It’s generally accepted that if you want to go quicker, you need to train hard. When I’m beaten by very quick people I tend to frame it within a certain context – their rapidity is a product of the amount of time and effort expended in training. I know how much time and effort I have available, and when coupled with a fluctuating amount of willpower find that it precludes any rewriting of the cycling record books.
It’s also accepted that if you want to go quicker up hill, you need to train hard on hills. the key to all of this skullduggery is the nasty world of the interval session. I can’t think of anything less enticing than the prospect of a savage bout of interval training, but it is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap.
There’s not much point in going into the specific details of the sessions; you can do pyramids, reverse pyramids, 10×20, whatever tickles your fancy. Gordon Wright was the master coach of this particular dark art. The important part is making sure you are rested prior to doing a savage and unpleasant session.
I rode across the Downs and took things slowly, a gnawing sense of trepidation in the back of my mind. I was distracted for a short while by a flying cetacean and an enormous airborne tiger attacking some small children.
The sky was dotted with surreal creatures.
After the interlude – which included riding tubular tyres at 150psi across open grassland – i headed to a nearby incline to do battle. I managed 5 repetitions of a horrid loop; heading up a climb at full gas, riding across and back down and then doing it again. It was vile. Before each one I felt as though I couldn’t do another, but on starting you somehow push yourself over and above each time. There’s nothing enjoyable about it. It was made more strange by the presence of a couple walking up the hill who saw me come past 5 times.
Many years ago I used to laugh at a colleague who did ‘hill reps’. He was fitter and stronger than I was and would leave me in the dust when riding in Kent, particularly on the steep side of Toys. Things have changed, but it’s still worth laughing at people who are doing intervals or hill reps. Riding uphill is satisfying and a challenge; doing it several times in short succession and full speed is rank idiocy. They have no purpose outside of competitive bike riding. I can’t imagine that I’ll look back on my life in years to come with a wistful sigh, wishing that I’d done more hill interval sessions.
There is no ambiguity about training for hill climbs. It’s utterly revolting. It hurts like buggery, possibly worse, although i wouldn’t like to speculate any further what with this being a family blog. Yesterday was my first day of ‘proper’ hill climb training, consisting of a few half-hearted repetitions on a fixed wheel. Today was always going to be the full English.
The intention today was to get some hills into the legs. More generally, i can loosely break my training block down as follows:
1. Ride hilly routes, tempo, with hard efforts on the hills and some recovery between. (this isn’t all that different to my usual training, just even lumpier and more masochistic).
2. Ride hills repeatedly and as fast as I can until i feel like blowing chunks, or on occasion, begin retching repeatedly on a grass verge, repeat.
3. Eat less, cut out all ancillary gourmet items, including chocolate. when combined with the latter part of (2), this has a significant effect on racing weight.
So it’s a heady mix of losing weight and riding way above both lactate threshold and into the realm of oxygen debt. Frequently. You can see why it’s so much fun.
In order to squeeze a marginal 6,500 feet or nearly 2000 metres into 60 miles you have to plot a careful route that runs up and down the escarpment of the Mendips, or subsitute Mendips for your local range of hills. In the absence of an Alpine Mountain it’s quite tricky to do. By some margin the worst climb of the day was Draycott Steeps. In fact, I would argue it’s the hardest climb in the Mendips and amongst the most difficult climbs you are likely to face. It isn’t absurdly steep, like the Rosedale Chimney, nor is it an undulating and long beast, like Shap Fell. It’s almost as straight as an arrow with a few gentle bends, and it stays at almost unrelenting and consistent 10%, but increases to around 16% as you near the top, just to rub it in. By this point, if you’re stupid enough to ride around with nothing more than a 25 cog to cover your modesty, your legs will be dancing to their own syncopated rhythm and your lungs and chest will be heaving like a rolling, stormy sea. I crested the top and began to relax when i rode almost straight into a herd of cattle coming the other way. the bassy and rasping lows of the friesans were not dissimilar to my ragged breaths.
All of which clearly makes it a ‘must-do’ climb and I highly recommend it. I wouldn’t attempt it fixed. Or at least, i wouldn’t attempt it fixed on anything over 50″. Which might make getting there quite a long journey.
Another highlight of the day was the chance to see my favourite road sign.
I also dropped down the Gorge on my way to tackling Shipham. Cheddar Gorge never ceases to amaze me. It’s worth remembering some sage advice given to me once by a mountain biker (unusually, and probably the only piece of sage advice given by a mountain biker to anyone, ever) who i used to work with. he said neatly, ‘think goat’. I didn’t think anything more of his exhortation to think goat, until one day, when descending at about 40mph, i came across a family of goats making the road their own space and had to do a high speed weave and goat-evasion manoeuvre. Ever since then, the motto has been ringing in my ears whenever i stamp on the pedals at the top of the gorge, ready for the blast to the bottom. For what it’s worth, descending the Gorge is a much more spectacular affair than ascending, which is pretty boring. It’s not much of a climb, despite being used for the National Hill Climb Championship a few years back.
I saw a peregrine falcon but was too tardy to pap it. Doesn’t help that the Peregrine is the avian equivalent of Mark Cavendish either, the speedy little blighters.
