It’s autumn and that means falling leaves and cancelled trains. Chilly starts and frozen toes. And the Hill Climb season. If you’re like me, there’ll be a couple of roads that you avoid on a normal ride; nobody goes up them unless they have to. However once a year they’re a beacon for masochists who like nothing better than to flog themselves up some ridiculous gradient. And all for the glory of being King of the Hill.
My own local climb is not only a hideous beast of a climb, it’s also a road to nowhere; well it is if you’re on a road bike. After gurning and humping your way up it, you’re deposited into a car park, with a rutted flint track the only exit. So no reason to go up there, other than to say you’ve been up there, or have a particularily evil coach!
Local events organisers Velopace decided it would be ‘fun’ to run a hill climb up there. A nice little end of season event to bring their year of organising to an end. Hill climbs are a bit of a throw back to the good ol’ days. They were end of year club events and often also included a downhill freewheel contest; seeing how far you could go after descending a hill without turning your pedals. So, in a way Velopace are continuing a fine old tradition.
The climb in question is Butts Lane – stop sniggering at the back – and it’s vital statistics are as follows; it’s 1.18 kilometres in length, it climbs 116 metres at an average of 10.3%, with a maximum 14.2% grade. As it is a road to nowhere, Butts Lane affords plenty of spectating opportunities and with the HQ in the local pub, there’s no shortage of pre or post ride refreshment. All of which is vital to a hill climb. There’s nothing like being able to look into the eyes of a fellow human being, suffering the agony of lactate build up and oxygen debt, to really make you appreciate your pint.
This was the first official running of the Butts Lane hill climb. Which meant the winner would forever be enshrined in the CTT annals, something worth telling the grandkids. With the road closed for the event, riders could relax and concentrate on their appointment with pain, safe in the knowledge that White Van Man would be nowhere to be seen.
In another nod to tradition, Velopace paired their event with the ESCA Hill Climb, which went up Firle Bostal (Bostal (or borstal) – a steep path, particularly over the Downs). Firle is another ‘road to nowhere’ and is to be avoided unless you really must. Doing two such events in a day, riding between each and then re-fuelling at a cycle-friendly cafe is making a bit of a comeback I’m glad to say. It also earns you many points in the proper cyclist league!
One of the most famous of these pairing is the Catford and Bec Hill climbs. The Catford CC’s event goes all the way back to 1887 and is billed as the ‘the oldest continuing cycle race in the world’. If you get a chance to take in these two events it’s well worth it, with the crowds three deep at the top, screaming the riders onwards and upwards!
If you were mad enough to ride such an event, what kind of machine would you use? If you’re new to the sport you might expect to see road bikes fitted with crazy low gears, maybe an Mtb or cyclo-cross bike. Instead many hill climb specialists favour a fixed gear bike for this event, citing lighter weight, the benefit of a direct drive and the ‘fly-wheel’ effect of a fixed gear. Plus, you can’t deny that the sight of someone climbing on a stripped down, fixed gear, hill climbing bike just looks way cooler!
The sages seem to agree that the fixed wheel still enjoys a small advantage on a steady climb, but loses out on climbs that have variable gradients and those that are on exposed slopes can also suffer if a headwind gets up. Also employing a fixed gear requires a knowledge of the climb and your own abilities; get it wrong and you will be left floundering. Back in the day a fixed gear was certainly lighter than a normal road bike. Nowadays carbon frames and components means there’s not such a difference. On the day the Velopace Butts Lane Hill Climb had fifty-six entrants on all kinds of bike; including a couple of small wheeled Bromptons!
Fastest time on the day was recorder by Rowan Brackston of Imperial College Cycling Club, with a time of 3’38”. Rowan also took the prize for the fastest overall in both the Butts Lane and ESCA hill climb. Local fixed gear afficianado Peter Tadros was fastest on a fixie and third overall with a time of 3’49”. And proving that greatness is in the genes, young Theo Tadros was fastest juvenile with a time of 4’23”. Fastest women was Joscelin Lowden of Lewes Wanderers CC with a time of 4’35”.
The official hill climb season is now over, with this year’s national championship attracting over two hundred riders. While the Hill Climb may seem something of a quirky end-of-term event it attracts some serious competition. Previous national champions have included Chris Boardman (four times), Malcolm Elliot, Stuart Dangerfield (five times) and Brian Robinson – the first Briton to finish the Tour de France and the first to win a Tour stage.
If you fancy having a go then get over to the Cycling Time Trials page and start planning for next season. Hopefully they’ll include a downhill event as well and a halfway stop at the cafe as well. The extra weight will help carry you a few more metres on the downhill!
All photos courtesy of Fraser Charrett-Dykes.