Burrington Combe Hill Climb: Fix Up Look Sharp!

Last night i didn’t sleep fantastically well. It was classic case of ‘race eve nerves’. At one point I was literally dreaming about the Burrington Hill Climb. In my addled and sleep-deprived mind I dreamt that Tavis Walker obliterated the course record with a 6.21, slicing a mere 30 seconds from Tejvan’s mark in 2011. I was glad when morning came around. I ate some nutella on toast and then rode down to the Mendips.

In a roundabout sort of way I tend to target the Burrington Hill Climb (even in my dreams). I know that not having form for September and the 1st week of October is fine, as long as I can sense that it’s not far away. I’m sure it’s the same for most cyclists, but you tend to know when you’re heading in the right direction: things start to feel good and the weight stays at the right place. More so than that, riding uphill at a brisk tempo becomes relatively easy. Last weekend at Holme Moss and Jackson Bridge I felt as though I was getting there; i felt light and relatively quick, even if the time and placing told a slightly different story. I had an inkling that a few more training rides this week followed by a short taper – essentially 2 full days rest – would do the trick. If i time it right then it carries over into the last week of the season and the National Hill Climb, which is pretty much what happened last year.

The Burrington Hill Climb is my favourite event and it’s the one that means the most to me in cycling terms. 3 years ago, it was my first event and I came 5th. I’ve already said this in this blog, so apologies for repetition. Essentially it kickstarted everything else that you may have since read about. It led to a transformation from being a weekend leisure cyclist, if not too hungover, to becoming a fully fledged racing snake. Burrington is an absolute measure of progress in terms of placings. If I do well, then the season suddenly becomes much more successful than it might have seemed 8 minutes previously. It’s also a classic roadman’s climb – tough and challenging, but also long and without any evil pitches in gradient. This suits me down to the ground, you can just about ride it at threshold, a sort of TT pace but slightly above the 10 mile effort, without needing to go into the total paroxysm of oxygen death. With the exception of the sprint for the line, of course.

The event was fantastically well supported with the biggest number of spectators I’ve seen on the Combe road. The bend before the cattle grid was lined with eager spectators, gladiatorially cheering the combatants onward and upwards. I confess: i forewent a long warm-up and for the first half of the race I was also cheering before heading down to race, then sneaking back down after my ride to catch the last 10 or so. The atmosphere was fantastic, pots, pans and cowbells were ringing out along with shouts and cheers. Rich Lewton took some super pictures.

Marc Allen throws his gurn at the climb, i wave a cowbell and shout aggressively in his face to help matters along.

I had a minor degree of gear anxiety before this event. My sneaking suspicion was that it would be quicker on gears, but I’d opted for fixed, so that was that. I stuck a 16 tooth cog on the back (39 on front), aiming for about 64″ which should have been just right, but I feared might be a tiny bit light on some of the faster (flatter) sections. I knew that Tavis Walker was also riding fixed, along with some other riders further down the field, possibly one or two more.

Tavis on a particularly lush 27″ Rotrax Super Course.

A quick run up the climb confirmed that it would be fine. I always forget that essentially you’re not going to spin out a 64″ gear going uphill. 19mph requires a cadence of 100rpm, the race is won with a 16mph average speed. Competition at the top was ferocious, with Rob Gough fresh from his win at Catford, Glyndwr Griffiths alongside having won at Cardiff Byways and nailed 4th at both the Cat and Bec, and Tavis still pedalling in the same super smooth circles he turned in a season of successful elite road racing for Wilier.

Whilst warming up Tavis said he thought the climb ‘had my name on it’. I was a bit sheepish and doubted this. He then said (and I might be paraphrasing slightly, but this is very much the gist):

‘Sometimes you just have to turn up and smash it, and know you’re going to smash it, and then get out on the road and smash it’.

I definitely had managed the first bit; the ‘turning up’, but it was the second bit that I was a bit unsure about. I told him i would certainly try and smash it. In truth, I knew i’d throw the kitchen sink at the climb, because I know the climb and was fairly sure about how to pace it.

