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Pain and glory: Inside the Catford Hill Climb, the world's oldest cycling race

12 Sep 2019

The Catford Hill Climb is the oldest continuously held cycling race in the world and one of the most prestigious hill climbs in the UK. Taking place on a leafy hill in rural Kent, it tackles the fearsome slopes of York's Hill - and is now sponsored by Cyclist.

With the 2019 hill climb season well underway, we revisit the 2018 edition. This article was originally published in issue 81 of Cyclist Magazine

Words: Joseph Robinson Photography: David Wren

On Saturday 27th August 1887, SF Edge of Anerley Bicycle Club beat 23 fellow riders to win the inaugural Catford Hill Climb. That year, only 12 competitors reached the summit of Westerham Hill in southeast London, including one on a Penny Farthing. Edge’s bike was 15.8kg of steel and turned a 52-inch gear.

Leap forward to Sunday 7th October 2018, and Rowan Brackston of London
Dynamo has just beaten 142 others to take the 123rd Catford title. All but a couple of riders made it to the top of York’s Hill, a short distance away from Westerham Hill, and most of them managed it in less than three minutes. Brackston’s bike has electronic gearing and weighs no more than 6kg.

A lot has changed in 131 years – the bikes, the hill, the popularity – but the concept remains the same. Start at the bottom, ride as hard as you can to the top, then collapse in a heap over the line. It’s probably why the Catford Hill Climb has stood the test of time and can lay claim to being the world’s oldest continuing cycling race.

Times gone by

This year’s race is a familiar blend of pained faces, yelling crowds and slippery surfaces. Open to all-comers, from whippet-thin pros to plucky weekend warriors, the Catford Hill Climb is as gruelling and popular as it has ever been. Although, as Catford stalwart John Gill, aged 81, tells us, the event is lucky to be here at all.

‘When we had the big storm of 1987, York’s Hill took a right battering and they never thought the road would re-open let alone be used for a hill climb again,’ he says.

Gill was around during the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, including in 1983, the year flying Phil Mason set the existing course record of 1min 47.6sec on a fixed gear bike. But the ‘great storm’ of 1987 saw the race almost disappear along with six of nearby Sevenoaks’ seven oaks.

‘It did start again, eventually,’Gill adds, ‘but this hurt the race and throughout the 1990s we were lucky to get 25 riders entering. So to have 150 or so taking to the start line these days is just wonderful.’

The cycling boom in the early part of the new Millennium generated a renewed interest in hill climb events, and now the event struggles to cope with the number of riders who want to participate. Race organiser Le Anh Luong has to barter with the CTT, the national governing body for cycling time-trials, on a yearly basis.

This year he has persuaded them to increase entries to 150 from the allotted 120 to avoid disappointing riders. It’s all part of a process that has become a year-long labour of love for Luong.

‘I have already submitted the application for the 2019 race. Then, by February, I will contact the police regarding the road closure and leaflet the local residents to inform them of the race,’ he says. ‘Come September it will be a full-time job keeping entrants and spectators up-to-date before race day and making sure all goes smoothly.’

Let the games begin

The day’s big contenders are the last to ride, so while they warm up on their rollers in the autumn sun, the initial 100 or so riders line up to punish themselves on the climb.

Some are regulars looking for a personal best time, while others are just looking to make it to the top without vomiting. At the finish line we ask 47-year-old Carlos Martinez of Southborough Wheelers to tell us why he is competing, and he replies, ‘Mid-life crisis, innit.’

He is gasping for breath and barely able to speak, but he does his best to give us his view of the climb: ‘It’s impossible to pace, you cannot get any traction because the road’s so damp. It’s just so hard.’

On paper, York Hill doesn’t sound particularly hard at all. It’s only 647m in length and averages 12.5%, but it has two particularly nasty sections at 25% (or 27% depending on who you ask) and because it is overhung on both sides by trees with falling leaves the road surface is invariably slippery.

This forces riders into a constant dilemma about whether to ride in or out of the saddle. Sit in the saddle and you potentially limit the amount of power you can produce, but stand up out of the saddle and you risk the rear wheel slipping as you lose traction.

One young rider, Freddy Mitchell, aged 16, talks us through the specific difficulties of the climb: ‘At the bottom, the middle of the road is so terrible you are forced into riding up one side or the other. Then you get to the steep section and you don’t know whether to get out of the saddle or not because you have no grip. Your legs go first and then the lungs. Both are just screaming at you to stop. It’s grim. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the crowd at the top I don’t think many would make it to the finish.’

It’s a crowd of several hundred, a mixture of loyal family, friends and teammates who line the roadside three- deep and urge the riders onwards. In terms of atmosphere, it’s a match for any Alpine climb during the Tour.

The sound echoes up the slope, offering a boost better than any tailwind, with the noise getting louder and louder until the final few riders depart. Eventually, last man up, Ewan Tuohy, crests the climb to the loudest roar of all.

His effort is good but not good enough to topple Rowan Brackston of London Dynamo, who wins with a time of 1min 57.6sec. Tuohy comes in second, with a time a whisker over two minutes. Having come so close to victory, you’d expect him to be filled with disappointment, but that’s not why he races.

‘You race hill climbs for the sadomasochistic enjoyment of seeing how much you can hurt yourself, how far you can push your body’s limits, and there’s no better test than York’s Hill,’ he says.

The love of pain seems to be a common theme with riders at the event, but not everyone is here to hurt themselves. Cyclist talks to a couple of old boys, Roy and Dave, who first watched this race back in the 1950s. For them, there is one simple reason that people come in such numbers to race the Catford Hill Climb.

‘It’s the oldest, ain’t it?’

Cyclist is proud to sponsor the Catford Hill Climb. For more information about this year's event, click here.

Light is right

'I had a mate shock blast and chop the ends off of some Ritchey bars, which are super-light, and I’ve attached button shifters underneath the bars,’ says Jon Saunders of Charlotteville Cycling Club before pausing to regain his breath.

Saunders has, like many competitors, thrown the UCI 6.8kg limit out the window in pursuit of the lightest possible hill climb bike.

‘I opted for a Cannondale SuperSix frame with a set of Enve rims built onto Chris King hubs, with a 22mm front and 25mm rear Continental tubular tyre,’ he says. ‘I then fitted THM carbon crank arms, which are just 230g, with a 36t 1x chainset. The remainder of the groupset is second-hand Sram Red eTap.

‘To finish off, I have some Garmin Vector pedals, Planet X Forge brakes, KMC gold chain and a carbon saddle and seatpost that I found on eBay. All in, it weighs in at a slither over 5.5kg.’

Such a mean hill-climbing machine should help to produce a time worthy of at least the top 10 – unless, like Saunders, you forget to charge your gear batteries and are forced to ride the entire hill in the 36/13 gear.

‘I raced it anyway, although I almost came to a standstill on the very steepest section.’