Style cues from the hill climbing cyclist: backwards pointing cap, pained expression, the hollow stare. Photo by Nick Hussey of www.vulpine.cc
So it’s the end of the racing season. But don’t breath a sigh of relief just yet. There’s more agony and suffering to get through before you can finally hang up the racing wheels for the year. That’s right, it’s now, unfortunately, hill climb season.
Perhaps you’ve never done one before and have entered through ignorance. A year is a long time, so maybe you’ve forgotten the misery you suffered through last autumn. Whatever the reason, you have my sympathies. Below is a guide to surviving a hill climb time trial – with luck and planning we can all emerge from this experience with our dignities remaining, relatively, intact.
1. Find an excuse
Are you ill? Are you sure? Because that slight itch at the back of the throat could mean the lurgy is lurking. Keep your fingers crossed, go out drinking into the small hours, avoid foods with high vitamin content, lick the handrails on the tube. If that fails it’s never too late to break a collarbone – even the final pre-race warm-up can conceal hidden dangers. Wet leaves on the road, a descent taken too fast, a nasty little spill and your problems are solved.
Ok, so you’ve remained fit and healthy, and the collarbone solution seems a bit drastic. Plus you might even have done a bit of training and don’t want to see that go to waste. So what next? Do your homework – check out the course, especially if you’ve not ridden the hill before. Ride it a few times if possible, both at an all-out effort, and also at a speed where you can familiarise yourself with the gradient, road surface, and any markers along the way that will help you visualise the course. For me, time is the most important pacing tool, if you know how long it’s likely to take you to finish then you can gauge your effort accordingly. Plus your training can be focussed on this time frame (you are going to do some training, right?). But remember, no matter how hard you think you’ve pushed in the dry run, you’ll likely go much faster in the actual event.
3. Panic train, but not too much or too late
Let’s face it, if you’re reading this you’re not a hill climb specialist. And as such you’ve probably not had these races circled in your diary since January 1st. But as long as you’re not totally burnt out by a season racing, then there’s still some specific training you can throw in. Most hill climbs are short – two to five minutes is the norm, though obviously some are longer or shorter – and this sort of intense effort probably won’t have made up much of your training throughout the rest of the year. You’re basically emptying the tank completely in a very short space of time. Your lungs will be about to explode. So familiarise your body to these discomforts – it’ll hurt now, but you’ll be glad of those efforts come race day (probably). Any training with less than a week to go will be to just keep the legs spinning, and throw in some short hard efforts to keep everything ticking over.
4. Get your kit ready
Don’t fret too much about stripping weight from your bike. Any gains will be very minimal. Removing your handlebar tape will only make you look like a plonker. Do of course take off that saddle bag, bottles and bottle cages, and anything else extraneous that you can do without. Then the usual race rules apply: get everything ready well in advance, check over your bike to ensure it’s all running smoothly, and don’t try anything new for the first time on race day.
5. Get yourself ready
So it’s now just an hour to go until push-off time. Time to think about getting warmed up. If it’s cold and wet outside then you’re not in luck. Have you got rollers you can use? Find somewhere sheltered to use them. Your warm up should be comprehensive and include a few very hard, but short, efforts. Get that heart rate up. But then don’t undo all that work by getting to the start too early and then standing about idly as your legs gradually start to seize up. Turn up ready to start no more than five minutes before it’s your turn to set off. And don’t eat anything too close to racing – you’ll only be reacquainted with it upon crossing the finish line. Your body will have more than enough energy stored already for the short effort required in a hill climb.
6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Go!
With about 40 seconds before your start you’ll roll up to the line, and then with about 20 to go the ‘pusher’ will hold your bike and you can get clipped in and comfortable. And when I say ‘comfortable’ I really mean your heart will be pounding through your chest, the fear will be spreading throughout your entire body, and you’ll wish your mum was there to hold your hand. In fact, bring your mum – it might even help. Then before you know it you’ll be setting off up that hill. Try not to fall over when the ‘pusher’ lets go without actually pushing you.
7. Pace yourself
The adrenaline will be saying ‘GO! GO! GO! GO FASTER!’. But your head should say ‘Steady on there, let’s not get carried away’. Going too hard too soon is the easiest mistake to make, but very costly. Any effort made at the start will be paid for at the end. Not only will the experience be even more agonising as you blow half way up, but you’ll lose time hand over fist. Gauge your effort as evenly as possible, get out of the saddle for the steeper parts, recover slightly in the saddle if it evens out at any point. Listen to your breathing, and be aware of where you are on the course – this is where memorising any distinguishing roadside features can help. ‘Half way there at the sign post…’, ‘time to kick for the line at the red brick house on the left…’
8. Learn to loath yourself
As you approach the finish line everything in your body will be screaming at you to stop. Heart rate at maximum, lungs gasping for air, legs on fire, vision blurry. The only thing keeping you going will be that voice in your head willing you on, taunting you, swearing at you… get out of the saddle and drive for the line you lazy good-for-nothing… only a few more seconds… thank f**k that’s over. Strangely you won’t be able to stop pedalling straight away. Shift down to your lightest gear and try to spin the lactate out of your legs. Passing out is a distinct possibility at this point.
9. Remind me again, why did I sign up to do this?
Good question. Your lungs will feel like you’ve just been sucking in sand and your throat will be raw. A taste of blood will linger at the back of your mouth. The HQ at the finish will echo with the sounds of riders trying to grab bites of cake in between fits of coughing. You’ll check out your time, compare it to everyone else. Maybe you might win a prize. Then you’ll go home. Family will ask, ‘So, did you win?’ (‘No’). Friends will appear non-plussed at your efforts. Work colleagues will look at you with a confused expression as you try to describe ‘what you got up to at the weekend’. But somewhere, buried deep down inside, you’ll feel a warm glow of satisfaction and accomplishment. Maybe even, dare you think it, could you go a little bit quicker next year?