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What's it like to ride a hill climb?

Tejvan Pettinger
25 Oct 2019

Hill climbs are some of the most brutal events on the UK calendar. Here, a former national champion gives a first-person account

This Sunday, 27th October, is the British National Hill Climb Championships where 240 riders will battle an uphill time trial of 5.8km to the summit of Haytor in Devon.

The riders will be cheered through the pain by huge crowds out to enjoy this uniquely British phenomenon. Former Hill Climb national champion Tejvan Pettinger tells us just how hard it is to ride this sadomasochistic event. 

Curiously British

This is a curiously British tradition. Held each year on the last weekend of October, the British National Hill Climb Championships involve a simple time-trial up a steep hill. Of all the racing I’ve done, the hill climb can be one of the most agonising yet rewarding events.

The burning intensity of all-out efforts as you fight gravity provides an invitation to suffer and push yourself to the absolute limit.

But despite the pain involved in racing flat out up fierce gradients, hill climbs are becoming increasingly popular, perhaps because more cyclists want to make the leap from virtual Strava segments to real racing.

Back in 2014, the National Hill Climb was heavily oversubscribed, with many unable to get onto the start sheet of 180.

Who would have thought there would be so many people desperate for a chance to race up Yorkshire’s Pea Royd Lane – a climb of 1km in length and 12% average gradient, with two wicked corners of 20%?

Ready for take-off

Back in August of that year, I visited Pea Royd Lane to have my first crack at the climb. After a summer diet of 50-mile and 100-mile time-trials, I was pleased to get a time of 3min 50secs.

I thought if I could do that with 100-mile TTs in my legs, eight weeks of interval training and a lighter bike could easily knock 20-30 seconds off.

The only problem was that after six weeks of intense interval training, I went back and did exactly the same time.

Suddenly Pea Royd Lane was looking like a more difficult challenge than I had imagined, and Dan Fleeman’s amazing course record of 3min 17secs looked particularly unreachable.

The tricky part is that after attacking the first 20% corner, you easily go into oxygen debt, and then really suffer to get up the next 20% gradient.

After that you still have another agonising 250 metres, which can take a surprisingly long time. In the last 100 metres of a hill climb, you can lose a lot of time if you’ve gone too hard early on.

But equally, if you hold back too much you can’t claim back the time either. This is one of the fascinating aspects of a hill climb – how to judge your effort over a short distance of constantly changing gradients.

This was the first year I'd used a power meter, and also the first time I’d had any coaching (from Gordon Wright, who coached five-time National Hill Climb Champion Stuart Dangerfield).

The power meter proved useful for measuring my improvement (or not) over time, as well as helping me to pace a climb and have a target in training.

The most striking aspect was the difference between perceived effort and actual power. You think you’re holding back at the start, but you have your biggest power output.

Likewise, you think you’re killing yourself at the top, but your power has evaporated.

In a way I trained harder than ever, but having a coach can be helpful for preventing you from overtraining.

There were times when my natural inclination to keep beating myself into the ground doing hill intervals was replaced with the sage advice to take three days easy to recuperate.

It can be hard for super-motivated athletes to take a rest, but if you want to see a big increase in your power output, it was often after those three days of rest that I saw the biggest increase.

September and October were eight unbroken weeks of interval training and hill climbs. Going into the Nationals I was in good form, but the standard has continued to rise every year, with younger riders such as Dan Evans, Jo Clarke and Adam Kenway making impressive gains.

Even though I pipped Matt Clinton by 1.8 seconds on the slightly longer Mow Cop hill climb, I knew he was consistent in producing superb championship rides.

Race day

I don’t particularly like the morning of a National Championship because there’s quite a bit of waiting around. I like to find a good spot away from the crowds and, with 90 minutes to go, I begin my pre-race routine, starting with a five-minute meditation to calm the mind and really focus.

Then I get on the rollers and warm up gently. With 40 minutes to go, I switch onto the turbo and do a couple of short but intense efforts to get the body used to race pace.

Once I’m on the bike, all the nerves and tension dissipate. It’s a great relief to actually be cycling.

On the start line, I felt pretty good. I wasn’t thinking about the competition or the result, just trying to get in the zone where I would be able to ride on the limit.

Once the race started, I seemed to ride on auto-pilot. I had spent weeks visualising the race – where I would go deep, where I would maintain the pace. During the race itself, my mind was virtually blank for the whole four minutes.

The road for the National Hill Climb was crowded with spectators who created a roar of noise all the way up. To be honest, it was all a blur – I didn’t recognise anyone or hear anything specific.

I was just pedalling as fast as I could.

On the last section, I was noticeably faster than in training. The road was smooth and the headwind replaced by a strong tailwind.

Before I knew it, the line was upon me and I finished in 3min 32secs. I couldn’t believe how quickly it all went.

As I crossed the line I was caught by a marshall and carried carefully until I could collapse in dignity by a grass verge.

I felt a strange exhilaration at riding on the limit for three and a half minutes. In a peculiar way, I enjoyed the intensity of the experience.

Perhaps that’s where I went wrong – hill climbs aren’t supposed to be enjoyed!

After weeks of rising tension, it was a relief to have ridden well. The only disappointing thing was that it wasn’t enough to get on the podium.

I finished fourth, eight seconds behind a flying Dan Evans, with Matt Clinton and Adam Kenway filling the other podium positions. Maryka Senema retained her women’s title.

After winning the Championship in 2013, I was surprised at how much I wanted to retain the title. I really gave it everything in training, but it wasn’t to be.

I didn’t feel any bitter disappointment because my preparation was as good as it could have been. Perhaps the fast tailwind finish meant I could have gone harder earlier – I was the quickest on the last half of the climb, but had given too much time away on the lower slopes.

But there are times when you can indulge in too much post-race dissection – I don’t think there was a pacing strategy that would have got me on the podium. I was truly spent.

Short climbs are not quite my forte – with my physiology I tend to go better on long hills.

Overall, it was a great year as defending champion (17 hill climbs, 13 wins and seven course records). In 2011, I finished fifth but was left regretting not using a time-trial bike.

This year, I don’t have any regrets because I couldn’t have done any more. Riding the National Hill Climb was a formidable experience – a year's preparation for a few minutes of intense effort.

Soon I’ll be thinking about next year...

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