The hill-climb is the espresso of cycling.
Done well, it is short, intense and leaves you buzzing. Done badly, it’s a bitter experience that strips the skin off your throat and makes you want to retch.
Personally, I do it badly. My hill-climb experience is not very extensive, mainly because I’m not an idiot. A classic British hill-climb is no more than a very few minutes of fast-twitch effort up something so vertical that the road threatens to at any moment slither down the hill and land in a rumpled heap at the bottom. I’m built for neither steep nor short, so I’m doubly disastrous.
My first hill-climb was in Kent. When it was my turn, I put my front wheel on the start line and looked up the steep road. I focused on the intense experience that awaited me. From behind, the pusher-off said, “I’m just going to pop the wood in now, if that’s OK.”
He meant he was going to put a bit of fencepost on the ground behind my back wheel to stop me rolling backwards. But my concentration was broken. I set off much too fast. I clicked up through my gears.
And agonisingly, one by one, I clicked back down until I was thinking about each individual pedal stroke for several seconds before attempting it. There were quite a few where whether the pedal was going to go backwards or forwards at the top of the stroke was a very close-run thing.
I finished fourth. Which was better than I expected or deserved, especially considering there were five competitors.
Emboldened, I entered the National Championships. Happily, this was the first hill-climb champs in many years that didn’t actually go up a hill. I mean this almost literally. It was on the Cat and Fiddle, near Macclesfield, which is 20 minutes at a very modest three per cent gradient. There was even a downhill bit in the middle.
I turned up on a time trial bike with aero bars, rode it like a 10-mile time trial and came second. This made a lot of very skinny men very angry indeed, but clearly there’s a limit to how frightening a group of hill-climb specialists are ever going to be. Their flaming torch lost a lot of its impact when they had to ask me to help them carry it.
I rode the Nationals again a year or two later. This time it was on the Rake, a two-minute cliff face in Lancashire. I was ordered to enter it by my team, none of whom subsequently bothered to turn up.
I rode it in a tracksuit, while waving to the crowd, so that the crowd would go, “Well, his team didn’t turn up, so there’s not much point in him killing himself.” It would have been more convincing if I hadn’t passed out from the effort at the top. I finished 101st. The tracksuit and the waving probably cost me a top 100. I sincerely doubt it cost me a top 99.
My final hill-climb was the championships in 2011. I started strongly, but halfway up the climb I was overcome with a terrible ennui. I realised that riding up a hill just so I could turn round and ride down, was a terrible waste of effort. I saw the pointlessness of worrying about how fast I could do it, and the emptiness of a life obsessed with such trivial concerns.
That’s what a hill-climb can do to you. They can be so tough, so miserable, so sodden with suffering that they turn you back into a normal person.