds flat-out fol­lowed by 10 sec­onds rest, were a sta­ple — eight of those of­ten left me feel­ing sick.

The train­ing fol­lowed a pat­tern of al­ter­nat­ing hard days with easy days. On the easy days, I would gen­er­ally just do an easy com­mute or cake-less cafe rides in Z2. This ap­proach worked well for me and I found my­self re­cov­er­ing well for sub­se­quent hard ses­sions. With work and other com­mit­ments, I in­evitably missed the oc­ca­sional ses­sion, but on the whole I stuck to the plan as best I could. One­hour qual­ity ses­sions on a turbo are much eas­ier to fit in, com­pared to long en­durance rides. Clin­ton was also able to help me with lots of other bits of wis­dom re­lated to warm­ing up, gear­ing, tyre pres­sure and pac­ing on spe­cific climbs.

Diet and nutrition

Hav­ing a 4.8kg su­per­bike is great, but com­pletely point­less if you are de­mol­ish­ing pas­tries, ice cream and pies on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. In a bid to lose some body fat, I de­cided to en­hance my diet by once again call­ing on Per­for­mance Chef, AKA Alan Murchi­son, who’d ear­lier in the year helped me break 50 min­utes for the 25-mile TT.

The nu­tri­tional de­mands of Clin­ton’s hill-climb­ing regime were like noth­ing I’d ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore. The vol­ume was much lower, but the in­ten­sity far higher. Con­se­quently, far fewer carbs were re­quired, ex­cept ahead of tough ses­sions. Murchi­son sug­gested strate­gies and meal op­tions, to make sure I had the req­ui­site carbs for my train­ing but also plenty of va­ri­ety and pro­tein for re­cov­ery.

Quick but in­ter­est­ing and tasty meals were the name of the day, such as tuna Niçoise salad and Murchi­son’s take on a petit pois à la Française (ba­si­cally fried salmon with peas and let­tuce). Ev­ery meal was adapt­able, al­low­ing me to

“There was now a very real dan­ger I could turn up and be ‘all the gear, and no idea’”

tweak the carb-load ac­cord­ing to my train­ing load. Need more carbs? Add pota­toes. Need greater sati­ety with­out too many more carbs? Just fill up on veg­eta­bles. I also avoided tak­ing on ex­cess salt to avoid wa­ter re­ten­tion and un­nec­es­sary weight on race day.

At the start of the process I was 70kg. By the end, I was at 67.5kg with­out any loss of power. That said, the temp­ta­tion to rip into the Jaffa cakes or de­mol­ish a slice of pizza ran high at times, and stick­ing to a monk-like diet wasn’t easy. Nat­u­rally I al­lowed my­self some treats, so per­haps I could have lost an­other kilo or so — am­a­teur life got in the way.

Putting it into prac­tice

On start­ing my hill-climb cam­paign, I de­cided to do a range of dis­tances, as I wasn’t sure which would suit me best. Hav­ing had de­cent re­sults in open time tri­als this year, I was hop­ing to get a few top-10s. How­ever, I quickly re­alised that hill-climbs are ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive and bru­tally hard. Harder than I’d thought. The stan­dard is high and the mar­gins be­tween places are of­ten less than a se­cond. See­ing just how quick the best rid­ers fly up short hills is hum­bling, and awe-in­spir­ing.

With such small time gaps be­tween plac­ings, my tech­nique and pac­ing were cru­cial. I learnt this les­son the hard way up Mam Nick on Oc­to­ber 7, in the Rut­land CC Open Hill-climb. I blasted off from the start line up to my eye­balls in caf­feine and adren­a­line. Thirty sec­onds in, I glanced at my power me­ter and saw an av­er­age of over 600W. My en­thu­si­asm, ex­cite­ment and op­ti­mism had got the better of me. I re­mem­ber think­ing, “I feel great to­day, I can to­tally hold this!” Of course, I’d gone off far too hard, av­er­ag­ing 524W for the first minute, soon rack­ing up se­ri­ous oxy­gen debt, and the rest of the climb was hor­ri­ble; all I could do was crawl to the top while watch­ing my av­er­age power drop lower and lower. It was all I could do to muster 305W for the fi­nal minute as I was passed by my min­ute­man, Paddy Clarke. Slightly spar­ing my blushes, Clarke won the event, smash­ing the course record in the process. Cha­peau Paddy! Over­all I fin­ished 23rd.

I per­se­vered, tak­ing part in events ev­ery week­end through Oc­to­ber. Clin­ton’s train­ing was go­ing well, and each week I was see­ing power PBS. On Oc­to­ber 22, I took part in the Belper BC hill-climb up Holly Lane, and de­stroyed my­self over the four-minute climb that av­er­ages 12 per cent. The reign­ing na­tional cham­pion, Adam Ken­way, smashed my time by over 40 sec­onds, but I was sat­is­fied to have pushed harder than ever be­fore. Reach­ing the top with the taste of iron in my mouth, I fin­ished 10th — and felt de­lighted. I even got my name in the CW re­sults pages!

