Last September I had in mind to write a blog “I love intervals” I had just done a few intervals around Oxford. Short, small hills within the Oxford Ring Road. I even got a KOM on a hill up to a cul-de-sac in Iffley. It took 50 seconds, with an average gradient of 4% – that kind of hill. but It was really great fun to make some ‘big’ efforts.
Alas, I never got around to writing that post because, for the next few months, I paid for this tentative dip back into the hill climb world. I’ve been nursing an old injury. I think it’s an SI joint. I’ve watched a 100 YouTube videos, saying “Do this Stretch it will FIX SI PAIN” etc. but nothing seems to make any difference. I’ve had the same issue for seven years now. I think it was separate but related to the hip impingement. I fixed the hip, but not the SI joint (lower back)
So after seven years of constant effort to find a cure, you realise it’s probably not going to happen. Recently, I went up in the loft and saw three excellent bikes, which look rather forlorn. I don’t want to add up the total original cost of the three bikes sitting in the loft, but it dawns on me it is a little extravagant to keep three bikes, rarely used. I also have many lightweight wheels, which as a hill climber you tend to accumulate – Zipp 404’s and a “Lightweight front wheel – weighing around 300 grams or something ridiculous.
The problem is that they are all rim brake bikes and this makes the bikes very last millenium. I imagine the resale price of tubular rim brake wheels and rim braked bikes has plummeted. I’d like to sell, but you are resistant to sell when you need to accept a huge discount from the original bike. There’s always part of you thinks. “But, if I sell all my best bikes, I’m bound to get better and then I’ll need to buy new ones!” I have a zen-like attitude to personal possessions – I love selling on ebay or giving to charity shops, but with bikes there is a degree of attachment. Funny I have no attachment to my turbo trainer. (see below)
In 2013, the Trek Madone (the bike I used in 2013 National HC) was I believe top of the range, but now manual shifting and rim brakes – show how quickly the bike industry has moved on. The bike industry are very good at creating the old adage “There’s always a better bike to buy!”
Kirkstone Pass 2023
When I was racing, my dream hill for the national hill climb was Kirkstone Pass, the Struggle. Mainly for selfish reasons, it would have been an ideal hill for me. But, it was great to see the event as strong as ever held on closed roads on Kirkstone Pass in 2023.
Remember the days of spending 30 minutes on a turbo in the garage? I never tried the modern-day video game versions. People seem to spend much longer on Zwift and the like. I always found turbo trainers intensely boring and time moved slowly. You had to be super-motivated to do 30 minutes or even an hour. Does anyone still use static turbo trainers? I tried to sell it on gumtree for £5, but I got no takers, so now I’m giving it away for free.
The Trek Madonne is theoretically a deluxe winter training bike. The problem is I never do any winter training these days.
The irony is that I have three great bikes, but I spend all my time on an old winter hack, which I’ve had for getting on 25 years. I’m tempted to consider a disk-brake commuting bike to see what all the fuss is. But, whenever I think of buying a new commuting bike – I’m always stuck in that conundrum, taht given the risk of bike theft in the centre of Oxford – why chance it with a better bike?
Also, I’m selling my Scicon Travel bag. It’s very good. You can read the review here
I have a new fitness goal – training for the “Centenarian Decathlon” – i.e be fit when you are really old. The idea is that as we get older, our muscle and fitness declines rapidly. It means we can spend the last 10 years of our life, unable to move properly. The body fails before the heart and brain. The only way to be fit and mobile in the last decade of our life is to start training for it now.
The idea comes from Peter Attia – a doctor and fitness guru, who has spent a lot of time researching how to combat ageing and improve our healthy lifespan. He wrote a good book – “Outlive” which goes into different aspects of things that make a difference in improving life-expectancy and healthy life-expectancy. An important conclusion from all his scientific research is that if you did one single thing to improve life and healthy life-expectancy – it is exercise. Exercise is the single most important thing that makes a difference. Try to eat healthy, get good sleep, minimise stress and cultivate happiness. But, if there is a magic bullet, it is exercise – aerobic, VO2 max and core strength.
