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The one and only Monsal Head hill climb

Monsal Head, climb number 30 in my first book, is a hill I know all too well. In fact I could describe just about every lump, bump, ripple and kink along its diminutive, but challenging 500 meters. Home to maybe the most famous British hill climb race on the calendar, dating way back to 1930 it is one event the best all want to win. The course record, the infamous 1.14.2 has stood since 1981 and belongs to the great British sprinter Malcolm Elliot, and before that it belonged to the legendary Tom Simpson, yes, this event oozes history. The first time I rode it in anger was in 1991 (but as I’ve lost the results sheet so I’ve no idea how I faired), I didn’t return for a further 21 years, but having pinned a number on for the past six seasons, I can now consider myself a veteran of the event. If you were to build a hill climb course from scratch then what you would end up with would look pretty much exactly like Monsal Head. A challenging gradient, room to finish your warm up at the base, easily closed to traffic, ample parking, high grassy banks that form the perfect spectators grandstand, oh, and there’s even a pub at the top. The climb is short, but long enough to push the competitors to the limit, it’s steep, but not too steep so all types of riders feel they have a chance.

So, onto this year’s race. All week the forecast had been for rain and a head wind, a gale of a headwind, it was not going to be a day for personal bests. In a way this takes some of the pressure off having to ride a PB because if you fail you can just blame the conditions. However I always do harbour the ambition of going faster, who doesn’t? I have long since given up any aspirations of being at the competitive end of the field, that’s the realm of the young and talented, but I do always want to beat the one person who really matters, and that is myself. My record over the past six years stands at 1.41.4, 1.41.3, 1.39.1, 1.45.1, and 1.40.9, as you can see I am pretty good at consistency, (if there was only a prize for that) so what could I do in 2017?

Back to the weather. Rain had been predicted all week, but as the days ticked by, little by little the forecast improved and as it transpired we never felt a single drop on the day, this didn’t mean the road would be dry, far from it. Under the cover of trees the lower slopes were soaked from the night before, covered in fallen leaves and yes, very slippery. I have a terrible problem with wheel spin, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone but I also think my riding style, always out of the saddle hunched forward over the bars doesn’t aid traction. Road conditions aside though, I didn’t feel too bad in myself and was up for the event. I’d made some good efforts during the week, done a decent ride the day before and was feeling border line fresh on the day. I arrived a ridiculous four hours before my start as I was dropping off a copy of my forthcoming boxset as a prize for the top junior (discrete plug) and wanted to ride the hill a couple of times before the riders started, just to get a feel for the conditions. Following my reconnaissance I hung around the top of the hill for a while, caught up with local legend Dean Downing and made sure I was there to cheer my mate Nick on as he was one of the early starters. Having done this, it was time, and quoting a line from Pulp Fiction ‘To get into character’, to get ready to race. Having ridden the event for the past five years my warm up routine is pretty much perfected. A 40 min ride with a handful of sprints and a fair bit of elevation, then back to the car, put the race wheels in, strip down to race clothes and head to the start.

