-“He went up the hill as a man, but came down, a king”
One of the things I enjoy about ‘cross is it’s mystique – Most people have heard of ‘cross and some will have observed a cross bike, but only a select few will have watched or competed in a ‘cross race, much less understood it. However over the last few months, I’d heard talk of an even more elusive two wheeled pastime and I was intrigued – Hill-climbing,…it even sounds hardcore…
We were due to race ‘cross this week in Guildford, but that got cancelled due to a venue problem. So then I figured I may as well head over to the National Trophy race in Abergavenney, but that got cancelled because I realised that Wales is a long way away and full of the Welsh. More importantly I’d heard tall tales of the Catford CC Hill Climb at Yorks Hill in Kent and couldn’t quite resist a look at what it was all about.
Hill-climbing works in a similar fashion to TT racing, except that there are three major differences;
People at Hill-climbs seem like they’re there to enjoy themselves. (I even saw people saying hello to one another and cheering on riders – this kind of behaviour would be frowned upon at a TT).
People don’t feel the need to wear helmets that make them look like Condorman.
Not one person found it necessary to tell me about why one carbon thing that their rider had, will make you go 0.0001 seconds faster than other carbon things that those “other” club riders have.
So basically the first rider starts at the bottom of Yorks Hill at 10am, followed by one rider every minute until lunchtime. Each rider gets one chance to get to the top as fast as possible and record a time.
Bike set-up for most is fairly standard – The majority of riders were using a standard road bike with just a few tweaks. Many riders opted for a 25mm rear tyre, set at a lower pressure than normal. The faster guys were happy with a 25 tooth lowest gear, using their 23 tooth until the final kick, but some of club riders were looking pretty glad to have (or seriously wished that they had) stuck a 27 on! Some riders were using specific Hill-climb bikes with fixed gears (50-55 inch seemed about right) and lower front ends.
I reckon that what bike you were on though was fairly immaterial; the thing that made the difference was what you had in your legs. Some of the guys towards the end had more in common with Norse gods than bike racers. Even the fast junior riders were in the peak of form and looking incredibly focused.
The great thing was that amongst all of this, all the spectators and riders seemed to be having a brilliant morning in the cool autumn sun. 80 year olds and eight year olds alike were yelling encouragement at every single rider, fast or slow. Some were racing for the first time, some were improving last year’s time, some were concentrating on winning and one was concentrating on winning again.
Robert Gough won the race last year with a time of 01:54:50, just seven seconds slower than the hill record set in 1983. Alex Peters set an early best time of 02:05:20 which stood strong for quite a while before three other riders bested it, with Matthew Pilkinton at 01:58:80 the fastest. And that just left one – Standing in the blocks with just the start marshals for company Gough waited patiently for the countdown;
30 seconds – Time to clip into the pedals as one marshal holds him in the start position.
20 seconds – Silence surrounds everyone as Gough stares up the road.
10 seconds – Final checks, Gough blows his cheeks out and grips the bars.
5 seconds – The start marshal whispers, “standing start, no push Rob”.
…4…3 seconds – Shoulders down, pressure on pedals.
01:54 later Gough had reached the top and made the hill his own for the second year on the trot.
I’m going to need to work on those legs, but maybe, just maybe hill-climbing could be the future – It certainly looks a million times more appealing that Crit Racing to me!
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 The word “welsh” began its life as a Saxon word, meaning “slave”, after the Saxons made slaves of the Celts and fought them into the valleys. I like to remind Wales of this when I visit.