Hill climbing, a uniquely British type of time-trialling, is growing in popularity. 268 riders competed across men’s, women’s and junior categories in the 2022 National Championships, considerably more than a few years ago (there were 150 in 2014). It’s also steeped in history – the Catford CC Hill Climb claims to be the oldest continuing cycle race in the world, tracing its origins all the way back to 1886.
The format is simple: ride up a hill as fast as possible. Climbs vary from short and brutally steep to long and arduous. It’s a brutally hard, incredibly difficult type of bike racing and it hurts every single time. Interested?
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Sam Clark, owner of Sett Valley Cycles in the Peak District, knows a thing or two about riding bikes up hills. A regular in the National Championships, organiser of both the Buxton CC Open hill climb and 2011 Nationals, and former UK Everesting record-holder, Sam shares his advice.
“Hill climbs form a seasonal focal point and transition into the winter off-season. They’re nearly all held between August and October, and are a great way to keep motivated towards the end of summer. You don’t need a fancy time-trial bike, it’s not bunch-group style racing so they’re a great way for anyone to get started in competitive riding.”
Most large cycle clubs run at least one hill climb event each year, normally in late summer. “Buxton CC list our events on our club website and Facebook page,” says Sam. “We hold “club” and “open” events, as do many clubs. Club events are smaller – you just turn up, pay a few quid and ride, riders setting off at 1-minute intervals. Open events are more widely advertised, require pre-entry, and often attract a larger field”.
To enter an open event you’ll need to register on the Cycling Time Trials website and be a member of an affiliated club. Sam says, “you’ll race open events in your age and gender category. There’s a bit of a secret society with TTs – it’s all in code, a hangover from the days when racing on open roads wasn’t legal. It is now, but still the preferred method of describing where a race is held is to use a letter/number code rather than a road name/number. You can search for events by type, location, distance, etc. It’s good to know what letter covers your local district; Manchester is denoted by courses beginning with “J” for example. Your entry and start time will be confirmed once entry is closed, by email a week or so before the event”.
Open events are usually a bit pricier – often £8-12 each. For your money you get an HQ (usually a local village hall or clubhouse), refreshments, marshals and prizes. Entry fees are normally non-refundable, though it’s good form to notify the organiser if you have to pull out – club events can be over-subscribed so there is often a waiting list.
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Any road bike will do, the lighter the better with suitably low gearing. “The best upgrade to any bike is lighter wheels,” recommends Sam. “New wheels and tyres can transform a bike’s feel and weight”.
Reduce the pressure in your rear tyre. “I use a 24mm rear tyre with 70psi air pressure. This helps you with traction on the steeper stuff.”
Keep your bike well maintained. “A clean bike is a fast bike” says Sam.
Be light – hill climbs are efforts of between 2 and 20 minutes. Remove pumps, saddlebags, and bottles from your bike. Only wear what you need to. Some specialists go so far as to drill holes in their bike to reduce weight by even a fraction of a gram.
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“Stay local,” suggests Sam. “Try club events on hills you know to start with, to build confidence. Talk to other riders – they’re a good source of information.”
“Specific training in the form of riding hills at high intensity will improve your power,” advises Sam. “But remember, in the words of Greg LeMond, it never gets easier, you just go faster!”
Keep an eye on your weight. “Climbing is all about power-to-weight, so save the cakes for winter once the hill climb season is over!” as Sam puts it.
Arrive in plenty of time to sign on, pin on your number and warm up.
Ride the course and use this time to think about gearing. “It’s best to spin a lower gear at a faster cadence on climbs,” suggests Sam.
Don’t overcook it early on. Adrenaline at the start can push you into the red, so pace your climb. Ensure you have an empty tank at the very top, not halfway up.
Expect it to hurt! To quote 2013 National HC Champion, Tejvan Pettinger: “It’s torture physically, but you get some kind of joy from it, and you look back and think, ‘I really lived those 3 minutes”.
Thanks to Col Morley for the photography. You can see more images at his website.
Thanks also to Sam Clark of Sett Valley Cycles and Tejvan Pettinger.
Getting into racing? Yellow Jersey offer short term and annual bicycle insurance policies which can include racing anywhere in the world. We also offer specific E bike insurance for those of you who fancy a crack but using an E bike!