The long road up: Inside the pain, sweat and gears of the British hill-climb scene

Cycling and climbing are intrinsically linked, with the sport’s greatest moments often played out on the steep, twisting, thigh-numbing amphitheatres populating the world’s most iconic races.

The Spring Classics evoke images of the Koppenberg and the Muur, or the Mur de Huy and La Redoute, while each Grand Tour boasts climbs steeped in cycling history – Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, the Stelvio, Alto de l’Angliru…

A masochistic pastime it may be, but cyclists have been obsessed with who can endure the longest, steepest ascents and who can climb them quickest since pedal-power was first introduced.

The same rings true on British shores too. While Britain lacks comparable climbs to the long, twisting, almost snake-like Alpine ascents, the country is littered instead with short, stinging, punchy hills.

And when the leaves start to fall, British cyclists start to point their front wheels skywards for one of the quirkiest fixtures of the nation’s cycle-sport calendar: hill-climb season.

A relic of years gone by, when mass-start racing was banned on the UK’s roads, and a product of cycling’s obsession with climbing, hill-climb season – usually September and October every year – remains popular with riders and spectators alike.

Time trials were one means of circumnavigating cycling’s historic racing ban in Britain – riders setting off at intervals to race against the clock, rather than in a mass start – and the hill climb follows the same concept.

The hill-climb season attracts the great and good of the sport. Fourteen-time Paralympic gold medallist Dame Sarah Storey tackled the climb at the iconic Monsal Hill this season.

But, whereas Britain’s time-trialling scene remains very much in its niche – courses still listed by code, and events often taking place at the crack of dawn with little to no spectators – hill climbs are a different breed.

Spectators line the short roads of the most famous hills, forming a tunnel of noise as riders dig deep for a short but very painful effort.

The riders return the favour by leaving nothing behind on the climb, pain faces to the fore, in their bid to be fastest to the top.

Fixtures of the hill-climb calendar include the Catford CC Hill Climb on York’s Hill, Kent – the oldest continuous bike race in the world – which has been raced since 1887.

The climb is just 640m long but, with an average gradient of 14 per cent and eye-wateringly steep pitches nearer one-in-four towards the summit, it may be short but is definitely not sweet.

Spectators will line the narrow road three-deep at the toughest sections, as riders take aim at Phil Mason’s course record – one minute and 47.6 seconds – which has now stood for 35 years.

Mason’s cycling ‘career’ may be just a small footnote in the annals of British cycle-sport history, but he has attained a God-like status to Catford custodians. On a wet course this year – the downside to compressing the hill-climb season into two months in autumn – the winning time was ten seconds slower.

It’s fair to say that the weather conditions can vary from weekend to weekend during the relatively short season.

Many then head over to The Bec, the iconic hill climb on White Lane that forms the second half of the South-East double header.

Indeed, the latter is where David Millar elected to end his professional bike-racing career in 2014. Millar won stages and wore the leader’s jersey at all three Grand Tours, but brought the curtain down on his career with a two-minute effort on a wet hill in Surrey.

Why? “I have a lot of time for this peculiarly British scene,” he later wrote in his second autobiography, The Racer.

“It didn’t look like much fun – it only lasted a little over two minutes for the fastest, but because of that it was sick-inducingly intense. Short, sharp and steep, designed to hurt,” Millar recalled.

The Catford and The Bec are reflective of all the best British hill climbs too, in both their nature and their popularity.

But why? What attracts riders to short, steep hills up and down the country every autumn, many driving for hours only to put themselves well and truly into the hurt locker for just a couple of minutes?

If hill climbing itself is a very different breed of cycling discipline, what does that make the riders who throw themselves into the heart of the action?

Adam Kenway was crowned national hill-climb champion in 2016, and finished second in the battle for the red, white and blue-striped jersey behind Dan Evans last year.

Adam Kenway, the 2016 National Hill Climb champion, tackles the Monsal Hill Climb earlier this month.

Now riding on the road for British UCI Continental outfit Vitus Pro Cycling, Kenway will be back in familiar territory when he rolls out among the favourites for this year’s British National Hill Climb Championships on Pea Royd Lane on Sunday (October 28).

And he admits it is a question he has pondered before.

He laughs: “I thought about this exact thing – why do I do it?

“I think with hill climbing, it’s just such a pure thing. It’s you and your bike, and you’re trying to get to the top as quickly as possible. It’s just one of those quirky things – you and the hill, and you want to conquer it.

“On the day it doesn’t take much to go right, but it doesn’t take much to go wrong either.”

It is not just the event which makes hill climbing stand apart either, but – as mentioned – the crowds too.

Kenway was up the road at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, earning plenty of TV time in the breakaway on stage three of the race, while he has competed up and down the country in British domestic races.

And he says it is only the bigger tours that attract similar crowds to prestigious hill climbs such as the nationals on these shores.

“It’s a completely different kettle of fish, especially bigger events – Monsal Head, for example – where they attract a big crowd,” he says.

“They do carry you a long way. I always try to plan that into my performance. I know I’m going to go a good five or six seconds quicker than I would do normally.

“I would say it’s only events like the Tour de Yorkshire and the big tours where you get that many people geeing you on. For the nationals, the crowd is really good – for a domestic road race you will never get a crowd like that.”

Kenway admits road racing is now his priority, confessing that as he hurtles up hills while his team-mates rest up ahead of the new season he has thought about leaving the hill climbs behind.

Yet, he confesses, nothing gets the stomach churning like the anticipation of riding a hill climb.

“I get more nervous for a hill climb than I do for any race,” he says. “You know that in just a couple of minutes time you’re going to be up that hill and in a really bad place. With road racing, it’s more progressive.”

Quirky they be. A British pastime that, to some, could be filed alongside morris dancing and cheese rolling.

But hill climbing is far more than that. Where else could you find the atmosphere, the stomach-churning anticipation, and the display of pure grit, determination and power?

From Rik van Looy and Roger de Vlaeminck to Jens Voigt and Philippe Gilbert, cycling’s hard men are revered the world over – and you don’t get much harder than the hill-climbing veterans who throw themselves up short, sharp thigh-numbing hills every autumn on these shores.

Andrew Feather won the 2018 men’s championship…
… while Adam Kenway rode to a bronze medal.

All images courtesy of Tony Wood. For more of Tony’s super hill-climb images head to his Twitter page @TonyWood29

Colin Henrys is a freelance journalist who spent a number of years writing for Road Cycling UK. He can be found on Twitter at @ColinHenrys

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