Mountain Time Trials – the truest race of them all?

Ben Lane of the GS Metro Club on The Stang, UK National Hill Climb Championships 2013
Ben Lane of the GS Metro Club on The Stang, UK National Hill Climb Championships 2013

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In Issue One of Conquista Magazine we published a piece by Ben Lane as he prepared for the 2013 UK National Hill Climb.  Here, the day after the Mountain Time Trial in this year’s Giro d’Italia, you can read his piece in full….


Sunday October 28th 2012 – 12:59pm.

Carr Street. Ramsbottom.  Lancashire, United Kingdom.

It’s cold and wet. The rain has been falling steadily all morning. The start timekeeper has just dispatched number fifty-nine, Craig Gath who was a reserve rider. We briefly exchanged words before he was called to face the stopwatch.  Wishes of good luck and the time-honoured joke for the second man not to catch the man starting one minute earlier were cracked. “NUMBER SIXTY” calls the timekeeper. The moment has arrived. Wondering whether to turn about face and avoid the confrontation I decide to shuffle forwards. Nothing more can be done. Like one hundred and forty nine other riders I am about to face my own private demons competing in the UK National Hill Climb Championships. This is the final event of the 2012 Hill Climb season and the last seven weeks have all been leading to this moment. Preparing as best one can with a regime of twice weekly hill training sessions followed by a weekend of trying to ascend some viscously steep hills on a bicycle as quickly as legs and lungs will allow. Throw in an obligation to avoid all of the good stuff in life (cake, biscuits, crisps – all the comfort food which is the enemy of the hardened hill climber). The nerves which have been building all morning are now at their height. A crowd estimated to be in the region of four thousand will gather on the slopes of this obscenely steep hill rising out of Ramsbottom town centre. There is something raw and emotive about seeing another human being tackling something as counterintuitive as a hill climb that it makes for a compelling atmosphere. There exists a strange fascination to see fellow men push their bodies and mental strength to the limit. It’s a two-way deal, the vocal encouragement offered by the crowd drives the competitor to dig deeper, to not let them down, to not appear weak. The question is valid “Why would one wish to do this?”

One exchanges pleasantries with the starting team. This is real fight or flight stuff now. A hill climb exposes so many mental frailties. You know it is going to be deeply unpleasant. Within 60 seconds of starting your body will be demanding that you stop. You will be fighting against the voice in your head that is telling you this is hurting too much, pulling-over would be far more sensible. You will be driven on either by the fear of failure or an expectation to succeed. You’ve been in this situation so many times before and everything has always been alright, but what if this time is different? What if you are about to be found out, big time?

THIRTY SECONDS” announces the start timekeeper. His assistant takes hold of your machine. You can now clip into the pedals and await the indeterminable passage of time before he gets to “FIFTEEN”. What goes through your head? I’ve done this so many times before, it’s going to hurt – but it’s going to be over in around three minutes. But still, whilst anticipating the challenge, the fear of failure looms. What if I blow-up and have to stop towards the finish?

The Rake – this climb is legendary within the unique period that is the UK Hill Climb season, and is an exceptionally short hill for the National Championships. Starting in September and running for around seven weeks or so, each weekend until the last Sunday of October sees an array of racing cyclists congregate at the foot of some of the hardest yards of road that the UK has to offer. Each weekend people’s opinion moves as to who has the form to win the National Championships. Internet forums buzz with opinion as to how things might pan-out. The course record for the Rake is an amazing 2’14 set by Jeff Wright in 1994. This has not been challenged too closely since then. In recent years a time between 2’25 and 2’30 has generally been good enough to occupy the top step on the podium.

TEN” announces the start timekeeper. Hit the lap reset on the Garmin. Try and block all negative thoughts out and get a last couple of deep breaths in. Number Fifty Nine is now out of sight fifty seconds into his battle. How’s he going? The effort will be starting to bite for him now. Number Sixty One idles behind me awaiting his summons from the start team. Will he too be facing similar demons and nerves? What is driving him on to do this?

FIVE” – focussed and ready to go, one last deep inhalation and exhalation. It’s now or never. Don’t be getting to the finish line with any regrets. You know exactly what is required but a doubt still exists about the ability to deliver. It’s time to concentrate solely on the job in hand.

GO!” – the bike is released, no push-offs in hill climbs. The first thirty seconds feel easy, the adrenaline carries you through the early stages though I know that when I look at the power file later that they will be the highest 30 seconds of output throughout the climb. You have to start hard, but not too hard that you blow before the finish. A measured effort, the lactate starts to kick in around sixty seconds and what was feeling comfortable, suddenly feels deeply uncomfortable. A strange feeling envelops you, it is unpleasant but this is what all that training has been for. The suffering is embraced. The opening 250m rear up at about 12%. It’s tough, but not unbearable.

