The National Hill Climb Championship
With this years event on Winnats Pass less than two weeks away I thought I’d write a retrospective of my relationship with the event as it’s been thirty years since I rode my first back in 1991.
I’d started racing hill climbs in the Autumn of 1989 and by 1991 my results were good enough for me to dare enter what I saw as the biggest race on the domestic calendar. Hill climbing was my thing and I wanted to be on the big stage to see how I stacked up against all the real hitters. There was no chance I was going to affect the result of the title but regular top tens and a few podium places in smaller events meant I was in good shape and I just wanted to see what I could do.
The 1991 championships were held on the mighty Park Rash out of Kettlewell. A killer climb that starts with a 25% ramp and then goes on and on into the Yorkshire Dales to its barren summit. I’d never been to Kettlewell before never mind seen the climb so was hitting it blind with no chance to do a reccon. I was strongest over about a four minute distance but this climb was looking like more than double that so was going to be way out of my comfort zone.
Back then there was no female contest, only men and only the best 120 riders in the country got a ride. The quality of the field isn’t what it would be at say the National Road Race Championships. Hill climbers are mostly idiotic masochists, a fringe of pain geeks mixed in with a few genuine athletes and most decent cyclists give the races a wide berth. On the day I was rider number 117 set off just 3 minutes before the last competitor so guaranteed big crowds. There weren’t here to see me though, they were here to see rider number 120, the legendary Chris Boardman. Chris was going for his 5th consecutive title and setting off 3 minutes after me, my principle task was to avoid being caught!
I launched up the viciously steep opening ramp, rounded the 33% left hand bend and then from there on suffered like a dog. It was SO LONG, it was cold and from behind I could hear the gathering roar as the crowd cheered Boardman on. The closer to the summit, the louder it got but I was determined not to let it or the man himself reach me and I succeeded, by almost a minute! (My 8.57 to his 6.47) On a climb that didn’t suit me I ended up placing 39th out of the 120 but wasn’t happy. In my head I wanted 25th because that was the best ever placing from a rider in our club so I saw 39th as a bit of a let down but it was my first champs so I could improve.
Onto the next year and still going strong in local events I had my entry accepted once more and made the trip up to County Durham for that year’s race on the monstrous Chapel Fell. This climb is an utterly brutal venue for the event, a huge four kilometre course which is always into a headwind. I rode it the day before so I knew what I faced this time and we stayed over in a B+B up the road the night before. Come the morning of the event and drawing back the curtains my mate Nick turned to me and said “It’s snowed.” “It’s what!” I replied. Getting up and peering out the window there was indeed a foot of snow over night. Oh. We somehow slid my old Golf down to the HQ in St John’s Chapel where the organisers had no choice to tell us the race was off and that we should all get out the valley ASAP before we became trapped. The event was rescheduled for two weeks later but by then I’d burnt out and just couldn’t face going back so was a DNS along with 50% of the field.
Roll on 12 months and now in my second year of University in Hull I was no longer the clean cut alcohol free youth who had arrived the previous Autumn. I was young though so hangovers could be brushed aside like an annoying fly and I was able to mix bike racing and dancing to punk rock whilst drunk on cheap sherry and just about stay competitive at them both. My results had suffered though however I did still get a ride at the Championships, this time on another northern monster, Newlands Pass. The night before the event however my house mates decided to have a party. I’d told them we couldn’t have it any weekend in October but I was overruled so unfortunately it was advertised for the night before the biggest race of the year!!
I could have gone to stay at my parents to prepare properly but had to stay to guard my room so had no choice other than to join in. Of course I couldn’t get drunk but I did have one beer, then for the rest of the night filled my beer can up with water so it still looked like I was having fun then at around 1am sneaked off to bed, barricaded my room and set the alarm for 5. Next morning it was straight up, load the car and drive from Hull to Scotch Corner where I met my dad who drove me the rest of the way to Buttermere. Newlands was huge, my legs were wrecked, my prep was at best embarrassing and I disgraced myself with 73rd place. What did I expect?
