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In praise of hill climbs

Trevor Ward
15 Jan 2019

The most painful and perverse form of bike racing, hill climbs are also an ingrained part of British cycling history

This article was originally published in issue 80 of Cyclist magazine

Words Trevor Ward

There is a certain time of the year, around the end of the summer, when certain cyclists start acting a little strangely. They will stop consuming cakes, crisps, beer and anything else containing more calorific content than a pea.

They won’t be happy with their body shape until they make Chris Froome look lardy. They will obsess over the weight of their kit. They will opt for thin, single layers even though there’s a distinct autumn chill in the air.

They won’t carry anything in their jersey pockets. They may even unstitch and remove their jersey pockets.

Their shoes will be fastened so tight their toes will go numb. When it comes to the bike, they will examine every detail and component with forensic vigour.

Bottle cages and bar tape will be condemned as superfluous fripperies and removed. A single chainring will be favoured.

Wheels and tyres will push parameters of rigidity and grip to extremes, with lightness and thinness suddenly being more urgent. Brake blocks will be filed down to the minimum.

Holes may be drilled where the amount of metal is considered excessive. A fine line will be drawn between structural integrity and weight-saving efficiency. They will obsess over torque, power-to-weight ratios and VAMs (vertical metres climbed per hour).

Frankly, they are not the kind of people you’d want to be stuck in a lift with. But it’s all for a good cause, even if it’s one that usually lasts no more than a few minutes. It's the start of hill climb season.

Anyone expecting a first person account of how I struggled to keep my eyeballs in my head as I ground my way up a double-digit slope in front of a baying crowd of sadists should look elsewhere.

My first-hand experience of this ancient and noble tradition is limited to no more than a couple of club-confined events where I was berated for not vomiting at the finish.

But hill climbs aren’t for normal, adult-sized riders such as me anyway. As one fellow club member put it, ‘In a pub with your mates I’m sure you look one of the fittest. But out here with us you look a right freak.’

Hill climbs – the organised, competitive variety – are for the lean and wiry, the type of rider who’s as useful for drafting behind as an Easter egg in a sauna. (Although this month’s Hill Climb World Championships in California features a ‘Clydesdale’ category for men over 90kg…)

Hill climbs are embedded in British cycling history because we are a nation blessed with lots of hills that are ideal for climbing. They don’t need to be mountains.

They don’t even need to be long. They just need to be steep, ideally with a pub and a car park at the top.

Monsal Head in the Peak District fits the bill perfectly, though the pub was closed on the rainy December day I climbed it in the company of Olympic medallist and former national road champion Rob Hayles.

‘It’s quite a constant gradient, but it’s still a bugger,’ was his technical assessment of the compact 470m route that averages 14%.

Other adjectives beloved of hill climbers include, but are not limited to: ‘testing’, ‘tough’, ‘challenging’, ‘stiff’, ‘severe’, ‘savage’, ‘brutal’, ‘vicious’, ‘monstrous’ and even, worryingly, ‘murderous’.

Catford CC’s Hill Climb – ‘brutal’ – dates back to 1887 and claims to be the oldest surviving bike race in the world, predating all the Monuments.

It takes place on Yorks Hill near Sevenoaks, Kent, and hits a maximum gradient of 20% near the end of its 640m course.

North of the border, hill climbs are a special case. Ever since David Maxwell of Gilbertfield Wheelers won Scotland’s first national hill climb championship in 1946, riders here have had to contend with more than mere topography.

Although Scotland’s mountains may be smaller than their continental counterparts, political necessity required many of the roads traversing them to be knee-crunchingly steep.

Their no-nonsense trajectories are the work of Generals Wade and Caulfeild, despatched by the English government in the mid-1700s to build a network of roads that could transport troops as quickly as possible from one Jacobite uprising to another.

They opted to build their roads over-the-top rather than around-the-bottom, producing notorious climbs such as the Lecht that resemble walls rather than roads.

Of course, not everyone treats these climbs with the reverence history and geology have bestowed upon them.

Aberdeen Wheelers’ kilometre-long, 11% club hill climb last month included ‘Lord and Lady of the Pies’ titles for those riders who, having completed the climb and eaten the reward of a complimentary pie, freewheeled back down the hill the furthest without stopping or falling over.

For all the talk of records and suffering, the hill climb represents cycling at its most democratic. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, or how fast or slow your time is, everyone finishes with the bitter tang of blood in his or her mouth.

Everyone feels a sense of triumph and achievement, whether they won a trophy or not.

‘It’s a raw, brutal effort that requires you to take your body to its limit, then slightly beyond and then hold it there until you get to the top,’ says 2017 national hill climb champ Dan Evans, a man so obsessed with detail he was drafted in by wheel manufacturer Hunt to help design their latest ultra-light set of hill climb-specific hoops.

‘How well you can do that, how badly you can suffer and how much you want it can really tell you a lot about yourself.’

Cyclist is sponsor of this year’s Catford Hill Climb, so look out for an account of the race in the next issue.

The National Hill Climb Championships take place at the Shelsley Walsh motor circuit in Worcestershire on Sunday 28th October.

A week before that, Matlock CC hosts its Riber and Bank Road Hill Climb ‘Double Header’

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