The National Hill Climb is the last event in a very long season. It attracts riders from all disciplines, anxious to avoid heading into the long winter of rain and wind with memories of a slack last race. It’s also one of the most atmospheric events in the amateur racing calendar, although its amateur status is compromised slightly by the frequent presence of professional roadmen – nevertheless this is encouraged and adds spice to the mix.
It took place today on the Rake in Lancashire and was organised by Peter Graham, a sprightly and droll character who won the event more than once in the late 1950s. He also provides the commentary from his panopticon at the very steepest part of the course, the last 200 yards of 25%. It goes without saying that the organisation was amazing and it felt as though the whole town had come out to watch. There were other luminaries on the climb including elite cyclist Rik Waddon.
One of the challenging things about the RTTC National Championship is that no two years are ever the same. This year’s running, at about 950 yards and 2 and half minutes for the winners, could not be more different to last year’s epic slow death, the 4.4 miles of Long Hill near Buxton. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that the height gain on the Rake is more pronounced than that of last year’s. One thing is for certain, the event will return to the Rake again and again, but will never ever go back to Long Hill.
I rode fixed today as the defining old school gesture in a defiantly old school hill climb season. My bike attracted no end of admiring glances and comments, including one chap who said simply, ‘you’re bike is amazing. It really is’. Cycling Weekly also interviewed my bike whilst I was in the toilets. Fame by proxy. I opted for a 57” gear, a few inches shorter than the supposed ‘Rake gear’ of 59, the course record gear of champion Jim Henderson and other sprightly hill warriors. I forgot the basic tenet of fixed wheel hill-slaying: the gear of champions is not the gear of mortals. More on this shortly.
The climb starts at a mild 10%, pulling away from the library in downtown Ramsbottom. It’s a heavy start which is alleviated only slightly by the milder slope to follow, a piffling 300 meters of 2 to 3 percent. There were quite a few spectators and cowbells on the lower slopes, including 5 time winner Jim Henderson who cheered me on raucously. It was quite a feeling and I’d like to have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t hell bent on riding as hard as I could and locked into my hill-climb gurnface. Instead I managed a mental acknowledgement that I was being cheered on by a legend of the sport. I think at this point I probably looked quite smooth, 100 yards out of the gate, in the first flush of the race.
The flatter section supposedly offered respite, but not in any tangible form. It’s too short a climb to have any moments of rest, you just have to throw all your toys out of the pram at once, leaving nothing short. As soon as the soft section ends (and begins), it’s time for purgatory, a savage and lingering death at the hands of a real wall of noise, sound, penury, pain and suffering and vicarious cheering. Even at number 77, relatively early on the card, there was a dense tunnel of people lining the sides of the steep canyon of despair, each voice shouting and imploring, revelling in the pain of the contestants. Somewhere on the slope was Christian, waving a BSCC jersey. I wouldn’t have known.
As the road kicked up ahead of my front wheel, my head went down and I was out of the saddle forcing the pedals through each revolution. The gear got taller and taller and taller. Over the 300 yards I slowed down and I knew I was over-geared but also just had to push through and get up. I can say with honesty that I was nervous and afraid of this section and also nervous and afraid that I had gone one tooth too big. I was genuinely worried I might fall off, or slip, or grind to an undignified halt, it’s that steep. Instead I laboured and struggled but kept it going.
I’ve never really gone into extreme debt on a climb. Some might view this as a failing of mine. It’s the essential ingredient of the hill climber, the last weapon in the armoury. I’ve felt sick and bit yucky for a while after some big efforts. Generally though I finish fairly fresh, riding through the line and cruising to a halt. Today, at around the 150 metres to go, the world around me began to collapse in on itself. It felt like reality itself was slipping away and my grasp on what was happening to my body and lungs had altered immeasurably.
Halfway up a 25% section in a National Hill Climb strange and slightly unnerving stuff begins to happen. My hearing went in and out, people were shouting and the words headed out and massed together in a synaesthetic swirl of colour, my eyes were showing signs of pain, dark splotches at the periphery of vision, and all the time the tunnel of noise and sound and people, now massed as one indescribable wall of everything, crept inwards.
But there was a moment of ridiculous clarity: one voice stood out above the rest, I could suddenly hear Peter Graham, “…and this is Paul Jones, Bristol South, and … and… it looks a bit overgeared does that’. And I knew he was right. As I hit the lamp-post where the gradient eases to a mild 20% I resolved to get back on top of the monstrous gear and get it turning. To be honest, it was only a little bit too big, and only for a short section, it just happened to be the 25% section. I’m not sure it cost me anytime, and over the full distance I think it might have made me ride a bigger race than I would have if i’d spun up.
But by then I was chaff waiting to be pecked up by the birds. My lungs and legs were gone and I silently turned the pedals and crossed the line. 100 metres further along I paused, stood and gasped my way back into consciousness. I rode through the catchers, I could probably have done with catching, it was appealing, but in that moment I was unable to make the decision. I had no control of the bike.
There are horses for courses. Today was a day for the puncheurs and the hardcore sprinters with a decent power to weight ratio. It was not a day for the lanky, thin, long striplings. It was a violent and abusive climb. For this peculiar reason it was utterly fantastic. I can’t imagine wanting it any other way, it’s a true test that takes the rider way over and above any semblance of pace or reason. The sensation of riding up through the top of the Rake was unlike anything I have experienced before. It was also the hardest thing I have ever done on a bike, by which i mean it required the most brutal, alienating, savage and physically outrageous effort.
Today was a day for Jack Pullar, a ferociously fast rider over the shorter stuff. Matt Clinton, working with a 55” gear to optimum effect, took his umpteenth podium place. It was also a day for Glyn Griffiths, the BSCC pocket dynamo, who took 8th place with a spectacular ride. Rob Gough was 7th, representing the Westcountry with souplesse.
Tejvan was probably first of the tall thin chaps in 13th place. Lynn Hamel took the ladies’ course record with a staggering 3.09. I managed 35th place with 2.51 and I am pleased. There were about 30 riders within 3 seconds or so. I claimed some scalps on a difficult and cold day. I did not disgrace myself on a climb that did its (un)level best to disgrace me, and I rode as hard and as fast as I could. I managed a dead heat with Ben Lane of GS Metro, who also rode as hard and as fast as he could.
And now, after a season that started in february, I am due some cakes and ale. There will be a full and lyrical report on the eating of the cakes and ale in the forthcoming weeks.