In British club cycling, autumn is the time of hill climbs. A hill climb is a race, by yourself, against the clock, up a hill. Simple really. Simple, short, and tough. My first ever competitive cycling experience was the English Schools Cycling Association Hill Climb Championship near Matlock, Derbyshire, in – oooh – 1983 or 4, I guess. I was a student at Solihull Sixth Form College, I was new to the sport, I was riding a cheap Raleigh 10 speed, and I don’t think I’d ever seen – let alone ridden – a 1 in 4 hill before. I didn’t make it to the top. I don’t remember feeling embarrassed; after all, I’d given it a go. I do recall grunting men on fixed wheel bikes grinding their ways to the top, and that first unforgettable feeling of trying – and failing – to ride up an asphalt wall.
Last night was the second of Lancaster Cycling Club’s annual club hill climbs. It’s become my Club, and this year I’ve got a bit more active, going for ‘training rides’ rather than simply ‘rides’, and riding quite a few evening 10 mile time trials. But I’m still this side of plump, and I was frankly terrified of the prospect of trying to haul my mass uphill at speed. It’s only a year ago that the prospect of riding up Jubilee Tower, last night’s climb, at any speed, was daunting enough. But there were also good reasons to have a go: becoming more involved in the Club has increased my commitment to support events; my main training partner, Jon Barry, fancies himself on the hills and was keen to have a go; and for the first time in more than 20 years, I’m planning to train through winter, and to have a proper go at racing next year, so it makes sense to set some times which I can use as benchmarks for my progress next season.
Part one was last week – the short, steep climb of Condor Bottoms. I surprised myself at the speed at which I set off, but felt reasonably OK. Then I saw the bunch of spectators at the hairpin bend up ahead, waiting at perhaps the steepest section of the climb. Obviously you want to look your best as you go past a watching crowd, so I tried very hard to look calm, graceful, dignified, fast. Ha, ha, ha … I’m sure they weren’t deceived, and as soon as I was past them, my legs turned to jelly. Still, I clawed my way to the finish, and though I was slow, I beat 3 minutes, which was my personal target.
Last night was part two, the longer, higher climb up the other side of the valley, from Quernmore crossroads to Jubilee Tower, perched high above Morecambe Bay. On a sunny evening, the views up there are glorious, the Lakeland hills to the north-west, the Fylde coast to the south-west, Lancaster down far below and Morecambe stretching out to the sea. But Jubilee Tower was the destination, we started from the bottom. There I met William, who lives half way up the hill, and so rides it regularly, but who was last night riding his first ever competitive event. How wonderful to race on the roads you know; I love it when a rider wins on home turf. I won’t try to guess William’s age, but I hope he wouldn’t mind my suggesting he’s a fair bit older than me. And then I started, a minute behind Jess Atkinson, who’s 13 years old. Cycling’s what you’d call an inclusive sport …
Although it involves struggle and a certain pain, I loved it. I loved riding hard up a hill which only a year before I was scared to tackle at all. I loved the rare feeling of racing without a helmet (it’s all uphill, after all). I loved needing continuously to judge whether I was overdoing it or underdoing it, and adjusting my effort accordingly. I loved knowing the steepest part was over, and feeling my speed increase with the softening of the hill. I loved overtaking and shouting encouragement to Jess, to be myself overtaken and have the encouragement of her Dad Graham. I loved the feel of sweat dripping from my chin. I loved finishing, being at the finish, watching others finish, the post-race talk. I loved seeing the care and commitment of people such as Bob Muir – time keeping again last night – who invest their love in the preservation of this magical sporting world.
One hundred and fifteen years after the last one, the second bicycle boom is underway up here in the north west of England. I’ll write much more about this over the coming weeks, months, years, I hope. But the growing popularity of club cycling is one aspect of it. Last night was beautiful – I mean really beautiful – to see. Women, men, girls and boys, all ages, mothers and fathers with daughters and sons, old hands and novices, gentle calls of encouragement drifting across the dipping sun of a glorious autumnal evening.
I hope I am there next year, I hope I am a little faster next year, I hope that perhaps my son Bobby will ride out with me then, and I hope that cycling’s revival will be that bit stronger, clearer, more self-assured. And I count myself very, very lucky to be able to hope for all these things. There are many reasons to ride a bike, and they include these.