See No Evil

Hillclimb training was interrupted briefly over the weekend by two weddings. It’s really hard to exercise restraint when faced with an array of delectable baked goods, not to mention a cheeseboard. But i had factored this in and it was good to enjoy a brief hiatus and some cornish yarg.

Today i rode to Wells to see Graham and Suzi Douchebag, the Audax King and Queen. They are fresh back from a tour of Northern Europe, taking in Southern Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark and Holland. They are quite partial to epic tours and this is another impressive installment in their randonneur palmarès.

I then rode back over the Mendips. It was murky and grey, in stark contrast to the rest of North Somerset and South Bristol, where the sun shone in defiance of the doom-mongering weathermen. I was disappointed in the lack of waving from my fellow cyclists today, but this was counterbalanced by a chat with two cyclists when i reached Dundry. They were admiring the view over the city. It transpired that they had also just got back from a tour of Northern Europe, taking in the same countries. It made me want to go on a tour.

hard times
it was murky

Later on I went out for a ride in the sunshine with Belle. My ‘town’ steed of choice has been adapted for hillclimb season. So i rode it round town, with tubs and full lightweight set up and fingers crossed.

Good news for cyclists!

The grey murk of the mendips contrasted sharply with the bright and vibrant colours of the amazing See No Evil street art.

see no evil

velasquez meets bacon in the back streets of bristol

Base Club: Lactic Hell

Base club today was very similar to last week: out to clevedon, along the flats, over the mendips and back home. it was a fixed wheel blast without the heinous blusteriness of the last few days, and everyone riding well. apart from me – i’ve ridden a lot this week so was having trouble with lactic acid in my leg muscles, I seemed to be operating at a much lower threshold than normal. it’s time for a rest day, perhaps today should have been the rest day, not that it makes a lot of odds.

belle bought her new bike. it’s a trek lexa, and it’s very nice. a full review will follow, based on her comments. i am not going to attempt to ride it, it’s rather small. she got it from strada cycles in bedminster. i cannot recommend these chaps highly enough; support your local bike shop!

elsewhere, i saw a cat attack and kill a rat. it was a spectacular demonstration of the savagery of life in bedminster.

Steve objects to being "papped"
Shadows on the wall
the grupetto crests the M5
Trotterz did well today, once he'd eaten 5 energy gels for breakfast
i liked the shadows from the low winter sun
more shadows
and more.
Kieran was struggling a bit today. not that it was evident.
this dog appeared to be driving this truck.
belle's new bike
something had to give, in this case it was the rat.

hill climb season

the short and brutish hill-climb season is all but here; and as i’ve loudly made it my season’s aim, it means i have to start working a lot harder and racing much more than i have been. this entails lots of hilly rides, seeking out savage climbs and riding them at pace, frequently above what might be comfortable. i kicked off my training proper (after a delightful enforced absence with belle in italy, eating pizza and ice cream) with a couple of rides into and around the mendips; these hurt a lot. it can be hard to find the motivation when other things are happening, but also when the weather is absolutely vile, as it has been for some time. i threw caution to the wind and went out in all conditions.

some of my favourite climbs near here are:

dundry – from both sides, although i prefer the longer, more subtle climb; it’s now right on  my doorstep which is a cause for much rejoicing.

blagdon – up through the village, straight on, around, and up to the top of the mendips. essentially, it climbs from the lake at the bottom, but i see the start of the climb as being the junction of the high street and the main road. this one is a total stinker, about 14%, if not more, and long.

burrington – the location for the BSCC hillclimb; it’s not overly steep but it is long and requires very careful pacing; i like this one a lot, but feel pressure when riding it because i know it’s a race hill.

wrington hill – a sort of hidden gem, it’s a wall, a complete beast, but thankfully quite short.

