Club Hill Climb, Saturday 8th October, 2016
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 81 km/50 miles with 713 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 06 minutes
Average Speed: 26.0 km/h
Group size: 34 riders
Weather in a word or two: Bright and cool
Well, it’s that Saturday again, the one all but the very young, very light or insanely masochistic among us seem to hate with equal measure. It’s a day when people who should know better will hurl themselves up a hill, putting more strain on their bodies in that 6 or 7 minutes of unequal battle with gravity and encroaching decrepitude than anything else they’ve done that year. Or, possibly even more strain than everything they’ve ever done that year.
Of course some of us have realised it’s an unequal, unwinnable battle and have waved the white flag, denying themselves the fundamental, innate, inner-truth of the hill climb test. The rest of us though, well we’ve yet to see the light and are doomed to repeat our past mistakes, like Sisyphus with his rock and there’s a sort of epic heroism in our struggles.
I have to admit the hill climb has been lurking at the back of my mind since late August, with a mixture of unease and trepidation. You recall the pain from the previous year, but after so long it tends to fade just a little, and there’s always the hope that somehow, some way, it’ll be different this time. It never is. The best you can hope for is that it’s worth it and you’re happy with your final time.
Actual preparation began on Wednesday and Thursday, when the commute into work was an opportunity to trial a new pair of shoes before riding out to the hill climb and discovering they’re uncomfortable and crippling. Then on Friday I swapped the single-speed for the winter bike so I could take it a bit easier on the way home and use the gears to avoid my typical gurning, body contorting and leg-straining, out-of-the-saddle grind up the Heinous Hill.
On Saturday morning I drove across to our meeting point, which not only saved my legs a little but also afforded me an extra half an hour in bed – I like bed, so it’s not a luxury to be sniffed at. It also ensured I was back at about the usual time and didn’t have to worry about night encroaching on my slow and wasted crawl home.
Main topic of conversation at the start:
The ailing BFG defended his decision not to do the hill climb and claimed he had a note from his doctor. “That’s nothing,” The Red Max countered, “I’m not doing the hill climb and I’ve got a note from me Mam.”
The Prof arrived on the Frankenbike rather than one of his myriad, small-wheeled velocipedes, leading to speculation that he must, surely have applied for a BUE.
Crazy Legs was reporting a less than ideal prep, a lingering cold that he’d unsuccessfully tried to burn away with a midweek ride, but felt he was starting to recover now.
The Son of G-Dawg also described less than ideal preparation, when his planned early night was waylaid by the seductive charms of an Indian takeaway, several large drinks and some late night boxing on the TV. Still, he happily concluded that he was becoming used to riding with a hangover and too-little sleep and anything different might have been disconcerting.
The BFG admitted he hadn’t attended our newly convened and hugely successful social night out because he “couldn’t be bothered.” Sigh, doesn’t he realise that apathy is a leading cause of, you know, whatever…
Somewhat fresher than usual then, I joined 30 or so clubmates, a mix of both the doomed and the hill-climb-deniers, as we pushed off, clipped in and rode out, starting to wend our way up the Tyne Valley to our destination 25 mile or so to the west: Prospect Hill, just outside Corbridge.
The scene of our self-induced, masochistic debasement is a 1.5km long climb at a 7% average incline with a maximum gradient of 15.5%. It’s a fairly narrow, twisting track that runs upwards through 9 bends and I don’t think it would be fair to describe the road surface as somewhat challenging.
As we set out, I dropped in beside the BFG, who’s had one of his knees condemned and is awaiting micro-surgery. They’re going to drill holes in him and have a bit of a poke around to see what they can find. I think he’s hoping the procedure will not only cure a long-standing injury, but might also produce beneficial weight savings.
Today he was struggling and complaining that his tendons were as taut as harp strings. My sympathy was somewhat tempered by a fascination about what sort of Ennio Morricone, “Fistful of Dollars” type soundtrack he might be able to generate on long descents, with the wind whistling through the holes in his knees and his hamstrings twanging away like a demented, drunken harpist.
He also confided he’d been skipping this blog as he hadn’t been riding with us and he wasn’t interested if he didn’t feature. An understandable attitude, but one that I’m afraid is based on a mistaken assumption.
Lingering discomfort would eventually persuade the BFG to turn for home early, but before this he was delighted to overhear a conversation between the two riders behind him:
“Been riding long?”
Cue long, long silence.
I glanced behind and, sure enough saw Mellstock Quire riding alongside our new Dutch friend, De Uitheems Bloem, who was once again dressed from head to toe in heavy-duty, black garb, with only a tiny crescent of pale flesh showing between his shades and high collar. I can’t help wondering how much more he can actually don to protect himself once the weather turns really cold and if he might end up resembling a Michelin Man in negative.
Looking at his typical grimpeur frame, Crazy Legs then questioned Mellstock about his weight and concluded glumly that he was not only giving away an advantage of over 20 kilos but probably an equal number of years as well.
We swooped down into the Tyne valley and raced en masse through the villages, where at one point we were greeted by cheers and prolonged clapping. (I can only assume they don’t get out much.)
