After the national hill climb in late October. My cycling went into mini-hibernation. Every ride seemed to get shorter and slower. My mid December I was reduced to a few miles around Oxford here and there. It was a long wet, cold winter, which seemed to fit the mood of third lockdown or whatever number it was. In the past year I have barely noticed when we go in and out of lockdown – it all merges into one long thing.
Since the New Year things have been picking up. I have been going a little quicker, a little further and have been enjoying the lengthening days.
A few weeks ago we had bad flooding around the Thames basin. It was hard to find roads which were not flooded.
I did a u-turn. One cyclist said they managed to cycle along the wood boards, but my drop handlebars didn’t fit and I wasn’t in the mood for slipping off.
Last Sunday was the warmest day of the year. A balmy 11 degrees and it felt warmer in the sun. I did a rare thing – I had a leisurely ride and even stopped off at Brill to eat a banana. There were plenty of cyclists on the roads.
Yesterday, 1 March seemed like a good day to get the time trial bike down from the loft. The roads have dried up and I quickly charged up the electric gears. There are few better things in cycling than to go from your heavy winter training bike with mudguards to a super-fast tt bike. Suddenly you are 3mph faster and it feels really good!
The problem with getting the TT bike is that I don’t want to go back to the slow road bike!
The 2020 National Hill Climb was held on Streatley Hill and was promoted by Reading CC. In many ways, it was quite an innovative event. Chip timing, live stream, live commentary (good quality) And perhaps most impressively 479 riders signed up, with a special effort to encourage more women to enter. I believe over 109 women and 104 juniors were on the startsheet, which is impressive growth from a few years ago. For quite a few years, the Hill climb championships has seen increased interest and growth, but this year’s event has set a new standard. The organising team did an excellent job in difficult circumstance. It will be interesting to see how it progresses in the future.
The depth of the field is also reflected in the standard of this year’s hill climbing. I’ve come back after four years out of the sport, and on coming back, it seems the bar has been raised quite a bit. Of course, like everything else, the event has been overshadowed by the current Covid-19 situation and I think we have to be thankful the event was able to go ahead. Fortunately, time trials are more suited to socially distancing than the majority of amateur sports, but it must have required quite a few last-minute organisational changes to keep the event on track. The event was not without some Covid casualties. I know of two Welsh riders (Ed Laverack men’s defending champion) and Rebecca Richardson (3rd women 2019) who were unable to attend due to Welsh lockdown. But still, around 400 riders were able to start in an event which did as much as possible to minimise any risk.
Saturday was Brighton Mitre CC hill climbs on Steyning Borstal and Mill Hill. I raced these hills back in 2004-2006, but haven’t been back for 14 years.
First up is Steyning Borstal, a tough climb with three distinct sections. Steep, flat and then steep again.
It is a technical climb in that pacing is not straightforward because of the variable gradient. I had a good warm up and was reasonably pleased with the effort. I thought I paced it relatively well. I wanted to go fairly fast on the first and second part but make the biggest effort on the last section where it gets to 17%. I finished in a time of 4.06. I believe there was a slight headwind at the top of climb, though Alice Lethbridge set new women’s course pb of 4:55.3 and Lukas Nerurkar set junior record 3:54.2.
My time: 4.06. Power: 421 watts. Av speed 14.0 mph. max speed 2.4
Last Saturday was Bowden Hill climb organised by Chippenham Wheelers. It was raining all day. I think it had been raining for 3 days solid, though it is easy to forget exactly how many days.
It is not a climb I have done before. Even in the murk and grey, wet skies, Laycock and Bowden Hill seemed an attractive part of the world. In better weather, I may have gone for a longer rider after. But, as it was, after finishing and descending the hill, I was pretty cold so I didn’t hang around.
The climb was OK, I had problems with some sprocket so my gears were slipping at an awkward moment. I don’t think it affects time too much, but it does affect the momentum and you are left feeling you could have done better.
My average power was 400 watts, quite a bit less than previous power outputs for 4 to 5 minute (maybe because the hill wasn’t that steep 6.6% average).
Form was good last Sun and Mon, but then dipped on Wed. Let’s hope it goes back up this week.
I still enjoyed getting out despite the rain and cold.
Rear light woe
These days rear lights are required for racing in CTT events. On a murky day like Sat, you can understand why the rule was brought in. On the startline, there seemed to be a lot of equipment failure, with rear lights not working (perhaps the rain was playing a part, though it shouldn’t) and I heard quite a few last minute requests to borrow a rear light.
I think you will never regret bringing spare clip on rear light to the start of a race. My light just about lasted the race. I thought it wasn’t working properly when it kept fading away this week, but then I realised I had been trying to recharge the USB the wrong way around! Now I’ve charged it with the right side facing up, it’s good to last a long time!
Today was a club event, promoted by Didcot Phoenix, on Streatley hill. It was partly a test run for the 2020 National hill climb which is scheduled for the end of October.