there are others, the mendips are littered with climbs edging up and down the escarpments; deer leap, draycott, brockley, red hill, cheddar gorge… it’s relatively easy to go out on a road ride and find you’ve done over 400o feet of climbing in an afternoon, much of it very steep; this is no mean feet, and matches the kind of height gain you’d find ascending ventoux. my friend chris has a ride he does once a year called ‘every climb in the mendips’, and unfortunately the title is literal, it takes around 8 hours.

so yes, hill climb season is pretty much here – and mine started last night with the dursley club hill climb, up stouts hill in the cotswolds. this is a short and sharp climb into a state of penury and wobbly legs, and this hill and I have a bit of previous – it featured as the last climb in the Dursley Hardriders back in April; i seem to remember limping up it in the granny ring on my way to seventh place. it was a very different experience last night; i took the fixed wheel and ran about 65″, which may have been a trifle too tall. i was hoping for a good placing – possibly even a win; being a club event it could have turned out to be a fish and chipper, especially considering the damp and miserable conditions. but really, the main aim was to wear the race number and experience the training benefits that subsequently occur.

a bit more about the conditions before i go on – riding in the rain is a tricky thing – it’s not that pleasant; but it is manageable on a winter bike with full guards. riding a lightweight hillclimb bike means a genuine soaking is on the cards; on the way back from the race i had to wait at the train station for half an hour, getting very cold indeed and feeling not unlike ian stannard. well, sort of.

however, riding up the hill, through the mist and fine rain, underneath an ever-darkening canopy of ancient deciduous woodland was an emotive and curiously uplifting experience; the sort of thing that you don’t get to do because it seems like a silly idea. on the climb the pervasive gloom bought out a genuine and unexpected ethereal beauty. i was chasing my minuteman, and he steadily emerged out of the darkness, gradually acquiring a distinct outline to distinguish him from the murk beyond, like a crespuscular being fighting a private elemental battle with the incline.  later, when on the way back through Uley i saw a flock of circling crows cast as blackened, twitching Vs against a blanket of grey fog; as distinct as stars in the cloth of night.

it was an informal affair at the startline, as befits a club event, signing on at the back of a car and so on. at first i took the wrong number, but survived my error. i knew derek from dursley would be racing, and he was the one to aim for – but then the situation changed somewhat when James Dobbin turned up. He’s a former national hillclimb champion and rider of some repute. and that was that really; thoughts of the win disappeared in the time it took him to extract his team-issue bike from the back of the car. he flew up the mile long climb, which has sections of 14%, and meanders at around 10-12%. his speed was breathtaking, and chastening. he broke the course record with a time of 4.59, derek took second in 5.45 and i got third in 5.47. doing it fixed was an experience, and a good one – but i think i lost time at the beginning where the first 200 metres are pretty flat; i was spinning out at this point. there’s another one next week and i shall try it on the gears to see if there is any difference. the weather may well be sunny – i certainly hope so, but the memory of the inclement conditions will linger for the right reasons.

Mountains of the Mind

i knew at some point i’d get round to writing about hills, the thought and the intention has been there since i started to write these tentative pages, and today is as good a day as any, having got it right on belmont and experienced the euphoria of accelerating over the crest, knowing i judged it perfectly. i seek them out when on the bike – and feel unfulfilled if out riding with someone leading and and there is a palpable absence of ascents. i get edgy, and feel as though the day has been wasted; but become excited when hills appear, sensing from the layout of the landscape that at a key moment the terrain will shift and the battle with the contours will begin, the road rolling upwards in short shifts in the way english hills tend to do.

some of my favourite hills in the UK include: toys hill near westerham- a nasty and very steep climb i used to ride up with chums when living in london; ditchling beacon near brighton – a bit of a mecca and the nadir (paradoxically) for pootlers or bromptonauts on the annual L2B run (or chaos on bikes).

