After the revelation of visiting the Peak District last week, I made another stop on the way back from Yorkshire. This time top of my bucket list was Rowsley Bar – the venue of the 1997 National Hill Climb Championship. It is a tough, testing climb; in 1997 Stuart Dangerfield won his fifth title in a time of 5.12, with Jim Henderson in second place. I parked near the summit but saw ‘Road closed’ signs.
Often when roads are closed, you can still cycle through them, but this time it was not possible, so I took two photos and did a u-turn.
After riding up some steep hills in the Peak District I took the opportunity to ride slowly around the Yorkshire Dales on well known routes from Menston to Bolton Abbey. I have never seen so many cyclists on the roads. It is a real boom time for cyclists. I also have never known so many cars on the narrow back road from Bolton Abbey to Ilkley. On the way back I went over Langbar very slowly. It’s a tough climb but the road is quiet.
This is a nice climb from Silsden to Embsay Moor. Quite steep and sharp. It’s not such a good descent with these signings warning of max speed of 15mph for the sharp switchback. Time to enjoy the view.
Like most other people the past 3-4 months have been very routine. I have only really left the house to go to the supermarket or cycle rides around the well-known roads of Oxfordshire. It has been a bit of monastic experience, which in many ways suits me fine. But, when you get stuck in the same old routines, you miss out on more spontaneous experiences which are good to refresh the spirits.
Yesterday, I decided it was OK to head north and see my parents for the first time since January. As much as it is good to see the parents, travelling up north often as an ulterior motive to do some cycling there too. This time I thought I would do something different and rather than just the long slog up the M1 would stop off in Matlock and cycle up some hills I had always wanted to do.
Top of the bucket list was “Riber Hill” I have been meaning to ride Matlock CC Riber hill climb event for many years, but never managed it. It was always on a packed weekend with many other hill climb events. Riber is a great hill climb event and in recent years the course record has been broken quite a few times by some of the top new generation of hill climbers. Riber was the also venue for the national hill climb championship in 1986 when the mercurial Daryl Webster won in a time of 4.48. In 1986, they used the full Riber course – starting closer to Matlock than current hill climb course. The event created some iconic photos – with riders forcing themselves up the steep twisting road, surrounded by large, enthusiastic crowds.
Daryl Webster – 1986 National HC on Riber. Photo by Ian
Yesterday, the road was quite quiet, which is a good job, as you wouldn’t want to meet a van coming down when you’re struggling up Riber. The first section off the A615 takes you through the village of Starkholmes and along Starkholmes Road. There are a couple of ramps and a section of false flat, nothing special, but as you turn left onto Riber Road, the climb gets very interesting and takes on a different complexion.
Riber road is sufficiently steep and twisty to look intimidating. There are gradient signs giving a max gradient of 22%, which sounds very accurate, it is probably steeper if you took the direct line. There is no let up in the gradient as you swing left, right, left and then lose track of where you are. The first hairpin was so sharp, I couldn’t maintain full momentum and had to accelerate out of the corner. It is a real technical climb. I kept a fairly decent pace until the last section where I was running out of gas and went down a gear rather than push into the unknown. I think in 100 Climbs, Simon Warren said it was his favourite climb, I can understand why. I like the full version even more than shorter hill climb course. The first section through Starkholmes is testing but is really lulling you into a false sense of security before the main action ahead of you. I love climbs that get harder and harder the more you ride up them. Riber certainly does that.
After Riber, the next climb is within shouting distance. Bank Road, a short 1 km sprint from right in the heart of Matlock town centre. I have only ever ridden this climb in a national championship both in 2008 and 2016. I have never ridden it in training (I guessed rightly that there was no point in trying to perfect my pacing on a climb that was too short for my preference). It was slightly weird to be riding up Bank road without banks of spectators to roar you on.
The only thing I saw at the roadside was signs for Covid testing station and signs saying the barber was only by appointment. Welcome to 2020. The first half of the climb I had good pace, but then faded towards the top as the legs were still feeling Riber. Bank Road is really a climb to do when you are as fresh as possible. Still, it was nice to visit Matlock again.
After that, I went to Slack hill – only a few miles away.