Lastly, i came across a group of cyclists doing a highly specific charity ride, from Lympstone to Arbroath. They turned left before i got to speak to them, but their story is an interesting one. Living in the southwest and near the A38 i used to see End-to-Enders quite often in the summer months when commuting home from work. It’s an arduous undertaking. Maybe one day, when the hills all get too much for my atrophied and old legs.
I got back from a relaxing and lovely holiday yesterday. Which means it’s time to start thinking about the last phase of the season: the eternal quest to defy gravity, quickly. Like most disciplines, Hill Climbing requires a degree of specialist equipment, with a clear focus on the old adage, ‘less is more’. It’s also a discipline that lends itself to riding fixed. This year, my intention is to do a few more than normal on the single gear, typically i do one or two fixed, just for fun. With the National Championship being held on the Rake, i think it’s likely that i’ll ride fixed. Therefore i’m going to commit and ride a few more this season in a similar manner.
Today i set about converting my Bob Jackson into hillclimb mode. I have a sense of affinity with the bike, i’ve had it for a number of years and it has done me proud. I ran it ragged round the streets of london as my commuting bike for about 3 years. I’ve raced on it at Herne Hill velodrome, and it’s also hit the boards at Newport. When i moved to Bristol the bike was stolen. I’d injudiciously left it locked outside a pub in Stoke’s Croft and when i came back out there was only a void where once there was a bicycle. Miraculously, and in no small part due to the eagle-eyes of a friend in London, the bike came up for sale on ebay nearly a year later, and even more miraculously, considering the rank inefficiency of ebay and their general pandering to petty crime and larceny, i managed to get the bike back.
I rode the Bob Jackson in my first ever competitive event, a hillclimb on Burrington Coombe, where i came 5th. I was dressed against the cold, rather than in the skimpy hillclimber’s attire. I had heavy wheels on and 25mm tyres. I did take the bottle cage off though. This year Bob had a refit at Argos Racing Cycles and is now a beautiful deep orange colour.
It’s now pretty much in hillclimb mode, barring a few changes to save a bit more weight.
it has a campag chainset, an adapted road double, with 3/32 drivetrain and miche sprockets – much easier to change. the front is a 39t, the rear currently 16t, but I anticipate going down to 20 if necessary. Rear wheel is arc-en-ciel super champion laced to a hope hub, front is a px carbon (660g with tyre). bars and stem are cinelli, seat post is FSA, saddle is a thin strip of torture weighing 125g.
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.
Some cyclists are superstitious about odd things. Lance Armstrong wouldn’t shave the night before a race, due to the energy required to regrow the hair, apparently.
my hair is currently getting long, although it’s not really long, i’ve not suddenly become some goddamn longhair hippy hipster mulleteer, but it is in need of a cut. my sideburns are getting unruly, inching down my face day by day. i had planned to get it cut along with the beard once the hillclimb season came around, but it’s one of those things, the longer i leave it the more i think i may as well leave it until the last race, thus avoiding any samsonite style catastrophes.
tomorrow is the penultimate race of the season, the beastly Nick O’ Pendle, with it’s varied and horribly steep gradients. it’s been the scene of the national on more than one occasion, and i’m sure will return again.
I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing, but looking forward to it. i warmed up today at the Nelson Wheelers climb on Barley Moor. Strangely enough i just happened to take my girlfriend up north and met my mum when two hillclimbs just happened to be occuring in the near vicinity, for the second year running! imagine! what are the chances!
interestingly, last year i remember feeling disappointed that i hadn’t ridden hard enough, not really dug deep. this is confirmed by the blog. this year i was determined to make amends, and whatever happened to just make sure I really pushed the pace and hurt myself. i succeeded in this respect, blasted out of the gate and hit the lower slopes really hard, so much so that half way up i began to have doubts about whether i could sustain the effort. this is what happens on shorter climbs, where it’s about pain management. i tried to ignore the lactic and the climb was over almost before it seemed to have really got started. there were 4 other riders on the startsheet who had beaten me before, including raleigh/orbea rider Mike Cuming, National Bronze Medallist Ian Stott, and Carl Helliwell, the latter two being part of a very strong Blackburn District CTC outfit who have one the national team prize on previous occasions.
I managed a 3.42 for the climb, compared to a 4.24 last year, this is at least in part due to a bit of a gift tailwind (fingers crossed for tomorrow). This put me inside the course record by around 18 seconds. In effect, i held the course record for about 2 minutes, the time it took for Mike Cuming to make it up in 3.30. I took second, beating everyone else. i was surprised and pleased as punch to beat a real quality field, and be within shouting distance of Mike who has been riding in europe with the professional Orbea 20 road team.
it was a great day, but it really hurt, and by really hurt, i mean stabbing lung pain and sprinter’s cough, sore legs, sore chest, the lot. in fact, it was the most hurt i’ve had this year. maybe tomorrow after the Nick i’ll have to reassess this.