I used my Casio wristwatch as a timer. This means starting it when the timekeeper gets to ’10’. I always forget this and then think my ride is even slower than I thought it was. This can have a beneficial effect in that I then try a bit harder to rescue things. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a Garmin on the bike. The lower slopes were fine, i got into a rhythm but with a real sense of urgency, I kept asking myself if I could turn it a bit quicker, maybe go a bit faster. I didn’t want to lose any time or pace. Rounding the corner and onto the straight ahead of the bend I could see a line of people curving round and could hear the noise reverberating around the tree-lined walls, impelling me upwards.

James Chant passes the sea of colour and noise, chasing that elusive sub-9 minute ride
(pic Rich Lewton)

Once over the cattle grid I checked my watch and the time was surprisingly slow. I didn’t think I was having an off-day, but it was just ticking over at about 7 minutes. I distinctly remember thinking that Tejvan would have finished by now (going by last year’s staggeringly quick course record) and I still had about a minute to go. The dreamtime Ur-Tavis would have finished an hour ago. At this point you don’t tend to think, ‘oh it must be a slow day’, you just tend to think ‘i’m not going well or anywhere near quick enough, but I hope that it’s the same for everyone and maybe, just maybe it’s a slow day and I can be happy with a slow time’.

mendip murkery

At the top the fog was fairly dense and it made it very hard to see the finish. You had to trust your instincts and get it all out anyway. I was rasping like Keats in Rome,  but finally managed to see the rusty cars on the right and the bright timekeeper’s umbrella on the left which signalled the cessation of hostilities. The casio said i’d managed it in around 7.50 or so. I spun back down to the bend and cheered on the remaining racers. For about ten minutes i struggled with deep feelings of nausea. I overcame these by shouting at riders.

the end of the race, the onset of nausea

it’s always great to see other riders going up, and something you don’t always get the chance to do. I cheered on Rob Gough by doing an old fashioned TdF close-up shout and cheer.

4 times as long as the Cat or Bec…

It was great to see so many first-timers taking on the unrelenting but curiously addictive challenge of the hill climb. Dan Levrier rode fantastically well, taking 17th place and carding a 9.05. It would have certainly been sub 9 if he’d reversed the cap and ditched the wellies.

Dan Levrier, bag maker and coffee enthusiast, gives it some welly

And i also managed to witness a few other people trying to put down a marker in the most contested competition of the year: Faces of Pain, 2012…

Every sinew is at the limit. The nose runneth untempered.
Tom W closes his eyes and for a few stuttered moments glimpses Elysium
Afterwards, Tom Ilet said, ‘I rode the perfect 6 minute hillclimb’. This photo was taken at around the 7 minute mark. Tom is now a clear frontrunner in FOP 2012.
I hope that this slightly skewed grin is a primitive response to pain and not a sign that Mark is actually enjoying the experience.

I was still no nearer to knowing how i’d done. I bumped into Rob Gough on the way back to the HQ and he said he’d ridden a 7.51 and was lying second. I suspected this left me in first place, waiting on Tav’s time. This was confirmed when I saw the results board; i’d managed a 7.48.9 to Rob’s 7.51.4. Glyn had handed in a 7.52.9. It was suddenly squeaky bum time. After an eternity, the remaining times were delivered by hand. Tavis managed a 7.52.3.

I’ve won 4 open events this year. Each one has been pretty amazing, but I’ve not felt overwhelmed at any point. Today was entirely different. Of all the events I’ve ridden, this one singularly means more than the rest. To win the event was overwhelming. I felt emotional and elated; my peers were incredibly gracious in their praise. Even now, as I type this, I find it hard to believe that I’ve won against such stellar and impressive riders. I’m also thrilled to bits that i managed it on fixed wheel. This shouldn’t surprise any devotees of the sport, but in these days of super-light alien weaponry, riding a Bob Jackson with 631 Reynolds tubes is a slightly brave step. Possibly not as brave as riding a 1950 Rotrax, but on a par. Bristol South CC took the team prize, unsurprisingly, with 1st, 3rd and 4th (and 7th and 10th) and the fixed prize went to Malcolm Chave of Okehampton – the chap who sportingly rode up Haytor on a 64″ gear earlier this year. Lucy Walker took the ladies prize, just nudging ahead of Claire Greenfield and Christina Gyles – a sharp BSCC ladies’ team if ever there was one.

