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.
Winnats Pass is a tough climb in the Peak District from the village of Castleton heading West through a steep limestone cleft. It averages over 10%, with a considerable section of 20% + near the top.
Winnats pass has featured in the now-defunct Tour of Peak road race and also featured as a venue for the National hill climb Championship on a record ten occasions (most recent 1977). It will also be the venue for 2021. There is now a popular Tour of the Peak sportive, run in May. The sportive offers closed roads for Winnats Pass.
The climb travels through a natural amphitheatre with steep slopes and rock faces on either side of the road. It provides an excellent location and challenge. The main drawback of Winnats pass is that it can be quite busy with motor traffic. (unfortunately, the old A road through Mam Tor was closed due to subsidence.) Combined with the narrowness of the road, it can become a little crowded. As a result, you are likely to be greeted with the reassuring smell of burning clutch as cars struggle up the 20% inclines.
Wheelspin is not a pleasant experience, it can throw you off rhythm and make you feel like you are going nowhere. A reader asked for any advice after experieing several wheel slips on Streatley.
Factors which make wheelspin more like include
The steeper the hill it is
Riding style. Big jerky effort, low cadence, out of the saddle efforts may make wheelslip more likely
Rear tyre pumped up high
Personal experience of wheel spin
The first time I had bad wheel spin was 2005 National hill climb on the Rake. The ground was damp and it was the first time I had raced on a climb as steep as the Rake (22%) It really knocked my rhythm. It felt like you were grounding to a halt. Since then I might have had some at the Cat and Bec hill climbs, which are also similarly steep but I can’t remember now.
When I went back to the Rake in 2012, I didn’t have any wheelspin, I think I reduced tyre pressure to 65psi because it was damp.
How to avoid wheelspin
I find the best way to avoid wheel spin is to avoid entering climbs like the Rake or Cat and Bec!
On a serious note, I’m not an expert on avoiding wheelspin, because I preferred longer climbs rather than the very short and steep. A few riders say they experienced wheel spin on Streatley Hill (max gradient 18%) but I never have. Possibly because I spin slightly higher cadence than average or my tubs are good. In 2020 on Streatley, I reduced tyre pressure to 80psi – but only because others were talking about wheelspin.
Of course, if you can remain seated whilst climbing, wheelspin will not occur. But, this is not really useful advice as no-one wants to climb the Rake or Streatley seated. (For what it is worth I did the first 150m of Streatley seated and then the rest of the climb out of the saddle)
Lower psi to 60psi. If you think wheelspin is a big issue, the best is to ride 25″ tyres and reduce tyre pressure to as low as 60psi. Choosing wider tyres gives more traction
Best tyres to avoid wheelspin?
After the 2005 experience, I spent a long time researching the best tyres to avoid wheelspin. I eventually asked Jim Henderson and he advised some particiular tubulars as being fantastic for avoiding wheelspin, I regret to say I can’t remember what he said!
Since 2011 I have used
Vittoria Chrono Evo tubulars (165g) 22″ which are super light and have been very good for avoiding wheelspin. For me these have been good, but there might be better. I’m not sure whether the Chrono Evo are still available.
My Vittoria may need replacing, and if it is Winnat’s Pass next year, it will be another steep one. If any reader has any tyre recommendations please share!
Today was my 10th entry for the Bristol South CC promotion on Burrington Combe.
It’s always a hill climb I enjoy riding. A good long climb, nice scenery and, over the years, I have got to know quite a few riders and organisers from the Bristol scene. It also helps that the climb historically suited my riding style. The last eight times I have entered – going all the way back to 2005 – I came first. It was an unbeaten run that was more than overdue to be broken. Since I was last here in 2016, a lot has happened. And it’s not just me getting older.
I thought the conditions were quite good. 12 degrees, hardly any wind, maybe 1 mph headwind at the top, but not noticeable. My race went fairly well. I warmed up on the road, switched to the lighter racing wheels and went off to the start. I got into a good rhythm and I paced it reasonably well. I made quite a good effort, riding as hard as I could for 7+ minutes and making an extra effort at the steep bits. The only downside to the race was that my time was about 30 seconds slower than I would have liked. As a great French philosopher once said “That’s life, mate!”
This week I was invited to an interview about hill climbs by a local Oxford photographer Maciek Tomiczek and his friend Nick. Maciek rides for a local Oxford club, Cowley Road Condors and became interested in the discipline of hill climbs. As a result, he is planning to make a short film about hill climbs. He has already interviewed Darryl Webster, and I believe a few more people will be interviewed.
It was auspicious timing for me to talk about the motivation, enjoyment and challenge of hill climbs, as for the first time in three years, I’ve been able to cycle hard without suffering from any significant physical problem.
After a few weeks of cycling up and down some local hills, I’m quite surprised how quickly old fitness and form return. In fact, it’s returning so quickly, I’m starting to regret booking an expensive Eurostar train to Paris on the last weekend of October. I haven’t given any thought to racing, as I wanted to get rid of all niggles and pains before getting tempted to push it too quickly, too early. I’m busy every weekend in October apart from 5th and 6th. I wonder if there is a local club hill climb that weekend? That would be fun.
The interesting thing for me is that the enthusiasm for training and racing up hills feels undimmed, and I’m enjoying being able to go out. Its good to be able to rediscover my favourite climbs around Brill and the Chilterns. Who knows what will happen next, but I hope to maintain and improve fitness for next year. (I will write on my FAI experiences in the coming weeks.)
