Back in the days of yore I used to organise a revolting time trial in the Cotswolds. It was a genuine hellfest, one for the masochists. I remember once Rob Pears entered his wife, Gillian (so to speak), and then got really scared when he thought he might have actually entered himself instead (so to speak). Some people really liked the race, as though it filled a void in their lives left gaping since the last time they read JG Ballard’s family novel, Crash. Since the demise of the megahilly, Glyndwr Griffiths has become the keeper of the flame of horrid bike races with his Mendip version of the Megahilly. It’s a neat circuit which starts up Burrington, drops down Harptree and then goes up Blagdon, before repeating it, just in case you hadn’t had enough. Interestingly, like all really shitty time trials, the descents are arguably worse than the climbs. The drop down Harptree is horrendous. Each individual section of tarmac has been resurfaced to a different grade and at a different time. It makes for a lumpen hellfest.
There was a contingent of hardy warriors lined up at the start, including the spangly Das Rad Klub Firmanent, with their pack of hardened mercenaries, led by the freelance smasher Tavis Walker, now riding for his 27th klub in 9 years.
There was also a bagful of Bristol South, including Dan Burbridge in his first outing as the scratchman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop), a real privilege which came with a special and unique prize: 75 minutes of endlessly wet rain just for him. Joe from Hollyoaks was also there, mixing it up with the UOBCC shorts and the BSCC chamois, threatening the good decorum of rules and regulations, not to mention the inner turmoil that ensues from such bigamous actions.
I found the race to be a primitive experience, one of survival, and a bad idea from start to finish. I don’t quite know why, but I lack the ability to turn myself inside out anymore. I go into the time trial transporter device and expect to come out like that dog in the Fly 2. It doesn’t happen. I tend to ride to a thin line of self-preservation. I suspect it is just that, aligned with a lower level of fitness, a bit more weight and few more years. I worry about pacing myself and not blowing up, and in the process lose hours of time. I still enjoy it though, just not quite so much when some sprightly young beast hurtles past on a road bike.
It’s interesting that I’ve ridden up Blagdon faster when training in April than I did in the race today. That’s borderline inexcusable, I wasn’t going that fast in April so certainly wasn’t moving quickly today. I’ll have to review things, flagellate myself a little, dig a lot deeper and just rag it a lot more. Time trialling is a state of mind as much as anything. Getting into that mindset is the trickiest bit. Beyond that, I’m enjoying it, and it was brilliant to have a loud cheer from Penny and Elliot at the steepest part of the climb, along with some gentle words of encouragement from Belle:
“Come ON! What are you doing! YOU’RE NOT DELIVERING BREAD! It’s supposed to be a bike race!”
I’ve entered a few more races. There aren’t that many on in the district so I feel like I’ve been railroaded into entering some absolutely awful bike races. We shall see. If the next two weeks don’t kill my nascent comeback stone dead, then that will be a surprise.
I have a go-to bike, and it’s my Bob Jackson Vigorelli track frame. It’s not really a track frame, at least not out-and-out; the angles are perfect, slightly relaxed, and it takes full mudguards. I ride it most winters (and summers) and never deviate from a 68″ gear. For those of you living in a metric world, all you crazed audaxers especially, and Matt Clinton who only speaks in ratios, it’s 39:15. In my experience you can get up and down anything in this gear and tack along on the flat at around 19mph without a care in the world. Apart from Draycott. I once went up Birdlip on Boxing Day, I think there’s a blog on here somewhere about it. I won’t ever be doing that again.
I have a pair of flopped and chopped cinelli bars; probably criteriums. They were really scratched and abused so I didn’t feel too bad about hacking them down. The curve is just right; I’ve tried various other set-ups but this is by far the most comfortable. In the early days I ran with a Dirty Harry lever mounted on the tops but this has been replaced by a single TT lever on the widest point, it makes for easier braking and control when riding at speed; your hands are wider and it’s better, especially when your ass is bouncing around from the effect of a 180rpm cadence.
For some time I ran with a double campagnolo chainset, but with the single ring, this made things lighter. I’ve since reverted back to a Miche Primato; it has a better chainline, less faffage and the Q-Factor is good. I also use the Miche sprocket and carrier system, this is a remnant of hill climb days when you could remove a sprocket very quickly without a chainwhip. Some people sneer a bit at this system, as though somehow it’s not reliable. This is total bollocks. They are sturdy and utterly secure.
Wheels are a set of Mavic Open Pro; the front is laced radially to a Phil Wood hub; it’s very tasty. I have a ceramic rim on the rear, just for shits and giggles because I don’t use a caliper brake. In other words, it’s a pointless addition. It makes people laugh when they see it. I went through the rim of an open pro whilst descending Bridge Valley Road. I nearly shat myself. It exploded. There is a lesson: don’t ride on concave rims.