In a sense, my season is done. It’s changed from being a pretty surprising and successful year to being something else entirely – a year that I’ll probably look back on with a mixture of awe and amazement and will be proud of in future. After getting a bit of a kicking on a few different climbs, along with a great ride on Haytor, it all came together at the right moment. I’m proud to have won this event for Bristol South CC and for John Kempe.

Constancy of purpose is the secret of success…

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A Small Good Thing: John Kempe

This year’s Burrington Hill Climb sees an enormous field of 72 riders taking part. In amongst them, taking up a large part of the field, are 28 members of the Bristol South Cycling Club. It’s the culmination of a season where new members have come into the club and really helped to forge the identity of the South as a club that rides. Whether it’s road racing, the classic league, time trials, the ever-popular club run or hill climbs, Bristol South Cycling Club Members are there at the front in the red and gold.

John Kempe in Hill Climb mode for the red and gold

Many of those members have come into the club because of the warm welcome offered to new cyclists. They recognise the camaraderie of cycling and see that the fellowship of the road is alive and well in the West Country. This is what makes a cycling club different to all other organisations: the fellowship of the road. I have close friends who have joined this year and ridden in road races. They were diffident and initially unsure of what joining a club entailed, perhaps even fearful of the implied ‘loss of identity’, a vague worry that a cycling club might be a borg-like collective that thrives in mediocrity of the masses, rather than individual freedom of expression. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Within the club there is no hierarchy, only the formalities of doing things by committee.  This exists in the background and functions only to uphold the name and identity of the club and to support the pledge made in a Totterdown coffee tavern on Hill Avenue in 1893 – constancy of purpose is the secret of success. It is an amateur affair with strong roots in Bedminster and it is an inextricable and fundamental part of the social fabric of the city.

Two days ago our club president John Kempe died. I ride regularly with his son, Dan, and his grandson also races with the club on occasions. Photos of John racing show a bike rider in full flow: souplesse, elegance and speed. In 1961 he was a part of a Bristol South CC team that came first in the National BBAR competition, with Chris Holloway coming third in the individual event and Jeff Fry the third counter.

John Kempe: souplesse

Every club has at least one John Kempe; a figure who lives and breathes for cycling, who is both the witness to and a catalyst for the ceaselessly benevolent effect the sport can have on people’s lives. I’m not sure John Kempe would hold himself up as a paragon of virtue, or any other kind of saint, he was someone who did what he loved and gained great enjoyment from doing it and from seeing other people enjoy it.

style and panache

It’s easy to fall into a cyclical way of thinking in these fickle modern times, that everyone has a book in them, that everyone has 15 minutes of fame, that we all need to achieve something stellar in order to create a lasting impression and somehow overcome our insubstantial and omnipresent mortality. It’s the opposite. No-one is destined for greatness, the only thing we are destined to do is live and then die. But there is a profound and significant meaning in making small but positive differences to other people’s lives, and it’s something I try and remember. We strive to make a significant difference or to have some kind of lasting and profound impact, when in reality the profound impact we have is often not even noticed by us when we do it, it’s something small and almost insubstantial, it’s the accumulation of small things and the positive and lasting legacy we can have on others, both in our lifetime and outside of it.There’s a Raymond Carver story called ‘A Small Good Thing’ that articulates this kind of thing better than I can.

Timelessness

John Kempe achieved many impressive things. His legacy lies in the sustained success of the club and in the shared values of each person who joins. This year’s record entry for the Hill Climb is a fitting tribute and I will be riding with his presence uppermost in my mind. As John Legge put it succinctly, ‘he was a true gent’.