I also like burrington combe and any of the Mendip climbs – cheddar gorge, blagdon, belmont, backwell, dearleap – with their varying degrees of savagery. whilst visiting my mother up north i have tackled lots of west yorkshire beasts; these tend to be sudden and very sharp indeed – chat hill road, hebden bridge, widdop, trawden being prime suspects. the mendip climbs in particular have had an effect on others; most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an early moutaineer (see robert macfarlane’s fantastic book ‘mountains of the mind‘) who wrote about the sublime, the profound feeling emerging from being on the precipice; of mountains and the effect on the soul (when not busy taking liquid opium and destroying himself). He even wrote about Brockley Coombe, a sub-mendip climb – now quite a shallow and steady road that runs up to the bristol airport, but then a stony ascent through woods.

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb’s ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
(‘Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest: -and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

I think of Coleridge when riding up the Coombe, it’s funny to think of him ascending by foot, possibly on one of his perambulations from nether stowey to bristol. my preferred gear when riding for ‘pleasure’ is round about 72″, which is perfect for Brockley, and i regularly do training rides in and around the mendips on a fixed wheel, building stamina and leg power. this year i rode the burrington hillclimb and geared down to a 65″. i was one of four riders riding fixed in a  field of 60 and came 5th overall. the climb was won by tejvan pettinger, a slip of a boy with quite a pedigree, riding a gossamer-light bicycle.  i beat the national men’s v4 champion by 4 seconds, the national woman’s champion by over a minute (for what it’s worth, i was pleased anyway) and was the first bristol south rider across the line – gaining my first ever trophy. tejvan was a further 40 seconds ahead of me; i shall endeavour to narrow the gap for next year, at which point i will be aiming to build form solely for the nationals, which i think is in gloucestershire, and hope against hope for a top thirty finish.

this summer i spent some time in the alps, riding up mythical tour climbs which alternately blew my mind and tore my legs off. the galibier, lautaret, alpe d’huez and les deux alpes. it built a degree of strength though, and i think next year i shall aim to tackle the tourmalet and a few of the pyrenean monsters – but i am also drawn back to one particular mountain: Ventoux. i tackled it two years ago on an incredibly beautiful spring day in April with no wind at all – unusually for a mountain frequently ravaged by winds in excess of 150mph. the weekend before the mountain was closed by heavy snowfall, which left high drifts on the side near the top and added to the other-worldy beauty of the landscape.

Before it had even entered the imaginative realm of cycling, it became an eye-opener for Petrach; who climbed it in the 14th century. He had this to say:
‘the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes. It is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigour of mind and strength and agility of body, we had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself… but as usually happens, fatigue quickly followed upon our excessive exertion, and we soon came to a halt at the top of a certain cliff.

At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance.

I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and reflected on the universal instability of human conduct. I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of the mediterranear, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.

Petrarch finished by describing the revelations that came to him:

men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not. We look about us for what is to be found only within. …. How many times did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation?”
The mountain in effect led to him to realise the real size of human imagination and our capacity to do achieve the infinite and transcend our humble origins. It opened his mind. Some 700 years later, Mont Ventoux retains its power to intoxicate, overwhelm and also destroy. It is famous now as one of the most difficult tour de france cycling climbs, and particularly as a mountain that has ended many cyclists hopes of winning the overall race. It holds a mythical place in cycling history, the Everest of bike racing. It appeared again this year for the 13th time, and is more dreaded than the fiercely steep Tourmalet, which has featured in the Tour 67 times. A common view is that whilst the Alps create drama, Ventoux creates tragedy.

In 1955 the Swiss veteran Ferdi Kubler attacked in scorching heat at the foot of the 14 mile climb. Raphael Geminiani warned him in no uncertain terms: “Beware, Ferdi, the Ventoux is not a climb like the others.” Yet Kubler, wearing a cotton racing cap, unaware of the perils of hubris, the visor turned up like a challenge, replied: ” I’m not a rider like the others.” In the stifling and heavy heat he fell like Breughel’s Icarus; the arcane and dangerous rules on water bottles no doubt sealed his downfall… the Ventoux was suffocating. Geminiani saw Kubler weaving around on his bike, heard him swear; he zigzagged, his nose dipping toward his handlebars, curled over his frame, with his cap now turned askew. At one point he accidentally went the wrong way back down the mountain; such was his mental and physical exhaustion. He left the tour that evening and never rode again.