I love this bike; it’s light enough, but not super light, frame and fork come in at 1.4kg; which is pretty heavy. For a winter bike though, without the addition of a groupset and other stuff, it comes in light. It rides beautifully. I have a carradice on the back to keep my school books off of my back. Saddle is a Brooks Cambium – I’ve tried various saddles. I think the trick is with fixed riding for any length of time is to go a tiny tiny bit lower on saddle height; your ass is moving around a lot more, you need a bit of give.
I’ve had it resprayed by Argos, it’s now orange. It used to be blue. I recommend having your bike re-enamelled every 8 to 10 years; it’s worth it. It used to be a royal blue colour. I also had some additional bosses put on, including secret mudguard ones. The bike was stolen about 9 years ago from outside a pub in Bristol. I got it back a year later almost to the day when it was listed on ebay and an eagle-eyed chum, Rob Mortlock, spotted it. I got knocked off by a car last year and broke two ribs. The bike was fine.
I was trying to explain to someone recently what it means to ride in the BC National Championships. This involved the use of a clumsy analogy involving what it might be like for a very good club tennis player, or even district big-hitter, to take on Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. It was as close as I could manage; Thursday’s race included the Olympic Time Trial Champion and The Commonwealth Games time trial champion and the winner of the Tour de France. They were the thick end of a very thick wedge of absurdly quick riders. Somewhere in amongst it all could be found a gentle sprinkling of club riders, whilst over there, looking confused and nervous and a small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was PJ.
I spent at least some of the pre-race period sat on a sofa at Celtic Manor in my skinsuit talking to Matt Le Tissier. i didn’t know he was Matt Le Tissier until someone else came up and asked for a selfie to send their Southampton-loving chum. He looked a lot like Phil Tufnell. He seemed very friendly and not daunted by the lycra. He was aware that a race was going on. Bradley Wiggins then walked nonchalantly through and everyone stopped and stared.
I took my rollers. This is unusual for me, but it seemed unlikely that there would be anywhere to warm-up, and the possibility of wet weather posed distinct problems. I was very glad i did, i managed to find a quiet spot to set up. What with Celtic Manor being a Ryder Cup location, it seemed entirely appropriate that Colin Montgomerie was able to offer a helping hand.
After 4 weeks of beautiful weather, the heavens opened in time for the Elite race at 6pm. The roads were greasy and grubby. It made for some technical and hair-raising sections on the 12 mile lap. The start ramp was chronically exciting, as was the Hugh Porter commentary; at first. Hugh Porter is a legend of the sport, but his best years of commentary appear to be behind him. At times he seemed to have been switched with a confused dementia patient reading out some bingo numbers.
The bike passed the offical bike check, which is more than can be said for some. My complex home measuring system involving a tape measure, door frame and sharpie was identical to the rig used by the scrutineers. Several other riders fell foul of the bike checks. It left me wondering why people push it when they know the rules. Perhaps it’s easier when you’re not pushing the envelope; I didn’t particularly worry about it. The extensions needed to be pulled in by nearly 5cm and the saddle pushed back a bit, i erred on the side of caution – a metaphor for the race. And so it goes…
I didn’t go full gas on some of the sketchy bits, it was too sketchy. Apparently Wiggins was fully committed and asked where the nearest hospital was prior to starting. I eschewed this approach in favour of a slightly lower key ride. Fortune favoured the brave, and i wasn’t that brave. At the end of the lap loomed the horrifying spectre of a steep and savage climb. There’s no way to describe the brutality of climbing up a 25% wall on a slightly overgeared time trial bike. I had the 42:23 on, I didn’t have anything else. This was fine; I am used to climbing on fixed so can turn bigger gears over when going uphill. It was hard and i had to stay out of the saddle all the way up. I could have done with something a bit lighter, but it didn’t make a huge amount of difference, the climb was vile. It’s worth noting for information purposes that it is harder than any hill climb i’ve done over the past 4 years. The saving grace was the smörgåsbord of red and gold; a cheering, baying mob of the Bristol tifosi, screaming encouragement. It took my mind off the climb.
