“I don’t particularly like going uphill.”
Jess Evans is a hill climber. A five-time Welsh champion. She lives for the highly esoteric British amateur racing scene, where competitors congregate around some filthy steep climb on a weekend during the squally, leaf-strewn days of early autumn and race, one at a time, to the top.
It’s a simple game: fastest rider wins. This perhaps explains why one of the country’s best hill climbers can begin to explain why they are so into hill climbing by saying that they don’t like hill-climbing. Make sense?
Evans started racing not long after meeting her partner Dan, himself a former British national hill-climb champion. “He was like, ‘oh my god, you go up hill really fast’,” remembers Jess. “I was like, ‘yeah, cos it’s horrid, I just want to get it over with’. That was literally how it started, I would go up quickly to get it done."
“Dan had done hill climbs so we did one together. Oh my goodness, I was a bag of nerves, I barely spoke a word on my way there and I could’ve cried at the start line. I went out the blocks like a rabbit out the trap. Pwoof. Gone. And then I won. And that was it. We went from there.”
Hill climbing is perhaps the most intense discipline of the sport of road cycling. If a race lasts into double figures of minutes then it’s a long one. This year’s British national championships took place on a sodden and windswept Winnats Pass in the Peak District, just under a kilometre long at 14% average (although the road hangs about well over 15% for most of it). The winners shot up through the throngs of waterproof-smothered fans in a little over three minutes for the men, four for the women.
Cowbells and klaxons (and a large foam kebab on a stick) were roaring them on while the heavy raindrops hammered down. It was all pain faces and pockmarked skinsuits and slipping rear wheels. Winners were rewarded with a trophy made of the hill itself; a piece of Blue John mineral stone quarried from a nearby cave. Evans, who was a little under the weather herself after attending some friends’ wedding the same weekend, finished eighth.
That’s not to say there isn’t a technique, a method to the madness. Even a four-minute effort requires pacing. The Monsal Hill Climb, another Peak District climb and one of the sport’s most famous and longstanding events, requires a flat-out sprint to the top for less than two minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, less than 20km away, is the a 20- to 30-minute climb of Cat and Fiddle, which should probably not be attempted in the 48 hours after a wedding.
Such intensity attracts all sorts of characters: hotheads, weight weenies, obsessive compulsive tinkerers. Indeed, former British champion Tejvan Pettinger used to meditate in his hatchback before his races. What does it for Evans is the purity of the competition.
“It’s just you against the hill isn’t it? There are no tactics, there is no hiding behind anyone and darting past them on the line. It’s just you and the gradient. It’s pure isn’t it?”
What makes a good hill climber. What does this ragtag band of absolute amateurs have in common?
“I think you’ve got what you’ve got, and then you have to work with it,” Evans says. “You’ve got to have grit and determination. You’ve got to be stubborn. I’m all of these things that I wouldn’t admit to my husband…!"
“You don’t want to give up, you won’t be beaten by the hill.”
There are few better places for a climbing specialist to live than North Wales. The Evans residence is on the borders of Snowdonia, pitched on the slope between the mountains and the sea. Evans was a fell-runner before discovering cycling, which perhaps explains why to an outside observer that when she rides up a steep gradient, she can look like she’s running.
Snowdonia is famous for its mountain passes, from Llanberis to Crimea and Bwlch y Groes to Pen-y-Pass. Then there’s the tiny village alleyway of Ffordd Pen Llech down in Harlech, where a one-way system restricts traffic to going down the slope that in places reaches 36.6%. It once boasted the title of world’s steepest street but an appeal from residents in the previous record holder – Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand – prompted the Guinness Book of Records to adjust its criteria to consider the gradient in the centre of the road, and the honours now belong once again to the 34.8%, arrow-straight ramp in in the south of the land of the long white cloud.
These are tough roads ridden by tough riders. But what really makes North Wales a haven for climbing is its variety, from “bigger passes of a constant gradient, probably about 8%” to the hidden gems of gritty chip seal that lead to nowhere in particular. “If you want stinking steep, 40%, the roads are there,” Evans adds.
“There’s a hill near us called Afon Ddu. We took Simon Warren [author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs] up that hill. It was so steep he didn’t make it up. He fell off his bike in front of me. We are forever in search of the steepest street!”
Besides the forgotten old roads that shadow their new replacements and provide a low-traffic haven for riders, Evans’ favourite routes often include the closed road dead-end climbs to nearby dams.
“My first hill climb was to Stwlan dam, a closed road and a Welsh gem. You pop your bike over the gate, go up these sweet switchbacks all the way to the dam at the top, then come back down. It’s totally pointless because it’s a dead end but well worth the views when you get up there.
My go to hill climb training road is Marchlyn Mawr, another closed road. It splits into two, so you can go up to one dam and then halfway down and then up to the other.”
Evans works for her local NHS rapid response team by day, with the handy perk that having such a large patch to cover, and a large rural population, means she frequently uncovering new roads in the course of driving out to visit patients. And, like many of us over the last 18 months, the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic gave her a new-found appreciation for her home lanes.
“We used to go abroad a lot, the Alps, Gran Canaria, Mallorca and we were a bit lost at first. But then we realised what we had around us – and what other people didn’t – and we learned to re-appreciate what was on our doorstep.
“I was taking photos and posting them on Instagram and everyone was commenting, ‘wow, where this, where’s that?’ I was posting links to Strava, telling people how to get places. It’s cool how Instagram opens up these communities where people can chat freely. I’m quite a chatty person, I’ll reply to anybody.”
The one downside to Wales is the weather. Just as a hill-climber stubbornly refuses to let the gradient get the better of them, a Welsh rider can’t cower in the face of a storm rolling in off the Irish sea and colliding with the glacier-scoured granite walls of Snowdonia.
“The weather can be pretty brutal,” Evans says. “You’ve just got to live with it.”
When it’s not wild, wet and windy, Evans liked nothing better than to head out to the Great Orme, a climb that hosted a fantastic, breathless finish to a stage of the 2021 Tour of Britain. Get there early on a fine Sunday morning, before the day-trippers and dog walkers start to fill the road, and there’s nowhere better.
“Chasing your own personal best is great,” she adds. “You keep going back and back, and it’s like an addiction.”