For the second consecutive year, Bank Road, for me, signified the end of the hill climbing season. Despite Haytor being a comparatively long climb, a 4-hour drive for a 12-minute effort didn’t at all appeal to me, and besides, it meant I could celebrate with a big greasy portion of fish and chips.
It’s also a massive relief that I can go out on my next few rides to just enjoy being on the bike, rather than burying myself to the point of vomiting at the top of each hill. Yes, hill climbs do hurt, and there is always a point during those last 30 seconds of the countdown that I wonder why on earth I’m there, but after a few minutes gasping on the road, a bit of squash and a slice of Bakewell, you soon decide that it wasn’t actually that bad. In fact, it was actually really fun.
There’s something strangely addictive about it all. Perhaps it’s riding at the very edge of your physical limit with nothing else on your mind other than reaching the top, coupled with the support of people banging their pots and pans and cowbells, and passionately cheering you on as you near the end. Whatever it is, it makes me want to keep going back each year.
What then, would I say that I’ve learnt from each event this year? Many mistakes were made and many lessons were learnt and reflecting on all of this can only be beneficial for when the climbs come back around next year.
The first one this year and, if I’m honest, it was my first time back on the bike in about a week after suffering from a cold (…if I haven’t already mentioned this enough). I was feeling pretty weak, unfit, and unprepared. I also decided to skip the turbo and just do a few reps of the hill to warm up.
So how did it go? Unsurprisingly not great. I was 4.3 seconds down on last year with a time of 3:17.7, putting me in 18th place. I was also sick afterwards; illness or double expresso gel 20 minutes before?
- 1 week is not adequate time to begin the training for hill climbs. I should’ve started months before.
- Poor warmup leads to poor performance. The turbo might be boring but it really helps.
- Don’t try anything new on the day. A double expresso gel 20 mins before led to an uncomfortable stomach and a bit of sick after.
I woke up feeling much stronger than the previous week, all signs of illness had gone, I was just left with the weak legs from a serious lack of training. I was also lacking a bit of confidence after an average recce midweek.
How did I do? Well, I decided I would pace it a little bit and take a relatively gentle start and smash the last half. Turns out that pacing sub 2-minute efforts isn’t really very necessary. I did PB with a 1:57.4, which was 2.5 seconds quicker than last year and put me 101st in a field of over 200 riders. Although I was able to stand perfectly when I finished, which meant there was still something left…
- Pacing or negative splits are pretty ineffective on short climbs and risk you still having some “in the tank” when you finish. 2-minute climb? Start strong and hold on.
- Practice the climb at various times in the year. It’s not going to give you much confidence if you’re not feeling at your best on your one recce.
By the time Holly Lane came around I’d had a few weeks of hill climbs and recces in the legs, so I was starting to get back to a reasonable level of fitness. This time I had my caffeine gel a whole hour beforehand (per the packet guidelines…). Oh, and I was also soaking wet from riding up, but I was at least warm!
How did I do? This was my first time racing up Holly Lane so I had no idea how it would go. I finished in 4:35.8 in 14th place, which was a huge 25 seconds quicker than my Strava PB. Although again I felt I might’ve been able to give a little more if I could just dig deeper.
- Core muscles need work. It’s quite unpleasant when your core turns to mush half way up a climb; it’s suddenly no longer just about whether or not you’ll finish, but whether or not you’ll finish with clean shorts.
- For local climbs, a gentle ride there with a few bursts works perfectly for a warm up. It also doesn’t burn your tyre away like a turbo does.
- Longer climbs don’t just need strong legs, but a big engine. Neglect endurance or sweetspot work for too long and you’ll be huffing and puffing far earlier than usual.
My final climb of the season and I couldn’t be feeling any better, at last! I woke up feeling absolutely great and ready to completely bury myself into the road, although I was still feeling slightly stodgy from a huge meal the night before. I arrived nice and promptly, used the turbo properly and had my gel with plenty of time to go. I’d also had a successful recce the day before, leaving me knowing exactly what gearing I would be using.
How did it go? Up until the last little bit where it ramps up above 20% I was riding really strong and on track to smash my PB. But then my legs completely died. I just about held on for a time of 2:32.8, putting me 23rd with a PB by 5.9 seconds; a result I was extremely pleased with.
- Working out your gearing is a crucial part of your recce and means that you can just focus on your effort on the day. I got this spot on for Bank Road.
- Start strong and hold on for short climbs works. I just need to get stronger and improve 2 min power.
- Avoid big carby meals DAYS before the climb otherwise you’re going to end up inadvertently carb loading
All in all, it’s been a bit of a rocky season for me, but fun nonetheless. The most important take home is probably not to underestimate the importance of preparing. Yes, I did have a rough training plan, but there was no way near enough specialised structure for hill climbing. I expected to just carry my summer fitness over and immediately transition into the hill climbs, which didn’t work at all.
So, what am I going to have to do if I want to improve for next year?
- Overall strength improvements – max power, FTP, and core.
- Beginning training months before, and try to add some structure.
- Practice climbs at various times of the year, and practice them at maximum effort.