The most famous British cyclist ever, until the current glut of worldbeaters, Tommy Simpson, rode up in 1967 in stifling heat. He was under real pressure to improve on his previous placing of 6th overall in the tour, but had been suffering in the run up with a debilitating stomach complaint. Nearing the top, past Chalet Reynard, he began to weave wildly across the road before he fell down. He was delirious and (alledgedly) asked spectators to put him back on the bike, which he rode to within a half mile of the summit before collapsing, still clipped into his pedals. Simpson was transported by helicopter to the Avignon hospital where he died that evening. There is a memorial to Simpson near the summit which has become a shrine to fans of cycling, who often leave small tokens of remembrance there. i recommend Vin Denson’s autobiography, as well as Put Me Back on My Bike, for a moving – and honest – account of his death. In 1970, even the cannibal, Eddy Merckx, the most famous cyclist of all, rode himself to the brink of collapse while winning the stage, as did Andy Hampstein.  Merckx received oxygen, recovered, and won the Tour. In 1955, it forced Rick Van Genechten and others to abandon the race and even Lance Armstrong never won on ventoux.

Even before i got to the Ventoux, it had embedded itself in my psyche, the knowledge lurking that i would be tackling the climb in a matter of weeks, then days, then hours, a knowledge underscored by the awareness that it was a possibly beyond me. I had no way of knowing until I tried. The day before I was anxious, and even on the climb itself was constantly worried that it might be too much. Knowing, after 45 minutes, and 7 miles, that I was approaching halfway and had done the easy bit did not help. I did not overdo things, and was not racing, but even in april the heat and the effort required to cycle for nearly 2 hours uphill was extreme.  I made it in 1hr 40mins – the record is about 55 minutes by Iban Mayo – and on the way back down stopped to pay my respects at the Simpson memorial, a man who paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of glory and personal achievement. David Millar, Wiggins, Wegelius and Cavendish all did the same in this year’s race.

As to why i sought out a version of burrington coombe, but 7 times longer; i’d instinctively say that i don’t know the answer – but in truth, I do. It sought me out, and was always there, waiting; a tantalising figment of my imagination and a myth to be constructed and composed in my own words, rather than the quotes of others. And when I rounded the final bend, turning past the weather station to see the top, the sense of achievement, the view, the sense of escape from everything, was entirely novel. And now, when talking to others about cycling, about rides we have done, or the tour de france, the conversation inevitably turns to Ventoux – it featured in this year’s tour for the first time in 8 years, and I casually mention that I have ridden up the mountain, the giant, and it was difficult, but incredible. And that fact that I have done it is enough – the achievement is permanent.

the video below sums up the mythic nature of the climb, through a lovely, lyrical phil liggett commentary: “for one hundred and seventy one young men, it would be the place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness“; although the idea of a contre-la-montre up ventoux seems to be the devil’s idea.


Going back to Coleridge for almost the last word; he saw hills and mountains as an escape, a way to move further away from the suffocating claustrophobia associated with family life; his passion for climbing hills and scaling mountain peaks has an imaginative link with his internal desire for escape. The panoramic view from a peak often brings moments of intense vision; the atmosphere seems thinner, distance reduced, the air itself bracingly alive. He was, in effect, climbing out of civilisation, reflecting a longing to free himself not merely from the restraints of domesticity, but from the world. We climb to escape, but also to broaden our view and open our minds.

and this is probably the central truth, i ride uphill because at some point, somewhere along the line, everything is left behind, my body and mind soars higher, far away from the everyday. the struggle becomes transcendent, the metaphor of the mountain ceases and the moment becomes all that there is, the only compassable reality, the point where you hold eternity and truth in your hands, and pedal onwards and ever upwards.