“What, no cow bells?” Crazy Legs commented and for a brief, dread instant I thought he was channelling his inner Cowin’ Bovril and complaining there were “no cowin’ bells.”
We then became entangled with a bunch of MTB’ers as we all jostled for hedge space at our traditional pee stop – and evidently theirs too. We finally managed to extricate ourselves and made it to the course in good order, where Taffy Steve and the Red Max led the deniers away on a more traditional group ride.
Everyone else was then left to mill around, causing traffic chaos and blocking the road while signing on and building our own version of a modest, chaste and wholly innocent circle jerk in order to pin numbers onto one another’s backs.
Although by no means warm, the weather was much kinder than last year, when a cold, dank and dreary mizzle had engulfed the hillside and chilled us all to the bone. This had not only made hanging around to start almost unbearable, but made a complete mockery of any warm-up attempts. This time I shed my jacket with far less reluctance, and began to empty pockets and unload the bike of bottles and anything else that could be easily stripped off to save that crucial, scintilla of weight.
Zardoz approached as I was shuffling reluctantly toward the start line, clapped his hands on my helmet and dragged my head round so I faced him directly. “Just making sure I can remember how you look with actual blood in your face!” he quipped, before walking away chuckling to himself.
I slotted into line between a pensive looking Monkey Butler Boy and Richard of Flanders, already poised at the timing gate for his roll-out. Crazy Legs was somewhat horrified to see him still in the big ring, but he was gone before anyone suggested he change down – I guessed there was a very good chance he’d realise his mistake fairly early on.
I had a brief chat with the Monkey Butler Boy who was looking forward to catching me and gurning into the camera still slung under my saddle. I asked which side he was going to pass me on, but to be honest I didn’t expect to see him unless I was having an outrageously bad day – always a possibility, but thankfully not a probability.
At the start line we had two volunteers who clamped onto my bike and held it rock steady. Mrs. Prof, press-ganged into helping out with the timing called out at the 30 second mark and I clipped in and waited, exchanging a few words with Carlton and Cowin’ Bovril who were riding on up ahead to provide vocal encouragement to all, but especially Carlton’s young son doing his first hill climb.
10-9-8-7-6. A last deep breath.
5-4-3-2-1. I rocked my weight forward and was off to a chorus of shouts, probably stealing a full second on the “Go!” command, spinning up to a decent speed as the first corner approached quickly and the road started to kick upwards.
I threaded the needle between Cowin’ Bovril and Carlton, out of the saddle with the front wheel snaking extravagantly from side to side. Apparently Cowin’ Bovril pulled a celebratory wheelie as I bundled past, but tunnel vision had already descended and I saw nothing but a flash of hi-viz yellow and heard nothing beyond my harsh panting, each breath resounding in my ears like a damaged steam train pulling a heavy load through a long, uphill tunnel.
But … I was through the steepest and hardest section of the climb and unlike previous years I wasn’t yet getting that hollowed-out, empty feeling in my legs as all the strength drained away. Now the only limit seemed to be how much oxygen I could bundle through to my already burning lungs, yet I couldn’t work out how I could breathe any harder or any faster. Now I understand the allure of EPO or blood-doping if it increases the aerobic capabilities and efficiency of your body – how much faster could you go if you could just stoke more fuel onto the fire?
The rest of the ride was a blur of fleeting images and impressions, punctuated always by my harsh, bellowing, rasping breaths: a tantalising glimpse of Richard of Flanders just up ahead on the one long, straight section, picking my way carefully through hissing and spitting gravel around a bend, a random mother and child walking up the hill and cheering me onwards, a careful and considerate driver trying to pick their way down the hill and give me as much room as possible, looping across the road to avoid a deep, ugly divot carved out of the apex of a corner and the tiger-striped pattern of tree shadows thrown across the road by a low, bright sun.
Then a clump of colour coalesced into a group of people at the finish line. Hating myself, I clicked down once and then again and tried to pick the tempo up for one last push … and then it was over, I was through and done for another year and could slow to a juddering halt and hang gasping over the top tube, panting harder than a fat, black Labrador locked inside an airless car abandoned in Death Valley at midday.
Several minutes seemed to crawl past as I hung there, trying to control seemingly out-of-control panting, until the pain and tightness stated to ebb away and I could look up. A few yards further back Son of G-Dawg hung similarly boneless and loose limbed across his bike, chest heaving, while on the grass verge before him Richard of Flanders lay prostrate and in evident distress. I was just beginning to worry when he started to stir and pull himself together, returning from whatever dark place his efforts had driven him, either that or his prayer session had ended prematurely.
Making my way back to the finish, I saw Crazy Legs ploughing across the line and dropping to the side of the road in a tangle of limbs. I gave him a minute or two to recover and approached carefully. He looked up at me myopically through a fog of hypoxia induced delirium and began to plead, “Paul, you’re my friend. Please, please say you don’t want to do this anymore, so I’ve got an excuse to stop as well.”
Of course, ten minutes later, somewhat recovered and realising he’d smashed his previous best time, he was already planning next year’s assault.
