2020 National Hill Climb – Streatley Hill

The venue for the 2020 National Hill Climb was Streatley Hill, the first ever National Hill Climb run by my local cycling club – Reading CC.

So perhaps unsurprisingly it was also (one ½ of) the venue of my first ever hill climb, back in September 2015 at Reading CC’s traditional yearly double header event on both Goring & Streatley hills. I’ve come a long way since that day…

At that time I was still learning the hill climbing ropes, to put it mildly. I had been up plenty of big hills at an easy pace in casual attire, having previously cycle toured around Switzerland & Scotland on an ancient Dawes Super Galaxy (which finally had its long-awaited next tour this year!).

But even three months before that event in 2015, I still had never:
– Ever clipped in to clip-in pedals
– Ridden a bike less which weighed less than 15kg
– Worn lycra
– Even used Strava

In mid 2015, spurred on by my former colleague Tom Fricker I had finally downloaded strava, upgraded to a road bike, bought some cheap lycra, and after great persuasion finally bought some clip in shoes. I then proceeded to got dropped by Tom on every hill in the Hambleden Valley that summer, but he still somehow persuaded me to enter a hill climb, and Goring & Streatley was to be the first.

I soon realised there were some other things I hadn’t yet learned:
– In a hill climb (or TT) you can’t be nice & sympathetic and let the number in front of you if they miss their start time…by doing so you are practically disqualifying yourself (thankfully this was on the Goring stage, which I was crap on anyway because it’s a ‘roadmans’ climb a.k.a not a hill climb, and hopefully won’t be used in Reading’s even as of 2021 **fingers crossed**)
– Starting from a held start is not actually that difficult (I don’t know why it seemed so scary to be honest)
– And (although my oblivious self thought the colours looked cool) wearing the World Champs jersey not allowed (unless you are actually the World Champion)

Anyway, after a much delayed start on Goring I did make it to the top of both hills that day, and based on the cumulative times on both (I pleaded and got my time amended for my eventually late start-time) had only finished 18th out of 20 riders. And I would have been dead last were it not for =19th place to go jointly to a tandem…

Yet on the Streatley stage I had managed to edge out both the event organiser Stewart House & Reading CC’s historically lonely (until I turned up!) hill climber Paul East, with my time of 3:11.4. I had tried and tried but never managed to go under 3.30 on the strava segment in the weeks leading up to the event, so I was pretty chuffed with the time, and my hill climbing journey had begun!

One month later, I had joined Reading CC (and been donated an old RCC jersey…) and entered the Catford & Bec hill climbs, the most notorious southern events on the calendar. The buzz of the crowds at both events (above pictures) was immense, and I was officially hooked on hill climbing.

I’ve since spent the last five autumns travelling all over the country in the pursuit of this most unique and painful discipline of cycling….

Fast forward 5 years and I was on the start line of that same hill that I had started my journey on. Only this time it was the National Hill Climb, and I was amongst a record sized field of competitors having been part of huge team of organisers from not only Reading CC, but also Didcot Phoenix CC & Newbury Velo in order to put the event on. It’s safe to say the popularity of hill climbing had increased more than a little in those last 5 years…

It was my 3rd National hill climb, having also entered the 2016 event on Bank Road in Matlock (first image below), and the 2018 event on Pea Royd Lane near Stocksbridge (second image – in the new Reading CC kit!). The National attracts the strongest riders from all over the country, and previously I hadn’t managed to finish inside the top 100 in the men’s classification, although I did make a drastic improvement between the two. In 2016, after a rather silly and overly intense ‘warm-up’ ride the day before, I finished 136th out of 154, and then In 2018, after slightly more of a taper beforehand, I was 117th out of 198. Given that it in 2020 it was on my ‘home’ course, I reckon I could crack the top 100, and to be honest earlier in the year I had been hopeful of getting near the top 50 (depending on the number of entrants…).

However, as the 2020 Hill Climb season approached (hill climb season is always September & October) I was starting to feel like I had perhaps been a bit too eager and started training rather too soon, and peaked too early…but that was easy to do given the covid-19 circumstances and nothing else to train for this year.

