Drum roll please… many years in the making, I finally entered and completed a hill climb race. And yes, I loved it! What kind of animal looks forward to pain, who destroys their body in pursuit of seconds and metres gained? The hill climber. A strange beast.
I’ve always enjoyed hill climbs. There’s nothing quite like the fire in your lungs and legs near the summit of a hill and knowing you’ve still got to push on. A mental challenge as much as physical, only will power and the ability to block pain gets you through the final metres of a climb. Come on!
Why hills? You can always improve but to do so gets harder and harder. Like riding the flat for sure, but on a hill there is no early escape, no ejector seat button, once committed you must conquer the summit. Even if you bail early there’s still that long climb, hauling yourself up the steep gradient and cursing the cycling gods as you do so.
WVS Hill Climb
First, I thank Tejvan Pettinger, former National Hill climb champion, the man behind the excellent Cycling Uphill blog, who inspired both this blog and my hill climb odyssey. Tejvan was on the start list but alas, was a DNS, due to the injuries he’s be enduring this year.
To the race. The WVS Hill Climb is organised by Watford Velo and tackles the HHC030 course aka Aston Hill, a 1.5 mile slog with gradients topping 15% and averaging 5.8% (strava segment here). Way too long for my liking. I’m more of a short sharp 0.2 mile man!
Pacing was top of my mind. How to pace such a long hill, one I’d never ridden before? Not easy but much easier with the help of Strava segment analysis, Google Streetview and Veloviewer. A few minutes with these and it felt like my local hill climb. Well almost!
A long steady drag, I knew my time depended upon pacing the first half conservatively to save some legs for the steep ramps towards the finish. I arrived early at the village hall and set off to see the course in real life, relieved to see the gradients didn’t look as bad as the Strava segments. Easy to climb when not in race mode of course.
Interesting fact: Aston Hill was once the course for car races, made famous when Lionel Martin won with his self-built car, shortly before going on to found the Aston Martin car company.
After a ten mile warm up loop, I found myself on the start line, my bike being held up whilst I was clipped in and er, raring to go. The countdown began.
1 minute, came the call. My warm up had already revealed my legs and entire body was tired given the race had come at the end of a big three week training block. This was all part of my grand training plan, the race a ‘C’ category race rather than a high priority ‘A’ or ‘B’ race. Mentally, I had to ignore the weak signals from my legs and be ready to leave whatever energy I had on the road.
30 seconds. I was focused on staying upright, unused to being held up on the bike whilst clipped in. Surely I will topple over?
15 seconds. Shit, better focus. My bike wobbled.
5 seconds. Let’s have it!
Boom. Or at least kapow. Ok, more of a fizzle. A little downhill helped me hit my target start speed of 32 mph on a hill climb! Step aside Mr Froome. The slope soon turned the tables and my speed levelled abruptly.
Jumping out of the big ring, I raced on feel, keeping an eye on my heart rate and sticking to the plan to stay near my lactate threshold HR. Very easy when you’re tired, my HR barely moved, even lowering and plateauing in the middle of the climb. You sir, need a rest, it whispered (little did I know a chest cold would strike the next day).
Before I knew it I was turning into the hill climb proper. The road shot up. My legs tried to respond but fell flat, yelping rather than roaring. Heart rate up then down, struggling, thankful for the false flat before the road reached for the skies once again.
Noise. Cheering. Twenty people yelling felt like hundreds, mini cowbells, shouts of encouragement, go go go! I remained in the saddle and ground out the last few metres, slowing a little as I looked around for the finish. Shit, I still had another 100 metres to go. Sorry legs.
On I mashed, still in the saddle, my mind not even thinking about a sprint, it knew my legs were long since done. The finish line arrived, I think, still unsure I carried on riding, just to be certain. Finally, done.
I finished happy despite my below par performance and the odd climax to the climb. I’d not quite given it my all, even in my tired state, but enough to be satisfied with the effort, particularly my pacing strategy. My post-ride heart rate told a tired story, the max HR fizzling out like a damp firework a good 10 bpm below my usual healthy numbers and a sign of my upcoming illness.
The race result left me in 23rd, a good 1:02 minutes down on the winner, a gap even fresh legs could not bridge. Yet I was just 27 seconds off the top ten, not bad for tired legs on a climb that doesn’t suit me. A bridgeable gap.
For the remainder of the day I had the Zen like calm of a very tired man who had achieved a goal long in the making. Happiness is… Er, hill climb racing!
The best bit of a hill climb race…
…is watching and cheering others, faces contorted, legs pedalling squares, arms pulling on handlebars, chests and cheeks puffed. Come on, dig deep, almost there, you can do it, go, go go. The wall of noise spurs on the riders. Must fight, they think, put on a show, they hope, just finish this bloody hill. Spectators run beside the competitors, a chance for the rider and crowd to live out their Tour de France fantasies, good humour all around.
One by one riders creep and crawl past, the stronger riders out of the saddle, sprinting as if the hill is a speed bump, seconds ticking loudly in their head accompanied by the thud thud thud of their heart hammering against their chest. Go on, almost there, keep on going, go go go!
The last rider blitzes by and I’m sad to see him go for there is no other to cheer up the road. Note to self: get a cow bell or some kind of noise maker for future races. The crowd quietens and the lane merges back into the countryside, just a road now, no longer a wall to be conquered.
Back to the village hall for the results. Somebody had bought caffeine-free tea bags, a cruel joke for the assembled stick men and women lining up in the kitchen to make their own brews. I sip Nescafe between the tell tale signs of the hill climber’s post-climb cough, legs loose and oh so empty. Tight muscles relax amid the chatter and coughs. Relief all around.
The results follow to hearty rounds of applause. A big thank you to Watford Velo and the volunteers who made this possible. A cracking event, well organised and very relaxed. See you next year!
There’s a couple of pain faces from the race below. Enjoy them if you can!