After the drama of Riber and Bank Road, Slack Hill is not in the same league. It is fairly straight and unrelenting 14% gradient. It is a fairly busy A road so you get a little help from passing traffic. The best thing about the climb is that you can pick up speed coming down from Kestleridge and you can start the climb with a good 30mph on the bike. However, this speed soon evaporates very fast and you are left pushing up the hill. I’m sure I would feel more inclined to the hill if I didn’t have a headwind and tired legs, but it was still a decent pace. Near the top, I also saw a sign to Beeley Moor. Are there no end to good climbs in this part of the world?
In an ideal world, a cycling visit to Matlock would involve six hours, 100 miles and 20+ climbs, but although I am getting in better shape, I still get aches and pains from the troublesome hip and back. That is why I limited my ride to a measly 12 miles. But what a 12 miles it was. I got a real buzz from racing up Riber and Bank Road. Although I’m disappointed not to make a full recovery, the rest of the body seems in quite good shape and despite limited training (by my standards of training) I can still get up hills pretty well.
In the end, it took all day to get from Oxford to Menston, but it was a really good experience to do something different and get out of the daily routine. It was really liberating to be at the top of a steep hill.
I enjoyed everything about it. Driving through the Peak District, the view from the tops of hills, but mostly the exhilaration of racing up Riber bends.
My favourite climbs depend on the personal experience of riding them. So they are blurred by the direction of the wind, weather conditions and whether I was in good shape. Also, doing a hill climb event gives a very different experience to just riding during training. If I had to choose my top 10, they would be nearly all hill climb courses, apart from Hardknott and Great Dun Fell. Winnat’s Pass is currently number one. I’ve only ridden it once after doing a hill climb event on Long Hill. I can’t really remember much about it – which is a shame because it is a beautiful climb.
These are some of my favourites that spring to mind.
Great Dun Fell
If I could choose to have one climb on my doorstep it would be Great Dun Fell. The statistics make it by far the climb of almost vertical ascent. It’s not just long, but really steep and on a good day has great views over the Pennines. Even better it is relatively car-free – being well off the beaten track. The only downside is its relative inaccessibility and how sometimes the gates are closed meaning you have to get off the bike and open and close gates. I think I have visited the climb three times – each occasion was after doing a hill climb event up Shap Fell. (giving me two climbs for the price of one so to speak)
Hardknott is super steep. Sometimes, you see a 30% gradient sign, but they don’t really mean it. Hardknott is really that steep in both directions. Hardknott is so steep you are wondering if you are going to make it to the top. The first time I went up Hardknott I had a lot of miles and climbs in my legs and it was a real grovel hunched over the drops, you don’t forget experiences like that. On the really steep section, I also got the experience that I felt like I was falling over backwards- Brilliant!
One of three ways up Kirkstone Pass, the Struggle is the steepest. Out of Ambleside, it is very steep up smooth winding road, before a long drag up to the top. At the top, make sure you look back to Lake Windermere, it is quite spectacular views. I have one memorable experience of cycling up the Struggle. I had cycled over 100 miles around the Lake District (and some big climbs). I got to Ambleside was really tired and stopped to have a piece of Kendle Mint Cake and seemed to get a second wind which enabled me to cycle up The Struggle quite quick. It was a great day in the Lakes.
A slightly harder cobbled climb is Thwaites Brow in Keighley. But, the cobbles are in a bad state of repair, with really big gaps between them. It was too much trying to get traction on those big cobbles. Shibden Wall is a great cobbled climb. It starts off on tarmac then graduates into cobbles. There is a wicked left-hander and it is pretty steep. Off the beaten track near Halifax, but quite close to my parent’s house.
Pea Royd Lane
I wouldn’t usually choose Pea Royd Lane, it’s a little on the short side for my liking. But, I’ve grown to love the climb after racing up it so many times. I’ve done it twice in the national hill climb championship 14th and 4th, and in 2014, and I rode it several times in training. In many ways, it is a classic British hill climb. Steep, undulating, and a couple of corners. At the top, it is a great view of Stocksbridge below. In 2014, despite disappointment at 4th, I had a good experience on the climb and it is that perfect length and difficulty to wring everything out of you, leaving you exhausted at the top.
