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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National Hill Climb 2012

careful with that handrail, eugene

The National Hill Climb this year takes place on Rawson’s Rake in Ramsbottom. It’s known simply as ‘The Rake’ and takes anything upwards of about 2 minutes and 20 seconds. If i can get under 3 minutes i’ll be pleased.

The contenders have been honing their form in events all over the place, with some eschewing the longer stuff in favour of the sharp and nasty lumps, hoping this will give them the legs and lungs for a crack at the biggest prize of them all. Tejvan Pettinger is avoiding Burrington this year and has been seen far from his usual hunting ground, hurting himself on the molehills of Reading in an attempt to galvanise those fast-twitch muscles into life. Rob Gough has been his usual imperious self at Catford, and Matt Clinton has suddenly found some course-record bagging form. The scratch rider is Gunnar Gronlund, last year’s winner. Second seed is Jack Pullar who scalped almost everyone at Monsal Head, including the Downing brothers. Lynn Hamel is looking good for another victory in the women’s event, but it’s also good to see previous champion Ann Bowditch back on the startsheet.

I’m off at 77. It’s a nice number. I am happy with this. I am not seeded and have very few expectations. It’s not a climb that suits me so I will be pleased if I don’t disgrace myself. I intend to do what i did last year, albeit at a distance some 3 and half miles shorter, and ride as hard as I can. I would also settle for 24th, but suspect I will be coming in some way down the field. I will also be riding the orange hillkiller with a 57″ gear. I am looking forward to seeing the massed ranks of the Blackburn CTC, including messrs Stott, Helliwell (x2) and Edmondson. They are good value.

Above all, it promises to be a real corker of an event. With Peter Graham at the helm it can’t really fail to be anything else other than spectacular. If you are near Ramsbottom in about ten days time, come along and watch. It takes place on a closed road and the atmosphere is unlike anything else in cycle sport. At the very least you will be a vicarious witness to the privations of each rider as they struggle with the gradient, the bicycle and themselves.

VC Walcot and Cadence Hill Climbs

One of the features of the hill climb season is the ‘multiple event weekend’, featuring up to 4 or 5 or even 6 hillclimbs over the two days. It’s possible to do a short event, recover, do another short event, recover, ad nauseum (literally). Organisers across the south west banged their heads together and came up with the simple idea of a ‘south west hill climb weekend’. With four clubs all cross-promoting each other’s races and a real head of steam on the interweb, they saw bigger fields than usual and a palpable sense of excitement. I missed yesterday’s double, the Chippenham and Severn races; i was supposed to be doing a 30 mile time trial as a last tilt at a club record and the end of my TT season; instead i went out on Friday, drank ale, then had a lie-in, went out and rode my bike in the sunshine and generally took a devil-may-care attitude to this tricky thing called ‘training’. it was the perfect antidote to a general malaise and knackering game of catch-up that’s been rumbling along for weeks and weeks.

Get out of that kitchen and rattle those bikes uphill

The VC Walcot Climb was up first. The weather was perfect, slightly cold but without a breath of wind and deliciously dry undertub. I unleashed the fixed wheel and it met with almost universal acclaim – the bike, not the rider. People were drawn to the lovely orange finish and the clean lines. There were a few other specialist hillclimb machines in attendance. Tavis Walker had taken a hacksaw and a drill to a rather comely Cervelo R3 in the pursuit of lightness. The construction of a hill weapon is possibly much more fun that the riding of the aforementioned hill weapon. Tav also spaced out a rear cassette to provide only 4 cogs on the back. I opted for a 57″ gear in the end, and it proved spot on for the steady gradient of Claverton Hill. There was a significant crowd at the event and I issued the wife with a cowbell to ring repeatedly and with gusto. A student turned up with some pots and pans to add to the cacophony of noise.  By the time i was barrelling up the hill they also had managed to amplify a recorded version of “Olé, olé olé”. It’s great to ride through a crowd of people shouting. Tom yelled right in my face as I came past: “ignore the pain, IGNORE THE PAIN”, and i tried my best to ignore the horrible, unrelenting pain in my legs and lungs.

ignoring the pain, IGNORING THE PAIN

The level of competition was fierce, both in amongst the top end of the field and in amongst the Bristol South riders. I think I came 8th and was first rider on fixed. I was the only rider on fixed – this was a surprise, it’s a great hill for a single gear. Rob Gough won with another demonstration of the dark arts of riding uphill; dancing on the pedals, post-ride emphysema, nausea. Glyndwr Griffiths followed on a close second, by about a second, with a matching cough and ashen face. The rest of the top order consisted of Richard Cartland of Corley Cycles, Tavis Walker and Tom Marshall. The organiser and the host club deserve praise for putting on a fantastic event and generally being really lovely and likeable people. Next weekend Tav, Glyn and Tom are aiming to bag the team prize at the Cat and Bec. They are in with a shout. I will be up north, wrestling with some long and epic northern inclines that suit me a lot better.

