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It is a sure sign of autumn when the hill climb season starts, so what better time to review A Corinthian Endeavour, the first ever book dedicated to British hill climb racing, from first time author (and regular competitor) Paul Jones?
This sport is not just about the hills, or even the racing: hill climbs are "microcosms of cycling in Britain: tradition, cycling clubs, cycle touring, the British weather, club runs, strange place names, esoteric and eccentric habits, and hills".
There is a rich and varied history surrounding hill climbs. The first was held in 1880, back in the days of Ordinaries, where the results simply recorded who actually managed to complete the course on a Penny Farthing. The Catford Hill Climb started in 1887, and now lays claim to being the oldest continuously held bike race in the world. It was not until 1944 that the first official National Championship was held by the Road Time Trials Council (RTTC, the predecessor of today's CTT).
Many of the hills used in the Championship will be familiar to those taking part in sportif events, such as Winnats Pass, Holme Moss, Horseshoe Pass, Nick O'Pendle, even Ditchling Beacon – but not Box Hill, I noticed. Although the hills may be the same, in many other ways the two events are about as far removed from each other as it is possible to be.
Surprisingly, there is no official specification of a hill to be used for a Championship, although it is generally accepted that a suitable course will be a steep hill that takes the best riders three to four minutes to complete, with closed roads, and ready access for spectators.
The crowds are an important factor in the atmosphere of any event, and with climbs often being the focal point of any race, what could be more spectator friendly than a race comprising nothing but one climb, run in time trial format?
Things can go awry with the course, and never more spectacularly than in 2011 when Long Hill (near Buxton) was used. As Jones reports, "I rode the course the day before the event ... and this involved locating the start. I checked the course description carefully and eventually located what had to have been the post box indicated, but was completely baffled by the absence of any gradient". The championship has suited (and been won by) many different types of rider over the years, from roadmen to climbing specialists, but when riders are using aero bars and disc wheels most people would accept that the course is not a true test of climbing ability.
Equipment choice does play an important part in race preparation, with the choice of gears or fixed wheel usually being the most important. Chris Boardman has a typically thoughtful view on his preference for a fixed gear: "Psychologically, decision making under pressure is stripped to the minimum; using fixed made it all about focusing on pace judgement." Once gearing has been determined, tyres and their pressure is normally the other major equipment decision.
Jones has travelled across the country to interview riders past and present, and he reveals his secret to a successful interview: "I chose Marks and Spencer Belgian biscuits as my icebreaker." The result is a great insight into British club cycling, seen through the eyes of competitors over the years.
Clubmen always like to moan about their weekly magazine, as this example shows: "It was an era when Cycling [Weekly] valued and valorised all competitive branches of the sport ... rather than other stories, like the endless self-promotion of their 'classic sportif'."
It was not a surprise to learn that behind the scenes the different factions of cycling do not always support each other, and one example concerns the introduction of a jersey for the National Hill Climb Champion in 1999 – until British Cycling decided that only they were entitled to award a Champion's jersey, and put a stop to it.
It is clear that this is no mainstream sport, and some of what goes on will even be a surprise to other cyclists – and inconceivable to non-cyclists. I suspect that many participants like it that way.
If you want a book about British hill climb racing, this is likely to be your only choice, and most informative it is too. However, the book also gives an entertaining insight into part of the traditional British club cycling scene, which has a broader appeal and will be an eye-opener to many.
Entertaining insight into the traditional British club cycling scene
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Make and model: A Corinthian Endeavour by Paul Jones
Size tested: Paperback
Age: 55 Height: Weight:
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding