The Horseshoe Pass Hill Climb

and so to this year’s most prestigious event outside of the National Championship Hill Climb, the Fibrax Wrexham CC event on the Horseshoe Pass in North Wales. It’s an epic trek from Bristol, but i thought it was worth it for a couple of reasons; it’s a long climb, 3.1 miles of steady gradient with two or three ramps, and it’s in an incredibly beautiful part of this sceptred isle. i ignored the ratio of petrol costs to prize money and concentrated on the experience of riding my bike (albeit competitively) in a fantastic setting, blessed by unseasonally wondrous weather. this philosophical approach seemed to pay dividends. i was relatively calm and relaxed throughout, with the exception of the race. i drove up the day before and took the opportunity to ride the course in the evening sunlight. i relished the physical sense of riding in such an amazing place; the mountains and hills undulate and fold along patchwork terraces of fields, giving a sense of being surrounded on all sides by something far bigger and more significant, and yet benign – hewn in rock through millenia, with the faint efforts of people amounting to nothing more than pencil etching of a road  marked along the striations in the slate ridges.

whilst returning from the pass i bumped into two cyclists i met last year at the National, one of whom was Simon Warren. He’s the writer of a great cycling book, ‘100 greatest climbs‘. i heartily recommend it, the Horseshoe gets a 7 out 0f 10 for difficulty. We got to talking about things various, and expressed our displeasure at the choice of ‘hill’ for this year’s national. there may be a blog post there, i shall not mention it further now.

"long hill, bends": true fact.

the morning of the climb was a bit damp and mizzly, in contrast to the world of record october everywhere else, but the silver lining in these particular clouds was a gift tailwind for the last 300 metres where the road swung out of the horseshoe and up over the top. i chose to leave the garmin in the car. i’ve come to the conclusion that the garmin is pretty much useless in hillclimbs. it tells you accurate information – specifically that you are riding slowly, uphill, and your heart-rate is absolutely ripping through your chest; the legs and all other aspects of the body are locked in a mortal struggle to keep turning over the cadence, and there’s not an awful lot you can do about it, other than put on your painface and pedal harder. i didn’t miss it at all. in fact, i felt more comfortable not worrying about it and just rode the race.

the central bit of the horseshoe

one of the more difficult things was being the last rider off. James Dobbin didn’t start – and i’d been placed second to last, leaving me as the last rider on the road, which was certainly a first. the bottom end of the field was stacked with quick riders, but i hadn’t been seeded. The quickest on paper was Richard Handley who rides for the Raleigh UCI team, and is extremely quick. He rode this year’s Tour of Britain and the Olympic Test Event, amongst other things, whilst i was mixing it up on the Graveyard. Also in attendance was Mark Lovatt, his palmares is a thing to behold, suffice to say they don’t let just anyone race for Great Britain at the UCI world championships.

I rode fairly hard all the way, it’s very much a rhythm and cadence climb; find a gear, get on top of it and don’t let up, force the pedals through and ride as hard as you possibly can, a fraction from blowing a gasket. apart from one particular section, it’s a quick and pacy climb. the last bit caught me out slightly, it rises to 20% for 200 metres, causing a real flood of lactic acid and a bit of out of the saddle pain management, but then the last bit was a tailwind-fuelled, big-ring charge for the checkered board. i stayed sat down and hammered it, just coming in under 10 minutes for the climb with a 9.52. this translates to about 18.5 mph for the 3.1 mile climb. i think. (should have checked the garmin).

looking back at the steepest bit

there was some sort of kerfuffle at the top with the times. apparently someone went off in the wrong slot due to a DNS, and all sorts of crazy shenanigans broke loose. a stern-looking lady in a luminous tabard managed to quell the hordes and set things right. it involved taking a minute off everyone from 61 onwards. apparently. i’d like to add that for my start slot i had no countdown. it was almost amusing. the timekeeper and starter looked confused and a bit haunted. he got me wrong and the guy in front, we both were sent off rather suddenly, with a ‘you better go now actually, yes, go go’. quite disconcerting.

the finish was at the ponderosa cafe. we shared the space with legions of terrifying bikers who queue up to assault the horseshoe pass on high-powered motorbikes. i imagine they’re usually inside Chris Boardman’s course record. brief results are below. i won a lovely shiny medal for my efforts, although the image depicts two cyclists lunging for the line, which couldn’t be further from the truth for the solitary, existential quagmire that is the hillclimb.

1. Richard Handley UCI Raleigh 9.23

2. Dan Evans ROS CC 9.33

3. John Findley Southport CC 9.39

4. Paul Jones BSCC 9.52

5. Mark Lovatt Planet-X 10.18

6. Darren Biggs Deeside CC 10.38

Next week sees the action shift to Brighton for a two-stage humdinger. I’m seeded this time, as is Pete Tadros who will probably absolutely thrash the pants off everyone in a showstopping demonstration of uphill power.

startled onlooker

Dovers/Saintbury

Dovers Hill is one of the more famous hillclimbs in the sport. it’s been used as a national course on numerous occasions, including last year when i finished 24th. Saintbury has also been used as a National on many occasions, ridden by Brian Robinson and other luminaries of the sport. I prefer Saintbury, it’s longer and once you get over the initial ramp it sticks at a decent gradient that encourages rhythm and cadence. in short, i prefer it because it suits me. it took me a while to get going this morning, possibly after yesterday’s exertions, it’s hard to tell. i limped up in 6.38, which put me in around 5th place on the climb, just beaten by some other chap by one second to 5th. as usual, i got to ruminating about how i might have found that extra second. i’m not sure, probably on the bottom section. there was a healthy crowd at the top, at least 3 deep for around 2 metres either side of the road. this gathering of the tifosi was augmented by Mike, father of Belle, and his team of hardy long distance (they regularly eat 100 mile rides for breakfast, LeJog has been ticked off, Mike recently tackled some impressive italian cols on a seriously weighty sit-up-and-beg hire bike) cyclists who made the detour to check out the pain and existential quagmire of self-doubt and suffering that is ‘the hillclimb’. this morning over breakfast mike mentioned that his snazzy new(ish) polaris jacket was ‘beyond bright’. i can confirm that the polaris jacket is indeed the brightest on the block. i could see it halfway up the incline, a flaming beacon of orange. it brightened my soul and as i went for my second catch (nearly, on the line, caught a hold of the second minute man) i could see and hear the encouragement. it was much appreciated.

the two hour gap between climbs when doing a double is probably the toughest part. you need to eat, but not too much, and stay warm and supple. it’s hard work. i also saw that there were around 3 seconds between me, Rob Yeatman and another chap in the battle for 4th, 5th or 6th. Rob’s a fantastic athlete; he’s 18 years old (junior) and he’s frighteningly quick. in the event, i trounced the other guy (i forget his name) but got well and truly walloped by Rob who rode a 4. 21, beating the mighty Dobbin in the process. Chapeau. I’m pleased with 5th, i got a medal (straight in the trophy cabinet), and despite the slower times (about 3 seconds slower on each than last year) the headwind for the second day running probably saw to that. i hope so anyway. when i set out the results i’m more happy. it looks better on paper than it does just saying ‘5th’.

1. Tejvan Pettinger (4th last year’s national, super strong this year)

2. Matt Clinton (National Champion, 2008)

3. James Dobbin (National Champion, 2006, 2007)

4. Rob Yeatman (Super quick junior riding for Mick Ives team, national paracyling champion)

5. Me.

next week i am making the schlep northwards for the Fibrax Wrexham event on the Horseshoe Pass. it’s long, long, long, for which i am grateful. it’s also quite a prestigious event. current course record is possessed by James Dobbin, who took it from Chris Boardman, who you might have heard of. he holds the record for the fastest tour de france prologue ever.

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