Partly a product of topography that sees the countryside awash with short steep hills; partly a reflection of our taste for standing by the side of a road with a stopwatch, the hill climb is an idiosyncratic British tradition. True hill climb contenders take the season as seriously as the best tester and put as much into their bikes. Or take as much out, rather. With the whole race a battle against gravity, the less a rider has onboard the better.
Gallery: Drillium and sawn-off bars at the national hill climb championships
In my few dalliances with a hill climb (of which more later) I’ve never gone further than removing the bottle cages from my standard road bike. One year I did literally weigh up which of two jerseys to wear, though.
Top level road racers occasionally participate but seldom do they win. David Millar famously closed out his career in 2014 at the Bec CC Hill Climb in Surrey. Millar had ridden the World Championships in Ponferrada just a few weeks earlier and talked up his chances of claiming the course record. In the end he finished a perfectly respectable – at least for anyone else – 21st place, 14.5 seconds down on hill climb specialist Jack Pullar.
I was there that day too, in what was only my second ever bike race (my first was also a hill climb). I finished a further twenty seconds back from Millar in solid mid-table. Neither embarrassing myself nor producing a Roy of the Rovers-style – is there a cycling equivalent? – victory from nowhere, but the result wasn’t what mattered.
For what I remember most about that damp autumn afternoon is the atmosphere generated by the hundreds lining White Lane. The depth of the crowd was doubtless double what it would have been due to Millar’s presence on the startsheet. Yet even the most sparsely spectated hill climb has an electricity you won’t find at any other amateur event. It’s close as I ever expect to come to the feeling of riding up Alpe d’Huez, the Angliru, or the Agnello, in the thick of a Grand Tour battle.
(Incidentally, a year later I bumped into Millar at the Rouleur Classic and asked him to sign my copy of The Racer. He inscribed it with the words “we raced together”. Never tell someone not to meet their heroes.)
The sum of my participation in hill climb season this year came at London’s Urban Hill Climb at the end of September.
Somewhat fatter and significantly slower than last year, I figured I’d stand a better chance in one of the niche categories, so signed up for the Brompton bracket. The fact that I don’t own a Brompton folding bicycle – thanks to David Millar’s own Chpt 3 for the loaner, by the way – and had never ridden one until the Monday before didn’t strike me as an obstacle. Only the best and brightest around here.
The author, trying – and failing – to make up for lost time
Still, I would have done fine had I not utterly failed the unfold. I swear I’d practiced it, though admittedly not under the same, pressure cooker conditions. With thirty seconds between starts, most riders managed to get on their way long before the rider behind them was given the go, whereas I hadn’t even finished raising the seatpost. Embarrassingly I still hopped on having forget to flip out the back wheel, which one onlooker took great delight in pointing out to me.
I managed to make the top ten all the same. Just fifteen seconds off top spot, I was left rueing what might have been. Given the unfold was always part of the test, that’s a bit like saying I’d have won if only the steepest section of Swain’s Lane had been a bit flatter, or if I’d pedaled quicker than the other competitors. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda… Next year.
Update: A reader has got in touch to say that by chance he filmed said unfold fail. I haven’t watched it, but you probably should.