A strange dream. Nightmare perhaps. For five years I’d been dreaming of riding the National Hill Climb Championship. The type of vague wishy washy plan up there with ‘one day I’ll be an astronaut’ or ‘I’ll clean the bike next week’.
Don’t ask me why. A vague plan had formed to enter as I soon as I turned 40 when I would qualify as a Veteran. I never thought it would actually happen. My heart skipped a beat when I qualified. Lining up on the start was simply surreal. This was all but a dream right?
Let’s rewind. End of August and a hot, lazy summer. The beginning of hill climb season. I’ve dallied in competitive hill climb racing with much enjoyment and moderate success. The fun I’ve belatedly realised comes from watching rather than competing.
I had no plans to race hills this year. Despite turning 40 my long held dream of riding the National Hill Climb Championship didn’t appeal. It just didn’t seem important. My riding had followed whimsy rather than training plans. I was slow yet content.
Why go and ruin the peace by entering hill climb races? A horrendous few minutes of suffering not to mention the two months, two long and horrible months, of interval training. Eugh.
Yet one bored day I noticed the National Hill climb course was* close to my childhood home in the midlands and so I entered quite confident I would never actually qualify for the event. The mind games began.
*A couple of months later the course changed for reasons unknown and moved up north!
Better train, just in case I qualify, right? Turbo training time. Intervals. Pain train. In the pain cave. Evil. HTFU etc. An easy, indulgent summer meant I had the aerobic capacity of a block of lard. Riding hard an alien concept, sweat something I experienced taking my socks off.
My hill climb training plan was simple and specific. Three hard rides a week:
- All out intervals to simulate short, sharp hill climbs
- An hour of longer sweetspot training to upgrade my engine
- Actual hill climbs
The first two weeks were horrible. Yet a strange thing happens and you begin to enjoy the pain, the progress, and the pleasure of pushing yourself beyond your limits.
As with all addictions, the unsustainable high is followed by an almighty low.
Two months of riding hard three times a week is horrible, but just about manageable. There is no variety, no riding with friends, no long rides. Just pain.
I developed a mental aversion to turbo training by week 8 and could no longer face the intense physiological and psychological stress of all out intervals.
Yet the training worked. I became lighter and quicker, losing 4kg in 8 weeks and equalling hill climb PBs set by a much younger man. My FTP barely budged during the period which was noteworthy.
Big race simulation
Practice makes perfect. A hill climb race every two weeks in the lead up to the big day. This was becoming very serious.
Bison Hill Climb Race
A little leg tester. A long way off the pace but on track. Content.
Swain’s Lane Hill Climb Race
A bit of a mess and disappointment, despite only being 1 second off last year’s effort. Must push on.
Whiteleaf Hill Climb Race
Torrential rain, misery. Sixth. Coming into form.
It was only after my final preparation race of the year I received the news I’d qualified for the Nationals. Shit. This was really happening. I had two weeks to lose as much weight as possible!
The big day minus 1
Snow, wind and rain. The weather so bad I was afraid to draw the curtains. Yet I had a blind date with a climb I knew only by name and gradient diagrams. The first rule of hill climbing must be obeyed. Never ride blind. Know thy enemy. Pea Royd Lane here I come.
There’s something magical riding a great climb for the first time. The summit towering above you striking wonder and fear. A pilgrim in an unknown land, awestruck and fearful of the arduous and unknown journey ahead.
Up I go, the ride both reconnaissance and practice. Attacking but always with something in reserve, a boxer with one hand tied behind their back. Smiling as the gradients steepen into wheelspin land, swooning around vicious hairpins to reveal more pain ahead.
Pea Royd Lane is a beast of a climb. A beautiful, brilliant beast. I loved it. Climbing notes committed to memory as best as I could, brain processing power throttled by the need to dampen fires in my lungs and legs. A little too committed for a recon ride. Climbers cough a day early.
There’s only one other rider on the hill. We exchange a nod and knowing smile. Yes we’re idiots.
The big day
Warming up on the turbo in the middle of a shopping centre car park. Welcome to the oh so wonderfully amateurish National Hill Climb Championship. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
An amateur race for sure, yet a certain irony for this is as close to the professional cycling world as many riders will ever get. It feels great. So pro. Let’s just pretend the old couple parking up beside me whilst I spin on the turbo are here to interview me rather than buy some slippers.
