In the Death Zone, an account of my first Hill Climb season

The Lockdown:

My lockdown began a couple of weeks before it was formally announced from Downing Street. With family and friends in Italy already under tighter restriction, I saw it coming and cleared my diary of any cycling commitment for 2020, starting from “The Dean 300”, which I chose not to start. I decided there and then that Audax was going to take a back seat for a while.

Nonetheless, with validated long distance riding gone, I still needed something to look forward to and I took inspiration from a book I had bought to keep myself busy “A Corinthian Endeavour”, the story of the National Hill Climb Championship, by Paul Jones. Hill climbing is an offshoot of time trialling, with a brief and intense season spanning from early September until the National Championship on the last weekend in October. It is a distinctively British sport, hence a bit peculiar, if not completely mad.

In late March, looking at racing in the autumn did not seem to be madness though: we got repeatedly told that three months was a realistic timescale to be out of lockdown, so there was a more than zero chance that time trialling, and the hill climb season in particular, might resume during the summer and throughout the autumn. The solitary nature of the sport makes it an obvious candidate for bicycle racing during a pandemic.

So a deal was struck: there and then I decided I was going to swap the saddle sores of a twenty hour randonnee, for the agony of three minutes in the death zone.* I always liked cycling uphill anyway, time to see if I was any good at it! I resolved to sign up very early for a local Open double race up Dovers and Saintbury hills in the northern Cotswolds escarpment, due in mid September, a reassuringly long way away.

Qualifying races are called “Open” or “A-type” and you need an affiliated club membership to enter, as well as sign up for a free account on the Cycling Time Trails (CTT) website. Audax UK is an affiliated club, but this season I chose to race wearing the Kenilworth Wheelers CC colours. In my head a project was beginning to take shape: I was going to qualify and compete in the National Championship on October the 25th, if that was ever going to go ahead.

The more I read about the mad world of UK hill climbing, the more it made sense: it’s a relatively low budget sport, which, unlike the flat time trialling big brother, does not rely too heavily on purchasing the latest wonder equipment. In fact, most competitors seem to ride pretty standard bicycles, often stripped of unnecessary sprockets, nuts and bolts. It’s not uncommon to see a generous use of hacksaws to reduce weight to the extreme. In the past, drilling holes through metal frames was “de rigueur”, nowadays, with composite materials, it seems to have gone out of fashion. Either way, the equation is plain simple: to go fast up a hill you need a high power to weight ratio, so you ought to bring down your weight and build up your power output over the time frame, which in most cases is less than five minutes.

The weight:

During lockdown, many gained weight and others lost weight, as a reflection of a change in lifestyle. I got lucky enough to be in the latter category. Working from home meant no access to the departmental staff tea room, no bottomless provision of chocolate digestives and nobody’s birthday to celebrate on a weekly basis with cake. I’ve always been pretty disciplined with my food shopping, you won’t find crisps or biscuits in my trolley, so the BMI was mostly beefed up by the above mentioned treats and the odd curry night out. Both were now out of the equation and I lost weight fairly rapidly. By May, when businesses began to reopen, I was down to 67 kg, from 73 and that kept slowly going down throughout the summer, until I settled at 65.5.

As for the bicycle, I could not afford a fabulous 6 kg wonder bike, so I had to make do with my 9 kg Audax beast. I bought a discounted Selle italia SLR and a pair of 180 grams Pirelli TT tyres with matching Continental supersonic inner tubes. By September, with bottle holder and bolts removed, some sprockets replaced by alloy spacers, I had a 7.9 kg machine. It’s not a competitive weight, but it’s only 3kg away from the lightest thing you can legally ride within the rules. I can live with giving away a handful of seconds, but keeping a few thousand pounds in the bank.

The Power: I had bought a Stages left crank power meter in February, now it made total sense to use it. Being able to get reliable feedback for any given effort is invaluable. During lockdown, I kept a daily routine of riding one to two hours a day, whilst keeping the power up. Within a month, I could do training sessions with average output in excess of 200 Watts. However, increasing average power is the starting point, but it doesn’t really help in a hill climb. Most races are around the 3 minute mark, which means they have a fairly high anaerobic component: you are going to produce a lot more watts than you would on a training ride. My first attempts at my local climb, Edge Hill in Warwickshire, yielded around 320 Watts over the 4 minute and something duration. By the summer, the number was up to 350 and it peaked around 360 Watts in September. My personal best on the hill went from 4:30” in the early spring to 3:50” in September, by slowly chipping at it like a stonemason, trying harder and harder, getting into highs of asphyxia I did not think possible. I was as ready as I could have been!

The racing

CTT did a great job of providing a regulatory framework for events to be Covid-19 safe and as a result, racing began in late July and by August there were more time trials around than one could enter. I competed in a few myself, just to get used to the routine of a timed start and finish and how to avoid getting disqualified for trivialities, such as crossing into the wrong side of the road on a bend, or shouting abuse at passing cars, when in sight of a marshal. I never covered myself in glory, I managed a long 25 minutes over 10 miles, but got stuffed by virtually everybody, including obese competitors with pointy helmets and disc rear wheels. It wasn’t my time yet, my revenge would come!