Greenhow Hill was the first big hill I ever cycled up. It was in the days before I was a cyclist. I was about 14 and I went on camping holiday with a friend. We took mountain bikes. The main thing I remember is that my friend had to get off and walk, but I could cycle to the top and then go back down whilst waiting for him. Poor chap wasn’t built for hill climbs! But, it is a great climb because there are four ‘ridges’ steep sections of 17%, then a section to recover. The last grovel to the summit can be a pain if it is windy, but it is an atmospheric climb and I love the views from the top.
There are two ways up Porlock, the very steep way or the long, steady gradient of the toll road. Minehead CC organise a hill climb event up the Toll Road, which I have done three times. This is a beautiful climb. The 100 climbs version is the steep hill out of the town centre. It starts off with a few 25% corners and is really tough. I have only done this version after racing up the toll road. But, it is a great climb. It was always a good experience going down to Porlock.
Norwood Edge was my first hill climb event in 1994! I don’t think I knew what I was letting myself in for. My main memory is that it took about two days to take off mudguards from my Reynolds 501 Ellis Briggs 10 speed racing bike and then about two weeks to put the mudguards back on. I was nearly last anyway so I might as well have left them on. But, in those days, it seemed a great achievement to get up the hill at all, let alone race really quick. In 2011, I got within four seconds of Jeff Wright’s famous course record, setting a time of 4.46, I was really flying that year. Since then the climb seems to get harder every year!
The first time I went up the Stang it was a block headwind and I didn’t particularly enjoy this long drag into the bleak North Yorkshire Moors. But, on the big day in October 2013, there was a raging tailwind making it an unbelievable climb. Really steep first section, then a bit of fast downhill (39 mph!) on the big ring and then the final long drag. The Stang is a bit out of the way, up in North Yorkshire, but it is definitely worth a visit. Ironically I haven’t been back since 2013. Perhaps it is because I know I will never get close to the course record of 7.57 ever again. Proving the emotional connection of hills, seeing a picture of the race bring back many good memories.
I have done the Bristol South CC event nine times and finished 1st on seven times. It was one of the first hill climbs I did in 2004 and realised I might be quite good. But, I love the atmosphere of the race, the beautiful scenery and the chat in the cafe afterwards. You can get into a good rhythm on the steady slopes
Other memorable climbs
Box Hill – road a few weeks before 2012 Olympics – very special time.
Yesterday was the longest day of the year and many seemed to have availed the opportunity to post monster rides 200km. It seems if you’re not everesting your local hill, it’s just a recovery ride these days. I managed my own ‘epic’ ride, a relatively modest 70 miles to Bourton on the Water. It was an enjoyable ride – good weather, good tempo and nice to get to roads and parts of the Cotswolds I’ve seen very little of in the past few years.
Since trying to get back into cycling this year my rides have tended to be either very fast or very short and slow. I’ve had difficulty recovering from rides, so tend to go out every three days. If I only go out 2 or 3 times a week, I like to cycle fast because that is what I enjoy most. That’s my logic anyway.
When I had a bad injury, people asked about an e-bike. It would be nice to see the countryside, but I can’t see myself using one. For me, the real attraction of cycling is making a big effort and trying to improve fitness. The scenery by the side of the road is secondary – though with days like yesterday definitely a big bonus.
Fast roads of new roads?
When riding I tend to choose well-travelled routes which minimise stopping, right turns and traffic jams. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Oxfordshire roads and which can enable you to cycle a long way without having to stop. Even after all these years, I like to see a good average speed, and often start my Garmin after getting the slow two miles out of town.
Sometimes I like to try and go on new roads, but I generally end up back on the tried and test roads which give the best momentum. The ideal is to cycle an hour into a headwind and then fly back on some B road. It can be flat or hilly. The main thing is the feeling of speed and effort.
After all these short fast rides, I wanted to do a different kind of ride to Bourton, no big efforts, just steady pace and do the highest mileage for a couple of years. I made it to the beautiful village of Bourton on the Water and it seems many others had the same idea. After months of being cooked up inside, it is understandable people wished to stretch their legs. I didn’t hang around in Bourton though, the queue for the ice-cream takeaway seemed to snake around half the village.
There was only one big climb of the day, through Little Rissington. It is one of those climbs, where you can go pretty quick because it’s not too steep, there are a few corners to accelerate out of in the village and it makes a really quite nice climb. I would have stopped to take a photo, but once your cycling uphill, you don’t want to stop your momentum and lose your precious average speed.
