Monday, 28 November 2011

Warwickshire Hill Climb Championship 2011

Matt Clinton giving it stacks

"Matt, what do you think? How are we doing?" This is the question one of the group asked Matt Clinton a few months ago when he came out riding with us one summers eve. He thought about it for a while and then said, "You need to learn how to suffer". We waited for some elaboration on this point, but none came.

Yesterday saw the 2011 Warwickshire Hill Climb competition take place on Saintbury Hill and Dovers Hill. The event was attended by ten riders from Mike Vaughan Cycles and a host of friends and family. This competition has made me realise I didn't have a clue about suffering. I've now opened the door a crack and can see a world of pain beyond that would make Hieronymus Bosch nod with approval.

We assembled at the event HQ in Weston Sub Edge and made camp in the corner of the carpark. The HQ is situated near to the base of both hills. The organiser Alex Laycock and Warwickshire R.C. volunteers had rigged the Village Hall with the trappings of a typical cycling event (hot tea and cakes stacked high).
Megan, Jack and George preparing to give it all.

I can tell you that I was already super-nervous. I've ridden over a thousand miles of various Sportive events but never branched out into other cycling disciplines. The thought of pushing my hefty 100kg frame up two steep hills against the clock isn't in my top ten "things to do before I die" list. You're more likely to find it in my "things to do to make me die" list.

Mark Powell shortly before his head exploded.

As per Matt's advice, I started cycling about 30 minutes before my climb was due. Being number 21 meant I rode at 21 minutes past the hour. I was also the first MV rider to go, so I felt a slight burden of expectation from the various supporters lining the road. Waiting behind me was 16 year old Jack O'Neill and at 27 minutes was 15 year old George Goodwin. At 29 minutes our only lady (riding that is!), 14 year old Megan McDonald. Right near the bottom of the starting order was our not-so-secret weapon, Matt Clinton.

In one minute intervals the riders were unleashed on Saintbury Hill. Two chronologically challenged gents at the start-line organised the competitors as they rolled onto the thin chalk line. It was my turn in no time and I levelled the wheel onto the line and felt one of the gents take hold of the bike. I wanted to advise him against trying to hold me upright for thirty seconds, but he insisted I put my feet in the pedals. I let him take the strain as I clipped in. The other chap gave me the countdown and I started looking up the road.

"Don't go off too fast" Said Matt at the briefing. No problem there Matt. I pushed it enough to feel the effort hit my lungs and legs. However, as soon as the road swept to the left it became even steeper. I sat down and started to try and find a rhythm. It's at this point I realised that no amount of optimism and no amount of visualising would overcome the monalithic enormity of cold hard Physics. Power over Weight ratio, something very simple and indelibly real. If you weigh a lot, like I do, you need to produce an enormous amount of power to climb as fast as a smaller rider with less power. I don't have an enormous supply of power. I can stamp up a hillock or power along a flat, but this .... this is completely alien to me! I always nurse myself up hills like this, minimising my losses.

Saintbury continued in undulating waves of lung-bursting agony, delivering the occasional false summit for good measure. I settled into an uneasy tempo, riding above my threshold but knowing it was slow. Stealing a glimpse behind me half-way up I was relieved to see no sign of my minute man but that was really the only positive I could extract from the experience.

Racing up a hill is not fun. That's not the point. I could feel my airways burning and sweat was pouring onto the bike as I forced the crank round one revolution at a time. It got to the stage where I had to get out of the saddle to actually maintain forward momentum. I started to think that I would have to throttle back and just limp my way to the top when I saw the chequered flag in the distance. Mercifully the slope dropped away towards the end and I upped the pace to an eye-watering 10mph over the final few metres.

After riding off into the distance to get my lungs back in my chest I came back to the finish line to join up with the MV crew shouting support at the top. My time was 8:35.2. The first rider I saw was Jack O'Neill flying to the finish with a more controlled style and considerably more panache. He beat me comfortably. Then moments later, riding as if the hill was an optical illusion came George Goodwin, completing the climb in 7:20, more than a minute faster than me. It occurred to me that I hadn't been using a plaster on my nose and that was probably why he did so well.

The MV crew continued to make the ascent in markedly different styles. I made it to the bottom of the hill in order to grab a drink and was able to watch Mark start his climb. I asked him to take a camera up the hill for Liz but he wasn't having any of it. His start was ridiculously quick and I thought his oxygen debt would destroy him around the corner. But he failed to fail and turned out a time of 7:54, a good 12 seconds quicker than his time last year.

Shortly after that, the machine that is Matt unclipped himself from his turbo and made his way to the start making sure his legs were on tightly with a few tweaks of an allen key. After all his advice about starting steadily he proceeded to leave the start line as fired from a Tank. "It's all relative", explained one of our riders as I voiced my doubts about his advice. Good point.

Matt made the climb in 6:03.6 (yes ... the same climb I did, Saintbury Hill). His main rival was Tejvan Pettinger (Sri Chinmoy CT) who was riding out last. Mr Pettinger makes Bradley Wiggins look like Elvis in his latter years. He managed to climb Saintbury in 5:52.0 which I believe is a new course record!

With just under 12 seconds on Matt the stage was set for round 2, up Dovers Hill. This is a more predictable climb, where the slope remains pretty uniform all the way up. That doesn't mean this is an easier hill. For starters, the slope is steeper in general. It's a shorter climb but the increased gradient plays havoc on the power-weight ratio thing. I was contemplating giving up before I'd got round the first bend.

A total fear of failure kept me from dismounting, but I knew I was climbing slower than I had on Saintbury. To prove this for me, my minute man came past me at the finish line. Thanks to the misleading power of perspective and the fact I was in the traditional "overtaking" position on the road, my son thought I had caught up a rider and was about to catch him at the finish. Ahem.

Mike Vaughan giving Dovers his angry face.

Megan managed to climb Dovers in an impressive 6:25. George Goodwin managed it in 4:55.7, which is just insane. Matt climbed Dovers in 4:10.5 and Tejvan Pettinger managed to fly up there in 4:03.2, an awesome feat.

Overall Matt finished 2nd to Tejvan and the rest of us walked away with varying degrees of satisfaction at our times. I know Chris Brock came away with the realisation that racing uphill is a different beast altogether. I share that sentiment Chris. Knowing you have raced up a hill is a good thing. Just take a look at the faces in these photos; there are lessons to be learned on those hills. I don't know what your lesson will be, but mine involves less donuts.

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