By the way, healthy life-expectancy is the age at which we are physically able to live an active life. Researching an economics video, I found that in the UK the healthy life expectancy is just 51 in Blackpool, but 71 in Richmond Upon Thames (Population problem). There is a regional variation in life expectancy, but an even bigger discrepancy in healthy life-expectancy. The way modern medicine and health systems are set up – we focus nearly all our efforts on treating the symptoms of ill-health, but do very little on preventative medicine. Peter Attia claimed that 70% of deaths in the US are preventable, but only 3% of the health care budget goes towards preventative care. In an ideal world, exercise would be more incorporated into transport systems, schools, even workplaces. But, if we want to take part in the centenarian decathlon, we have to take the initiative and start training now.
The good news for keen cyclists. VO2 max is one of the most reliable guides to life expectancy. The higher the VO2, there is a very strong correlation for higher life-expectancy. Even small amounts of high intensity training, can boost our VO2 max and our fitness. VO2 max steadily declines with age, but we can partly arrest the decline through training VO2 max specifically. In my own cycling, this year I haven’t done very much VO2 max efforts at all, just pottering around town. So this is a good reminder to make more of an effort in this regard.
As you might expect the more you improve your aerobic base, the more good things happen for our health. It improves our cardiovascular health, but also our general mood and feeling of well-being.
The Harvard professor in this video is very good. One of the most interesting things I learnt was when people are unfit, if they exercise they don’t get the same ‘buzz’ / ‘dopamine’ effect that trained athletes do. This is why unfit people don’t like exercise, it is just all suffering, little reward. But, when you get to a certain level of fitness, then increasingly the body is able to send a reward of ‘dopamine’ and exercise becomes much more enjoyable. This is why it can be so hard to get going with exercise; at the start, it is not much fun. But, if you can get a critical mass of fitness then everything becomes easier because exercise itself becomes more enjoyable. I’ve found that in my own exercise cycles. When you’re fit and firing on all cylinders, you can’t wait to get back on the bike and do more training. But, when you get out of the habit, the idea of doing hill intervals or whatever, appears less desirable.
Another really important thing about training for old age is general all-round strength. As a cyclist, I have often been guilty of focusing only on cycling and not doing the more ‘boring’ core strength exercises. If you have ever seen me in a lycra skinsuit (and apologies if you have) you will know my body type is perfect for long-seated hill climbs. But, equally, it is perfectly unsuited for doing pull-ups and push ups. Yet, when you get really old, this kind of upper-body strength could be the difference between pulling yourself out of bed and being bedridden. I spend some time with a friend with Parkinson’s. When it kicks in, the legs stop working and to get out of bed, it requires pulling on bars to get up. It is touch and go, and this is a real motivation for training for old age. You realise every workout and muscle strength you developed – makes the difference of whether you can get out of bed, and being able to do basic tasks.
In the pandemic period, I got into the habit of online shopping. It’s amazing, you click on your computer and all your heavy shopping gets brought to your door. It saves so much effort. I used to take a rucksack when travelling, but now replace it with mini suitcases on wheels. Rather than take the stairs at the airport, we have lifts and travellators. Everything is geared towards comfort and ease of use. When we put a backpack on, it is a bit uncomfortable, so we seek ways to avoid lifting and carrying. Everything that used to keep the body in shape is being replaced by technology which does the heavy lifting for us. But, actually walking with a heavy backpack, is really good training for the body. It is why the army use this kind of training.
All this is good in the short-term, but it means the modern homeo sapiens is losing strength and the ability to function like we are supposed to. When things go wrong, it’s either too late or we just seek a solution to the problem of a weak body – not address the underlying cause. This is why we have to make so much conscious effort to keep the body active and avoid the comfort delusion. For example, when my 70-year-old mother brings in the shopping, I feel the right thing to do is go and help her carry the heavy shopping bags. But, actually, that weight training of lifting heavy shopping is the best thing she can do. (Apparently, women particularly benefit from weight training in old age). What I should be doing is inviting my parents down to do some redecorating in my house, keep them busy.
My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy said that once you are over 50 you should try and if possible do 2-3 hours of exercise and stretching per day. Sri Chinmoy used to be a keen runner, but when he got a bad knee injury, he took up weight lifting and sought to inspire the older generation, that we can keep ourselves fit. The idea of 2-3 hours per day exercise seems such a long-time. But, now I’m getting closer to 50, I have a goal to do this. Peter Attia states that many people who come to his clinic spent years seeking to make themselves rich, but when they reach a certain age, they realise it is no use, unless you have the good health to go with it. We just have to prioritise health and exercise and find time wherever we can.
For example, I was taking someone to hospital last week, there is hours and hours of waiting. But even then, there are some exercises you can do. Try stand on one foot with your eyes closed and then try stand on your toes with your eyes closed. Sounds easy? It isn’t.
