Taking on the National Hill Climb

On Sunday 30th October, 240 riders took part in the National Hill Climb Championships on Bank Road in Matlock. Veteran hill climber Ben Speller reports back from his first time at the race...

Breaking my collarbone earlier this year meant that a lot of the goals I had set went straight out of the window, so once I’d healed I began working hard to regain some fitness and had to re-evaluate things. Targeting hill climb season made sense as it’s later in the year, and whilst I’d always intended to do a few I had only vaguely and perhaps jokingly entertained the notion of entering the National Championships previously. With this in mind I signed up for our club hill climb on Leith Hill, and as I enjoyed the Catford and Bec events so much last year I signed up to those too with the intention that if my form and times were good enough I might enter the Nationals.

Despite a lack of specific training and complete absence of hill reps on my part, I went better than I expected in the club hill climb, beating my event PB by 40 seconds and also whittling around 10 seconds off my times for Catford and Bec. There were good performances from a number of other Wheelers at these events too, with Alex Reid emerging as our strongest climber and clocking some really fast times. When I mentioned the Nationals to him he was up for it too, so we submitted our entries and waited to hear if our times had been good enough to get a place. There were apparently 370 entries and only 240 places available, which added to the tension and we waited, and waited, and waited. When the start sheet finally appeared on Facebook we had both managed to get a ride, along with second claim Wheelers Maryka Sennema and Alice Lethbridge. Cue a moment of relief followed by a feeling of total panic!

Alex booked a hotel close to Matlock, and on the Saturday morning we drove up there and dumped our stuff at the hotel, then span into town for a course recce. It's probably fair to say that the hill is a real beast; 0.5 miles long and an average gradient of over 12%. It’s right in the centre of Matlock in a street with houses and shops all the way up, making it quite different to most hill climb courses. The horizontal lines of the walls act as a reference point and really highlight just how steep the road is. It also has the added feature of being pretty straight until right near the end so you can see the hill as you go up it, which depending on your perspective could be either a blessing or a curse; it’s certainly a daunting sight from the bottom! We rode the course at a decent but steady pace to get a feel for it, talked pacing a bit then headed back to the hotel.

We drove back into town later and grabbed some food, killed some time loafing about, scouring Matlock unsuccessfully for a copy of Cycling Weekly and making bets on the race and drove back and turned in nice and early. The following morning after hitting the Weetabix and coffee we drove back into Matlock, signed on and got our numbers. The road was being closed by this point, and the crowds were already gathering giving the place a real feeling of anticipation. We saw Alice coming down from riding the course (nutter!) and said hello. 

After attempting to warm up on the busy roads close to HQ, I rolled up kind of ready for my start at 12:46:30 and was lined up side by side with the person off 30 seconds before me. A few deep breaths and the countdown was done and I was off up the hill. I'd resolved in advance not to go out too hard, but realised when I looked down at my Garmin and I was doing 16mph that I'd already messed that up, so just tried to steady myself a bit whilst keeping the intensity up. My recollections of the next few minutes are fairly sparse but I can recall the road being really crowded with loads of cheering and cowbell-type noise, as well as people who I didn't know but had obviously checked the start list for my name shouting "Come on Ben!" which was an amazing feeling. I can recall getting to the first really steep bit and getting out of the saddle, still feeling strong and swept up with the whole vibe of the occasion and then looking up and realising I wasn't as far up as I'd thought! As I arrived as the most crowded part of all, just short of the corner where Alex and I had identified the last push for the line should begin, I changed up a gear and tried to increase my effort but nothing much happened and by the time I got round the corner the lights were dangerously close to going out and I momentarily lost control of the bike and nearly ran up the kerb as I struggled to stay conscious. The only thing that kept me pushing from there to the line was the voice in my head repeating "national bloody champs, national champs you idiot!"

I was unaware of this at the time and have no recollection, but I've since seen some video of me riding the last section out of the saddle; I've seriously no idea how!

I crossed the line and was caught by one of the marshalls and wheeled gently up the road to a place where I could  collapse in safety. The ground was littered with prone competitors gasping and throwing up. Oddly these few minutes right after the finish for me sit level top of the outstanding memories from the day; there was a feeling of camaraderie and shared understanding amongst the riders there which was amazing to experience. The other two things would be obviously the amazing crowd support on the climb, but also how friendly and supportive people were after the event. I nearly missed watching Alex because so many people were keen to stop and chat with me as I walked back down, asking about my ride, my bike, where I'm from, how much weight I had lost for the event etc. 

When Alex went past about 20 mins after I finished, he looked to be going really well as I expected, and I went back to the finish to meet him so we could watch Alice come past. She too looked really strong coming around the final corner and Maryka was also going well when she went past a short time later.

We all rolled down the hill a little way to watch the main contenders go by at impossible speeds on some very exotic and bespoke looking bikes, and then headed back to HQ to check out times.

Alex went quickest of us, clocking an incredible 2:47 and giving him 68th place overall in the men's competition. I notched a 3:03 giving me 122nd male and 13th veteran, and Alice recorded an awesome 3:11 giving her 8th place in the women's race, only losing out to Maryka by 0.6 of a second for 7th.

Whilst I was fairly happy with my overall effort, I'd love to have gone under 3 minutes and I really think going out far too hard at the start cost me that. However it was such an amazing day that I've decided I'll just have race again next year and do better!