Streatley hill is one of the closest open hill climbs to Oxford. Just 18 miles, if you take the direct route. It would make a good training hill, but I’ve never really liked Streatley for some reason! I prefer the slightly longer climbs in the Chilterns and Brill. Anyway, I was grateful for the opportunity to have a go and am glad I had a test run. The last time I raced Streatley was in 2012.
I wasn’t sure whether to drive or cycle to the event. In the end, I decided to cycle and was glad I did. There was strong northerly wind, so the ride there was nice and easy. Though the return leg after racing was a long slog. I picked up my number and did one or two half-hearted efforts up Goring hill. I was already well warmed up, it was more a case of not getting cold. Goring is quite a busy place with parked cars so you have to be patient to get through the village. Also to get to Streatley hill there is traffic light across an A-road. (which if you were late for your start could seem lasts a long time).
Today was another two-stage hill climb, organised by Solihull CC on Dover’s Edge and Saintbury. Both climbs have been venues for the national hill climb championship in previous years. I have done this two-stage combination in 2008, 2010 and 2011. So after a gap of nine years, it was back to Weston on the Edge.
At this time of the year, it is an attractive part of the world, especially in autumn. Back in the day, I could just about ride out here from Oxford, making a good 100 mile round trip. But, I haven’t done that kind of mileage for a long time.
The weather was very good, by the second climb, it felt quite hot. There was a fairly helpful tailwind up both climbs.
Saintbury is the longer of the two climbs. There is a steeper section near the bottom and then it keeps dragging up. I went quite hard on the steep bit and perhaps paid for it a little bit towards the end.
Today was the double-header Snap Hill climb organised by Swindon RC. The first climb is a long 3 mile drag. The second climb – is the short and sharp – Snap hill climb in the opposite direction. With many events falling by the wayside this year, there was a bumper entry with over 50 riders entered. It was also perfect weather with 18 degrees, a light westerly wind and a sunny day. There were quite a few cars on the road though, maybe due to tailbacks on the M4.
From my own perspective, it is something of a comeback ride. The last race I did was over 3 years ago, and it is July 2016, since I entered a race without any injury problem. That last race was the National 12 hour TT in Wales, fortunately, this was a very different kettle of fish. As far as re-introduction to the hill climb season goes, Aldbourne Long drag – 3 miles @2.3% is a fairly welcome entry point. I have done the climb before in 2012 and 2014, and have decided on using TT bike as best equipment.
I started with the bike on the big ring (56″) but kind of regretted it because the start was much harder than I remember. Just after the start is the steepest section and there seemed to be quite a strong headwind. I had memories (perhaps misplaced) of floating up this climb with big cadence and fast speed, but today it seemed hard work and slow. Maybe it’s not the climb that has changed but the rider! As the climb nears the top, there is a nice bit of fast downhill before the final run to the line.
Recently I have been riding a few time trial efforts. Using my TT bike (though with none of the aero extras) It has been fun to redo local time trial circuits like Brill Hilly, Long Hanborough. Both these circuits I did as club events back in 2004 and 2005, but I haven’t done for many years.
The other day I was riding out to Charlbury and I saw four teenagers on bikes trying to turn right on a busy road. It was difficult for them to find a suitable gap in the traffic to turn right and after been stuck at the junction for a while, a young girl turned around to apologise to the motorist behind, saying ‘Sorry, it’s taking so long!’ The motorist perhaps surprised that anyone on a road would ever apologise, was very cheerful in replying to the girl not to worry. They were able to turn right shortly after – four young people looking like they were just getting into cycling. I hope they weren’t put off by the difficulties of turning right on Oxford’s busy roads. Anyway, it was very nice to see such consideration amongst road users.
I sped off on my TT bike and rode around Charlbury and Chipping Norton. I did quite a good effort, though was left wondering if you can average 24.7 mph on a TT bike with floppy road jersey and training wheels, what could you average with the fully optimised aero kit? This is the problem with doing time trials, as soon as you finish – you start thinking about how you could go quicker? I really am interested to find out, but at the same time, I really don’t know if I can face riding skinsuit and aero helmet for a ‘private’ time trial.
On the way, back I was still on my aero bars when on the other side of the road I saw a lady, in a wonderful full-length white dress billowing in the wind, she was also on a classic sit up and beg style bike, with back perpendicular to the road. I was on my TT bike – with back horizontal to the road. She looked like something out of Edwardian England or a Sherlock Holmes novel. I don’t know what I looked like on my aero TT bike, dried snot still on the side of the face. Anyway, I looked up from my aero tuck and said hello to the lady. She smiled and said hello back. We were like the yin and yang of the cycling world. She was enjoying the grace and dignity of cycling as a pastime. I was enjoying the aero speed of a TT bike.
I got home after a long, hard 60 miles and took a while to recover.