There are also other exercises you can do in small confined spaces. I’m a big fan of eccentrics. Pretty much all using your body weight. The aim is to try and exercise all 600+ muscles in the body. The exercises seem easy, but the first time I did a 30 minute session, I couldn’t believe how stiff I was the next day! Muscles you don’t use in daily life.
Cycling is great
On average I spend one hour a day cycling around Oxford, Kennington, mostly on the cycle path. It’s a really efficient way to both get around time, save money and keep fit. Oxford is in the news for its controversial transport plans like LTN. But, not so visible are the huge benefits to physical and mental health which will come to societies if we can encourage active travel. So that’s a start, but I will work on improving upper body strength too.
And it is that time of the year to start thinking of VO2 Max Hill climb intervals
I have been cycling around Oxford quite a bit over winter. I try to make up to 100 miles a week if I can. It’s great fun cycling on certain roads and cycle paths.
Although I am not training properly, I am reasonably fit and generally get a little joy from being one of the fastest cyclists around. But, in the past few days, I keep coming across people on electric bikes who seem to be able to do 1-25+ mph in three seconds flat. When I see a bike speeding past, I often see if I can try and keep up. But, last week I was unceremoniously dropped two days in succession. The first electric bike was one of these people carriers, with two small children in the front.
The guy ‘cycling’ the souped-up electric bike carrier looked more like he was doing a criterium rather than a steady commute around town. When it comes to helmets I do think it is worth wearing them. But, I’m not an evangelist, I certainly don’t think it is the main solution to cycle safety. I get slightly irritated by people who fall over and graze their arm and then spend the next 20 years telling you a helmet saved their life. Anyway, I digress despite my conservative views on bike helmets, it always makes me slightly uneasy seeing very young kids in people carriers without helmets. If I were charging them around town at 25mph, I would put a helmet on my young kids, they look very exposed should anything happen.
If I had my TT bike I might have been able to keep up, but a commuting bike with heavy panniers, and it’s pretty hard to get to 25mph on the flat.
But, I do worry these super-powerful electric bikes will give ‘cyclists’ a bad reputation. I was in a pedestrian shopping centre and two young kids were charging up and down on their electric scooters. They were having great fun, but it does add an air of uncertainty about the pedestrian area, I can understand why old people may feel uncomfortable with all these powerful and heavier machines.
LTNs in Oxford
Two years ago, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of LTNs in Oxford. I don’t have time to write another nuanced post about the scheme. It is controversial, and it creates winners and losers which is unfortunate. But, from my personal experience, I think they are great. It is much better and safer cycling around LTNs. I have definitely changed some cycle routes. Divinity Road was never a good place with heavy traffic, but now it is great. I try to stay out of the controversy, it is too toxic. But, there is something great about having neighbourhoods where the car is not so dominant and you can enjoy walking and cycling.
I took my bike to Reg Taylor for annual service and for the first time ever, I had to wait a week to get a service. They have been very busy with bike repairs, ancedotal evidence more are cycling perhaps.
A look at different average speeds in different types of cycling. All speeds are in km/h.
People often ask what is a good average speed for cycling? When I was in Otley CC, we used to have ‘reliability rides’ (think sportive which doesn’t cost anything). Usually, the reliability rides involved riding 50 miles in 3 hours. – 16.6 mph, 26.8 km/h. It was a good test for the club-rider; it could still be done at a non-competitive, but ‘brisk’ pace. I don’t know if people still do reliability rides.
Usually our old club runs would be done at around 14mph (23 km/h) and that didn’t include the three tea stops during the day. Of course, the average speed of a club run will all depends who you go with. If it’s a club run of more than 20mph, I think a chain gang is probably more important. When I went with a local Oxford chain-gang, the average speed was something like 23mph for a flattish course around Otmoor.
Passing traffic on dual carriageways can add an extra 2-3 km/h
A £1,000 road bike will be considerably faster (1-2km/h) than say a heavy hybrid bike.
Very smooth roads – smooth tarmac can add an extra 1 km/h
In a 10 mile time trial, with a tailwind of 20mph, I once averaged 56km/h. Into the headwind on the return, I averaged 36 km/h. Wind is important
If you can average 32-34 km/h on the flat on a road bike, you may find you can get close to 40km/h on a time trial bike on a fast course.
