The National Hill Climb 2020, Streatley.

I find it hard to cope with the different competing narratives around this year’s championship race. There is that really big thing, the season-wrecking global pandemic thing that destroys livelihoods, health, families, schools and leaves us all lurching from day to day, and week to week, hoping that at some point things will return to normal. And the longer they go on not being normal the more any sort of normal becomes essential, even the form of normal we hoped would be swept aside by the force of change, well, maybe we’d quite like that normal back again, that will now do. People are anxious, Rob  Borek, organiser of the biggest hill climb in the South West™ at Burrington, was anxious three weeks ago about our club hill climb, and we all equivocated about what was the right or the wrong thing. I saw clips on BBC Wales of Ed Laverack, reduced to tiers alongside Rebecca Richardson, making the straightforward but horribly difficult decision that they wouldn’t travel. Dissenting voices said it shouldn’t go on. It’s not a national. But it is, and it should, and it’s a shame people can’t come but the race goes on, if anything, for these very reasons, because life goes on for everybody.

I think about Christina Gustafson and her team at Reading CC, abetted by the Cowley Road Condors, Didcot Phoenix, and everyone who has thrown a leg over a bike in the home counties somewhere, along with their nearest and dearest. They resolved, sometime back in the mists of pre-pandemic time, to put on the best time trial there has ever been. They never asked for any of this. They asked for one significant thing: for women to sign up in record numbers. This last request was accompanied by an unprecedented level of effort from lots of people. A groundswell of feeling, of wanting to be a part of a sport that sets out from the word go to ensure that both the opportunity and the outcome are the same for men and women, and not subject to curious fractional divisions of small amounts of money and endless chuntering about how things used to be. Laurie Pestana and Estrella Bikes are at the core of this effort, bringing others in and continually moving it forwards.

I am slightly freaked out by the sheer numbers involved in hill climbing these days. I am old and I can remember when a full field was unheard of and 120 for the National was not a given. In my more self-aggrandising moments I hold myself a tiny bit responsible, having glamourised this most violent of disciplines to the extent that people now see it as a grand day out,  somehow ‘life-affirming’, something to be tried on fixed wheel just for shits and giggles, until your eye pops out and something wrong occurs in the duodenum halfway up a hill in Berkshire.

And so it goes. 158 women line up for the start. It seems to prove the adage that “coverage creates interest, then more coverage, then more interest”. Who knew? Well, me, actually, when I wrote that 7 years ago, lolz. And I’m thrilled and excited that the event looks like this, and that the organisers have reversed the order, running the women’s event separately and last because… well, because why not? Articles pop up on influential websites, Alice Thomson writes an op-ed on Cycling News, gets flamed to death in the comments by the men, all of them somehow blundering into an elephant trap of monumental obviousness – what’s that? You don’t think we should have equality? Oh. Well done chap. I  post the links, first to Alice, then to Haddi Connant, or Becky Hair in Rouleur, as a useful way to flush out any remaining mysognists from my internets.

So, in all shapes and forms, not a normal race, or maybe it is a normal race, this is what normal is, this is the most normal we can be. I have a secret pass to the hill from the crack team because they liked my book and in turn I liked the cut of their jib. I rode to Reading for a slap-up meal at Zizzis to speak at their club dinner about how hill climbs are vital and beautiful because they are unlike everything and anything else. They happen in extraordinary places. They are as real as anything can be in a world where most of our lived experience is no longer real, but mediated. I park up in the secret photographer’s car park then walk through the lovely/ a bit frou-frou Goring-on-Thames. The river seems huge, running in sluggish spate under the trestle bridges, frothing between weir and boathouse, watched over by frighteningly expensive houses. A red kite slants and shimmies sideways above the road, a spiralling, feathered chevron. There are marshals everywhere, and they are uniformly helpful, friendly and welcoming. Antony Atkin is in charge here, Christina is running the HQ.

My secret pass says I’m a photographer, which I’m not, but I dig out my 40 year old Olympus OM10 – bought from a second hand-shop in Exmouth in 1996 – just to give weight to the lie. I also take my XA2 point-and-shoot because all the photographers I’ve seen always have two cameras. Larry Hickmott has two cameras. He’s like Keith Emerson hunched over a keyboard; first a telescopic lens shot with daylight flash then a quick flick to the other one for the close up. I am not these people but armed with my two cameras I at least took like I might be taking a picture whilst not threatening the people who are actually taking pictures, the ones who like and laugh at my scarf until they see it appear in eleventy billion of their photographs.