I had felt fantastic in July, but knackered in August, and as the big day approached my quickest 2020 strava PB on the course was ‘only’ a 2:48 when doing a final recce in early October (which had HURT). Before 2019 I would’ve been very happy with a 2:48, having never gone sub 2:50 in the event (or on strava) before then. However, during the 2019 season I had somehow rode up the hill in 2:34.9 in a late August club event (so albeit in warm conditions and with a rare tailwind), and then rode a 2:42.4 in the 2019 Reading CC open event (in some considerably worse torrentially wet conditions).

I had also finally invested in a power meter prior to the 2019 season, but unfortunately don’t have the data to recollect quite how I managed a time of 2:34 as my garmin sadly broke on the day. With a new bike computer I know that I averaged 480 watts for the 2:42 in Sept 2019:

The sudden drop in cadence from 65rpm to 56rpm about ¾ in due to a big wheelspin in the wet conditions (not a poor gear change! – I actually rode the hill in a 40-21 gear both times until the flatter top section).

That time had been enough to place me 4th out of 80 riders on that particular day, but I was acutely aware that the torrentially slippery road conditions had meant a lot of riders suffered much worse bouts of wheelspin than I did, and I was not going to be anywhere near that position at the National..

As the 2020 event approached one of the fellow organising clubs Didcot Phoenix ran a warm-up event on the hill in late September, and the times were staggering. Now, Streatley is a bastard of a hill, which is why it makes it into Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the UK, and is feared by everyone in Reading CC (although we aren’t exactly a club of climbers…). It may only be half a mile long, but for the most part the gradient is 13%+:

If you make it up there in under 4 minutes you’ve gone pretty quick, whilst a sub-3 is a legendary by club standards. Yet in that event over a third of the riders went quicker than my 2.42, and Rob Gough’s long-standing course record of 2.16.4 (which had stood since 2012) was shattered when young rider Cameron Biddle rode a ridiculous 2.12.9. On reading the results I realised that getting close to the top 50 was going to be nigh on impossible, and aim for that top 100 placing!

With the event looming large I also had to set about re-evaluating how I was going to achieve that… Earlier in the year I had assumed that with all the training I was doing I was obviously going to improve on my previous years 480 watts! I had set my sights on averaging 500 for the full climb, but, after struggling through August and then a enduring a bit of an average season where I really struggled on shallower sections of climbs I new I needed to re-evaluate the numbers in order to avoid blowing up before the top….

For context, I like the hill to be as short, and as steep, as possible. Now, as the image above shows, Streatley is very steep in the middle, but unfortunately not quite all the way to the finish. I would go as far as saying it would probably be my favourite hill climb course if only the finish line was brought forward 150 metres. However, once you emerge out of the trees of the steepest section where it hits 17.5% to effectively ‘crest’ the hill the course still keeps going along a much shallower gradient for much longer than it needs to (in my opinion!). Now, I’m pretty average at anything when the gradient is not double figures, and despite it when there is a drag to the line after a steep section, even if I have paced my effort up until there (trust me, I tried this earlier this season and).
[Maybe I should just have a word to see if we can update the course finish point in future….]

So, knowing that this drag to the line would suck whatever, I decided to set myself a new target to sustain 500 watts to the crest of the hill (rather than to the finish) and tried to forget about the drag that would follow.

I find using a nice round target number helps, as when you’re out of the saddle and going close to maximum effort it’s much easier to distinguish between a 4 or 5 at the start of your watts than try to read anything properly! But, it did have a solid basis and wasn’t just a pure fantasy number. I knew that I had achieved 510 watts until the crest of the hill in 2019, taking 2:16 to get there, whilst my power PB for 2:16 in 2020 was exactly 500 watts (in July on Britwell Hill). So, as long as I could keep up that power for that amount of time on the day it should take me (just about) to the crest, and from there the pain would start in the drag to the line…

Come the day and the weather was mercifully pretty good, with sunshine and clouds, albeit with a ‘headwind’ for the course. Despite this, you only really feel the wind on the final drag, due to the fact that the rest of the climb is so sheltered under the trees. So as long as it isn’t raining then it can be considered good conditions for Streatley. Near the start line I met fellow organisers Ant & Laurie who try to help calm the nerves, before my number was called and I made my way towards my start on the Didcot Phoenix marquee side of the course much to Ant’s delight…

