RTTC National Hill Climb 2010

…the final event of the season, and by some distance the most significant. i rarely get nervous, beyond a certain edginess, but i woke up today feeling nauseous, with a vile headache and vague sensation of things not being right. a week’s worth of anxiety had built up; exacerbated by the same recurring not-knowingness of it all. i wanted a top 30 finish, but knew that there were too many variables that could swing the result in different directions.

it’s odd to see a time trial of such scale and proportions; road closures, overflow car parks, two separate results areas, a corps of caterers: hats off to coventry road club for doing such a fantastic job of organising the event. the hill was lined with crowds, thickening at the top near the race commentary (amazing, a commentator) and the finish.

i was off at 11.40; an earlyish start time. after a brief warm-up, spent mainly dodging sudden rain showers, i joined the queue of tense riders waiting for their time. dave clarke was warming up on the rollers a couple of feet to my right, all sinews and hair. the early part of the climb is gentle, and gives you a chance to get into a rhythm, so i tried to help this along by botching a gear change or two. it made me chuckle audibly, and also made some spectators laugh, which i was pleased about. after that the hill ramped up around the corner, and i just pretty much went for it. all the way up the middle third i was thinking ‘it’s the national, just have it’, and then moments later ‘don’t blow up otherwise it’s curtains’. it creates a tension, the two opposing and competing desires lift you up the hill, and your progress is bolstered by the shouts from the crowd, calling you by name, words of encouragement and the constant chorus of ‘hup hup hup’. i picked out a bristol south jersey in the crowd; one of the esteemed and older members of the club, cheering me on, then my girlfriend and her parents. the recognition was fleeting.

after about 2 minutes i could hear members of the crowd suggesting there was a catch, sometimes directly to me, which made me think that i might be able to overtake the minuteman – in a national! i changed up a gear, too soon, then changed back down again. but then, around the next bend, at about halfway up the ascent, i caught a glimpse – a sighter – an elusive and fantastic thing, another rider on a piece of invisible elastic, a fish on a line. cue further tension – ride harder, catch him vs ride your own race, take it steady. i found the balance, but this momentary second of harmony was overturned by the commentator, who had also picked up on the possibility of the catch and was shouting it out to the crowd, who in turn swelled in voice and cheered, and i stamped on the pedals and gave it everything i had (which wasn’t very much by this point) and the elastic shortened and i overtook him before the line, through the thicket of people and cameras. and it was amazing, until i nearly crashed into the barriers at the end of the road closure. i was seeing palely luminescent stars dancing in the murky grey skies above dovers.

shortly afterwards i felt sick, unable to warm down, unable to sit still, i could have happily vomited. my time was good, around 11 seconds quicker than my last race on dovers earlier in the season, 4.21.7. i knew i’d given it pretty much everything and could walk away content.

dan fleeman won in 3.41, a staggeringly quick ride, followed by matt clinton, michael smith, tejvan pettinger – just outside the medals on this occasion, but i think next year will be his event, mike cuming, rob gough, then dave clarke. i managed 24th place (it says 25th on the sheet, but i think they have made an error with the 9th placed rider). i also beat glynn, my clubmate, by a tenth of a second – he rode an absolute blinder. it was good to share a field with so many amazing cyclists, and even figuring in amongst the battle for the top 30 felt pretty special. it’s easy to forget that this is my first season of racing, and it’s been an exponential learning curve.

i’m going to drive to work tomorrow. and eat some cake. then tomorrow night i’m going to cook with wine, and then drink the wine left over. then eat some more cake.

Dovers and Saintbury

this morning heralded the second (and third) events of the weekend. i started early — took my bike, to Weston-Sub-Edge for the Warwickshire Road Clubdouble hillclimb. In terms of the competition, it was an altogether more challenging affair, with a veritable glut of finely-honed (read: borderline underweight) racing cyclists. It’s a prestige event, and a chance for the contenders to check out the course for the National in a couple of weeks time, as well as lay down a marker. The first hill was long, nearly two miles, with lots of changes in gradient, the second – Dovers –  was a steady climb, quite steep, with a fast finish. there were two hours between climbs, allowing time to sit down, cool down, have a coffee, a jam sandwich, before getting out and about to warm-up again for the second hill.

a couple of things struck me quite forcefully today. there were a range of abilities and ages competing, all of whom were going far far away from any semblance of comfortable cycling. in some ways, it doesn’t really matter if you are fast or slow, riding upwards on a bicycle always feels slow; i feel i should be going faster, and become locked in mortal battle with my cadence, trying to eke out a few more revolutions, hoping i can change up a gear and my legs will not lapse into a crampy sulk. that’s it really, racing up hills is slow and painful, it’s an indescribable battle of will, seeing how far you can go before everything grinds to an undignified halt. in a double hillclimb the self-doubt is amplified with the waiting and the exertion. the inner monologue that accompanies the climb is something i may try to explain for you at a later date (coming soon! Inception! on bikes!).

the first climb felt about right – not too savage. i spoke to tevjan (the winner) beforehand and on my way up i saw him coming down – he cheered me on, and i said thanks. afterwards we laughed about this and he said lightheartedly – and i knew it was coming – something along the lines of ‘if you can say thanks you weren’t trying hard enough’. which is very much the spirit of hillclimbs; catchers, retching and the unscheduled seeing of stars. incidentally, the giving of the prizes at haytor was delayed because two of the recipients were puking violently at the side of the road on account of their efforts. and possibly an ill-timed lunch to meet the 2pm start.

the second climb felt better; for around a 100 metres or so. after this point the build up of lactic and the pain in my legs from my third hillclimb in 24 hours became suddenly, pressingly apparent. the sage advice given to me was ‘give this one everything because it’s shorter than saintbury’. which i duly did, throwing my ‘keep the pot boiling’ advice out with the bathwater. however, giving it everything is conditional on just how much of everything you’ve got. i had a small amount of everything, which just about got me up and over the 14% climb, i even got out of the saddle at the end for a reckless, jellied-eel of a sprint. and today, this evening, i am deliriously happy with pulsing endorphins. I came tenth in a race featuring elite riders and national champions.

and as a postscript, there’s no logic to it. if i ride my bike a lot, and deliberately choose hills, and ride over them, and be careful what i eat, this is what happens. it’s not scientific. i appear to be quite good at riding upwards for lengths of time over 3 minutes, at steep gradients. it’s an odd talent to have. it’s not much use in the wider world; it is the most arcane and physically tough of disciplines. when struggling up toys hill 6 years ago with friends after returning to cycling, i would never, ever have thought that i had the capacity to achieve these kinds of results. there may or may not be a salutary tale there somewhere.

tomorrow is a rest day.

Haytor MDCC Hill Climb

yesterday was the MDCC Haytor Hillclimb. it’s an incredibly beautiful part of this island; standing atop the devon moorland, the Tor watches silently over the primeval landscape of Dartmoor whilst ponies meander nonchalantly and daytrippers pause only to unburr their putties and buy ice cream. of course, there is no time to stop and stare, it’s a race, a 3.2 mile ascent of savage undulations and false-flats, up out of bovey tracey, and onwards, a ribboning single helix bringing misery to cyclists, casual and competitive. i went off too hard, a schoolboy error, always. i was also in the wrong gear, which was a bit stupid. these things happen. neither of which deprived me of my first podium finish in an open event – 3rd place – and some prize-money. james dobbin didn’t catch me either, so either i’m getting quicker, or he is getting a bit slower. i think i’m getting marginally quicker. the catch is always on, but sometimes i elude his grasp… hare and tortoise. except he won, of course.

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