Success. Not first place but a personal victory. A podium position in a hill climb race. A reward for the pain, for the dedication, for not drinking beer goddamn it! Not that I was in the top 3 overall. Oh no. I’m far too slow and old. I was third in my age category. So many caveats to success.
It’s a bit like saying I was third in a three person race. Seeking victory in ever niche groups, “yeah I was third in the ‘vegan, name beginning with S, black socks’ category. Nailed it.
It’s all relative
Small victories? We’ll take any glimmer of success. A win is a win. Everything is relative. The theory of relativity assumes the laws of physics are the same everywhere, only different viewers will see time and space differently.
For example, what for the casual observer is a mere 1 second, to a hill climber is a lifetime. A mountain of pasta is a mere appetiser to the ultra endurance cyclist. Riding 100 miles, a massive achievement for the beginner cyclist, a normal spin out for some club cyclists.
We break everything down. We have to. Otherwise there’d be just one world champion of everything and that would be no fun. Categories for all: junior, veteran , skill (Cat 1-4), regional, distance, bike type, whether we ride in tweed or not.
Letting the success go to my head
Third. On the podium. In my age category. It’s hard to fathom why I’d be so happy. Let’s try.
First, I compete against myself and against the hill, not others. Every passing year is a vain (in both senses of the word) fight against time, decay and deterioration. Age is not kind to the hill climber. VO2max declines by 1% every year, our maximum heart rate slows, our muscles weaken and recovery takes longer.
And let’s not even talk about the motivation to murder your legs three times a week for two months. Ugh. Getting too old for this shit? Or simply too wise?
Progress with each passing year is not only fighting time, but beating it (seemingly). We can the win battles for only so long but not the war. This year I was six seconds quicker than my personal best. Six measly seconds. Beating myself, beating the hill. Satisfying. Especially since my training has been aimed at 15 minute climbs not 90 seconds.
Yet it was not the PB that brought the joy, it was news of my podium place that stirred and awoke my inner chimp. Given my modest talents, this, I knew, was my peak cycling ‘career’. So it was I stood around for two hours getting cold before I could climb onto the podium. The bottom step of the podium.
A sizeable crowd for such a niche event. Cheering. Enough prize money to buy me fish and chips on the way home (sorry hill climb weight loss gods). I’m not going to lie. It felt really, really good. This is afterall my local hill climb, Swains Lane, a hill I’ve ridden hundreds of time, a hill I love to hate.
Podium. There, I said it again. Of course I was nonchalant. Initially. That all changed when I climbed on the podium. The strange urge to raise my arm and whoop. Damn, I was enjoying this way too much!
Pessimistic cynic is my default modus operandi. Tearing apart performances for flaws or mistakes, always searching for ways to improve.
And there was so much to improve about this ride, especially my choice of gearing. Riding uphill in the big ring may sound heroic but is rather stupid when you slow to a crawl near the summit, cadence and teeth grinding.
Such imperfections cannot however spoil the day. Just as I’ve accepted all the hard work and pain of training, so it is we must learn to not just accept success, but celebrate it.
Of course it means nothing. Nowt, nada, zip. Or does it? The moment of joy. The excitement of learning I’m on the podium. The congratulations of others. The podium moment and people cheering. All good fun. Insignificant in the grand scheme of many things yet this glimmer of success leaves a legacy.
Motivation. Not because the result justifies my pursuit of ever quicker times in the face of facts: I’m not actually that good. I’m ok. Moderate. A long way from being good.
I’m getting old, I’m fighting biology. I’m fighting the grind of the 9-5 week, training after work when it’s the last thing I want to do. Riding so hard the adrenaline spike keeps me awake into the small hours. Eating as little as I dare to fuel the machine whilst also losing weight.
Metabolism in overdrive, my body so hot I actually begin sweating when sat down. Hot flushes. Legs aching. All. Of. The. Time. Riding so hard I no longer enjoy cycling. And no I can’t explain it, I really can’t. I know not where the drive comes from.
The podium is a little pat on the back, the motivation to keep on pushing myself. This will be my last year hill climb racing. Probably. The National Hill Climb Championship is a few weeks away. I may not even qualify given my lack of races this year. Either way I’ll ride myself into the ground and will ride that hill as hard as I can, even if I don’t qualify and have to ride it on my own the day before the actual race!
If I do qualify, I’ll be lucky to finish top 120, mid-pack obscurity. I’ll feel terrible. Lungs burning, spluttering every other breath with climber’s cough. Light headed, giddy with exertion, with accomplishment. I’ll be relieved.
I’ll look back, not just at the last two months of eyeballs out intervals, but at the entire year which has been building to this moment. I will wonder why, why the hell I’ve chosen to spend my life this way. I’ll question if this really is my last year hill climb racing. But most of all I’ll wonder how the hell I survived without a beer for two months.
Photographs from the Urban Hill Climb on Swains Lane
A big thanks to the volunteers (my fellow clubmates, go London Phoenix!) who make these events happen and the photographers, especially James, a fellow clubmate who took some cracking snaps – all of the below are his except the last two, via my phone.
Photos in article: 1) James Vernon – Every image except the close up of my gurning face which is from @urbanhillclimb & @samholdenphoto