Larry Hickmott

The first thing I notice is that there are two start gates. This is how you run an event with 400 riders at 30 second intervals. The calling is off the scale, like demented bingo: number 149 COME IN 149 your time is NOW LAST CALL 149. Regimented lines shift through tunnels, along the markings, socially distanced, sanitised from head to toe, temperatures already checked at the HQ car park a good 2 miles socially distant. And at the crux, in the last minute, the tones of Laurie Pestana are there to welcome the rider, alleviate the stress, ask a question, put them at ease, before the count and launch. It runs like a military operation, but friendlier, with less civilian casualties.

I grab my branded cowbell and analogue photographer’s bib, sneak through the gates and onto the hill. It is a decent cowbell with a crisp, sonorous ring which cuts through the eerie quiet. I think back to Pea Royd or the Rake – other short, sharp snorters like this one, the ones with good lines of sight and a brief walk to the top – and recall the ribbon of people walking up, a constant funnel of noise which increases, up and up, until it presses in at the edges in pinked serrations and a wall of noise and cowbells. And it is absent, there is no question, and I am sad about it because this climb is perfect for the wall of sound. There are marshals at intervals, photographers, lots of photographers, and here and there the odd competitor. The top of the hill crosses The Holies, a beautiful walking path across to an iron age fort. Families stroll across to the road in innocence, only to be confronted by the unwonted sight of people in varying stages of distress and degradation, the rasped death-rattle of competitors, and on occasion, the pained, quasi-orgiastic grunt – the generic features of a good hill battle. It’s not long before interest is piqued and people stop and stare, marvel, and ask questions.

This is Geoff Ware, he is a hero

I catch the last of the juniors ripping up the climb. I confirm all my favourite curmudgeonly stereotypes, the one that goes when I was young I was lucky to have a butcher’s bike whereas nowadays it’s a seamless toray ladder from carbon bongo balance bikes to hill-killing weaponry by the age of 12. I find a space and wait for the men to do their bit. I don’t have to wait long, this is a tight ship, there are no gaps. There are also not many who haven’t started. The tier 3 has affected the field, but it is not noticeable. The seeding is brilliant, with a vets event within the main event, the first 95 or so.

Simon Warren has a go, it’s number 24 in his book. He has his race face on. By race face, I mean jaw hanging open, spittle flecked downwards, eyes on stalks, pulmonary embolism etched on the forehead. It makes for a compelling spectacle; for every supervet, the likes of Phil Stonelake, or Glyndwr Griffiths, the ones who wage war on the climb and somehow emerge victorious, there is another who seems to be at risk of imminent death. Knees and cranksets bend and creak in sympathy, lungs collapse and tear, eyes roll back and spectators look away in horror. In amongst the dappled sunlight an elegant figure in white appears. Tejvan Pettinger is the first of the returning champions, back in the saddle after a difficult few years affected by injury and it’s great to see him. In the end, it’s a clean sweep for Bristol of the vets categories. We might not have the fastest cyclists in the all the land, but we have the fastest old cyclists.

the fastest of the fastest old cyclists

The seniors are quick. It is hard to call, but no-one bets against Andy Feather. Murmurings suggest Tom Bell has the legs, that Adam Kenway is there. But the form book says Feather. The pace quickens as we head towards the end. Joe Baker floats over the line, he smiles. Since Pea Royd he has given notice of his potential. His day will come. He always smiles and he seems to have a cheer squad with him, all at suitable distances. But it is Callum Brown who raises the bar by lowering the time. He has his string wheels and his legs are carved from teak, that’s all we care about. At 2.12 it looks tight, until Adam Kenway does what Adam Kenway does and slices a chunk of time off the top. Did I mention the chip timing? It works beautifully. It isn’t about the accuracy – although that is handy. It is about the theatre, knowing as soon as Tom Bell crosses the line, the second his wheel hits the mat, that he has taken the lead by a second. It causes a ripple of excitement and roar from the officials, the timekeepers, the marshals, and me.