There are some other notable features that made this event the best race I have ever been involved in, notwithstanding the presence of several riders who I tend to idolise. It utilised a full road closure; not some rolling stoppages, but a full, barriered closure from start to finish. If you’re not used to riding on full closures it’s a weird experience. It takes a long time to get out of the habit of hanging to the left hand side of the road, rather than choosing the racing line through the long and sweeping bends. When you finally do get to taking the racing line through sharp right handers, it’s accompanied by a nagging fear, ‘i do hope the road really is fully closed and there won’t be any nasty surprises’. On the first lap I was led out by a motorbike outrider from the NEG group. This was an amazing experience; he signalled all of the slippery drain covers and hazards. After the first lap it was a free for all, there were more riders and more following cars.
Such was my excitement at being in the biggest race of my life that I took every opportunity to throw out the rock horns, both on the first and second lap. I think that some spectators saw this a potentially foolhardy, or perhaps a sign that I wasn’t treating the race with due diligence. Ultimately I wasn’t taking it hugely seriously, I wasn’t in it to win, I was there to do my best, to represent the club and to enjoy it. I didn’t want to come to last. Essentially these were my goals for the race. And to throw some shapes wherever possible.
I came 28th out of 60. Wiggins’ time was stratospherically fast; he is the reigning Olympic the trial champion. Outside of the continental riders, the bulk of competitors were within 4 minutes of each other; i was within this block, just. I came in 9 minutes behind Wiggins. I just kept it to within 10 minutes, which is how i imagined it would be. Getting to ride the event in the first place was a success, staying on the bike and making it round was even better, finishing within the top 30 at the National Championships, ergo, all of the country, and not being significantly adrift of the non Grand Tour stage winners, was the best of all. I was chastened and humbled by the level of support; Mum, nephew, wife and child, in-laws, club-mates, random strangers asking questions, the tweets and likes, everything.
I raced yesterday on the Somerset levels. It wasn’t quite the same.
Time trials are much of a muchness. A group of men, often of a certain vintage, clad from head-to-toe in shiny, tighter than skin tight lycra, gather together in a layby littered with the pages of a discarded copy of razzle magazine and a once-used prophylactic. They then take turns to ride at speed in the inside lane of a dual carriageway for 10 miles, no more no less, before retiring back to the shelter of a village hall for tea and cake. It’s an act completed under the cover of the stillness of the pre-morning, the only speculative onlookers are the drunk wastaways and students completing the walk or drive of shame. Once the furtive act has been completed the lone rider can get changed and sneak back into the house; his absence not noticed because it’s not even 9am.
And then there is the Megahilly. An apocalyptic battle of survival against the elemental power of gravity and the sheer, unrelenting and savage beauty of the Cotswolds. A mere 28 miles incorporating 3,500 feet of climbing. For some reason, the event is growing in popularity. Hardened veterans of the event now speak of the addiction; ask to be reminded why it is they can’t keep away, why they keep coming back for more. It’s acquired a metalanguage of battle, the semantics of war being the only vernacular capable of describing the horrors of the course.
It’s a real time trial, a technical and challenging course where you have to kill a small dog just to be allowed to start and the citizens of Uley complain vociferously of ‘those shiny bike riders weaving around, like they wuz drunk, like, and being sick and that all over the hill, awful it wuz’.
And it hurts, it really hurts.
This is the second year i’ve organised the event. I chose to run it again because I like hills and was convinced to do so by Mike Hallgarth, the course designer. It used to be slightly easier, until Mike decided that the winning average speed needed to be kept as low as possible, and that a 20mph average should be a rarity to be celebrated. He succeeded.
This year the startsheet was headed by Tejvan Pettinger, National Hill Climb Champion. Further down the field it promised to be a royal scrap with the fastest hilly testers in the district lined up to enact the slow dance of oxygen death on Frocester’s fabled slopes. In a similar vein to last year, road bikes far outnumbered the TT bikes. I don’t think there’s any question that a road bike should climb better than a TT bike, but that’s probably where the advantages end. Even on this course, there are enough stretches to justify the use of bongo-weaponry. I spiced up the dilemma by throwing in a handful of road bike prizes, enough to tempt the waverers.
I managed to squeak a spot in the field. I didn’t seed myself as a rider (said the bishop to the actress) because i wasn’t entirely sure i’d be able to ride due to the fairly intense duties involved in organisation. Thanks to fantastic help and support from the club, it was ok. I snuck in between the mighty atom (apologies to Eileen), Derek Smetham, and the VC Walcot blade-for-hire, Sir Tavis of Walker. Tavis nearly missed his start on account of a prior appointment with a small terrier on Adey’s Lane. He hit it amidships on his TT weapon, ending up in the hedge. The fate of the dog is unknown. He then legged it back up the hill to switch bikes, making it back down in a surge of adrenaline and confusion. It solved the equipment angst at least. Tav is a bit of a monster, but with me on the bongo and him on the road bike I steadily reeled him in.