The middle section of The Rake is an enigma, the gradient eases to an average of around 8.5% for the next 300 metres, one wants to try and recover for the final act, but not too much that one loses time. Most of us will have rehearsed in our minds how the climb will pan-out, making mental notes of landmarks which mark the beginning and end of sections. Make sure the correct gear is selected for that precise part of the course. I’d planned on my reconnaissance visit the previous day what size sprocket I would be in for each section. The mind is focussed on the job in hand and despite the rapidly increasing oxygen debt the brain can still function to deliver the race-plan. I make sure I stay seated for this section to try and retain enough to finish the job. I notice my marker to change gear for the crux of the race. Ready to turn onto ‘The Rake’ and the some of the hardest yards in hill climb racing.

The final section rears-up at an average close to 18% with sections nudging 25%. The crowd is immense at this point. There are people I know in the crowd though I can’t pick out any single individual, there is just noise and a blur of faces encouraging you to struggle ever upwards. It feels like an Alpine summit reminiscent of images that you see in the Tour de France as you focus on the tiny bit of tarmac visible ahead whilst hoping  that no-one will step out in front of you. Is that dog on a lead? Legs and arms are burning from the effort, breathing becomes ragged and desperate. Why have I not finished yet? A slow motion procession through a sea of encouragement. I’m aware of flashlights from cameras going off and can make out the unique appraisal of proceedings observed by Peter Graham from his commentary gantry. Everything else blurs, surely the crowd can hear my heart pounding in my chest?

The finish line is in sight but time seems to stand still as it gets no closer. A last lunge draining my body of everything it has left and it’s over. The effort catches-up with you as soon as you stop pedalling. Not a single additional pedal stroke could have been achieved if my very life depended upon it. As I hang over the bars desperate for air I tell myself “Never again, it’s too hard”. Bouts of retching and coughing, then, slowly but surely one begins to return to a state of normality, the fear of failure is extinguished and replaced by feelings of achievement and satisfaction.

Fast-forward 350 days. The date is Sunday 13th October 2013. The venue is Carr Street, Ramsbottom. The occasion is the Lancashire Road Club’s Open hill climb of Ramsbottom Rake. It is wet and windy. The 2013 hill climb season is in the final throes. The Nationals are fourteen days away. Form is being honed by athletes up and down the country. Debate is being had as to who has the form and legs to triumph on a totally different national’s course. 2013 will see The Stang in the North East of England host the championships. A very different kettle of fish to 2012, much longer at 3 kilometres and over some stretches of exposed moorland.

The carnival has once again been moving to hills of varying length and gradient since early September. This period of the season seems to incorporate everything that is obsessional and beautiful about being an amateur racing cyclist in the UK. People will travel for a couple of hours to partake in an event which on average might see four minutes of competitive action. Every participant from the National contenders to the aging clubmen and women will encounter the same feelings of discomfort and suffer equally as they battle the inner demons of the hill climber. As a talented American Tour de France Winner (no, not that one) once noted “It never gets easier, you just go faster”.

The thought process and fears as you prepare to face the stopwatch repeat weekly, sometimes twice in the same day as some events offer you double the suffering as “two-stagers”. These will require one to undertake the same massive effort twice within 2 or 3 hours of one another. This gives you double the opportunity to ‘manage the chimp’ as the head psychiatrist of British Cycling may describe things.

So – back to Carr Street, Ramsbottom. The time is 12:09pm. It’s cold and wet. The rain has been falling steadily all morning. The start timekeeper has just dispatched number Nine, “NUMBER TEN” he calls. The moment has arrived. Nothing more can be done. Will those twice weekly hill interval sessions have been enough? Is flogging oneself to death thrice weekly really worth it? For those that love this bizarre autumnal campaign the answer is inexplicably yes.

This is the ninth meeting with the timekeeper in the 2013 climbing season – there will be one more meeting next week before the biggest field in the history of the National Hill Climb championships gather in what will doubtless be a cold and windy and probably wet North East England. This season one hundred and eighty riders will have the chance to wonder why on earth they thought it was a good idea to put in an entry as they are called to the start line. Then some ten to fifteen minutes later when the pain begins to subside and the brain begins to function again having been allowed its normal intake of oxygen the exhilaration will begin to kick in. We’ll congregate in the event headquarters, catch-up with other competitors, all agree that it was awful, a truly horrific experience. Then begin to realise that we can’t wait to do it all again next season. Some people will be elated with their performance, others might be dejected. There will be replays of the ride running through rider’s minds. There will be many ‘if-onlys’. However, almost all will agree that for the eight, nine, ten, eleven or twelve minutes it might have taken them to ascend this cold, exposed windswept hill – that they gave it their all. Only those who crest the summit truly believing they got it all out on the day will go into the winter contented. For those who didn’t they can look forward to the nagging doubts of the racing cyclist that perhaps they no longer have what it takes, whatever ‘it’ may be. In eleven months the circus will begin again and the same questions as to why one is doing this will re-surface. But back we all come – eager for more of the same.

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