I ask a fellow competitor for the time, and panic at his reply. “Ten past three? Are you sure about that?”
“Yeah, look at my watch. See? Ah no, sorry. It’s twenty to two. I can’t read the display properly.” Thank Christ for that. I’m due to start at two fifty-four!
As I set off down Pilgrim Lane for a final spin to try and get some warmth into my legs, I couldn’t help but wonder if my friend with with the tricksy watch was playing mind games with me.
I reassure myself that it’s just the pre-race nerves kicking in.
By the time I actually rolled up to the start – only the second time I’d have ridden the hill, and the fifth and final event of my first hill climb season – that encounter had gone from my mind, replaced by what I had come to understand as a more typical set of worries: have I warmed up enough this time? I’ve ridden about in a small gear, got the heart going – but there’s that strange feeling again: jelly legs. Can the riders behind see them shaking?
Rider number 53 is called to the start. A non-starter. I’m number 54. One minute to go.
The doubts nag at me. My legs feel bad. Am I going to pay for going hard at the Catford this morning? I study the early riders as they bolt away up the lower part of the course. That one guy had looked good, turning a big gear steadily. The scrawny junior even quicker. Wonder what gear he was using? Could he have kept that pace up all the way to the top?
Remembering walking the hill I’m pretty sure I need to save myself for when the steepness starts, where the sun comes through the trees, just before the crowd starts to build. Get it wrong and I’ll end up weaving all over the road – risking the ultimate shame of grinding to a halt and toppling off in front of hundreds of people…
Thirty seconds to go.
Just treat it like another training effort: get up to speed but don’t go into the red. Keep on top of the breathing, slow up or change down if necessary. Anything to keep on top of the breathing. Then wait until you can see the crowds and bunting, then give it everything. Absolutely everything. Ignore the inner voice telling you to stop, to climb off, give up. Hope that what they say about the crowd is true: no matter how bad you feel when you get to them, the noise and their presence wills you on and up – all the way to the finish.
The race passed in a flash. A blur of hedges, some nasty potholes, wheelspin, the final ramp, that weird bunting, the shouts, a flag and then… a mess of bikes and riders hanging over their handlebars, exhausted. Blood in my throat, vision blurred, numbness in my arms and legs.
Once the endorphins kicked in and the pain dulled, I was able to bask in the memory of those few seconds near the top of the climb and reflect on what makes the Bec and Catford such special events, and what sets the humble hill climb apart from other forms of amateur bike racing. In those last few metres every competitor – regardless of ability – gets to experience in microcosm the suffering and exhilaration that most would otherwise only ever experience vicariously through their TV screens. For that brief moment we can all be a Fausto Coppi or a Marco Pantani (or a David Moncoutié if you prefer), surging upwards, the crowds parting before us. It’s an amazing feeling.
My time of 2:06 was good enough for 14th place, the exact same position I had come that morning at the Catford. An early start time meant I was able to return to the hill to watch the favourites finish – and subject themselves to similar punishment. To my surprise the rider who struggled to read his own watch earlier was no less than Gunnar Gronlund, the national hill climb champion and final rider of the day. Gronlund came second at the Bec, over twenty seconds ahead of me but, remarkably, a couple of seconds behind the winner – and course record breaker – Jack Pullar.
In the post-race interview Pullar was asked how he felt and whether he was surprised by his record-breaking time, he simply said “No”. A talented young man clearly not given to false modesty. And why should he be? As he pointed out he’d been training for short efforts like the Bec in advance of the national championships (being held on the Rake – another ride with a brutal 25% ramp) later this month. Which made me chuckle, as I’d also been trying to do something similar in my own training, following guides by such top figures in the hill climbing world as Tejvan Pettinger and Matt Clinton.
My specific hill climb training began towards the end of July. By the end of August I’d begun substituting my regular summer and autumn mix of long rides in the hills and 1-2 hour efforts around Richmond Park for shorter rides made up of 1-4 minute interval repetitions. I incorporated these interval sets into my regular commute in early October, and into rides to and around the park from early September, but mostly on my turbo trainer in the spare room. I think cutting back on the miles, focusing on shorter, harder, sessions and allowing for more recovery between them definitely helped in my preparation for these final two climbs. While both of them hurt like hell – and the Bec left me without any feeling in one leg for a good ten minutes after the finish – I was able to manage the two and a bit minute efforts in a way that I hadn’t been able to a couple of months previously.
Next year I’ll know to trust in my training, not worry so much in the build-up (I caught 100 Climbs author Simon Warren talking to himself before his race) and, most importantly, to bring my own watch.” James Graham, GS Gazzetta, 14th, 2mins 6.4secs