Hill climbing

In British club cycling, autumn is the time of hill climbs. A hill climb is a race, by yourself, against the clock, up a hill. Simple really. Simple, short, and tough. My first ever competitive cycling experience was the English Schools Cycling Association Hill Climb Championship near Matlock, Derbyshire, in – oooh – 1983 or 4, I guess. I was a student at Solihull Sixth Form College, I was new to the sport, I was riding a cheap Raleigh 10 speed, and I don’t think I’d ever seen – let alone ridden – a 1 in 4 hill before. I didn’t make it to the top. I don’t remember feeling embarrassed; after all, I’d given it a go. I do recall grunting men on fixed wheel bikes grinding their ways to the top, and that first unforgettable feeling of trying – and failing – to ride up an asphalt wall.

Last night was the second of Lancaster Cycling Club’s annual club hill climbs. It’s become my Club, and this year I’ve got a bit more active, going for ‘training rides’ rather than simply ‘rides’, and riding quite a few evening 10 mile time trials. But I’m still this side of plump, and I was frankly terrified of the prospect of trying to haul my mass uphill at speed. It’s only a year ago that the prospect of riding up Jubilee Tower, last night’s climb, at any speed, was daunting enough. But there were also good reasons to have a go: becoming more involved in the Club has increased my commitment to support events;  my main training partner, Jon Barry, fancies himself on the hills and was keen to have a go; and for the first time in more than 20 years, I’m planning to train through winter, and to have a proper go at racing next year, so it makes sense to set some times which I can use as benchmarks for my progress next season.

Part one was last week – the short, steep climb of Condor Bottoms. I surprised myself at the speed at which I set off, but felt reasonably OK. Then I saw the bunch of spectators at the hairpin bend up ahead, waiting at perhaps the steepest section of the climb. Obviously you want to look your best as you go past a watching crowd, so I tried very hard to look calm, graceful, dignified, fast. Ha, ha, ha … I’m sure they weren’t deceived, and as soon as I was past them, my legs turned to jelly. Still, I clawed my way to the finish, and though I was slow, I beat 3 minutes, which was my personal target.

Last night was part two, the longer, higher climb up the other side of the valley, from Quernmore crossroads to Jubilee Tower, perched high above Morecambe Bay. On a sunny evening, the views up there are glorious, the Lakeland hills to the north-west, the Fylde coast to the south-west, Lancaster down far below and Morecambe stretching out to the sea. But Jubilee Tower was the destination, we started from the bottom. There I met William, who lives half way up the hill, and so rides it regularly, but who was last night riding his first ever competitive event. How wonderful to race on the roads you know; I love it when a rider wins on home turf. I won’t try to guess William’s age, but I hope he wouldn’t mind my suggesting he’s a fair bit older than me. And then I started, a minute behind Jess Atkinson, who’s 13 years old. Cycling’s what you’d call an inclusive sport …

Although it involves struggle and a certain pain, I loved it. I loved riding hard up a hill which only a year before I was scared to tackle at all. I loved the rare feeling of racing without a helmet (it’s all uphill, after all). I loved needing continuously to judge whether I was overdoing it or underdoing it, and adjusting my effort accordingly. I loved knowing the steepest part was over, and feeling my speed increase with the softening of the hill. I loved overtaking and shouting encouragement to Jess, to be myself overtaken and have the encouragement of her Dad Graham. I loved the feel of sweat dripping from my chin. I loved finishing, being at the finish, watching others finish, the post-race talk. I loved seeing the care and commitment of people such as Bob Muir – time keeping again last night –  who invest their love in the preservation of this magical sporting world.

One hundred and fifteen years after the last one, the second bicycle boom is underway up here in the north west of England. I’ll write much more about this over the coming weeks, months, years, I hope. But the growing popularity of club cycling is one aspect of it. Last night was beautiful – I mean really beautiful – to see. Women, men, girls and boys, all ages, mothers and fathers with daughters and sons, old hands and novices, gentle calls of encouragement drifting across the dipping sun of a glorious autumnal evening.

I hope I am there next year, I hope I am a little faster next year, I hope that perhaps my son Bobby will ride out with me then, and I hope that cycling’s revival will be that bit stronger, clearer, more self-assured. And I count myself very, very lucky to be able to hope for all these things. There are many reasons to ride a bike, and they include these.

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3 Responses to “Hill climbing”

  1. Gareth Says:

    Great post – hills are cyclist’s secret joy. So many non-cyclists feel they are a reason not to cycle. For me they are one of the principle reasons to cycle.

  2. Tom Cahill Says:

    Very well done. Full of obvious emotion. I love hills myself, but have never had a special feeling for those short steep stand up and suffer English hills. Although if they exist you have to go up them and down them, hands on brakes constantly. I prefer our French hills, long sinuous, winding here and there, choosing your pace, finally revealing their tops and then allowing a leisurely or fast descent, sometimes with hands off the brakes, for many kilometres. Still they have more space in France to build their roads, England is so tiny, they just go up and down, hard, suffering.

    It is too bad that when people buy a bike they are not made to read and sign a paper that says “I promise to use a very tiny gear whenever I see hills, until I know I can get up any of them”.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      I went out for a short ride this morning with Jon Barry, out to Wray and then back to Lancaster along the route which Le Terrier takes – you’ll know that final, last 15 miles – up Roeburndale, onto the farm tracks and onto the road over Caton Moor, behind the wind farm, towards Littledale. Then Scout Camp and Stock-a-bank before reaching Lancaster. Exactly the short sharp English hills, and descents, which you describe, and including gated roads, which make them even more stop/start, and a far cry from those gorgeous elongated climbs and descents which you have there in France.

      Le Terrier is Sunday 7th June. I was apprehensive that I might not be able to get up those climbs on my new bike, with its compact double (bottom gear, 34×25). Got up (and down!) them all fine this morning, but on the day we’ll already have done 65 very hard miles before hitting them, so it’ll be a different story …. Still, hope the weather is as good as it’s been today – a gorgeous morning, riding high across Caton Moor, the Fylde, the Lakes, the Dales all set out before us – an absolute treat. (But looking forward to getting some of your French scenery – if not those mountainous roads! – later in the year.)

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