Cam Biddle
Joe is smiling
Sam is not smiling

And we wait for Andy Feather, we know he is thirty seconds away, and he does it, for the second time. He affirms the notion of the ‘nicest winner in sport’ by being super friendly. I walk over and let him know, casually, that he has won, confirming it with the time – you know, as if I was the actual timekeeper – and the relief and joy creeps across his face, you can see it. His shoulders would relax but to be honest he is absolutely ripped, lean sinews like steel hawsers, so they sort of shift down a little bit. But he smiles, a real, heartwarming smile, the one that says ‘I’m living my best life here’. And in this moment I’m deliriously happy that the race happened, because it enabled this moment to take place, amidst a sea of complexity and anxiety, of stress, not-knowing. This thing – a win – a real, pure win – surged out of the fog and everyone was happy.

A win feels like this
Adam Kenway, Tom Bell, Andy Feather

But we’re not done; the men were merely the aperitif for this year’s headline event. I walk back down the hill because I want to speak to people and see the women racing and get more photos. Sheila Hardy is here. She is always here. I don’t think she has moved today; stood quietly supporting, talking to the competitors, a gentle word here, a warm welcome to Emily Meakin who arrives just as I walk past. It’s Sheila’s fifth weekend on the bounce away from home in  this truncated season of national championships stacked one  on top of the other like the world’s most niche game of jenga. Such is her commitment to the world of time trials.

Sheila Hardy, legend

The weight of  numbers, the flipped running order, or even if you go beyond the numbers, what this many women lining up to race looks and feels like – these are all amazing things, and it feels brilliant, but at the same time entirely normal. This is the biggest victory. I don’t have to write how wonderful this feels in patronising mansplain, because the best outcome is that it is completely natural and right to flip things and do it this way because women are bike riders and yet have gone last for the past 99 years of time trials. As Michelle Walter heads out to begin her effort the world keeps turning, the hill remains horrid, the effort is amazing, the stars shine still. Everyone is eager to be sated by more violent efforts against the clock, the gradient and our limitations, watching vicariously as we hurtle towards the point where Wilkinson and Jones, sounding every inch the joint manufacturers of stainless steel blades – get set to fight it out.  

I loiter so I can speak to Becky Hair and Haddi Conant, because I want to say something to them, even if I’m not quite sure what it is. I feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m thrilled by what they have done, the efforts put in to raise participation and get women riding, how they have put their names out there, in byline form, saying things that need to be said, ignoring the trolls, gathering support and making things happen. I’m angry the conversation still needs happen but I’m absurdly glad that they are having it. I am stopped in my tracks because the rain has lifted and I see three members of the Liv AWOL team, bathed in light, ready to ride, to race and support each other.

Fellowship is life
Becky Hair
Haddi Conant

I watch Kate McTear fly upwards. I see Alice Lethbridge head uphill, giving it everything, glad to be here. I wait for Bithja Jones and I am left open-mouthed by a display of purest power and souplesse. Mary Wilkinson follows on, chasing at a 30 second interval, two very different hill climbers with one similar outcome: brutal efficiency and frightening speed, but it’s Bithja who edges it with a new course record.

The race is over. Everyone goes home, immediately. The gazebo is moved, hi-viz thrown in a green builder’s bucket. I pause for a moment, just enough time to feel a bit awkward, then walk back down through Goring to the car, taking the time to process the event in my mind. My thoughts are abstract nouns; authenticity, camaraderie, joy, community. The process is unspeakably hard, the outcome beautiful. It is the end of the hardest season anyone has known, the most anxiety-ridden, fitness and form-destroying season of all. But I am grateful that I can watch people race, live in the moment, celebrate their achievements and anyone and everyone else’s.

Somehow Christina Gustafson and her team have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Everyone is saying that the biggest hill climb or time trial ever, in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic, with no spectators for an event which is supposedly predicated by the gladiatorial galleries screaming ‘encouragement’, has somehow been the best one ever. And they are right, because this year is more than an event; it’s a statement of the human spirit, of why we love time trials, of life as it supposed to be lived, of co-operation and mutual support, and of joy as an act of resistance.

See you up the road.

14 thoughts on “The National Hill Climb 2020, Streatley.

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  1. Blimey, what a fantastic piece!! I want to print it out and put it on the shelf beside A Corinthian Endeavour to soak it in again. My understanding of this year’s National might only be experienced (mediated?) through this article and others, but I’m so glad they were written.

    Among all the great lines, this bit really jumped out at me:

    “hill climbs are vital and beautiful because they are unlike everything and anything else. They happen in extraordinary places. They are as real as anything can be in a world where most of our lived experience is no longer real, but mediated.”

    So true.

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