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
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.
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