This week, Maciek also wanted to video me in action. So we went to Chinnor hill to get a few different angles and video shots. It was interesting to revisit Chinnor for the first time in ages. I’ve done a fair few intervals there over the years. I also remember watching the Tour of Britain race up there a few years ago. It was a windy, showery, early Autumn day – quite evocative of the hill climb season. One question, I remember talking about is the memories of doing hill climbs. For me, the abiding memory is nothing about the pain of doing the event. More than anything, the impression that stays in my mind is the scenery and the hills. It’s true you suffer when racing, but as soon as it finishes, I always seem to forget that aspect and you focus on the afterglow of making a good effort.
I turn off Strava notifications, and I try not to even notice if old records stay or go. I think after all these years, some records are still in place. But, hill climbs are popular like never before and a whole new generation of fast riders are coming along. It is good to see. There is a fair few good riders in Oxford, from Zero BC who like to test themselves up Brill. My favourite cycling philosophy is that ‘there’s always somebody better than you.’ (with exception of Eddy Merckx.)
I happened to catch the men U23 world race championship in Yorkshire – very impressed by the race. Epic Yorkshire conditions. Should be a good weekend for women and mens championship.
Recently a reader asked for routes around Oxford, I don’t have any in GPS form, but this is a good starting point for rides from Oxford.
Pea Royd Lane has been the venue for the national hill climb championships in 2009, 2014 and it will be the last minute venue for the 2018 National Championships.
It is a classic hill climb length- relatively short and steep with a few sharp corners to make it really testing. The gradient is variable from fairly shallow at the bottom to a gradient of up to 20% near the top.
I was driving up north this weekend, so I took the short detour off the M1 to revisit Stocksbridge and have a go at Pea Royd Lane, which I haven’t done since 2009. The weather was warm with a cross wind. It felt like a headwind at the start, but tailwind in the middle. The last section I couldn’t work out. That’s the nature of the course, the wind can be all over the place.
The over-riding impression of the climb was it’s steep and also a painful reminder of how hard hill climbs are. I’ve been looking for a similar hill in Oxfordshire, but there is nothing which gets the same height gain, in such as short space of time – though Whiteleaf hill and Chinnor Hill come close.
After a warm up, I gave it a good effort – to try and get a rough idea of what time I can do after a summer of 50 and 100 mile time trials. I’ve gone deeper in the hill climb season proper. But, it was plenty hard enough. I’m sure there was a lurking thought somewhere in my mind ‘Why do I do hill climbs again?’
It’s a hard hill climb because the gradient is always changing. The road surface is also quite rough. There was plenty of loose gravel, chippings and patched up road surface. I hear it is going to be resurfaced soon!
I took lots of photos of the climb (see bottom of post). It’s quite a mix of scenic Yorkshire views, with some ageing steel plants and electricity pylons thrown in. Still it’s a good view from the top.
Today was the Oxford University CC hill climb. It was on a private road from the attractive village of Wytham up through the woods used by Oxford University research teams. I wanted to do the race because it is probably the only climb in Oxfordshire I haven’t ever done – it is usually closed to the public. It had a lovely smooth tarmac which felt great to ride on.
The climb does not rank in the epic category but makes a reasonable four-minute effort. The steepest section is at the bottom, just after the start and then there are several false flats with slight rises every now and then. It means you have to go pretty hard from the off and try and maintain your speed in the last half of the climb. You can’t really get into a rhythm as the gradient is never constant; it was an interesting climb to do. Probably perfect for my current shape.
I only entered the event on an impulse after bumping into an OUCC rider at some traffic lights in Oxford. After putting the entry form in, I regretted it almost immediately. In the end, it was kind of worth it, but it felt a bit weird not only to be doing a hill climb but to be even riding a proper road bike. Sometimes when cyclists say ‘they haven’t done any training’ you have to treat it with a pinch of salt. But, in my case, it’s a pretty fair assessment. I was in bad shape three weeks ago, but since then haven’t touched the road bike at all. I’ve spent a year trying to ride through a minor injury but now have given up until it is better. There’s only so much motivation you can muster to ride through aches and pains.
Review of: Feet in the clouds – A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession
‘Feet in the clouds’ is a book about fell running by Richard Askwith, a London journalist, who gets hooked on the sport of fell running. He tells a potted history of the sport, and also his own personal endeavours as a middle of the road aspiring fell runner.
Although there is no mention of cycling, amateur cyclists will see a kinship in many of the things Askwith talks about – the club scene, the attraction of the great outdoors, the great characters of the sport, to the physical and mental challenge of running up steep hills.
More than any other branch of cycling, it reminded me of the hill climb scene in domestic UK timetrialling. The slightly crazy idea of finding the steepest hills and running / cycling up them. The only difference with fell running, is the even more crazy run back down the mountain.
I didn’t have any recognition of the names in the book. There wasn’t a single fell runner who I recognised, apart from perhaps Ron Hill, who wasn’t really a fell runner. This is perhaps proof of the amateur nature of the sport; a sport, which more or less has avoided the trappings of commercialism.
Though, its not a completely rose-tinted view of the sport. For example, there is a chapter on the senseless amateur / professional divide of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Which to a millennial will make absolutely no sense.
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