I decided I’d take myself too seriously and enjoy the skirmish with feeling pro. If you can’t take yourself too seriously at the National Championship, when can you?
The carpark turbo did actually serve a purpose and really helped loosen the legs. Normally I just ride around a bit pre-race. Not exactly scientific.
To the start line. Get into position. Clip-in, held up by a volunteer. The odd sensation of feeling like you’re going to fall sideways any moment. The 30 second count. Deep breath. 20. Don’t think about the gradients. 10. Remember to start the Garmin. Five, four, three, two, one… Go!
I set off easy, reminding myself of the five sections of climb to come, spinning up Sector #1 aka Sector Fucking Steep. People with race programmes begin calling out my name. I’m floating.
Sector #2 aka Sector Take a Deep Breath, the road levelling a little, the luxury of a minor recovery, sliding down the gears before the next ramp.
“He’s big ringing it!”
I hear the joke and laughter from the roadside yet still I look down to ensure I’m not dreaming! Time to push on, for here comes Sector #3 aka Sector of The Vertical Hairpin. The crowd dense here, all manner of shouting and hollering to the accompaniment of cowbells, horns and er, saucepans being beaten with wooden spoons.
Hairpin conquered, Sector #4 looms aka Sector Horrible Wall. I glimpse my 30 second man ahead and he becomes my focus as I grind up the wall, seated, cadence low.
Sector #5 aka Sector of the Long Home Straight. My cadence picks up and I begin reeling in my man, the crowd beside me a blur of noise and hollering.
Legs spinning furiously now. It doesn’t cross my mind to get out of the saddle. Can I catch him? My own private hell, a flashback to turbo training sessions, focussing on my form, legs spinning at what feels like an almighty pace but in reality 80 rpm feels like that after you’ve grinded your way up the steep stuff.
My man ahead slowing. 100 metres to the line, the catch is on. 10 metres, can I make it, so close to the line, must get past him… Come on… Inches to the line, a good old fashioned sprint finish lunge and I’m past him.
The catchers wait and try to grab my seatpost yet I’m still full of energy. I relent and let them hold me up, pain flooding my senses.
Done. Five years dreaming, two months hard training and 3 minutes and 12 seconds of racing. Wow. What a ride! Paced almost to perfection, albeit with some juice left in the tank. Smiling but struggling to breathe, remembering that yes I am hurting, hamstrings screaming, hunched over the bike, lost in my dream.
A ride five years in the making.
Hup, hup, hup – The crowd
All that’s left to do is holler and shout at my fellow mad men and women, enjoying the rest of the competition because hill climbing is brilliant to watch.
The atmosphere on the hill is incredible. With 300 competitors racing over four hours there’s so much variety in the pain faces of the youths, women, and men.
Most ride with gears, a few ride fixed, some of the early fixed competitors clearly overgeared for what is a horrible climb, the crowd watching in horror as their slow-motion ascent turns into a private hell, cadence measured in revs per hour not minutes.
The catchers await for those who have nothing left, who’s only focus is their next breath.
I loved every minute of riding in the Nationals. The next day I rode a high all day despite not climbing on a bike. Overall I finished 136th out of 300. Mid-pack, placing in the top half of the Veteran category. But this was more about the ride than the result.
Lessons? Of course.
- A proper warm-up works wonders. A turbo isn’t just to look pro!
- Coffee is important, but not too close to the race, 1.5 hours is best
- Toast is all I need for breakfast
- I should try standing up more – watching the leading men crush it up the slopes I was full of awe
- I need to suffer more, I enjoyed the climb far too much…
- …Sometimes the experience is much more important than the result and it’s better to enjoy it than hate it. This was one of those occasions.
- I’m oh so glad I rode the hill the day before but wish I could have ridden it two months earlier as my training plan would have been very different!
- My training needs to incorporate more low cadence work when faced with such severe gradients
- I can lose about 0.5kg a week without dieting
- Don’t expect your FTP to increase when training for hill climbing
- I really should have gone into hill climb training with a higher FTP rather than the equivalent of my off-season FTP. This would have given me a bigger base from which to begin hill climb training.
- The volume and intensity of training was about right but needed more outdoor riding (and standing up)
- I’ll never trouble the podium!
Will I enter again? You know I will.