I also kept it level on the climbs with the splits being fairly equal. I made a superfast descent to Selsley after catching him over the top and over took a Honda 4×4 which was sticking rigidly to the 40mph speed limit. This was quite exciting. Tav tried the same trick but the Honda lady got a bit freaked out by being overtaken by one frighteningly fast bike person and slammed on the anchors, Tav got fresh with the back of the car, just like he got fresh with that dog. He has a line of ‘kills’ painted on his top-tube, mammals, children, adults, Chelsea tractors, anything impeding the pursuit of straight-line speed pays a heavy price.
The last climb is Stouts Hill. It’s also the toughest. On approaching the bottom it’s easy to think ‘last climb, let’s rag it, make up the time’, but it’s not possible. A string of riders are lined up the hill experiencing the same dichotomy, betrayed by the fading legs and lungs. I was out of the saddle and caught three riders engaged in mortal combat. Something wasn’t quite right with the picture: the one in the middle wasn’t actually racing. He was a weekend warrior, out for a jaunt, and yet he stumbled across some real life bike racers, and to be fair, was giving them a bit of a hard time. I’m not sure how i’d cope if i got Kimmaged. I might never touch or look at the bike again.
Despite it being a bit of a windy day and arguably slower than last year, I rode pretty much the same time, within 2 seconds, for a 1.22.48. Derek was 3rd, at 30 seconds. I was pleased to come second. Tejvan Pettinger, unsurprisingly, took the win. It’s worth noting that the Hill Climb course record on Stouts is 4.58 by James Dobbin. I’ve managed 5.09. During the race today I managed 5.54. Tejvan Pettinger scaled the heights in a frightening 5.18. All told, Tejvan made it round in 1.17.17, or 5 minutes quicker than me. In short, he bagged about 45 seconds per climb, more on the longer ones, and also eked out time on the flatter seconds. It was a masterclass in hilly time trialling and he was imperious. He managed to take 36 Strava KOMs during the ride. Sometimes a race can be won or lost by a slim margin; last year Derek edged it by 6 seconds. I think i know where those 6 seconds went. This year, it’s a little bit hard to tell where exactly those 300 seconds disappeared to.
All told it was a successful event; no-one crashed (apart from the dog thing) and people seemed to enjoy the masochistic side of things. There is something curious about the out and back aspects of the course; you get to see other riders far more than in a typical time trial and there is a hushed solidarity. Everyone is fighting the same battle, trying to get up Frocester Hill, or London Road, or Crawley, or Selsley, or Stouts. And at the end, there is a shared sense of achievement, it was hard for everyone. Even the winner.
I may ignore his suggestion for two laps. Although he has planted a seed.
This week I have been preparing for the National Hill Climb Championship by riding less and doing ridiculously long days at work. I have managed one tempo effort on the bike. All of this is fine because ostensibly it’s taper time. I rarely taper for anything, but if you’re going to, it might as well be for the National Championships.
The climb is far north, in the frozen wastes of Teesdale. It’s classified as tundra and grazes the perimeter of the Arctic Circle. It’s desolate and beautiful. One thing is certain, it’s going to be an epic trek; first to Bradford then on to the race on Sunday morning. I’m off later on, 8 riders from the finish, mixing it up with the extremely fast people. I think they’ve seeded the top 15 or so on even numbers and then interspersed these with slightly less fast people like myself who should hopefully avoid a catch and have a good ride. I’m looking forward to seeing Ben Davis and Charles Coleman representing the west country hill climb brigade.
I’m going to stick with my earlier predictions, Tejvan for the win, with Richard Handley and James Gullen mixing it up. I also think Matt Clinton will be thereabouts because he always comes good in the National. I’m hoping for a top 30 placing; better than 24th would be terrific, and if i break into the top 20 I’ll shout the family to a slap-up meal at the Kashmir in Bradford on Sunday night. I live in hope.
Currently I’m hoping that come Sunday morning I’ll be feeling a little bit less tired. Work has deadened me this week. I shall attempt some revivification with a short climb tomorrow afternoon, probably up to Queensbury, with the am being to stir the legs and awaken the heart-rate.
I’m excited and full of trepidation. I’m also looking forward to cakes and ale.
Long-standing readers of this blog, of which there are 4 family members and possibly one other random person, will know that the Burrington hill climb is the defining event of the West DC racing calendar. It brings the curtain down on the season, finishing off the hardriders trophy series and for most people acts as their last race before they head into a wilderness of winter base and ale raves™. This year we had a full field which is pretty much unheard of round these parts and certainly without precedent in a hill climb. It made for a spectacular day’s racing.
