Diaries of a hill climb racer...

7th September 2019. Hill Climb race season is upon us...

This year I have been training hard for the hill climb season and I thought I'd do a bit of a diary as the season rolls out.

What is a hill climb race?

Most cycle clubs organise an annual hill climb race on a local hill, they tend to be open events so anyone brave or crazy enough can enter. They are raced like a time trial where each rider is set off individually a minute apart and then races against the clock up the hill as fast as they can. Race duration varies from about 3 minutes up to 20 minutes depending on the length of the hill. Most races are held on a Sunday morning in the Autumn with the HQ in a village hall. Copious cups of tea, cakes and bacon sandwiches are the norm when it comes to recovery food post race!

Hill climb racing is a uniquely British sport, in fact the oldest cycle race in the world is Catford Cycling Club Hill Climb which first took place in 1886 and is still held annually.

The season is rounded off with The National Hill Climb Championships. This year The Nationals are being held on Haytor climb, Dartmoor on Sunday 27th October.

So why hill climbing for me?

Having had a go at road racing for a couple of seasons I quickly realised it is damn tough. You need to do a lot of training miles, in the region of 200+ miles a week and you need to be pretty fearless! (I can't help that being the wrong side of 40yrs old didn't help.) So being a 10 stone lightweight and being pretty handy with the spanners I built a really light bike and started training on a lot of hills. I've dabbled at a few local hill climbs over the last couple of years and done OK. - More about the bike in another post.

This season...

This year I've really focused on the hills and got as fit as I can. I've entered 10 or so local hill climb races which run through September, October and into November. I think the mind, body and bike are ready for the challenge, so it is now all down to the performance on the day.

Race 1

My first race this year is Somerset Road Club Hill Climb, tomorrow - Sunday 8th September. The course is on the Quantock Hills on the lane which takes you to Triscombe Stone car park. It is a 1 mile long climb with an average gradient of 7.6% The course record is held by last years National Champion Andrew Feather with a time of 4min 16secs. The weather forecast is looking good so possibly another course record from Andrew who is registered to race. My personal best time on this climb is 5min 5 secs so I'm hoping for a sub 5 minutes all being well! Keep an eye on Strava for results tomorrow.

That's it for now, time to fret over tyre pressures and wind directions, exciting stuff for a Saturday night!


8th September 2019. First race of the season done...

7am. Sunday morning alarm. Check bike - bikes OK. Porridge. Add a chopped up Mars bar - amazing! Have a shower - going to stink of caffeine and adrenaline later. Check bike (again) - bikes still OK. Get dressed in an outfit only a badly dressed super hero would wear. Say goodbye to Leanna.

8am. Outside, dry, cool and sunny - perfect. 15 mile ride over to a little village hall tucked away on the Quantock hills, the HQ for Somerset Road Club Hill Climb 2019.

8.50am. Arrive at village hall, everything is now far more chilled out. Have a pleasant chat with a few local riders, sign on, pin number 27 onto jersey.

9.30am. Short ride over to the race hill at Cockercombe on the East side of The Quantocks. A 1 mile long hill at a 7.6% gradient. Quick spin up the hill as a reminder of what is ahead. Hopefully sub 5 minutes? Stunning morning and scenery. Not many places more beautiful than this. Caffeine gel and warm up.

10.24am. On the start line, a bit of gentle banter with number 26 and 28 to calm the nerves.

10.25am. I’m balanced on the bike with the ‘push off’ man holding me. Time keeper counts down... 30 seconds… 10 seconds… 3,2,1, go.

10.26am. Push, push, push, straight out the saddle into the steepest part of the hill, legs scream at the shock, going to hard, can’t help it, keep pushing as the adrenaline won’t let you slow down. The fence on the left is gone, the gradient eases a bit, try and settle into a rhythm. Riding up the hill through the trees, it is all a blur, trying to keep the breathing under control, trying to keep the cadence right, trying to hold the effort, seated then standing, ‘go on Ben’ someone shouts, round the corner, up, up, up, keep pushing, that’s it, I can see the finish line, head down, out the saddle, final effort, lungs screaming, legs screaming, look up, finish line seems no closer, same again, head down, final effort, push, push, push, nearly there… over the line... overwhelmed by total exhaustion. A couple of turns of the pedals as the bike wobbles I turn to coast back down the hill… Sub 5 minutes? I think so!!!

Results... The race was won by Andrew Feather in a time of 4min 10secs, I got 4min 56 seconds, 13th out of 35 riders and 2nd veteran.

Thank you to Somerset Road Club, all of the marshals, the photographer and all of the competitors for a great event! Well done to everyone who entered. It is truly punishing!


14th September, Hill Climb Season is off to a good start...

Tomorrow is hill climb race number 2. Last week went well, but that is in the past and it is all about tomorrow's race. Before we get onto that I thought I would do a bit of a feature about the bike, so to some it might be a bit bike geeky and to others it may be really interesting...