This is my training diary from 2010. In those days I still manually checked and recorded my time going up hills. You had to choose a suitable start and finish point, then manually check your time, using a lap counter. I would then write down all the hill climb times in my training diary so I could see if I got a pb. I remember many years of not having a lap counter – just the timer on a bike. So I would wait for the timer to get to an exact minute and then start the effort (sometimes soft pedalling waiting in anticipation). At the finish of the climb, you needed to do a bit of mental arithmetic 34.00 start – 36.45 finish. It was surprisingly hard work when you’ve just done a hill climb effort. To spice things up, I sometimes got bored with waiting for the minute to come around and started on 34.30. Try calculating 34.30 – 36.23 when you’ve just blown your lungs away. (and then you have to remember your time. After finishing a climb I would be repeating 5.13 like a mantra for several minutes so I didn’t forget!)
The biggest problem though with manually timing your efforts was having a consistent start and finish point, you might choose things like ‘tree to tree’ – ‘signpost to signpost’. But, when you’re doing a big effort, it was very tempting to almost unconsciously choose a different tree or different signpost. I used to often measure my efforts on Aston Hill on the A40; and after a few years, I realised my ‘hill climb course’ was getting shorter and shorter – with every year. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just that the mind played tricks on you, and it gave an excuse to take a different marker each time. It was one way to get a pb I suppose!
Strava and Garmin have taken all the angst out of measuring your hill climb efforts. The segment never gets shorter, and it is a very convenient way to measure hill climbs. Before Strava I probably had about 7 hills, I measured personal bests, but now with Strava, there is almost an unlimited number to compare your efforts. Because it is so easy to measure personal best times, it is fun to train on different hills. It means you can always choose a hill where there is something of a tailwind on. (no one does hill climb intervals into headwinds do they?)
The other thing about Strava, of course, is that you don’t just get personal bests (pb) but you compare against other riders too. This has its pros and cons. No matter who you are – you can guarantee at some point, someone will go faster than your pb. That is why I turn off all notifications and never read notifications on a matter of principle. If I get joy from setting a new pb, I don’t need to be told someone has gone faster.
Ever since I started cycling, that has always been the fascination of cycling – can I go faster? These days even the most marginal personal best is a huge source of satisfaction. In one sense it gets harder, but with innumerable segments there’s always something else to try.
Whiteleaf is one hill I never used to visit in pre Strava days, perhaps I didn’t know about it so well. It is about 20 miles from Oxford as opposed to 15 miles to Aston Hill. But for the extra five miles, you get a much steeper and better hill. The route out from Oxford to Whiteleaf is quite flat, so it is a long warm-up, a long anticipation of the big effort to come.
Since getting back into cycling in recent months, like usual, I am keen to measure how I compare to previous years so I went to measure my time up Whiteleaf. From 2015, I had a time of 4.03 for the full hill. I really wanted to see how close I could get.
Now, after four years off the bike, I have gained some weight. Approximately 0.7 kg, so it’s not exactly like I’m buying bigger trousers or people are saying ‘how’s it going fatty Pettinger?’ (62.3 kg as opposed to 61.5kg). But, if you live in the hill climb world, 0.7kg is still about one second on a hill like Whiteleaf. So at the bottom of Whiteleaf I left a water bottle at the bottom of the hill to compensate for my extra weight and then began the big effort of the day.
The first thing I noticed is that starting the climb – the expected tailwind seemed to disappear and felt like a headwind. This was meteorologically impossible, but probably the mind playing tricks on me.
Whiteleaf is a tough hill because it is very variable gradient. There are 3 or 4 sections where it goes over 15% and you are out of the saddle pushing hard, then the gradient levels off and it’s tempting to go back into the saddle for a few seconds. But, when I did this, my momentum slipped and you were soon back out of the saddle again. Despite riding the hill many times, I’ve never quite worked out the best solution to be in the saddle or out. I would like to try again and stay out of the saddle for the whole last part of the climb. Going in and out all the time seems inefficient, but when you’re climbing that’s what I end up doing.
The good thing about getting to Whiteleaf is that there are plenty of other climbs in the vicinity. If you turn right at the top you go down Kop hill. So you can do a u-turn and go up Kop Hill again. Or if you turn left at the bottom of Kop hill you go up another climb called Wardrobes. On Wardrobes, there was a road closed sign which I ignored – as I was curious to know if it is OK to cycle through. The workmen stopped me for a bit and then waved me through. I would have been quite happy to turn around. But, the workman decided I can continue to climb up Wardrobes. After Wardrobes, if you take two left turns, you are soon coming back down Whiteleaf – which was convenient to pick up the water bottle I left earlier. It makes a good hilly circuit. In the past four years of non-racing I believe that there was a hilly time trial organised around Whiteleaf – I hope it is still going next year.
After that, I cycled through Chinnor (two sets of long traffic lights) which didn’t bother me as I saw it recuperation time before going up Kingston Blount. I made a good effort up Kingston Blount until traffic lights right at top of the steep part brought an unedifying conclusion to that effort. I stopped at traffic lights with heart-pumping madly. The A40 through Tetsworth is closed for 20 weeks (more closed roads) so I went back via Watlington hoping I would avoid meeting more road closed signs and traffic lights.
In the old days of measuring your own times, I would have known what time I did up Whiteleaf straight away, but this time I didn’t know until I uploaded.
4.02 – one second quicker than 2015. I knew it was a good decision to leave a water bottle at the bottom of the hill!