The Les Black trophy
OK, it’s not the Tour de France, but to me it’s the one prize I crave the most, the Les Black trophy for the winner of the annual Norwood Paragon club hill climb. Most clubs tend to hold their hill climb at the end of the season, around late September or early October, but the Norwood Paragon have always favoured a summer spot, typically the first Tuesday in August. There are benefits, it’s much warmer and because it’s light for longer we can hold it in the evening so as not to overcrowd the weekends. On the flip side though, it being the season of BBQ’s and summer holidays it usually means we’re all carrying a little bit too much weight and key competitors are often away on holiday (their loss). This year will be my tenth participation since my first in 2005 and a lot has changed over those ten years. Yes, I am now 10 years older, I have two kids and life is far more complicated but with almost metronomic certainty on that first Tuesday in August I find myself on the start line for this event. Staring ahead at the same tunnel of trees, looking for the same clean line across the rough surface, listening to the same count down from 10 and knowing I’m going to have to force my body through the same degree of discomfort.
For my first five rides, between 2005 and 2010 I was in it to win it, I REALLY WANTED it and if I didn’t get it I was utterly miserable. I had a run of 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, DNS (did not start) and then, at last in 2009, I WON! OK, Dan Sullivan was out of shape and Chris Moores was on holiday, but still, I had to fend off some decent riders to at last get my hands on the Les Black cup and set a new PB to boot. The next year I went faster still but was beaten into second and was thoroughly miserable for quite some time. Between 2011 and 2016 my state of mind towards the event changed, after a dismal 7th in 2011 I just said, “OK, that’s it, I won it once, that will do me, I just don’t care anymore”. In that instant a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Hill climbing is a young man’s game, 40 year olds don’t (often) win hill climbs and when you’re up against 25 year olds who are 10kg lighter what chance do you stand anyway? I did take a respectable 3rd in 2012, missed the next two years then returned for two more 3rd places in 2015 and 2016. 3rd was OK, 3rd was a result I was happy with, it showed I was still in the mix and anyway, I was always first Vet, so that brings us round to this year. If you scroll down to the bottom you’ll see a table of my past results and times, although this does present a good comparison across the years there are a number of variables it doesn’t mention, weather, condition of the surface and most importantly, where the start line was. Every year we have the same argument with the club hierarchy, ‘Pete, I’m sure the start was up there, last year, near that post”. “No, Simon, I think you’ll find it was here,” ‘No, I’m sure it was near that post there...” The debate continues, in fact I don’t think we’ve started in the same place twice in ten years. They’ve all been within 10 metres of each other but 10 metres in a 3 minute race can make a significant difference, but then, it’s not worth losing sleep over, it’s about your time, it’s about the trophy, it’s about having your name engraved in silver.
Onto this year’s race… August 1st, 2017. The hill we use is Ranmore Hill, it’s far from the toughest climb in the Surrey Hills with its only remarkable feature a tight left hand hairpin at about 3/4 distance. A hill doesn’t have to be a killer to hurt, it’s the effort you put in that creates the pain. Starting with a flourish it’s essential you get up to speed as quick as possible, but at the same time not go too deep. Rising up through the woods, on the heavily distressed topping the gradient ever so slightly increases but force yourself to stay in the saddle, let the legs do all the work until you catch sight of the bend. On this corner there can be as many as 10 people spectating on the night, many of whom will be fellow competitors and once you see them then you can leave the saddle and increase the pressure on the pedals. With their voices pulling you forward, this paltry yet essential audience will drag you to the corner where the only real thought of the event is needed. Do you ride left up the steeper incline covering less ground or ride wide on the shallower slope to preserve momentum? I typically ride right although slighter stronger riders often take the inside line thus saving a few metres. From this corner it’s eye balls out and now deep in oxygen debt you’ll be begging for it to end. The racing line lies on the wrong side of the road and with a blind bend it takes courage, or stupidity, to ride it, if you do you must keep your eyes and ears open for oncoming traffic. Round this slight kink the brow comes into view and the familiar sight of the timekeeper holding his stopwatch. It’s not long now, stay out of the saddle, don’t sit down, resist all temptation to sit down just fight, sprint every last centimetre. Rolling over the summit and onto the plane of Ranmore common I gasp for air like a pearl diver returning from the ocean floor, everything burns as I roll along the flat tranquil road at the top to begin the recovery. Glancing ahead I see how far I’m behind those who have already finished and looking behind I see how far I’m in front of those who set off behind me, as if I can somehow work out how well I have done. I always sort of know though, I think everyone sort of knows how they have done but I never like the trip to the time keeper to confirm my fears. Peering over Pete’s shoulder, still gasping for breath with my vision still slightly blurred I attempt to make sense of his scribblings. At first glance it’s a confusion of numbers, this year we held a joint event with another local club Paceline RC, they are younger and fitter than us, but they also don’t count as it’s only club members I am interested in. I first check Dan Sullivan’s time. OUCH 2.56, he’s on a bad night. I then spot mine, 2.47, a tingle of excitement appears, I beat the favourite but has there been a surprise from one of the younger club members? I carefully scan from top to bottom, nope, nope, close, a 2.48, no, no, no... and I reach the bottom. I WON! For the first time since 2009, at the age of 44, and 6kg’s heavier than back then, I only bloody won! I am over the moon, for a whole year I’m club champion, the trophy is once more mine, now can I hold on to it next year?
2005 3rd 2.45 2006 2nd 2.41 2007 2nd 2.44 2008 DNS 2009 1st 2:38 2010 2nd 2:35 2011 7th 2.44 2012 3rd 2.48 2013 DNS 2014 DNS 2015 3rd 2.45 2016 3rd 2.44 2017 1st 2.47
You can discover more about the best hills in South-east England in my guide. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cycling-Climbs-South-East-England-Cyclists/dp/0711237026/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501666517&sr=1-8 The 100 Climbs App is available to download here on the App Store http://apple.co/2iL3tl8 and for Android http://bit.ly/2iIfBoQ