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What it's like to win a national hill climb: Bithja Jones on her rain-soaked 2021 victory

In-depth
31 Jan 2022
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Bithja Jones took the women’s title at the 2021 National Hill Climb Championships in biblically wet conditions with a time of 4min 00.4sec. This is her story

Words and illustrations: Bithja Jones 

It’s 4.30am on a Sunday. The clocks have changed. I’m with Rikki Pankhurst, my mentor, mechanic, and all-round brilliant person and we’re in the team car heading towards Oxford en route to Winnats Pass. A fox with a rabbit in its mouth is crossing the road, heading home before dawn.

I would like to be heading home myself to crawl into my own bed. I don’t enjoy the hours before a big race. This is the hardest time for me, and in truth I don’t really want to be here. I usually feel like this, but it has never been as bad as today. This is because I am the scratch rider at the National Hill Climb Championship on Winnats. 

Rikki and I talk a bit and then sit quietly. The roads are empty. I didn’t sleep terribly well, but there is no point in worrying about that now. I have my pillow with me, so I lie awkwardly between the window and seat belt and close my eyes. I can hear rain beating against the window.

The forecast is dire, and that brings with it questions: will the rain be an advantage? I’m a heavier rider so I don't tend to get wheel spin. I also think I am pretty tough, I am a fighter. So surely my chances of victory are better in wind and rain? On the other hand, maybe the tailwind will be better for the lighter riders. I try to think of other things, to stop my brain from racing. 

Photo: Anthony Wood

Through the grey murk I can see the crooked church spire at Chesterfield. It’s reassuring, as at least now I know where we are. We came this way a few weeks ago for the hill climb on Monsal, a short and sharp ‘classic’.

It was my last race before a nasty cold took out two weekends of training and racing. I loved Monsal straight away when I had visited it in August with Steven Bennett, another one of the all-round brilliant people and friends who make it possible to do this slightly crazy thing.

We did some recce rides here and on Winnats, and I took the Strava QOM on Monsal on my way to winning the event and setting a course record.

It was a great confidence boost so early in the season and came after two months’ training with my coach Matt Clinton, himself a former national hill climb champion. But Winnats felt different somehow: it stays steep for so long. I was stunned by its beauty and felt in awe of the climb. 

Now I am beginning to worry that my huge respect for Winnats will be a problem in my head during today’s race. Last year’s National was on Streatley Hill, near Reading. The hill became my friend during weeks of training, repeated efforts.

As the day of the event approached I felt I knew all of the hill, that we understood each other. In contrast, I have ridden up Winnats just three times, each time into a headwind, with the last attempt being the most difficult – the wind was funnelling down the pass.

My best time over those three efforts was 4min 36sec. I know that Illi Gardner did 4:15 a few days ago and I try to calculate the conditions, to think about the time. Then I stop trying to think about the time, and whether Illi had a headwind or not, and simply look out of the window at the persistent rain.

Rikki interrupts my thoughts as we get nearer, and I am glad. 'We will need to find a dry place for your warm-up.' The rain is incessant and is set in for the race. Staying warm and dry is what we have to think about now.

I wrap up and we walk to the school assembly hall for the sign-on. The rider list is spread over several A4 sheets and I trace through the names until I get to mine – number 300 – and become aware of people watching me as I scribble my signature. The organiser, Chris Myhill, asks how I pronounce my name; he says he might have to say it later in the prize presentation. I feel both flattered and horribly anxious. 

It’s time to hide and prepare, and we drive as close to the start line as we are allowed. Winnats Pass looms in front of us. It’s mind-blowing and beautiful, a stark presence in the thick rain. The race has already started so we look for a dry warm-up spot nearby.

Photo: Simon Graham

Rikki requisitions a disused petrol station forecourt – it’s perfect. I get into pre-race mode; this is good. We know what we are doing. We are in control. Everything is to a schedule – it’s now 8:30, and my race is at 10:30. We sit and watch the rain and the other cyclists. I wonder what the locals make of it all. It’s a funny day for Castleton. 

