My season is now over. it started in february on a dual carriageway near Frome, and ended on Sunday on a strange arterial road up and over a hillside in the Peak District. it encompassed several hilly, lumpy events, some flatland bullying and an endless stream of incremental gains. but through all of the gains, the improvements, i knew that the key part of the season was the lumpy anti-gravity stuff that runs from september to the end of october. before i go any further, i’ve borrowed this picture from cycling weekly:
it’s near the top of long hill. tejvan is riding to 5th place, 12 seconds behind the winner, Gunnar Gronlund. the image encapsulates the beauty, pain and despair of hillclimbs. it sums up everything that hillclimbs are about: beautiful climbs in amazing places, ridden at pace and in pain. if i have learnt one thing this season, more so than ever before, it’s that to contemplate riding a hillclimb with any degree of success and honesty, you have to push yourself to the limit – in fact, beyond the kind of thresholds of pain and endurance that the modern world typically places on us. so when you see the lone hillclimber locked in savage pursuit of individual glory and a few precious seconds, spare a thought for the physical and existential suffering contained within each moment. and i come back to honesty, because it is a particularly brutal extension of the ‘race of truth’, there is nowhere to hide from yourself, and if you get it wrong, then you know deep down in your battered psyche that it was probably because there was more to give. the finality of the National Hill Climb as the last race of the season means something else – it means that success or failure endures throughout the off-season, and drives or hampers your riding in the winter months to come. it’s like the after effect of a flashbulb, scorched indelibly across the eyes and transferred to your immediate field of vision.
it’s difficult to explain what else the National represents, but I will try to do so. it’s anachronistic, there is no place in this world of instant gratification for the slow burn and training miles needed to achieve even a modicum of personal success. but it’s also an opportunity to take part in an event that has an incredible history. It attracts an enormous field of staggeringly strong riders,and a strong field of enormously staggering spectators eager to witness the gladiatorial spectacle unfold for two and a half hours, within which lie 160 forms of purgatory as each rider battles the elements, the gradient, but always themselves.
i’ve ridden the event twice; this year’s was more tricky, there was a benchmark from last year rattling around the perimeter of my mind, creating doubt and anxiety about my capacity to improve. allied to this was the fear of the hill – or whether it was a hill or not, more a gradual ascent over 4 miles of moorland. it led to, as Ben Lane neatly put it, ‘equipment angst’, whether to use time trial equipment or go for the lightweight hillclimber’s bike. the top 4 riders all used TT weaponry, to some extent. in fact, a clear and sizeable majority of the competitors used time trial equipment, seeking to negate the possible block headwind. i fitted TT extensions, but then removed them on the morning of the race. two trial runs the day before left me confused and edgy about the possible gains, so i stuck with what i knew.
on arriving at the course i drove up to the top – my mum and Ian, her partner had driven down to watch which was a lovely surprise. ian also takes great photos, he has proved adept at capturing the faces of pain.
from the very start, it felt different. the climb is long – unsurprisingly, but it was full of people, pelotons of club riders heading upwards to seek a vantage point to watch the event, massed spectators in pockets all the way up, and a huge bunch of people by a commentary station about halfway along. it had an atmosphere, it was different. russell downing was watching, as was most of the GB olympic squad and at least one female world champion, wearing the rainbow jersey and matching helmet. i warmed up, riding in and out of Whaley Bridge, and managed to just about stay warm, before heading towards the start and making last minute preparations; loosening brake blocks, chatting to random strangers, that sort of thing.
normally when waiting for the push i’m quite chatty, it helps me relax: I have a laugh with the starters about the impending sufferfest, maybe talk up to about 5 seconds to go, then pedal off with a thank you. like a pitiable addict grateful for the transaction i always make a point of thanking the pushers. this time i just stared up the road (i say ‘up’ quite loosely, the start of the climb is barely noticeable as a hill) and took a few deep breaths. i sat astride the cervelo pensively, and waited for the countdown. i guess i knew that the minute i set off i was going to ride as hard as i could, without any other option. it’s quite a sobering thought. i found the right gear, got out of the saddle and up to speed as quickly as i could, starting in the big ring and moving up through the gears, probably about as high as the 53:19 almost straight away. i tend to push big gears, i don’t really know why this is, i guess the time trialling has something to do with it. as i settled into the climb i dropped my elbows onto the top of the bars and leant forward in a mock timetrialling position, it’s not overwhelmingly comfy but i find it effective. i did similar for the shap and the horseshoe pass. i was also conscious that i was much lower than normal, the headwind meant i spent time getting my head and shoulders down. this is evident in the picture at the top, my elbows are bent and i’m really hunkered down over the machine. i dropped the stem by about an inch the day before.