Nick in the Pain Cave

At Monsal, to get to the start, you must first carefully descend the course against the flow of competitors racing up, past the cheering crowds and down to the silence of the valley floor. This is great for the spectators as they get to see their favourites relaxed as they descend and then in agony as they appear a few minutes later. Once past the start line at the base there are a few hundred meters of empty road, like a sort of holding zone where you will find riders going through their final physical, and more importantly mental preparations. You may get a nod from someone you know but no words are shared down here as consumed by focus and nerves each competitor stares directly ahead, trapped in their own zone of intense concentration. Up and down you roll, partly to control anxiety and partly to keep warm, until the rider before you takes his start and then it’s your time to line up. Clipped in, with your bike held by the starter you stare straight ahead and listen to the seconds tick down. What you are about to do will hurt, it will be unpleasant, but it’s too late to back out now, 30 seconds to go. You clear your mind, you know exactly how you are going to ride it, what line to take, what gears to use, 10 seconds to go. Fill the lungs with air, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GOOD LUCK, comes the shout of encouragement from the timekeeper and you explode away to confront your destiny. The first 150 meters are over in a flash, you ride on adrenaline and stored energy, then the gradient kicks in, and then the hurt kicks in. Your breathing accelerates to match your heart rate and you change gear to cope with the gradient, and this was to be my downfall this year. I just kept changing gear, I failed to commit to what I was riding and faffed around up and down the cassette, slipping on leaves and all the time losing focus. I had planned the line I was going to take but I deviated, I slipped again, I changed gear again, I picked it up, I dug in, but I knew I had fluffed it. A minute into the ride and you’re begging for it to end but you now approach the crowd and with 100 meters to go the combination of their shouts and the pressure to perform takes you into territory you can’t recreate in training. It’s here, in these last throws you enter the dreaded ‘pain cave’ where literally everything hurts, from your eyes to your toenails. I forced over the pedals, lunged for the line and headed into the scrum of ‘catchers’ on the plateau as the finish. I hate to stop at the top though, I must keep moving. Some riders halt right away and fall to the floor, but I must keep pedaling. Unable to speak I gesture to be allowed to continue on, I push away helping hands, navigate through the throng of competitors, spectators and barriers and finally find the sanctuary of the main road where still gasping for breath I can relax. It was a matter of seconds before I heard my result over the PA, I tried to block my ears, but I heard it, a 1.46.7. 1.46, my slowest ever. Oh dear. I was at first gutted, I knew I was in better shape than that but I fluffed those gear changes, didn’t stick to plan and I threw it away. My disappointment was short lived though, I’m too old to get that upset anymore and 1.46 isn’t terrible.

So it’s back to the car, pack the bike away, remove my number, grab some clothes and my photo-bombing sign and straight back into the throng to cheer on the rest of the riders. If there’s one thing I love more than racing it’s watching others race and this years event had us on our toes right to the last. With the talent all stacked at the end of the huge 190 rider field the best times began to tumble and tumble as the quick men, and women came up. Everyone knows about the famous 1.14.2 record, and even though they knew in their hearts, with conditions as they were that is was unlikely to fall today, they still hoped it would. The first to come close was NFTO’s Mike Morris who send shock waves through the crowd by posting a 1.21.8. That was bettered a few minutes later by Andy Nichols who recorded a 1.21.3, which lasted a fraction shy of a minute before Joey Walker, son of the great Chris Walker, logged 1.21.1! The crowd was now in a frenzy, who would beat this? Who, if anyone would go under 1.20? Up next was Callum Brown, he was the equal, if not outright favourite, the crowd hushed, their necks bending round the corner to see him appear but it soon become evident that something was wrong. He should have been here by now, the hush turned to a murmur, where was he? What had happened? In a race decided by fractions of a second there’s no room for a mechanical or accident, something had gone wrong, Callum was out. It was now down to former winner Joe Clark to try and take the title but he was slightly off his best and ‘could only’ manage 1.24.1. One man was left, last years winner, and current national champion Adam Kenway, and no sooner had Joe crossed the line he came into view, he was flying, he was ripping up the course. Resplendent in his national champions skinsuit he surged across the line in a time of, wait for it... 1.19.4. The event had the climax it deserved and a worthy winner.

On the left the organiser Marc, in the middle the winner Adam, and me with my sign. Pic courtesy of Anthony Wood

The record was safe again but was it the conditions that saved it? Could Callum have beaten it? We will never know as for now the crowd disperses, the barriers are packed away and the competitors leave to focus on their next challenge. This wonderful arc of tarmac then returns to the calm of its stunning surroundings over looking the Monsal viaduct for another 364 days of insignificance before all the elements are assembled once more to make it the focus of a thousand eyes for one of the best race events on the calendar.


*A freak un-shipping of the chain had derailed Callum Brown’s his attempt. More info on the history of the event and full results for the Womens, Vets and Juniors can be found here. Lastly a huge thanks to March Etches and his team for putting so much into making this such a fantastic event year after year. You can read more about the race in my book the cycling climbs of the Midlands. And use the 100 Climbs App to help you find it. Download here for Apple and for Android

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