Bithja Jones: How to become hill climb champion riding just on feel and without a coach

Reigning hill-climb champion Bithja Jones has revealed she spent much of the last year training for the National Championships with no heart rate monitor or power meter, just riding on feel

Jones won the hill-climb title last year with a new course record on the short sharp climb of Streatley near Reading. She rode 2.47.9, a good two seconds faster than her nearest rival, Mary Wilkinson (Yorkshire Road Club).

Jones told CW she doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, power meter, or coach. 

“If you never ride with a Satnav you know your way around while if you ride with one you then get dependent on it,” Jones said. “I guess it’s similar because I haven’t got all these gadgets. I just have to listen to my body and you get better at that.

“I did slightly more targeted training for this season’s hill-climb season, making sure I did some efforts up hills and hill repeats.”

The single mother of two celebrated her 41st birthday the day after winning the National Hill-Climb Championships.

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Originally from Hamburg in Germany, Jones only started cycling seriously two years ago after suffering a running injury and turning to the bike instead.

“I’ve always been passionate about cycling and always went on cycling holidays when I was younger and cycled my children to school,” Jones said, talking about her start in the sport.

“We lived on top of a hill so I always had to cycle a big heavy bike with the children in it.”

At the end of 2018 Jones got her first road bike and started uploading her rides onto Strava. She and the local cycling community were amazed how many queen of the mountain segments Jones obtained.

“I got 10 to 20 new Strava crowns each time and felt really quite embarrassed about it because I thought maybe my Garmin was broken as I knew from other people they had one or two crowns,” she added.

Fast track

“It turned out I was just going quite fast. If you never do it competitively or use Strava then you just don’t know how fast you are.”

In 2019, Jones treated herself to a new road bike from Pankhurst Cycles and was told about the club affiliated to the shop.

After joining the club rides, she was persuaded to take her first plunge into racing at Reading Track League, having instant success and winning women’s overall honours.

“It was bit scary at first to be on the track for the first time and riding really close to each other with no brakes,” added Jones. “People were following me on Strava and pointed out I was really fast up hills and said maybe I should try some hill-climb races. I had never heard of them before and didn’t know they existed.”

In September 2019, Jones took on her first open hill-climb event organised by Reading CC and finished first woman and halfway up the result sheet.

“I was much faster than the second- placed woman but couldn’t really compete with the men either,” added Jones.

“It’s quite weird if you haven’t got enough competition to judge how well you’ve done but I enjoyed it and signed up for a few more.”

After a handful of hill-climb events, Jones took on 2019’s National Championships on the 5.8km climb of Haytor in Devon, with an average gradient of 6.1 per cent – she finished 13th.

The veteran rider already had her mind focused on the following year up the Streatley climb – an average of 13 per cent gradient and under a kilometre long.

Streat smart

“In a way I signed up for that knowing the next year would be up Streatley and I thought I needed the experience of the national event ahead of the following year,” added Jones.

“I knew that Haytor would be hard for me because it’s a very long one while I’m better at the short and steep ones.

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“The moment I heard that the Nationals were on Streatley I thought this was my chance because it’s a hill I do well on and had the chance to train a lot on it with it being 15 kilometres from my home.”

With no heart rate monitor, power meter or coach, Jones started her preparations for her home championships using ‘feel’ to gauge her training.

Jones says she rides whenever she can along with juggling a full-time job and two children, aged six and eight.

As part of her training for the Nationals Jones had a week off without her children so rode from her Reading home to North Wales for a week of cycling, on her bike fitted with panniers.

Training during lockdown was a struggle for Jones and in her first event she finished a narrow third place but improved as the season progressed and peaked at the right moment, eventually taking victory.

Her winning bike also has its own story, with the frame donated by a friend who had lost her husband to a lung disease. She sponsored Jones to help her win the local event with a ‘better bike’.

She bought Jones the frame which she took to glory in memory of David Little, with Pankhurst Cycles also  helping to make the winning bike as light as possible.

Next season Jones is hoping to retain her hill-climb title on Winnats Pass and the veteran thinks she can improve and target her training further.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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