If you cycle in the wheels – behind another rider, you can save 20-40% energy. In the middle of a large peleton, it is said you can save up to 50% of your energy. You can probably ride 3-9 km/h faster. Average speeds for team time trials are often 3-5 km/h faster than individual time trials.
The Old Shoe out of Llangollen is a short, steep climb in North Wales. It runs close to the better known Horseshoe Pass. (main A road). But the Old shoe makes an excellent venue for the national hill climb because it is feasible to close the road to traffic and is significantly steeper (an average for 12.% for 1 mile is a real challenge. The road is quite narrow and has a cattle grid, but is relatively quiet, as most cars take the Horseshoe Pass up the valley.
I remember sitting down with Maciek about two years ago (2019). I always enjoy talking about hill climbs, so was happy to take part. We spent quite a few hours and I think Maciek ended up with quite a bit of footage (as an amateur film-maker, I couldn’t guess at the number of hours Maciek must have spent editing all that footage). It was at a time when I wasn’t doing any competitive cycling, so it was nice to relive the old memories, which seemed quite ‘alive’.
On another occasion, we went out to Chinnor Hill in the Chilterns to do a short photoshoot.
I must admit, I then forgot about it for a year until Maciek thought about publishing in 2020. But, he waited another year and interviewed Bithja Jones and Andrew Feather, which was a good addition to the film.
I think it is very good. I like all the contributions and it gives a good insight into the world of hill climbing. It’s often hard watching yourself speak, but there you go.
After the 2021 national hill climb on Winnats Pass and now watching the whole final version, I’m super inspired to go out and cycle up some hills! I hope my body is as enthusiastic and willing as the rest of me! But, I guess that is part of the film, inspiring you to enter a hill climb 362 days until the Old Shoe in Llangollen, North Wales
The film is made by Maciek Tomiczek supported by Hunt.
The National Hill Climb Championship for 2021 was held Winnats Pass. It is an iconic venue for the event because it is an excellent hill (i.e. really hard – 11% average, 20% max gradient). The hill has a natural amphitheatre around the climb meaning there will be a great atmosphere for both riders and spectators.
It is also by far the most popular hill climb venue for the National with 10 visits. However, this will be the first visit to Winnats since 1977.
The 2021 race was very popular with many entrants and spectators. It was run under difficult conditions with rain and wind making the steep slopes even harder. In the men’s race Tom Bell, broke the decades old course record to fly up the climb in a time of 3:01.6 pipping last year’s winner Andrew Feather. In the women’s event, Bithja Jones narrowly pipped Mary Wilkinson to the title.
In honour of the British Hill Climb Season, I cycled up a moderately steep hill near where I live. It was an all-out, lung-busting effort to get to the top of Rose Hill, I even overtook a young teenager on a mountain bike and said to him ‘Ey up!’
But I don’t think he spoke Yorkshire, and he replied with some modern lingo I didn’t quite understand either. The main thing is that I had left him in the dust and shown quite a nice turn of speed for a balding, middle-aged man with a few bags of shopping from Sainsburys.
The one great consolation of middle age, is that I have avoided the dreaded middle-aged spread. Unlike my father and my father’s father, I’m still as stick thin as a young whippet hill climber ought to be. If only it was a contest of height to weight ratios and not power to weight, I might still be in contention for the top 3 places. Fortunately it is not – instead the hill climb is an honest test of power, speed, determination and maybe just a dash of insanity thrown in for good measure.
I kind of miss many things about the hill climb season, but all the training has lost something of its allure. I sometimes don’t recognise my former self who would seek out the steepest and longest hills with a relish and enthusiasm that becomes harder to comprehend as time passes.
Even though I don’t follow the results or what is happening, I still find myself thinking about the hill climb season around this time. It is as if I have a biological clock that gets to mid autumn and thinks about hill climbs, even if I do more thinking than actual cycling.
Even many years after dropping out of serious racing, I keep thinking of different years and get thoughts like 1991 Park Rash, it would have been fun to enter National HC aged 15 and raced against Chris Boardman. 2004 Winter’s Gibbet, wish I entered. 2007 Cheddar Gorge, shame I was injured e.t.c. But, regrets are a futile business. So I wish bon chance to the entrants for Winnats Pass and I trust it will be a great Hill Climb Championship.
Some of the useful techniques for cycling uphill from 3% long drags to 30% wicked hairpins.
Simple top 7 tips
The quickest 7 tips to cycling uphill I would give are:
Avoid going into the ‘red’ too early on the climb. Don’t get carried away on the lower slopes, if you still have a long slog to the top.
