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Doc on a bike. NHS, Leicester Med School, Cycling Plus Magazine. LFCC Cyclocross Champion (old gits category). Riding's the best medicine. Follow me on twitter @awkwardcyclist

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hill Climb Season Brings Cyclists Out in a Cold Sweat

Me conquering the Ratae Hill Climb - photo by Ian Nutt
It's October. Up and down the country, thousands of cyclists are being struck with nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, burning limbs and blurred vision. This is not some weirdly selective early winter virus – all these symptoms are self-inflicted. October is the month for hill climbs and suffering is what hill climbs are all about.
Cycling clubs in the UK traditionally end the racing season by holding hill climbs. A vertical time trial, these races involve groups of riders gathering at the bottom of a hill and then, at one minute intervals, riding up it as fast as they can to see who can set the quickest time. Some of the hills are legendary, with names like Monsal Head or the Rake, names that bring most cyclists out in a cold sweat. It's the absence of the long mountain passes prevalent in the Alps that has given British hill climbs their unique flavour. Short and brutal, they test riders like no other race.
"A good hill climb has to be no longer than two miles, and steep, very steep" says Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs.
"It needs a corner, maybe some geographical drama for a backdrop and most importantly, it must attract a large crowd of spectators, there's no joy in suffering in silence."
Those crowds generally flock to the better known hills for "open" events. These races attract large fields of up to 150 riders to compete for cash prizes. For amateur riders, the special atmosphere of these events is perhaps their only chance to get a feel of what the professionals experience on the famous climbs of the Tour de France. Spectators line the road, sometimes up to three deep, screaming encouragement to all competitors.
The Cycling Time Trials website lists 70 open events in 2011, 49 of them in October. The National Hill Climb at the end of the month is the biggest draw, featuring the cream of British climbing talent. One of the favourites for this year's race is Tejvan Pettinger. For him, the appeal of the hill climb is simple:
"I love cycling up hills. It's a challenge to see how much you can push yourself out of your comfort zone."
Tall and lean, Tejvan is not the stereotypical British hill climber – the short, sharp hills generally suit a small, strong rider with explosive power. Luckily for him, this year's nationals take place on the aptly named Long Hill, just outside Buxton – a hill he holds the course record for, proof that it's more than just build that influences a rider's prowess. Warren explains:
"Some riders are born to race hill climbs. They possess the natural athletic ability coupled with the extraordinary pain threshold that allows them to compete in this specialist discipline."
While only a handful have the ability to win the bigger races, the success of these events depends on those mere mortals that make up the numbers. Indeed thousands of riders, with absolutely no prospect of winning, take part in the hundreds of club hill climbs that don't make it onto the time trials event list. Warren says:
"I think hill climbs owe their success to their quirkiness, they have long been a forgotten discipline and that is now their attraction. The madness of pushing yourself to the point of collapse up a stupidly steep hill, of riding so hard you see stars, doing it for enjoyment and even sicker, for entertainment, is having real resonance at the moment."
It's an attraction that inspired Paul Churchill of cycle sport Rollapaluza to set up the Urban Hill Climb on Swains Lane in Highgate, London.
"It has turned out to be hugely popular among riders of all abilities. Places on this year's race sold out within three minutes of the launch."
"The format of our Urban Hill Climb is great for spectators too as they get to see the competitors close up and not just whizzing past as they might at a road race."
The Urban Hill Climb is only in its second year, but there are more venerable events out there. The Catford CC climb in Kent is the oldest continuing bike race in the world. The first time it ran, in 1887, the fourth placed finisher was riding a Penny Farthing. Renowned for its enthusiastic crowds, it still attracts the top riders to sample its extraordinary atmosphere and try to conquer its 25% gradients. Why does this all take place in October? Generally cold and wet, it is not a month renowned for its good weather. Warren says:
"Because that's the way it's always been. Hill climbs are the cherry on the cake of the season, one last blast before winter sets in. Despite their growing popularity it's still only the few who are mad enough to take part so that leaves plenty of other cyclists who've already finished racing to come and watch. They therefore become great social events and the air is filled with celebration and relief as one by one the riders squeeze out one last effort before they settle down to enjoy a few months of cake and beer."

This article originally appeared in the Guardian Bike Blog in 2011

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Three Peaks - how did it go?

What a fantastic experience! Best cycling event I have ever entered. It was tough - the climbs in particular - and occasionally a bit scary on the descents, but I got round in 4 hours 21 minutes with a smile on my face at the end. I finished 246th overall, which was better than expected.

Full concentration on my descent of Whernside

I wrote a blog for Cyclocross Magazine on the lessons I learned: http://www.cxmagazine.com/3-peaks-beginner-guide-andy-ward-2015-cyclocross-race. Hopefully I will get to put them into practice next year!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Dean Barnett's Three Peaks Route Guide

Formerly a runner-up in the Three Peaks and a regular entrant ever since, Dean Barnett knows a thing or two about the infamous race. Here he shares his expert knowledge on the route itself:

The start is a wee bit manic, especially through Horton over the bridges and tight corners. 