Hayfever can be a minor irritation for many cyclists during the peak pollen months of summer, but it can also become debilitating in severe cases. I have experienced mild hayfever for several years. Usually I suffer at the end of the ride when my nose starts streaming for 30-60 mins. But during the past week, with high pollen counts, I’ve experienced more severe symptoms even when cycling. In terms of treatment for hayfever, I have relied on cetirizine hydrochloride (Piriteze) I usually take when it is bad. But, last weekend, it didn’t make much difference, so I looked into more possible solutions. (Vaseline around nose and Fluticasone propionate nasal spray)
Rise of hayfever
Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a rise in cases of hayfever with one study by charity Allergy UK warning over 30 million adults could suffer hayfever by 2030. Interestingly the first known recorded case of hayfever was not recorded until the nineteenth century by John Bostock who in March 1819 presented an interesting case to the Medical and Chirurgical Society: ‘Case of a periodical affection of the eyes and chest.’ It seems to be a modern phenomena and something about modern life is making it worse.
Suggested reasons for the rise in hayfever include:
Rise in air pollution which combined with pollen acts as a greater irritant.
Children spending less time outdoors and so not developing the same level of natural immunity to pollen.
Climate change – warmer summers create more smogs and lead to higher pollen counts
Change in diet – non-organic GMO food, industrial farming causing internal allergies to things like pollen.
In the past two months, I have been making good progress with cycling. Ironically, lockdown discouraged me from cycling into town so instead, I went out into the countryside and have been going further and faster. I still take care of back and hips and follow a disciplined routine of stretching, essentric exercises and all-round strengthening. I have worked hard to find new exercises to work on any weak part of my body. I’ve had many false dawns in past four years, but feel reasonably hopeful.
In fact, progress has been so good I decided to get the time trial bike down from the loft. Over the past four years I have toyed with selling the bike, but the loss of value selling on the second-hand market always dissuaded me. Plus I really enjoy riding the time trial bike. I find it as comfortable as a road bike, but you get an extra 1-2mph free speed. There’s nothing better than flying along a bit of road with a nice tailwind and body in good shape. Despite only a couple of months of training, I have felt quite fast.
Yesterday I went out to Brill hills for one of my favourite circuits around Brill, Chilton, Chearsely, Ashenden and Dorton. The ride was going very well. Perfect weather and I felt some of the old form going up the climbs. On my final climb up to Brill I had a bad gear change and then a pretty brutal clunk as the rear mech went into the wheel and tore off part of the frame. In one sense it was an innocuous little accident, but devastating for the bicycle. Update, it looks like it is just rear mech hanger (not frame) I had to ring for a taxi and get a lift home. £55 for a taxi, but that is just the start. I shall contact Trek UK to see if they can help.
I was stranded by the roadside and tried to shorten the chain to make it work without gear mech, but it was a fruitless effort and I only succeeded in smearing oil all over my hands and clothes. I walked up the hill to a nearby house so I could work out the postcode and exact address. A nice man seemed to see my predicament and from suitable distance told me the address. I sat on the grass and watched a few other cyclists go up to Brill; it was quite a popular place to be cycling. Brill is becoming a place of bad luck. I remember having to get another taxi from Brill a couple of years ago for a similar situation (Broken chain).
In the past six weeks, I have stopped commuting into town on the river path because – there’s no reason to go into town, plus cycle paths are relatively crowded these days. It sounds a strange thing to say, but it feels much safer on the roads these days.
Traffic levels are definitely down, a few times I have been on so-called busy roads around Oxford and they have been relatively quiet. Whilst traffic levels are down on usual, there seem to be a lot more cyclists. Last weekend there seemed to be quite a few newbies, enjoying the opportunity to escape the confines of home. Mostly people are out alone, apart from the odd couple or family with children. When I overtake people, I leave a large gap. Travelling at speed two meters behind might not be enough.