I rode out on a 68″; it’s not far from Bristol, a short incursion into the dark heart of the Mendips. On arriving I rode the climb, sneaking in amongst a couple of riders, to check on the ominous power of the headwind. The feather flags used by the club were pointing back down the climb and it did not bode well. The initial section past the rock of ages was a struggle into some blousy, full-frontal gusts. After that it seemed to lessen slightly and the top of the 2 mile climb was more manageable. I switched the cog on the back to a lighter 65″ and then settled down to watch the early starters.
At the alloted time I made my way down the Combe and lined up at the start. I had my picture taken by a bona fide World Champion whilst Roger did the honours.
The lower slopes were windier than a tripe-fed greyhound. I hunched low over the bars and dug in, getting into a rhythm and sitting on top of the gear. It seemed to work, I felt good and drove it on all the way up the climb. Cowbell corner was a spectacular feast for the eyes and ears; it makes such a huge difference to be cheered on by spectators.
I then headed up onto the steeper section and gave it everything I had. On the whole, I felt good, it was the kind of ride where I couldn’t have really done much more; i was at threshold and just kept going. I managed to go a second faster than last year in noticeably slower conditions. Once across the line I did a small bit of retching, thus earning my hill climber’s badge from the hill climbers scout troop.
It was a brilliant day. Ben Davis won with 7.33; Liam Glen 7.38, then me with 7.47. I just beat James Dobbin into 4th place by a second. Richard Cartland was 5th with 8.04. I was the only one in the top ten on a fixed wheel, but there were lots of other riders opting for the simplicity and joyousness of the single cog. At the start my minute man made a vaguely disparaging comment about my choice of bike; something along the lines of ‘that’s brave’. It seems to be fairly common for people to think it’s foolhardy to ride fixed in any sort of hillclimb, when the reality is that with a regular gradient a fixed wheel bike is the perfect machine for the task. It’s become the preserve of a hardy few but has grown again in popularity over recent years with the more general resurgence in fixed wheel bicycles. I’m quite disappointed that I won’t be racing on it again this season; I’m using gears for the National, but it will be my choice of bike for the winter miles. Anyhow, I overtook the aforementioned minuteman within about a minute.
On the way home I bullied my way up some other Mendip climbs; taking advantage of the tailwind to do some fairly hard efforts. I saw some really strange things… things you people wouldn’t believe…
I made it home alive. It’s been a brilliant weekend of hill climbs and I feel as though I’m getting some sense of form at just the right time. This was always the intention.
There is only one race left: The National Championship on the Stang. It’s the big one.
Team Tor 2000 resurrected the Westclose Hill Climb in the Mendips this weekend. It attracted a small but ridiculously strong field. The hill has a variable gradient which would seem to rule out using fixed. However, Jim Henderson set the course record on fixed and when the road pitches up it stays within some fairly narrow parameters, probably between about 9 and 12 percent. The only issue is a couple of flatter sections near the bottom of the climb; these are about 150 metres in length. I gave it quite a bit of thought yesterday evening and decided that i had to go for it. A phrase used by my Dad springs to mind: ‘Shit or bust, son, shit or bust‘. He had a point, although I’m not entirely sure he had the undulating gradient of Westclose Hill on his mind at the time. In the end I reasoned that a fixed wheel may actually be quicker because the climb is longer; it’s not going to be won at the bottom but at the top; riding a 57″ gear would dose the effort perfectly and make it a steady and well-judged ride. I wasn’t riding for the win, more for the time and to try and close the gap with the faster chaps – Ben Davis, Charles Coleman and Richard Cartland.
Pen came out to see the race today; it’s the first hill climb she’s seen. She rang the cowbell with gusto.
It worked out pretty much exactly as I thought it would. At halfway Ben had 27 seconds on me but I halved the time gap by the finish, completing the later section of the course quicker than him. Of course, I didn’t win, but i wouldn’t have won either if I’d ridden gears, but probably would have been slower. In fact, this was nearly 10 seconds quicker than my previous best time on this hill, ridden on gears. Ben took the win – chapeau – with a 5.43 or thereabouts; followed by Charles Coleman with a 5.47ish, then Richard Cartland in 5.52, then me in 5.53. I’ll settle for the closeness; it’s not an awful lot and i’ve narrowed the gap from earlier in the season.
Tomorrow sees a return to Burrington. I’m excited. I’m also going to be riding fixed again. I really enjoy riding fixed in hill climbs; it’s definitely preferable to gears. It’s more of an experience. There is a full field of 120 riders; this is unprecedented. It’s chock full of fast people; including James Dobbin, twice national champion. It should be fun.