My debut in hill climbing happened on September 6th, a B-type club event organised by Banbury Star CC, up to Burton Dassett Country Park. A short, sharp burst that the fastest can do in just over one minute. I was timed at 1:28 and finished 13th out of 21 competitors. Not the best of debuts, but as climbs go, too short for me, one for “power trolls” and I could only manage 450 Watt on the day. The following week I did much better at the Beacon RCC race: 16th out of 31 in the Clent hills, against a very strong field and my first sub 4 minute ascent of Winwood Heath Road.

The following week I competed in the above mentioned Open double race in the Cotswolds. I finished 26th in a field of almost 50 and 5th out of 16 in my age group. Age groups are Juniors (up to 17) Espoirs (up to 22) Seniors (up to 39) and Veterans, my category, which I also refer to as “geriatrics”. To date, this remains my best result in a qualifying event.

September and October have been intense, with a race every weekend and sometimes even two. I had mixed results, some very good, like 7th in a field of 30 at the Rugby Velo B-type race in Daventry. I even “won” a race, when only three of us showed up at the event organised by the Birmingham Midland Athletic and Cycling club. On other occasions I did less well, bottom half of the field or even bottom third. You race the competitors who are there on the day, and sometimes the quality of the field is just too high!

Meanwhile, the mighty Reading CC organising machine was in motion and the National Championship was definitively going to happen. The setting was going to be Streatley hill, a short, steep section of the B4009, which climbs west, out of Streatley and Goring, on the way to Newbury. It’s only half a mile in length, but it more than makes up in gradient, being just shy of 13% average, with a section well above 20%.

With two results in qualifying events under my belt, I entered the National, with a bit of apprehension and keeping my fingers crossed that they would be good enough to be selected. As it happens, the organisers had planned for a grand showcase of the sport and anyone who applied got a spot, regardless of results. In some ways, this might have devalued the effort involved to get there, but on the other hand, I was quite happy to be accepted, rather than not!

Streatley, West Berkshire, October 25th 2020: The National.

It was a lovely autumnal Sunday morning, that came after a horribly wet Saturday, and it wasn’t even cold when I was due to start around lunch time. The forecasted twenty mph wind didn’t really materialise. Like most, I didn’t have the opportunity to test the course, as the road had been closed since the early morning, to allow the Junior race an early start. All I could do was to rely on my memories from July, when I had done a recce, as part of a ride with some friends, just in case this day would ever come… these were along the lines of “it’s bloody steep and badly surfaced”. I worked out on a good day I was going to be able to climb on the 27T sprocket up the 20% part of it, so tactically not much in it: start like a possessed man and keep going as best as you can till the finish line.

Which is what I did: five, four, three, two, one, go!

I avoided the embarrassment of falling off at the start, whilst live streamed on TV, despite a sudden right end drift of the front wheel in leaving the holding frame. I accelerated and settled into an unsustainable 450 Watt pace… the climb started gentle, but soon got steeper. I was still riding the 21T sprocket… without thinking I shifted to the 24T and ground my way up, as the rear wheel began to slip on the wet and rough tarmac. One minute gone and still over 400 Watt output, keep going! Now the gradient was fierce and the only way to manage the wheel spin was to be in the saddle, which lowers the power (and looks bad in the photos!). I glanced at the Garmin for consolation… another minute to go at least! I managed to hang on and stay on top of the gear, although I had to sit on the saddle again to avoid losing the rear. Paul Jones calling my name from the side of the road, almost made me smile, but you can’t smile, or the photos will reveal you weren’t trying hard enough! The brow couldn’t come soon enough… I could see it and now I was over it… “50 metres to go”, somebody shouted! Now completely in the death zone, I crawled my way up the false flat, with not very much power or speed left and got over the line, tasting blood in my mouth… could do no more! 3:21.9, a good 18 seconds quicker than my full-on recce in July, but still only good enough for 181st place in the men standings. I can take some comfort by having beaten 31 between other geriatrics and a few slow seniors and even one espoir, apparently! The winner crossed the line in 2:04.8, which speaks for itself, really.

Epilogue

Driving home, I felt a rare sense of achievement. I am not one for using the word “proud”, I don’t think I’ve ever been proud of anything I achieved. I felt at peace with myself, much in the same way I had felt after my first 400 brevet. The achievement is not not much for the mediocre result, but mostly for having gone through the all journey and having finished it with some sort of a Bang… maybe not a very loud one, but certainly one that I felt and that meant something to me.

Sitting on the sofa, as autumn draws in and more rain lashes the windows, I am already looking forward to next year: they say the National will return to Winnats pass after more than forty years… talking about steep!

* In Himalayan mountaineering, the region above 26,000 feet altitude is referred as the “Death Zone”, due to the irreversible damage to the brain cells caused by prolonged exposure to thin air.

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