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.
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.
At the beginning of the season I had a series of goals in the back of mind. most of those have now been met, and recalibrated, and met again. it’s been pretty good. however, the event i tend to target is the club open hillclimb on Burrington Combe. there is a vaguely sentimental reason for this – it was my first competitive event two years ago, when i first got a vague, and surprising sense that i might be quite handy at riding bikes uphill. other than that, it’s the club’s open, so it’s a key part of our racing calendar and everybody turns up in force. today the gold and red (slightly dated) club jerseys were much in evidence on Burrington’s fabled slopes.
I have been nervous about this climb for a couple of reasons. if you target an event then there is immediately more potentially to lose – a puncture, a bad day, a mechanical of sorts, anything really – it scuppers the lot. it’s a club trophy event, my name and time is on there for the last two years, firstly with an 8.01, then with a 7.45 last year. this also means i felt pressure to improve the time further, with a desire to get under 7.40, somehow. i didn’t sleep well and woke up ridiculously early. nevertheless, i was confident my form was roughly in the right place. this is partly because on Saturday i rode the Weston Wheelers promotion on Westclose Hill, taking 3rd, some distance behind Tejvan, but only 6 seconds behind James Dobbin. This gave me cheer. Added to this was the sense that my training had been coming together and i was just about at race weight. i even thought i might be able to beat the Dobbster today. more on that later.
the weather was far warmer than last year, probably around 8-10 degrees. from the outset i felt edgy – i knew that others like Neil Blessit and Glyndwr would be right up there, especially Glyn who took confidence from his awesome second place at Catford last week. in fact, everywhere i looked there were fast riders ready to upset the applecart with a gurning, savage display of hillclimbing prowess. i wore my skinsuit for only the second time ever in a hillclimb. marginal gains!
i started in the small ring, but after the initial undulations changed up to the big ring and began to put the power down. this was partly a practical decision: if i use the 11 cog the cassette locks up; this is due to some seriously dubious bodgery with an 11 speed cassette and some loctite. In order to avoid this happening i changed up to the big ring and used that for most of the climb. Burrington is a steady 6% with some sharper sections. In short, i absolutely mullered it. Last year i remember riding steadily on the lower sections before really going much harder later on. This time i sought out a remorseless rhythm and kept turning it over, getting out of the saddle to mitigate against the gradient on the shorter, sharper sections, then sitting back down and churning it over again. i felt strong throughout, and it felt fast. over the course of the weekend i’ve found myself thinking about longer hillclimbs in very simple terms – find the biggest gear you can just keep on top of, and stick with it. grimace, breathe, shout, do what you want, but stick with it, and attack, attack, attack.
i’ve been riding without the garmin or anything else, just going completely on feel, like the old days. there’s a simple reason for this, in a hillclimb of any duration you end up way over anything you can sustain for any length of time. ideally, i need a device that measures mental fortitude, pain thresholds, moral fibre, ignoring of oxygen debt – the key components of the hillclimbers toolkit. it’s been working well.
i went 12 seconds quicker than last year, bagged a new club record of 7.33 with an average of nearly 16mph for the climb. i came 4th behind tavis walker and james dobbin who clocked 7.10 each, with the Dobbster marginally ahead. Clearly, Dobbin was sandbagging at Westclose, or something, either way i was a good 20 seconds behind the twice National Champion. but all of that pales into insignificance in the face of a stunning ride by Tejvan Pettinger. He has been in sparkling form this year, and is undefeated in all hillclimbs, even over shorter distances. he defied gravity in an utterly awe-inspiring fashion, and annihilated Danny Axford’s 10 year old course record of 7.02 with mindboggling 6.51. to put this into perspective, if Tejvan had started behind anyone outside of the top 5 on the day, he would have caught and passed them. Chapeau.
Chapeau also to Christian Smith, who rode a 64″ gear to 14th place, and thus made it onto the prize sheet but also secured the BSCC team prize with me and Glyndwr (who went under 8 minutes for the first time on this course). It was a great day, and a fantastic weekend. sometimes after a proper hillclimbing weekend like this, with the heady insanity of riding uphill dominating thoughts and physical activity over two days, it’s hard to get back down again. doubtless tomorrow when i tell colleagues what happened and contemplate their nonplussed, confused responses, i will be ‘back in the room’.
i will also retain one lasting memory of the weekend. i was privileged to see this chap riding up the climb and back down again. he is quite simply the best attired cyclist i have seen since the heady days of super mario.
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)
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.
and proverbially, what a difference a day makes. ripponden nestles cautiously at the foot of of a vertiginous piece of moorland. this makes it perfect for a hillclimb. it was a beautiful and crisp morning, no clouds, possibly a slight headwind over the top. the field wasn’t massively strong, with the exception of tejvan pettinger, who is massively strong.
the first half of the climb looked horribly steep, a typical wall, after which it gradually levelled off with a fast finish. i rode it twice beforehand, as i had done with Barley the day before, marking off two points that would act as markers for the level of effort, and to break the climb into three. this makes it more manageable. the first bit filled me with trepidation, misjudging it or going too hard would really take a toll later on.
in the end, it didn’t seem nearly as bad, i went quite quickly up it, hit the flatter sections with a bit of vigour and consciously looked to push a bigger gear. i rode hard to the line and felt that i’d learned from yesterday. i bagged second place, the second time this has happened this season in open events, and was very pleased. it gave me a filip for the nationals next weekend. and i got my name in print (outside of the results pages), if you read down far enough, and if you count bikeradar online as being ‘in print’, and if you accept that words relating the scale of someone elses’s victory to your own performance are a good thing. i accept all of the above.
there are only 4 minutes and 30 seconds of the season left.