The pack starts to split as the road goes up. Try not to go into the ‘red’ so soon…. As you drop down a slight hill you will see spectators lining the narrow farm track off the wide road. Someone always drops a chain as you thunder over a cattle grid and up a slight climb. As you crest the climb the fun begins… farm track, fields, walking, running, slabs of stone ….SIMONS FELL.

Photo from http://www.slipstream-design.co.uk/phil-wilson-saddle-sore-but-still-smiling/
It’s steep and long! Trickle of energy and concentrate on keeping a good footing. At the top take a few seconds to look back, the view is worth it (if it’s not foggy!). You climb over a style – can be slippery – and start to ride / run up and down. Keep a safe distance from the rider in front as many slip off as they are still recovering from the earlier effort. You will hit a rocky path up to Ingleborough summit. Steps and more steps, the top is flat but very rocky. Get your timing dobber ready for the check point. 

Off the top it is rocky and tricky, lots of on and off the bike. After about five minutes you turn off the path onto a land rover track. Keep looking ahead as there are peat bogs and rocks! If you don’t respect the descent you will soon be sitting on your arse! All of a sudden you will see a cluster of spectators (next checkpoint), keep concentrating as the track still has a couple of surprises! The check point is just after a nasty bog!

Safely onto the road for a fast descent to the tip of Ingleton. Right turn and a slog of a climb!! Low gear for me. Groups of riders form on the road, don’t piss anyone off as you are likely to be in their company for the next hour. Eat and drink !!You turn off the road onto a farm track over a couple cattle grids, through the dismount section (drinks break) and start a long hike to the top of Whernside, the path zig-zags with loads of steps. The climb has couple of false flats as you near the top there are sections of the path you can ride with a low gear. Before you know it you are riding along the top ridge – get your dobber ready. 

Photo from http://www.swissside.com/103-2/
After the top the path is fast, 2 minutes in and the path disappears!! BEWARE. The fun now starts as large rocks with drainage gaps dominate the first half of the descent – punctures galore. Look for lines off the slabs, be ready to jump off and keep it smooth. As you exit the slabs the path is rough with sharp rock edges. Keep looking for tyre marks across the moor… it might be a good line it might lead to flying over the handle bars. You will know you are at the bottom of the descent when you hit the railway line. You now face a fast path with stream crossings to Ribblehead. Try and eat if you can!

At Ribblehead you will pass through another check point. The long road ahead is not easy, there are a couple of nasty climbs. You ride past where the race turned off to head up to Ingleborough, get a wee rest on the descent into Horton and ready yourself for Pen y Ghent. 

It is a busy climb, racers going up and down, walkers and spectators. Get into a good climbing rhythm. Heads up at all times as riders may well be coming down towards you. You should be able to ride the lower slopes. When you past through a gate it gets tough. You will either be walking or in the granny ring. You reach a grassy corner, from this point it is a foot race to the turn at the top. Its rocky and loose. The last 200m is on the grass, last check point before a fast descent, stick to the grass, bogs at first (beware the bogs) and then drop onto the path. Keep your nerve and bounce down!! 

As you hit Horton it’s a dash on the road to the finish! 

You will love it!!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Here come the 3 Peaks!

I'm keeping a training diary for Cyclocross Magazine. Here's my first post: http://www.cxmagazine.com/3-peaks-practice-beginner-introduction-andy-ward-2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


In a previous post I've mentioned the "Trig's broom" nature of my cross bike, with numerous bits and pieces replaced through necessity. I've spent this summer faffing away on the bike entirely through choice in an attempt to make it better. 

First up I changed the handlebars. I realised the old ones were a bit narrow and was attracted to the idea of bars that flare at the drops. The 3T Ergoterras are designed specifically for cyclocross and so far I find them to be a big improvement with less shoulder and neck ache on longer rides. I replaced the Fizik Arione saddle for a San Marco Concor - specifically one designed for mountain biking. I love the comfort of the Arione on my road bike, but found the long "tail" to occasionally get in the way on remounts. Again, so far so good. A Ritchey WCS alloy seatpost has been moved over from my road bike - it's a quality bit of kit and looks great.

The wheels are an eBay bargain - £114 for a pair of Neuvation C50s only previously used on the road. I've added Challenge Limus tubulars after much research and badgering of cyclocross experts. I'm hoping to gain a bit more grip and benefit from the lighter wheels - time will tell.

The drive train has also had an overhaul as I've gone to a single front chain ring in a DIY (and budget) version of SRAM's CX-1. Apex levers - another eBay bargain - replace the old 105 set up, with the supernumerary mechanics stripped out of the left side using this handy guide from Cyclocross Magazine. An X-7 mountain bike rear mech with its rolling clutch mechanism helps chain retention when paired with the Absolute Black narrow wide chainring obtained from a clubmate. A test ride on a rock-hard, rutted bridleway failed to unseat the chain despite rattling out most of my fillings. Last season, badly timed dropped chains cost me hard earned positions in two races, so that's got to be positive. Overall, my modifications have probably saved me about a kilogram in weight without breaking the bank. Hopefully I can take advantage when the season starts at the end of August.