beyond that, something odd happened. i’ve ridden longer climbs this year and last year, and can account for most of the experiences therein, but my progress up Long Hill is a cognitive haze. i think that it’s because i was riding at the limit all the way. the day before i’d surmised that the one bit to really attack was the long straight into the block headwind, because this was the section that could really kill your chances, the rest would be rhythm. if i nailed the nasty bit i knew i would be on for a good climb. that’s pretty much what happened. the only other thing i can remember is rob gough and glyn shouting near the bottom, and helen and my mum and Ian giving it a cheer near the top. in between there were cowbells and some shouts, some loud, some more polite. throughout all of it i refused to back off – this is what it comes down to, something very simple: don’t back off. don’t change down. ignore the pain in the legs and the hurt across the chest and the sense of being somewhere else, and keep pushing the gear.
there is though one startling memory. as i rode past the commentary box, i heard David Harmon say over the PA, ‘Number 107, he is going well….he IS going well’, and the repeated second comment spurred me on. i was determined that if David Harmon had said this, then i had better make sure i did go well, and must continue to go well all the way to the top, and not slacken off. it definitely helped. it is also the highlight of my amateur cycling career.
when i crested the climb i can genuinely say i had nothing left in the tank. typically, i couldn’t even muster a sprint, i just kept churning over the big gear and rode as hard as i possibly could. i can’t explain how physically intense it is to ride that hard, to keep it going after 14 minutes of climbing, no matter what the gradient. if you’ve ridden a hillclimb (and know you’ve given it absolutely everything) you’ll know what i’m talking about. once over the line my head dropped and I tried to allow the pulsing sensation in my ears and the taste of blood in the mouth to dissipate. i watched the big hitters come over the line; Richard Handley looked incredibly smooth, Gunnar Gronlund seemed almost mechanical, but in a good way i guess, Hutchinson was rhythmic and on the pace, Rob Hayles looked physically spent, Tejvan was chasing as hard as i’ve ever seen, his head up and down, and Matt Clinton looked fresh and almost slow (he clearly wasn’t).
i rode back down, and took my time getting changed. i had no idea what time or placing i had achieved, and felt no urgent desire to find out. this was because i knew i had ridden the best race i could. i couldn’t have found anymore time or speed; before the race i promised myself and everyone else that i would throw everything at it. this is what happened. eventually i got a copy of the results and found out i had come 24th for the second year running. i am pleased with this. i cannot help but think about how strong the field was this year, and how difficult, in an unusual way, the climb was. some small things i am pleased about include:
I was 20 seconds and ten places behind Rob Hayles. I beat James Dobbin for the first time, the twice national champion. i beat all of adeo cadence, the local and very friendly, but hugely talented road team based out of Bath. I was one of 5 or so club riders in amongst the professional and team riders filling the top 25. i also beat several people i have ever got anywhere near before, like Matt Pilkington (11th 2010) and Rob gough (6th 2010). This is in part due to the climb, but i also know that this was a tough climb for all hillclimbers, it didn’t really suit anyone, with the exception of the roadmen like Richard Handley, Mike Cuming and Gunnar Gronlund, who have been racing in Europe on longer, steadier climbs.
and when i think as i am wont to do that it was all a weird dream, and question whether i’m just someone who rides their bike and isn’t even that good, that my results don’t really mean a whole lot in this most esoteric and odd of sports, i have this to remind me…
(skip to 27 minutes exactly).
however, if you prefer to laugh at some shoddy camera work and a vaguely seventies smut-jazz soundtrack, try the CTT video. it’s worth a giggle. skip to 9 minutes, i am all over the bike like a crab, it’s quite disorientating, and a healthy rebuttal to Carl Helliwell who said i looked ‘smooth’ on the Nick, in effect he was suggesting i wasn’t trying hard enough. He may have had a point.
and on that note, the season has finished. god save the bristol south, all hillclimbers, and above all, thank you to belle.