I’m beginning to think Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a latent cyclist; first brockley coombe, and now Porlock Hill. He was quite the adventurer (and drug-crazed visionary); his frequent perambulations taking him to the very edge of the precipice; sometimes literally:
In 1802, on a stormy summer’s afternoon in the Lake District, Samuel Coleridge is playing a game of Russian roulette. Standing on the summit of Scafell, a stubby, precipitous mountain if taken from the wrong angle, he has chosen to descend at random, ‘too confident, and too indolent to look around’ for a safe route down.
Coleridge is soon in trouble. Lowering himself over a small cliff, he soon realises he cannot retrace his steps. Then, he finds himself teetering above a steep drop. He appears to be trapped. True to his nature, Coleridge lies down on his back and, with his senses reeling from the wild perspectives you can only find on a steep mountainside, feels himself enter a state of ecstasy: ‘O God, I exclaimed aloud – how calm, how blessed am I now – I know not how to proceed, how to return, but I am calm and fearless and confident.’
Liberated from fear, he achieves a serene, practical awareness and what has seemed like a dead end now becomes a way forward. Most of us regard risking our lives in this way as foolish, but such profound experiences are compelling, even addictive.
i retraced some of his steps this weekend, cycling the 80 miles or so from bristol to lynmouth on friday after work, before returning on sunday. it was quite an epic slog, all told, of long hours spent in the saddle. but what elevated this from a typical training ride was the purpose – heading down to lynmouth to see old friends and new (which always makes me feel a bit antediluvian because everyone else is driving down in short time whilst i’m spending 5 hours riding across the length and breadth of somerset) and the short distance from minehead to lynmouth over the tops of the headlands. it is one of the most serenely beautiful parts of England; cliffs lurch up out of the bristol channel, climbing over 1100 feet, and the coast road goes directly over, rather than around.
the excitement starts just after nether stowey; a small sleepy village with further coleridge connections. the road begins to undulate and the views across to wales become more pronounced; the stark monumental rectangle of Hinckley Point serves as a counterpoint to the soft contours of wooded hills, dipping and rising to the sea. this continues to minehead, at which point the view of the forthcoming headland dominates; in every way impressive, the road a distant silver script etched across the open moorland, winding upwards with a flourish. signs warn of the approach of porlock from some distance – advising caravans, lorries and pantechnicons to take another route that offers less chance of disaster.
1 in 4 doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that in new money it’s a 25% climb – for about half a mile, and then beyond. and after that it still dances upwards, mockingly. i really like hills – genuinely, i thrive when riding up and relish the challenge. i really like porlock hill, it’s incredibly beautiful and utterly impressive. but it is not enjoyable to ride up, it’s utterly horrendous; this is simply because it is too steep; thus destroying any rhythm. it’s so steep that if you sit down and pedal the front wheel lifts off the ground with every pedal stroke. there are two savage hairpins where the angle must ramp up a further 5%, with one of them on the inside, forcing you to accelerate just to get up.
for this next picture i paused briefly (on the return leg, not whilst going up – any pause would mean walking, it’s impossible to clip back in on a hill this steep) in the escape road, a gravel trap intended to stop any runaway cars…
i made it up, but it destroyed my legs for the remainder of the ride; i was also carrying a large bag with my clothes and shoes for the weekend, which isn’t recommended. i continued up over the top, with views of exmoor to the left, and the bristol channel and wales to the right. the road clings desperately to the edge of the slope, before dropping down into lynmouth via countisbury hill; another 1:4 incline, but with clear lines of sight that allow speeds of up to 65mph, if feeling brave/stupid.
on the return, roles are reversed; countisbury becomes savage and brutal, but unfortunately porlock doesn’t reward the effort, such is the steepness that a hair-raising descent is not possible; it’s a fingers to the brakes, delicate and fearful drop. the warning signs don’t help.
my legs feel very heavy today; but it’s that sort of dull heaviness that promises more strength to come. i have paid homage to one of the road climbs yet to elude me, and feel calmly satisfied.
The highlight of this weekend (amongst other things) has been a trip to the black mountains for cycling purposes. as part of preparation for ventoux, me and two others decided to head out and tackle the gospel pass, a lovely and fairly long climb that stretches between abergavenny and hay on wye. the weather seemed spring-like, with temperatures rising and a first outing for my 3/4 lengths; a significant moment after the winter we have had. the first ten miles or so were beautiful, clear and no wind; but as we began to climb the cloud descended and the wind picked up – with a clear micro-climate enshrouding the mountains.
there was still the remnants of snowfall on the edges and in the sheltered spots; glacial and frozen snowdrifts that linger on despite the slight warmth in the air; it seemed vaguely surreal. the Gospel Pass kicks up on a few occasions and is a very narrow single track road; barely any cars seem to be there, or any humans at all, instead it’s populated by hardy hill-sheep and depressed looking livestock.
in the far distance is graham, just coming up to the crest. once over the top it’s a precipitous and fairly windy descent down to hay, which can be taken at high speed. for the rest of the ride we tended to skirt the edge of the hills; occasionally venturing back into the national park; every turn inwards meant a hill of 1 in 4, or with ramps going up to 1 in 3, and the height gain was very rapid and pretty astounding. it’s amazing how easy it is to get there, and how utterly awe-inspiring the cycling is. my legs ache, a good sign.