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…

First Race of the Year: Frome 10

After lots of messing around, some dronkenesse and a slightly haphazard approach to training, the first race of the season has been completed. It was extremely cold this morning with ice clearly visible on the roads on the way to the race, but it warmed up quickly and i rode with knee warmers and armwarmers, but not in full tights like last year when it was clearly a lot more mild. I am slightly tougher than last year. Trotters also turned up, riding an 88″ gear made for an interesting and syncopated pedalling experience riding down the bank. Trotters set a PB which is impressive for this early in the season.

shop bought cakes though

The course was a tough one, with 5 roundabouts and a really large ski slope. I scrubbed all my speed off on the roundabouts for fear of crashing. i really didn’t fancy getting injured and breaking my brand new bike on the a361 in february. despite this i managed to clock 50 mph going down the slope, with hands on the levers i hasten to add. i watched Paul Gamlin (the winner with a speedy gonzales 21.24) streak down the slope later in the aero tuck and i was impressed. it was not for me.

doug dewey was there, he is national espoir champion and is off to race against the belgians in belgium very soon. he was a dead cert for the win, until he missed a turn and cut off the final section and roundabout. i think he suspected something had gone wrong when he was looking at a short 18 by the time he finished. I rode the course beforehand because i was nervous about the roundabouts and the hill. even as a warm-up i managed a 21mph average, which goes to show just how fast a TT bike is on a relatively flat course.

Doug looking resplendent in his national champion stripes

i dragged myself round in 21.59, which is the longest of long 21s, to use the parlance, and a 27.5mph average. I’m quite pleased to get under 22 minutes in february. i came 4th behind Paul, a chap from the Dulwich Paragon, and Dave Kiddell. There were 12 seconds or so between 2nd and 4th. It’s reassuring to be near Dave, there is the promise of a titanic struggle in the hardrider series this year. I hope to build on my form and really get up a head of steam for two weeks time, although i suspect everyone else is doing the same. in the corresponding fixture last season Dave beat me by over a minute, although i did catch him up over the course of the season. Essentially, the first race helps to alleviate partially some of the doubt that builds up in the off-season and answers questions about form and speed. I’m pleased with where I am.

Next week it’s the Severn 25 on a real graveyard of a course, a bastardised variant of the u7b. Until recently my PB was set on the same course, a 1.01.47, until I knocked ten minutes off it last season.

Base Club and Upping the Intensity

At some point after doing lots of base mileage it’s time to start upping the intensity. I’m just about at that point now. it means that the days spent endlessly fannying around are all but over; and the days of pain and exhaustion are near. i will keep doing regular rides of around 4 hours to keep up the endurance, but it becomes more and more about pace and intensity from here on in.

the reason for this ridiculously early transition to a heftier, nastier block of training, is the Chippenham Hilly on 6th March. I have two warm up races before then, the Frome 10 and the Severn 25. After that it’s a total hardrider shitstorm, with 3 or 4 of them on the bounce. i’m looking forward to it.

to this end, i’ve been heading out on gears. whilst riding fixed is amazing, and great for winter, it’s not great for intensity – and i mean sustaining efforts over hills and on the flat, rather than tapping out a rhythm. i’ll be factoring in a couple of rides a week where i seek out hills, spaced around 2 or 3 miles apart, and essentially savage myself on the ascent, then recover on the flat. this is my own slightly fucked up take on intervals. it’s slightly more scientific than it looks and seems to work. the efforts will be slightly below threshold, with the aim being to sustain a relentless pace, then unleash a bit more where possible and if appropriate.

i’ll also be doing quite a few ‘like-for-like’ rides. this means tackling a similar distance and profiles to the event(s) i’ve entered, if anything a bit longer by around 4 or 5 miles, to build up the mental stamina as well as the physical fortitude required to hurtle round a hilly parcours at a 25mph average. The WTTA Hardriders series is one of my targets this year; last year i came 4th, but i finished the season much more strongly than i started it. my vague theory is that the knowledge of what i can achieve, allied to a steady winter, will help me improve by a placing by the end of the series. it also depends what sort of form last year’s 3rd place rider brings to the table.

Needless to say, i’m full of doubt and anxiety, nervous about how quick or slow i’ll be, and worried about how quick everyone else will be. but i’m absolutely itching to race again, it’s so exciting. i love riding my TT bike, getting tucked in low (i’ve worked on this) and attacking the hills. i also hope that the early season hilly events will be the springboard for a full-on assault on some club records later in the year. i shall keep you posted.