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Gallery: The pain and the rain of the 2021 National Hill Climb Championships

1 Nov 2021

The 2021 National Hill Climb Championships took place yesterday up Winnats Pass in the Peak District against a backdrop of truly biblical conditions. The sun didn't so much rise over Winnats as much as the brightness of the day slowly increased from dark, through twilight, before finally settling on gloomy.

For the first time in 44 years the always-brief hill climb season has culminated atop this magnificent scar in the limestone landscape of the Peak District. Ordinarily it’s a difficult course, averaging 16% over its almost-a-kilometre length with no respite on nicely graded hairpins or the odd flat section.

On the final Sunday in October of 2021 however, the weather added a significant additional challenge.

The rain was incessant; torrential at times, heavy at others, but utterly unrelenting for every rider. The juniors set the early times for others to try and best, aided somewhat by a stiff tailwind funnelled up the gorge, which continued until around half of the men had ridden, before dying away to a flat calm.

Despite the unpleasant weather, there was a sizable crowd which grew as the morning progressed. Initially the spectators tried to stick to the grass banks, but as they became increasingly churned over by muddy boots they moved onto the tarmac.

It was a mass of Gore-Tex and umbrellas, and amongst the ubiquitous cowbells there were some more unusual offerings – Didi the devil may reign on Alpe d’Huez, but up Winnats the crown belongs to a man with a giant doner kebab on a pole.

As UK hill climbs are governed by CTT (Cycling Time Trials) rather than the UCI, they aren't subject to the usual onerous rules.

Helmets aren’t required, socks can be as long as you like, and if you want to saw your brake pads in half to save a few grams then more power to you.

There were plenty of the classic hill climb mods on show, from sawn off bars, 1× setups and exotic lightweight brakes, through to missing headset caps and some drastic paint removal.

Despite all this there was an increasing proliferation of aero tech, perhaps as a result of the fast conditions with a tailwind, but also perhaps reflecting a recognition of the importance of aero gains even at low speed.

Deep section wheels were not uncommon and neither were aero-optimised framesets. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see which school of thought wins out over the coming years.

One near-universal issue facing every rider was a difficult descent back to the start line. Sodden, wrapped in foil blankets and bin bags, many had to resort to braking with their shoes or simply walking when ice cold, wet brakes on carbon rims failed to provide adequate stopping power.

This, coupled with spectators in the road, led to a particularly congested course in the latter part of the morning, mostly affecting the women's field. This was unfortunately exacerbated by a noticeable exodus of spectators wending their way back down the hill following the conclusion of the majority of the men's rides.

The hill climb season is a uniquely British series of races, and while it would have been more pleasant on a crisp, dry morning, there was something very fitting about the weather.

It tied together the event and the landscape in a way blue skies couldn't have, and it certainly made it a memorable day in the hills for riders and spectators alike.

Tom Bell of High North Performance took the overall and male categories with a time of 3:01.6sec, beating last year's winner Andrew Feather by a 7-second margin.

In the women's field, reigning champion Bithja Jones of Pankhurst Cycles successfully defended her title with a time of 4:00.4.

In the junior fields Tomos Pattinson of Halesowen A&CC and Sannah Zaman of Bigfoot CC took the stripes with times of 3:26.6 and 4:44.1 respectively.

A welcome tailwind helped the earlier riders, but petered out later on.

The last 100m of the course unfortunately offered no let-up in gradient.

These events wouldn't be possible without the marshals.

The steep gorge sides provided some new perspectives.

Could this be the wettest nationals in years?

This rider has his minute man in his sights.

After the finish line, riders were scattered about trying to catch their breath.

Aero bikes were not an uncommon sight this year, although note that this rider has opted for a lightweight, low-profile front wheel – aero aside, this will have made braking a whole lot easier on the ride back down to the start line.

A rider takes a moment to himself on a verge before heading back down the hill after his run.

Without the catchers, many riders would simply fall off their bikes at the line.

In the words of the owner: 'Cheap Chinese carbon' – Heath Robinson-esque setups like this are par for the course in the world of hill climbs.

A friendly mechanic offers a spanner, unaware the rider is using quick-release skewers.

A staple of any bike race worth its salt: the humble cowbell.

Gurning doesn't really help, except psychologically.

Things on sticks were a lesser feature in this crowd, but we salute the effort by Simon Warren, whose book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs features Winnats Pass as number 33.

Despite the awful weather, the crowd at the top of Winnats was in high spirits.

Some dubious fashion choices were made on all fronts.

White shoes and white socks didn't stay that way, even over a 4-minute run.

Some riders opted for mountain bike shifters on their bullhorns.

Without a headset top cap, tape is needed to keep the water out of the steerer on a wet course.

Aero details on kit such as the ribbed sleeves of this NoPinz skinsuit (to disrupt airflow) were an occasional spot.

This rider appeared to be on a custom bike, with Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 levers mounted to bullhorn-style bars.

Some of the pets weren't enjoying proceedings as much as their owners.

The energy of the crowd really helped offset the bad weather.

Sunglasses were worn by some, more for the rain than the entirely absent bright light.

Riders, soaked to their skin, struggled to stay warm after their runs.

The start tent was the dryest place on the course.

Colour-matched brakes won't make you faster, but they do look good, and that's important too.

A hill climb bike in the truest sense. Lightweight wheels, no paint, bullhorns, saddle pointed down, and a 1× drivetrain.

Amongst the carbon and occasional aluminium race bikes was this beautiful steel machine from Isen.

What's lighter than a coat? A bin bag.

Despite not being mandatory, some riders still opted for a helmet.

Cold carbon rims and plenty of water meant many riders walked back down. This Specialized Tarmac SL6 was a particularly handsome hill climb machine. 

The weather didn't let up when the women took to the hill.

This rider has swapped to a lighter, more hill climb-friendly front wheel.

Many racers competed on what appeared to be completely unmodified machines.

The walk back down claimed another white shoe victim.

The congestion of supporters and riders coming back down made for a tight course.

Aero wheels, but exposed cables. This bike very much erred on the side of classic hill climb machine.

All images by Will Jones. For more on the 2021 event, don't miss Bithja Jones' thrilling first-person account of the day