My fi­nal event of the sea­son would be the Sus­sex No­mads HC up Ditch­ling Bea­con on Oc­to­ber 29 (I’d have liked to take part in the Na­tion­als but missed the en­try dead­line through school­boy er­ror). Prior to the hill-climb sea­son, I’d rid­den up the Bea­con full-gas to see what I could do. My best time then, weigh­ing 72kg on a 7kg bike, was 5:17, with an av­er­age

power of 395W and av­er­age heart rate of 182bpm. What could I do on a 4.8kg bike, hav­ing shed some body fat and trained specif­i­cally? I was keen to find out.

A top-10 plac­ing was my aim as I set off up the Bea­con. After an ini­tial burst out of the blocks, I quickly set­tled down to 450W and tried my best to hold it steady. My legs felt good and I was try­ing to be as aero as pos­si­ble, stay­ing seated on the flat­ter sec­tions. Ditch­ling ramps up in a few places and I tried to push slightly harder, around 500W, on these ramps, while fo­cus­ing on main­tain­ing mo­men­tum.

I was much smoother and more con­sis­tent in my pac­ing than on my ear­lier hill-climbs. As I en­tered the last minute, a spec­ta­tor shouted, “Push, lad! It’s just around that cor­ner, keep push­ing.” The en­cour­age­ment spurred me on as I pow­ered out of the sad­dle up the fi­nal ramp and right-hand turn. As I grov­elled across the fin­ish line, I’d no idea how I had done — just hop­ing it was enough for that top 10.

On re­turn­ing to the HQ, I quickly up­loaded my ride to Strava and was pleased with my time, 4:30, a 47-se­cond im­prove­ment, with an av­er­age power of 452W. Ir­re­spec­tive of my plac­ing, it rep­re­sented a huge im­prove­ment for me. I was lighter, con­sid­er­ably more pow­er­ful and had smashed my pre­vi­ous time.

The re­sults were be­ing up­dated and dis­played on a large over­head pro­jec­tor, and to my sur­prise an­other com­peti­tor told me, “You’re the fastest so far.” It was great to hear, but surely I’d be over­hauled once other times were added; in fact, my at­ten­tion strayed to a de­lec­ta­ble plate of home­made brown­ies.

While de­mol­ish­ing what was a truly ex­quis­ite brownie, it be­came ap­par­ent that no one had bested my time: I was the win­ner. Hav­ing been thor­oughly hum­bled by qual­ity rid­ers through­out the hill-climb sea­son, this came as a gen­uine sur­prise — and I was, of course, de­lighted. That many of the best rid­ers were miss­ing be­cause they were away at the Na­tion­als didn’t matter. Hav­ing thrown my­self into the hill-climb sea­son, pour­ing heart and soul into my train­ing and diet, it was great to cap it off with a win.

So what have I learnt?

The hill-climb sea­son is a lit­tle bit men­tal. Al­though short, hill-climbs are with­out doubt some of the most re­ward­ing cy­cling events I have done. The trep­i­da­tion and nerves cul­mi­nate in an all-out max ef­fort crescendo that is over be­fore you know it and leaves your body reel­ing from a eu­phoric rush of adren­a­line. It’s ad­dic­tive.

The at­mos­phere at hill-climbs is great, and they’re bril­liant events at which to spec­tate. If the pin­na­cle of cy­cling is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing glory through suf­fer­ing, hill-climbs are the dis­tilled form, and achieve it in a friendly and fun at­mos­phere with mu­tual re­spect for all tak­ing part re­gard­less of age or fit­ness.

Ir­re­spec­tive of abil­ity, there is some­thing ex­tremely sat­is­fy­ing about find­ing your phys­i­cal limit. Hill-climbs do so in a few min­utes, and I’m so hooked that I am al­ready plot­ting my 2018 cam­paign. I would like to give a mas­sive thanks to all the mar­shals and vol­un­teers, with­out whom this bril­liant British tra­di­tion would not ex­ist. Cheers!

Weight 4.81kg com­plete (4.75kg with­out bar tape!) Frame­set Cus­tom fin­ished Can­non­dale Su­per­six Evo Hi­mod Black Inc (940g) Seat­post Can­non­dale Hi­mod 25.4mm (Chopped) Sad­dle Selle Italia C59 Cranks Can­non­dale Sisl2 Gear­ing 40t, 11-28t Cas­sette Ro­tor Uno...

Heads down, watts up: hill­climbs are a pun­ish­ing dis­ci­pline

Turn your­self into a hill-climb beast, p58

Ol­lie puts his plan into prac­tice on Jack­son Bridge

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