The other day I was cycling up a hill (relatively fast) when another cyclist in a Team Sky replica jersey went flying past me. In any other circumstance I would jump on his wheel like a limpet to a magnet, but the government has literally outlawed wheelsucking (And not before time too!) so I had to watch as the Sky jersey slowly disappeared into the distance. Even though they have sold thousands of replica jerseys, you can’t help but secretly wonder – was it perhaps Geraint Thomas or Luke Rowe doing a very cheeky 200-mile ride from Wales? Alas, no, it was just an everyday cyclist reminding me that no one remains king of the hill for very long.
In a time of real suffering for many, there’s a part of you that questions whether you should be ‘enjoying’ cycling. I remember when 1,000 deaths a day were reported in Italy, it sounded horrifying. But, when it happens in your own country there is often a surreal distance from the suffering which occurs mostly out of view.
But overall, I feel the mental and physical benefits of solo cycling on the road outweigh the potential downsides and think it is good people have the opportunity to exercise at least once a day.
Many people are noticing a dramatic improvement in air quality. One study suggests the fall in traffic levels and pollution could save – 11,000 lives across Europe from health problems related to air pollution. On top of that fatal accidents are down. Hopefully, in a post-COVID world, we will try to re-evaluate what is important and endeavour to maintain lower pollution levels and lower traffic accidents, even as economic activity returns.
As a time triallist and self-employed writer, I am more used to the solitary existence both on the bike and in the work environment. But, after six weeks (or is it seven now?) there is something of a wistful desire to return to normal life and meet people in person rather than through the prism of electronic screens. Unfortunately, the current situation does not seem to have a quick fix. It’s going to be a challenging few months, if not years.
BTW: the most popular articles on my economics website, is how much can a government print money? (the good news is – quite a lot!)
A compilation of time trial records. Updated 2020.
Marcin Bialoblocki (One Pro Cycling) a Polish national racing in the UK smashed the previous record held by Alex Dowsett and James Gullen of 17.20 – setting a new time of 16.35. Anna Turvey Tyneside Vagabonds CC) also set a new womens record of 19.08. Results CTT. The next day Bialoblocki set a new 25 mile record of 44.04. A few weeks later, Hayley Simmonds was the first women to go under 19 mins, setting a record of 18.36.
I started using Speedplay pedals back in 2006. I wrote the first review in 2008. This is an updated review after using them for nearly fourteen years.
Speedplay pedals are very good to ride on. They took a little bit of getting used to (like floating on ice is common feeling), but now I don’t want to go to any other system. They are light, small and easy to use. I’ve never had any problems when actually cycling with them, and since pedalling is so important, this makes me want to like them and overcome any faults they may have. The main drawback of Speedplay pedals is that they have been an expensive choice. In particular, they are more prone to long-term maintenance problems. Three times I’ve had to throw away a pair because the internal bearings seized up (it was always the left pedal which went. So I have three spare right pedals lying around).
I once complained to Speedplay and someone from America rang up to say they never get maintenance problems if you look after them and pursue regular maintenance – using grease gun and lube. I was disappointed I couldn’t buy a spare left-hand pedal to match up my surplus right pedals.
If you do buy Speedplay, it is really essential, you learn to grease and lube regularly; I wish I had done earlier.
Why I Switched to Speedplay
My first clipless pedals were the more common Look pedals. The reason I switched to Speedplay pedals was:
I had some problems with my knees and (rightly or wrongly) I blamed the Look pedals and the way my movement was restricted. I liked the idea of having a large angle of float that comes with Speedplay
I wanted to save weight. Speedplay comes in at 205 grams and 150 grams for Titanium version. These were the lightest pedals on the market, at the time. However, the gap between the weight of Speedplay and Look has been reduced with the introduction of new models like the Look Keo. At 240 grams + cleats they offer good value for money at only £39.99
Very aerodynamic – pedal is small surface area.
Cleats are easy to set up. I always found the Look cleats a bit fiddly to get in the right position. If they were slightly out, it could cause problems. Speedplay are much easier to set up because of the greater degree of lateral movement.
Optimal power transference because the pedal is encased in the shoe with minimal stack height. Whether there actually is better power transfer, I don’t know. But, it does feel good.
I like many aspects of Speedplay Zero Aero – and may buy if I get back into racing.
I have been very happy with the Speedplay. They are definitely a little strange when you first test them. But, it is amazing how quickly you can get used to the large float. Cycling with Speedplay feels very natural. Some might feel the large degree of float makes it harder when sprinting.