Autumn seems inevitably to bring a turn back to the local. Hill climbs somehow fit this return – this digging into our back-yards. The hill climb demands engagement with the ground – even as you pull up on the bars, it seems to be pulling you towards it; your focus becomes literally grounded as, eyes to the tarmac, you grunt your way slowly up, the world cut down to rasping breath and burning legs.
Hill climbs come as summer turns to autumn, and they mark the end of the road cycling calendar. If the world has opened out over the long, light, warmer months, it begins slowly now to close back down again. The grip of familiar territory upon our riding might have loosened during summer, but it’s re-established now. I enjoy this cosy sense of coming back, of coming home, to the local; the time between now and Christmas is about ‘getting in the miles’ on favourite roads between favourite places. For me hill climbs embody this return to the local; the hard pull up a short, steep incline my last grunt before, with winter in sight, I drop into gentler riding.
This year something about uphill racing appealed to my son Bobby, who now he’s 12 can compete on the road. His Uncle Derek was also enthusiastic, so the three of us rode Lancaster Cycling Club’s hill climbs on consecutive Thursday evenings. The first, Condor Bottoms, climbs the Quernmore Valley’s short and steep west side. The second, Jubilee Towers, goes the other, longer way out the valley – up onto the Forest of Bowland. Bobby and Derek enjoyed these events so much, they wanted more. So the next week we all had another go up Jubilee Towers in Lancaster CC’s Open Hill Climb.
This event attracted three current National Hill Climb Champions – Eve Dixon, Lynn Hamel and Jack Pullar. They’re considerably quicker than us, but however fast or slow you are, there’s something universal in the hill climbing experience. For the Jubilee Towers climb, you start on a gradient so steep a concrete block is placed behind your rear wheel to stop you slipping back. Up until then, you’re in the world – getting ready, making small talk, warming up. But as your start time draws closer you become more serious, quieter, less outgoing. When your number’s called, you line up, and – as the final seconds are counted down – you compose your breathing.
Then away, you move into the climb, and enter a different world. Racing uphill quickly extinguishes all thought beyond the most basic instructions to yourself (‘out the saddle’, ‘up a gear’). The world closes down around your body, bike and breath; everything else is gone. This reduction to body, bike and breath is brutal and beautiful. To race uphill is very hard, but freedom comes from mind being put in place by body.
Within minutes the effort is done, and you re-emerge into a world you’ve barely left behind. It’s the same world, but you’re a bit different now. Physical recovery from so short a burst is rapid but at another level something’s changed, though exactly what I struggle to say. For me at least I think there’s a small sense of empowerment – it’s hard not to be just a little bit impressed with yourself after making such an effort. But also, a transaction has taken place: your emotional energies have been invested in the hill; the hill now matters more, both to you and also I think – because hill climbs are not merely personal experiences but also more importantly cultural events – to cycling.
Many thanks to Graham Atkinson for his permission to publish some of the super photos he took on Condor Bottoms in September, and also to Bobby’s Uncle Derek, for his of the three of us after the Jubilee Towers climb.