My mind returns to the climb and the time it might take. I think 4 minutes, which doesn't sound like long but I know 4 minutes is long enough for doubt to set in, to feel pain and fatigue.

Right now my stomach hurts. I am relieved when I see Rikki setting up the bikes; the Kuota for the warm-up and my Tifosi – the beast – for the race. Others have joined our dry enclosure; two brothers finish on the turbo and head off to conquer the hill. I sense the tension and concentration.

Seasoned hill climbers Jess and Dan Evans now join our base camp. I feel calmer now. Rikki reminds me to eat something. I don’t feel hungry, but I know if I don’t eat now I will feel it after my warm-up. 

The pre-race routine is comforting, it feels familiar. We only have four safety pins but we need twelve. Jess helps us out and Rikki pins the numbers on my skin suit. The rain is stronger and louder now, forming rivers in the road: a biblical downpour. It is not bike-racing weather. Jess and I look at each other but don’t say anything. We are both thinking about the rain, wanting it to stop, but knowing it won’t.

I stoically carry on and get on my bike, but stay on the rollers rather than use the road like I normally do. The power meter is not connecting. 

'It’s fine. I’ll do it on feel,' I say to Rikki. It’s a 25-minute workout with a few short and sharp bursts. I give Rikki a countdown and he holds my bike for the explosive efforts so I don’t fly off into the valley somewhere. He is kneeling in a puddle but I don’t know that; I find out later, halfway home – when I open my third beer and he tells me that his jeans are now dry. 

A woman walks over to us and wishes me luck. She says I am an inspiration; she has only just picked up cycling and she follows what I do. I thank her, smiling. And then we head to the start. Rikki passes me the Beast. I have six minutes to go. 'Enjoy it!' he says.  

Soaking wet marshals are holding umbrellas for riders queuing up. I arrive at the first umbrella, waiting my turn in the start-line gazebo. I see Mary Wilkinson. She is on the left, I am on the right. Two-time champion Andrew Feather is coming down the hill; he has finished. He smiles and says, 'Remember to take it easy on the first bit. It’s a long way to the top.' Then it’s time. I am calm and focussed. I hear the countdown and then I’m off. 

I start out of the saddle to gain momentum, then sit until the first bend, but then it’s out of the saddle for the rest of the climb. I am immersed in the effort completely. My body knows what to do, without commands, without thinking.

Halfway into the climb I realise I don’t know where I am, which section, but I don’t care. There is a precise rhythm, it feels right, the moment is perfect. I see a pattern of green and black blotches forming into my sight, right in front, a wall that then becomes a tunnel, with noises and shouting and screaming, all of it directed at me.

It’s almost aggressive but that too somehow feels right and perfect – even the giant döner kebab sticking out of the crowd seems right. My legs keep moving, the rhythm is still there, I think of nothing until I realise suddenly and with clarity: this is where I can win or lose by one second. I give everything in the last push up and over the finish line.

Someone holds me and my bike. 

I can hear the commentator, a part of a sentence – '…manages to retain her title...' I know what it means but I can’t fully grasp it because I can’t fully grasp anything at this moment. I’m resting on the top tube with a marshal holding my bike. I can’t get off yet, my foot won’t move and unclip, nor will my legs hold my weight. So I wait. 

Someone puts a bin bag over my head, a thin barrier against the rain and cold. 

A few minutes pass and I tell the marshall that I think I can get off the bike. His voice is calm and reassuring and he holds my bike as I unclip and somehow make it across the two meters of tarmac to the grass at the side of the road.

I sit down in the soaking wet but I don’t mind, until suddenly the connection between my brain and my body starts working again and everything starts to hurt.

When I finally grasp fully what has happened, I am relieved and totally overwhelmed. I have won on Winnats.

Don't miss our huge gallery from the 2021 National Hill Climb Championships.