Maintain a reasonable cadence of 65-80 rpm. It will be a lower cadence than normal, but avoid pushing a big gear at a very low cadence.
Anticipate steep sections in advance by getting into lower gear before.
Traffic permitting, avoid the steepest apex and go wide around corners to maintain the best rhythm and constant speed.
Where possible remain seated. Save standing on the pedals for the really steep hills and steep sections.
Stick to your own pace. It is counter-productive to try and stay with much quicker riders. You will lose more time in the long run.
Know what you are climbing – length, gradient, max gradient, and likely time needed.
The effort required to cycle uphill increases exponentially as the gradient increases. If you’re unfit/new to cycling don’t start off in the Lake District, it may put you off for life. You need a reasonable fitness before you tackle steep hills. Also, when you start to climb, you use your upper body and back more. Core strength exercises to strengthen upper back muscles will help a lot.
Climbing in saddle or out of saddle?
A big issue is whether to climb seated in the saddle or climb out of the saddle. In short, I find it best to be seated for long gradual climbs. Getting out of the saddle is useful for when the gradient really gets steep. Climbing out of the saddle is less aerodynamic and is harder work. It is good for short bursts of power, but you will tire more quickly.
Climbing in the saddle
Where possible, I try to remain seated when climbing. It is more efficient and you can maintain a high power for longer. It is also more aerodynamic. For novices, it is good training to try and climb whilst seated and get out of the habit of standing on the pedals as soon as the road goes uphill.
Climbing whilst out of the saddle
Sometimes referred to as ‘standing on the pedals’. Here you employ a lot more muscles and upper body strength to help you pull up against the handlebars. If you stand up, you will get a short term increase in power. If you’re using a power meter, you will probably see your power increase significantly. This is great for acceleration or getting through a particularly steep section. But, when the fast twitch muscle fibres are exhausted, the burst of power will evaporate, and you will find your power dissipates.
Bear in mind, there is no hard and fast rule about climbing in the saddle. If you watch the Tour de France, you will see different riders have different styles. A light rider like Alberto Contador always seems to be out of the saddle rocking around all over the place. A heavier more powerful rider like Cancellara will be much more likely to be going up the Alpine climbs whilst seated. Shorter, lighter riders generally do better out of the saddle than heavier riders. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the saddle just to give your back muscles a stretch and break the monotony of climbing in the seated position.
Don’t forget the wind
Some of my hardest hill climbing experiences have actually been due to a super strong headwind, as much as the gradient. The closest I came to walking up a hill was Wrynose pass (25%) but, that day there was a super strong headwind. Obviously, if you can keep lower on the bike, it helps avoid the headwind. This is why it can be good to practise climbing seated. On the other hand, in 2013 the national hill climb had a 35mph tailwind, making it an advantage to do most of the climb standing up!
Rock solid core and minimising other movements
Talking of pro techniques – watching last year’s Vuelta Espagne I was struck by the stage where Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) won. On the last climb, he was absolutely solid on the bike. His lower and upper back wasn’t moving – only his legs were moving. He must have worked a lot on core strength, this increases power climbing because more effort is going to his legs and less into his upper body.
Best line to take climbing
Where possible you want to try and reduce the gradient of the hill by going wide on the corners and avoiding the apex. The shortest route is not the quickest. If you go through the apex you will break your rhythm and be forced to try harder. It is better to try and maintain the same gradient by going wide. You can keep in the same gear and maintain your speed; this is a secret of climbing, maintain your momentum where possible.
I am currently going through a five year plan of clearing out my stuff. I have sold a lot of books on Ziffit. I have put five skinsuits in the loft and managed to throw away one. It’s amazing how you can accumulate skinsuits. They cost a lot of money but have no re-sell value (especially when the lyrca gets stretched). I don’t want to discard them because I hope to use them again, but who knows when?
The problem with taking a zen approach to your stuff is that with cycling stuff, it is easy to accumulate and difficult to throw away. I’m sure all cyclists can relate to keeping various odd bits in different parts of the house and not knowing when they will come in. You keep just in case and then forget their purpose.
In my loft, I couldn’t believe how many varieties of aero bottles I have lying around. That’s the problem with time trialling, there’s always watts to be saved by splashing some cash. I’m kind of relieved to be off the aero gains money-train. I also always seem to excel in collecting one single glove. I had about 4 right handed gloves with no pair.