The fundamentals are fairly basic, get yourself and your bike to the top of that hill as fast as you can. During Hill Climbs you really do push your body right to it’s limits and many riders I know have only ever done one. The time you spend in ‘the pain cave’ doesn’t end when you cross the line either. You’ve all seen the pain (race) faces I pull but what the camera rarely catches are the scene after the chequed flag. The St. Johns Ambulance men really don’t know whats going on.
My 2016 hill climbs all started with a very low key event, my club Hill Climb Champs. At this point I had no intention on entering the national and hadn’t even considered any more events. Close Brow just outside Rishton is a short but steep effort won last year by Chris Stanley in a time of 1:57.7. I had raced the climb in 2011 and 2012 coming 2nd and 1st respectively and going under 2 minutes comfortably on both occasions. This year with a small tailwind I powered up the climb in a time of 1:38.2, winning by 18 seconds and setting a New Course Record. It was here the seed was planted, focus would turn Matlock and the National Championships.
To Become a Hill Climber
During the hill climb season of 2012 I weighed under 63kg and had the physique of a skinned rabbit with frogs legs. Now I was over 70kg, not looking much different to be honest but carrying an extra 7kg on a hill climb… forget it! After getting ill, probably due to under eating and over training I decided 63kg was not a great idea so I set a target of losing 4-5 kg. Hill climbing isn’t just about who’s the lightest, you have to maintain your power output whilst also sticking to a gruelling training schedule.
The weight was falling off nicely when I came to the first ‘Open’ event of the season. East Lancs RC had put on a 2 stage race in Littleborough. The first stage was a short effort, similar to that of Close Brow but not quite as steep. Then a 2 mile effort up Blackshaw Edge would follow as Stage 2. The field was strong, with ex-national champ Dan Evans and eventual 2016 Champ Adam Kenway on the start sheet. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t beat either of them on the first climb but gained some serious Kudos coming 1.2 second behind Adam and just 0.1 second behind Dan. The 2nd climb however, oh dear… 2 minutes down, 19th on the stage and plummeting to 15th on the overall. Non of my targeted climbs during the hill climb season were as long as Blackshaw Edge so I wasn’t overly concerned but I knew what I had to work on.
2 months of training started that day. Intense hill reps and intervals were the main focus to give me a high power, sustainable for around 3 minutes. To get the weight down I just wanted to eat healthy and try to avoid unnecessary snacks. I was basically living off chicken, wholegrain rice, nuts, spinach and green tea. Avoiding alcohol was another part of the plan and I have to thank my fiends for making this a lot easier than they could have made it (I did buckle once and had half a pint, naughty).
It’s not Just the Racing.
Hill Climbs aren’t just about the racing. I would never say its fun to race up a savagely steep hill full gas but messing with my bike and trialling some weird and wonderful nutritional strategies is.
My bike had been stripped right back to get rid of any unnecessary weight. To begin with my bike was already fairly light but I managed to shave off well over 500g which accounts for at least a few seconds in a hill climb. The usual tricks are to take off your bottle cages, and remove your bar tape but this year I decided to go the extra mile. Every bolt that wasn’t holding the bike together was discarded and I purchased an aptly named ‘Raceface’ 38T Narrow-Wide single chainring and removed the Front Mech. I was also on the look out for some old carbon bars to chop the drops off and a battered lightweight saddle I could strip the padding off and drill holes into but this will have to wait for next year.
On top of dieting and shaving grams off my bike I’d tried other nutritional tips. A commonly practised one is to restrain from consuming too much liquid on the morning of races. Hydration increases weight and doesn’t really matter a huge amount when you’re racing over just 2 and a half minutes. You get a banging headache after the effort but its all for the greater good. Caffeine is a stimulant we all take but an hour before a Hill Climb I would consume up to 3 caffeinated gels, the equivalent of 6 strong coffees. I was Buzzing all day long but on the start line my body would be ready for action.
Beetroot Juice is another ergogenic aid that many cyclist take. The Nitrate Oxide it contains dilates the blood vessels and is basically a warm up in a bottle, perfect for these short events. All season long I’ve been taking Beta Alanine, a supplement that would supposedly help to complete repeated hard efforts during training. It also gives you a strange tingling sensation for 15 minutes after taking.
There was one very strange marginal gain I also trialled before the last 3 races. Sodium Bicarbonate, yeah, the same stuff used in your cupcakes is taken to buffer acid build up and offset that feeling of your legs becoming sacks of lactic acid. It also tastes horrific when mixed with water and I’m glad I wont be taking it again any time soon. I had to be very careful how much I took though, not only did my sister who’s a nurse tell me off because its probably not the best idea to alter my blood PH, consuming too much too quickly can,well… back fire!
October = PAIN!
The main Hill Climb season runs through October and began with Crown Point, a climb
right on my doorstep, one already on my palmarès and almost identical in length to Matlock. My winning time 3 years earlier was 2:43.2 and I was confident I could go under 3 minutes and give myself a good chance of placing high. I managed 2:46.9 which I though would be a winning time but David Huck of Lakes RC smashed it out of the park with 2:37.4.
Blackshaw Edge would normally follow Crown Point but after my disappointing performance on the 2-stage a month earlier I opted for a shorter but much more high profile climb in the Hill Climbing world, Monsal Head. Short but steep, Monsal attracts big names, great crowds and attention from the UK’s cycling media. I was aware that this year the shorter the climb the better for me and so I was motivated for a good performance. Taking on the climb the roaring crowd, ringing cowbells and blowing horns, reminded me why we have this love hate relationship with the discipline and I managed a very respectable time of 1:29.7 and 21st place. Wanted top 15 but I think Crown Point the day before had just taken the edge off me.
Next up, my favourite event, The Ramsbottom Rake. Year after year this brutal climb attracts big names and even bigger crowds that shout you on as you grind up the final 25% section to the top. Warming up I could tell I was in a good place and I’d reduced my weight to 66kg. I kicked out the start gate and took on the first steep section up to the left hand bend where the gradient eases. I stayed out of the saddle as is my preferred climbing style before baring right onto the final, brutal kick up. I crossed the line with a new PB of 2:36.6. 12th place and on the verge of being sick.
Pendle was next. From my point of view the hardest Hill Climb there is. Longer than what I like but still savagely steep. The magic 4 minutes has evaded me with my PB being 4:04. I was feeling confident after my Rake performance but that effort had given me a self induced cold for the week leading up to Pendle. My head just wasn’t in the right place on the Nick as the rain poured down but I was still satisfied with my time of 4:14. now had 2 weeks to get ready for Matlock.
I was feeling great, Training had gone to plan and my diet had been perfect for weeks. I’d reduced my weight to 64.5kg and could tell my power was good on the training climbs I’d been doing.
High on caffeine and adrenaline I took to the start of The National Hill Climb 2016. The first 180 riders would set off at 30 second intervals to allow enough time to fit in a full field of 240. Number 112, I was released at 12.56pm, hitting my usual rhythm, go hard and hold on! I was flying up the steep section and feeling great as I passed through the walls of noise but after taking the turn with around 150m to go where the gradient reduced I just didn’t have it in me to really pick it up. No amount of Baking Soda could cover the pain in my legs. My time 2:38.7, 35th, comeback season over.
Looking back I am more than happy with the result but even happier I’m back enjoying riding and racing. Now it’s time for a rest, some food, beer and relaxing, not forgetting how far I’ve come from this time last year.