first claim mapei, second claim garmin sharp

The afternoon’s action shifted to a really sharp hill near Wellow. On first inspection i was a bit worried that the 57″ might be too tall, but my worries were unfounded. I turned the gear over without too many problems and climbed well. In both races i felt a teeny bit too fresh at the end. I need to work on this – i’m still not in the death zone, where extreme privation and savage, lung-shredding effort leads to higher speeds and better placings. I’m slightly optimistic that i might yet reach it, which is an odd place to be – silently hoping that i will be able to inflict more pain on myself. I was 4 seconds quicker at Claverton than the last time i rode, which is acceptable.

hup, hup, and indeed hup

Charles Coleman was down to start on Hinton this afternoon, but it was always going to be a tall order; he had a cyclo-cross event in the morning at Hengrove and came second behind Oli Beckingsale. He appeared in his race kit at the start, ambling out of his parents’ car to support the riders, a mere minute away from the moment when he should have been pushed away up the hill. A combination of extreme peer pressure and a spare bike (miraculously on hand) saw him take on the climb with seconds to go before his slot. Adrenaline got him through a few shaky cleat moments and he posted a more than respectable time given the circumstances. It’s all good training.

Glyn took first place from Rob Gough; a fantastic achievement and the first time Rob has been beaten this season. Over the weekend the two fought a ding-dong battle, with Rob taking the honours on 3 out of the 4 climbs. I suspect they will both fare well next week at the Catford, with a possible 1-2, and their chances for success at the National are high. BSCC are chasing the team prize at Catford – although we may miss out on the National because it looks like we will only have two riders. I’m currently the fourth counter in most of the hillclimbs I’ve entered, this is mind-boggling. I’m not saying i’m that good or anything, well, i’m not shabby at the long stuff, top 25 at the National 2 years running, open victory on Haytor Vale, but i’m a long way off being one of the top 3 hillclimbers in the Bristol South ‘Mega Team’, as it’s been nicknamed. It’s faintly reminiscent of John Lennon’s response to an interview question asking whether Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world. He replied “he’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles”. All last season and the season before i longed to have just a few more riders from the club on the startsheet to get some team prizes and generally build up some camaraderie. it’s happened, with some extras, and I’m really happy about it, even though it squeezes me out a bit. It’s fantastic for the club, and turning up en masse as a part of frighteningly strong team is a lot of fun.

next up for the BSCCMT: the cat (and bec)

I’m riding the National for the experience this year – I’m hoping to do well but also realistic about the shape and tone of the climb: it doesn’t suit my physiology. Therefore I’m already wishing my life away by thinking ahead to the Stang in 2013. Such is the nature of the ever-changing National Hill Climb Championship.

the acclaimed hillkiller

Velo Club Walcot Hill Climb

Every hillclimb i’ve ridden this year has featured James Dobbin, it’s a recurrent theme, and the fields generally seem very strong this year. Rob Gough in particular appears to be flying upwards, as long as the chain stays put. The VC Walcot event, up the avenue in Bath, was great fun, well organised with more than a few supporters lining the route. it makes such a difference to the experience.

for this one i decided to ride fixed,  i may or may not have been influenced by the promise of swag for the first fixed rider. i also felt that it might be a good idea, taking the pressure off and allowing me to enjoy – insofar as you can enjoy 3 minutes of savagery – the climb and ride my own race. 60″ did the trick, and i took home a lovely cadence t-shirt and £20. it was good enough for 6th place, which is fine with me; maybe on the gears i might just have nicked 5th, but maybe not.

i need to work on my pacing, it’s so hard to get right – go off too hard and suffer, losing time near the top when it matters most, or misjudge the effort and feel as though there is more in the tank. it’s about suffering, hurt, and managing pain; going really deep into a dark and horrible place for the benefit of 1 or 2 seconds. in the nationals, that could be as many as ten placings.

next weekend it’s weston wheelers demonstrating the art of using a crane to crush a fly, by encouraging foolish and demented riders to cycle at high speed up one of the nastier climbs in the mendips, i’m quite looking forward to it. i think it’s a 7 minute workout, which is right up my street.

the picture below encompasses the hurt, it’s not me, it’s a brave severn rider, in pursuit of 20th place or something like that. it’s a chastening and brave effort.

this is me, in front of the car that cost me time yesterday.

as a postscript, i completed my 3 minute ride. i hope that mike, rod, andrew and mike d had fun on their epic 8 hour ride, it doesn’t really stand up to comparison. i don’t think i’ve ever had the nerve to do a hundred miles. when i get to about 85, i start wobbling around like a plate of molasses.