For the 1994 championships on Jackson Bridge I got a ride again, was still mixing partying and riding which again was reflected in my result as I crawled in, in 66th place and this it turned out would be my last bike race for nearly 10 years as the next January I tore the median ligament in my left knee (on the dance floor pogoing to a punk cover of the Proclaimers hit I’m gonna be ‘500 miles’) and had 4 months off the bike.
Four months off turned into nearly 10 years because I was not prepared to give up my new life to get fit again but once I was bored of drinking and dancing I went back to the bike and after getting back in shape practically my first race back was the Catford CC hill climb in the Autumn of 2004. The following year, after a season of rapid improvement I was then ready to go back to the big stage, back to the National.
The 2005 event was held on the infamous Rake in Ramsbottom, I’d raced up it in 1992 when I posted a time of 2.49 so the goal was to see if the 33 year old me could beat the 20 year old me. I was slightly heavier now but still a very trim 68 kilos (a weight I can only dream of now) and of course wiser and lining up at the start it felt like I’d come home. Even while I’d been away from the sport I’d always kept one eye on the result of the National, it would always be my favourite race and now it was time for me to return and see what I could do once more. On a wet day which resulted in more than a little wheel spin on the 25% slopes I crossed the line with a time of 2.56.1 which when the dust had settled would be good enough for 42nd place. So from my debut in 1991 and with everything that had happened over the intervening 14 years I had dropped just 3 places and 7 seconds. RESULT. It reaffirmed though that this was my position in the grand scheme of things, this was the limit of my potential, just about the top 3rd of the field and although I hadn’t gone any faster at least I hadn’t got much slower.
Life was busier now and unlike in the early 90’s when I still harboured some delusional ideas that I would keep getting faster I was a realist and was just racing events for bragging rights with mates and simply because I loved them. I missed the ’06, ’07, and ‘08 championships but did throw my hat back in the ring in 2009. If I’d raced up Pea Royd Lane previously I wouldn’t have because it’s hell to ride but I had just finished writing my first book and was keen to be seen practicing what I preached. My season’s results had been strong and I gave it everything to quite amazingly post my best ever event placing of 37th! I was over the moon with this. At last I’d beaten the skinny teenager me and in the year before everything would change with the launch of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs I proved to myself I could still get up a hill reasonably quick.
I returned in 2010 when the event was held on Dover’s Hill where I was 57th. I missed 2011 on Long Hill because it it’s a HILL! I also missed the Rake in 2012 as we’d just had our second child but returned to the Stang in 2013 where I placed a lowly 85th. I rode Pea Royd Lane in 2014 where I placed 69th and Jackson Bridge in 2015 where I had to settle for a terrible 123rd.
Something had happened to the hill climb scene now though. Where as before it was only the top 120 males who contested the title, the event was quite rightly open to females too and fields had become much bigger. Hill climbing was now POPULAR and it wasn’t just the usual mix match of gaunt nutters turning up, more and more talented riders were drawn to give it a go and to accommodate this, events began doubling and even tripping the size of their fields so basically anyone who wanted a ride would take part. This was great for the events, great for spectators and also brought a whole host of talent and characters into the races. I didn’t bother with Bank Road in 2016 although I really regret this, and missed Hedley Hill in 2017 and Pea Royd Lane in 2018 (although I did go and spectate) I did ride Hayter Vale in 2019 and the Covid affected Streatley Hill in 2020, both to little fanfare.
So that brings us up to date as we approach the 2021 race on the one and only Winnats Pass. If this year’s title was set to be held on any other hill I wouldn’t have bothered but Winnats is so special and I was desperate to be part of the event. The start sheet was slightly curtailed due to the limited amount of time the road closure lasts but luckily I scraped an entry and although I am far from able to match my previous results I can’t wait to race on the big stage again and hurt myself on such a legendary climb.
The event is on Sunday October 31st, starts at 8 am and there are 360 riders who would all love your support. I’ll be on the road at 8.44 so see you there.
More information can be found here
Check out the Winnats pass poster here