Hill Climb Bike... (My absolute prize possession)

The 2 main focuses with a hill climb specific bike is to make it light and stiff. Light - because your main enemy on a climb is gravity. Stiff - because you will be putting huge amounts of power through the bike and you want every last bit of power to be driven through the pedals to the wheels to propel you forward. Part of the beauty of hill climb racing is building a bike. The bike can be as light as you like, as long as it has 2 brakes and is safe to ride. Here is some idea of typical bike weights...

Loaded touring bike 35kg+
Town shopper bike 18kg
Hybrid bike 13kg
Gravel bike 12kg
Lightweight road bike 9kg
Professional race bike 6.8kg (UCI regulation minimum weight)
Ben's hill climb bike 5.9kg (Leanna has heavier handbags)

As you can see there is a vast difference in weight, so how is 5.9kg achieved? Start with a light-weight frame, then find all of the lightest components and then remove what you don't need. Here is my bike specification:

Scott Addict R2 carbon frame and forks (2008 model)
Sram Red 10 speed shifters (left shifter workings removed)
Sram Red 10 speed crank
Absolute Black 38T narrow wide chainring
Sram Red 10 speed cassette 11-28
Sram red 10 speed rear derailleur
KMC 10 speed Silver EL chain
KCNC brakes
Shimano Dura-Ace pedals
FSA Omega handlebars (shortened)
XLC Pro SL 110mm stem
M-Part gel bar tape
Grammo Ultra SL seatpost (shortened)
Prime RP-38 carbon wheels
Schwalbe One clincher tyres
Continental light-weight inner tubes
Prime lightweight carbon Q/R skewers
Garmin Edge 13
Shimano Falcon carbon saddle

Bits missing from the bike are: shortened handlebars, no front derailleur, single chainring, no gear workings inside left shifter, no bottle cage. Most of the bike has been sourced form second hand parts over the last couple of years. There are some pictures of the bike below...

Race 2
My second race this year is Salt and Sham Club Hill Climb, tomorrow - Sunday 15th September. The course is in Chew Magna, not far from Bristol Airport. It is a very short 0.7 miles - the shortest of the season with an average gradient of 7%. I'm not familiar with the hill but I'm expecting there might be some much steeper sections. The weather forecast is looking good, hopefully dry roads again. The plan is to hit the hill hard - out of the saddle from the start and push the power all of the way unless it levels off somewhere. Hopefully sub 4 minutes? Keep an eye on Strava for results tomorrow.

So its time for me to ponder on if wearing a skinsuit and changing the stem length will make me go quicker, most importantly should I put that Mars bar in my porridge tomorrow morning?


15th September, second race...

10.30am Sunday 15th September... Chew Magna Hill Climb start line. 5 minutes before I'm due to start 'How did you get on?' I ask my mate, he has just raced the hill. 'About 3 minutes 15 seconds' he answers. 'What? I was expecting it to be a 4 minute climb!' This really throws me, it is a climb I have driven up, but never cycled. Short climbs are not my strength...

10.35am Race time keeper is counting down... '30 seconds... 10 seconds... 3, 2, 1, GO.' I power off the start line straight out the saddle, the start is on the hill - no run up. It is not as hard to pull away as I thought, legs spinning uncontrollably I bang the bike down into smaller cogs, turning the cranks, feeling the pressure of the pedals through my shoes, drop into the saddle for a few spins before it gets steep. Glance down at Garmin, 1min 27 seconds, brain can't compute that I may be halfway through the climb - the fact is totally lost on me - hill climbs are just not that short. Back out of the saddle, the gradient growing, a load of spectators are up on the left making a right din, cow bells, shouting, screaming, banging on things, 'don't be distracted, race face all the way' I tell myself powering towards them. As I draw alongside the noise is overwhelming, I get a mental image of a grand tour rider going up Mont Ventoux, a small taste, or rather sound bite, the noise and excitement, race face is gone and I can't help but smile, what a buzz. Pushing on... the road steepens under the trees, slight bend right then left then 'wheres the hill gone?' its flat, I can see the finish, desperately dropping through the gears, from standing out the saddle into a time trial aero position and over the line at 23mph.

Things learnt... Firstly, always ride the hill first. I got caught out by how suddenly the hill was over. I'm not sure if I could have gone harder or faster but I feel I definitely could have gone further at that pace. I didn't get that feeling of total exhaustion at the top, this suggests I could have gone faster, but I'm not sure. Secondly, the skinsuit, although faster it is not comfortable when riding out of the saddle. Lets just say that being a tight, all in one suit, when stood up out of the saddle it puts an uncomfortable amount of pressure where a fella doesn't want it! The skinsuit is getting tucked away in the drawer until TT season next spring.

Results... The race was won by Josh Coyne in a time of 2min 24secs, I got over the line in 3min 01sec, 18th out of 41 riders.

Thank you to Salt and Sham Cycle Club and congratulations on organising a great first hill climb! Well done to all who took part and a big thank you to the spectators who made me smile whilst in the depths of hill climb suffering!