With the conditions near perfect, everyone seemed to be on their game and riding well. Bez won in a new course record of 4.00 – agonisingly close to a sub-4.00 ride and we had two of the youth team crack the top 10. The amount of young talent in the club at the moment is incredible (and somewhat daunting to us old dinosaurs.)
Standout performance of the day however has to go to Zardoz, whose genial, avuncular façade of a twinkle-eyed octogenarian, hides the dark-heart of a cold-blooded assassin. Not planning to ride at all he decided at the last moment to give it a go, completing the course in a hugely credible time of 6:24 while riding stripped down to his string vest, extravagant handlebar moustache bristling magnificently and, tweed plus-fours flapping wildly in the wind.
Although (as ever) employing a questionable degree of artistic licence and hyperbole, it’s worth pausing to note that the estimable Zardoz is a super-fit, hyper enthusiastic, 69 years young and did in fact strip down to a base layer for the climb. Obviously he doesn’t feel the cold like us “young ‘uns” – which is perhaps the legacy of him and his wife partaking in early morning swims in the North Sea every day, all year round – regardless of the weather!
For my own part, I managed a time of 6:00, taking into account the second I may, or may not have stolen at the start. That’s a decent 16 seconds faster than last year and I’m still improving, which is a shame as I’ve convinced myself I can honourably retire as soon as my times start slipping backwards.
By the time we’d wound our way back down the hill to the start, the last rider was already off and running. We collected our kit and started to make our way to the café at the Brockbushes Garden Centre, perhaps the least welcoming, unfriendliest place known to cycling kind.
In years past, OGL has called into the café on the morning of the hill climb to let them know we’d be descending en masse afterwards. This common courtesy and guarantee of additional custom however had earned us no consideration whatsoever and we always seem to be an unwelcome imposition that earned service with a snarl.
But first we had to get there, which meant crossing the river and climbing up the other side of the valley, no small feat when even the camber on the bridge hurts legs already brutalised by the hill climb. Still the lure of richly deserved cake and coffee, even in such an unwelcoming venue, was not to be denied.
Access to the garden centre is through a narrow, dark tunnel that dives under the main A69 dual-carriageway. I pulled Crazy Legs back as a car was barrelling through the tunnel toward us as we approached. Once the way was clear we pushed on through and had almost made it out the other side when the tunnel was filled almost wall to wall with a massive Chelsea Tractor, the driver of which was travelling fast and blind, with no consideration of what might be coming the other way.
She saw us late in darkness that was such a sharp contrast to the bright and low winter sun outside and stamped on the brakes while we swept around to either side. Obviously discomfited by having to slow down and interrupt her journey by a massive 10 seconds, the driver wound-down her window and announced in an incredibly disgruntled, plummy voice, “This is quite ridiculous!”
“Yes. You are.” I heartily agreed with her. Seriously, I would have tugged my forelock if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, what more did she want?
We usually park around the back and enter the café through the rear, but the fence was firmly closed and chained off this time around. If I was cynical I might have felt they’d rushed out to lock us out of this section as soon as they got wind of our arrival, but probably not. As it was we had to make do with sitting perched on a narrow apron of concrete out front, enjoying the beautiful vista of a half-full car park.
We stacked our bikes up and made for the doors while I suggested the piano and all conversation was going to stop as soon as we crossed the threshold and predicted all the in-breeds would turn and fix us with glassy, malevolent stares. Still, cake and coffee wait for no man. Onward, brave cyclists!
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Approaching the almost empty counter, Crazy Legs had barely opened his mouth to place his order when the cashier jumped in;
“I’ve already had one lot of youse in here. I’ve got 6 staff off sick and I’m under-manned, you’ll have to wait for your order. We’ll get to it as soon as we can.”
Err, ok then. We just checked they knew where we would be sitting, that they would bring our orders out to us, paid up and beat a hasty retreat. It’s an interesting concept in customer care, but I’m not sure it deserves to catch on.
Mind you, for all that the coffee, when it did arrive was good.
OGL had a laugh at Yoshi as he waddled past like a pregnant duck, his back pockets resembling a lumpy makeshift bustle, so stuffed were they with bottles, spares and tools. His explanation: “Bottle cages are heavy.”
Another weight handicap was discovered when a large, somnolent bee was rescued from Crazy Leg’s back, where it had been hitching a free ride for goodness knows how long. I suspect it was even more debilitating than the bottle cages, or the money spider I was transporting last week, after all bees are notoriously un-aerodynamic aren’t they. Next year, without the uninvited guest he might be able to ride the course even faster.
The ride home was conducted at a fast pace that left little room for talking, as I hung on grimly while one of our racing snakes – Johnny Reb, the King of Spin hammered away on the front. It was an interesting form of warm-down, but at least got us home in good time.
I’m not sure I slept much on Saturday night, rather I think I simply blacked out for long periods. Still recovery is well underway now, the climbers cough slowly diminishing in frequency and force and we now have a full year’s grace before we have to start thinking about that damn hill again.
YTD Totals: 5,533 km / 3,438 miles with 54,079 metres of climbing