The event wasn’t quite as any of us had imagined when we were putting the proposal together back in 2018…but the fact that it still went ahead in-spite of all the challenges that covid put in the way is a great testament to all of the organising team. The ban on spectators due to the virus meant the course wouldn’t quite have the atmosphere that we had anticipated, but we still had plenty of volunteers from the organising clubs as course marshals, to ensure social distancing was adhered to, and to create some noise for the riders! Thanks to the help of eventrex it was also the first National Hill Climb with live chip timing, and they also helped with making the finish area look rather pro…

Covid had also meant that there were no traditional holders allowed this season on start lines for both TTs and Hill Climbs, but fortunately we were lent two “Fox Frames” for day, a starting frame built by avid hill climber Christian Fox which enabled riders to clip in and push themselves off.

I still then proceeded to somehow wobble off the start, and remember weaving slightly to the right before getting going properly. Despite this I then felt like I accelerated pretty well by my standards, initially out of the saddle for a few seconds, then settling into the saddle and glancing down to check my power. Ideally I would do the whole climb out of the saddle, but having attempted that earlier this year my arms had started to melt by the steepest point, so I have to sit down for the first less steep section. From watching the Velo29 footage of the event it looks like Adam Kenway rode the whole thing out of the saddle, I’m not sure how!

As soon as the gradient starts to ramp up about a quarter of the way in I was back up and out the saddle, and committed to it. I did have a couple of tiny little wheel slips soon after, but fortunately nothing to break the rhythm. Daring to glance down at my power I spied a 4 at the front so tried to kick on towards the steepest section, the noise of the marshals steadily getting louder. In the blur of it all I’m afraid to say that although I heard a lot of “c’mon James!” on the way up I have no idea who these were from, apart from the when I heard my partner shouting as I approached the steepest section, but everything was starting to turn into a blur. I was in the same 40-21 gear that I had used for the hill during the events in 2019, but it somehow felt tougher this year…I think the oldest I have ever looked is in that 3rd picture…

I ground on and on through the low cadence, and finally saw the light emerging out of the trees. Despite the absence of spectators, the noise of the marshals was louder than any crowd I’ve ever experienced on the hill before, helping a great deal with that final push to the line, although by now I was struggling to increase my cadence at all. From there my recollection is a complete blur, as evidently I aged a further 10 years before the relief of finally crossing the line.

Freewheeling towards a spot to lie down I went past fellow RCC rider Ryan Oldam, but I couldn’t get any words out and motioned that I really needed a lie down…

I lay down on the first empty spot of banking, thankful for the closed road, but before I had recovered much Rod McFadyen had come over and started interviewing on camera me with loads questions that I really didn’t know the answers to at the time…thanks Rod! To be honest, it’s sort of what inspired me to start writing this stuff up, so good work Rod! Rod’s clip is here:

I said I thought I had averaged about 480 watts, but to be honest I didn’t really know how I had actually done…

So, how did I actually do?!

Thanks to the live chip timing it was the first time all season that I didn’t have to wait days for my official time, and the first time ever that I could find out my result almost instantaneously at a CTT event! I grabbed my phone out of my bag (my marshalling partner had now joined me at the top) and found out I had done a 2:44.9.

On uploading my ride to strava (the most important thing to do after a hill climb) it turned out that I hadn’t quite averaged the 480 watts that I had suggested on camera, but I had given it a good go (avg. 464 watts):

I had hit 753 watts off the line, which was pretty decent by my standards and higher than in 2019, even if it is still only half of what 4th placed overall Calum Brown managed! I had started in a 40-23 gear this time to make it easier to kick off the line, before quickly clicking through to 40-19 and then settling into the saddle. The slight cadence bump at 0.1mi is from clicking back into the 40-21 gear in preparation for the gradient ramping up from there and getting out of the saddle, which was where my power increases briefly at 0.125 miles. From there my power settled to pretty much bang on 500 until 0.2 miles, but then does start to dip. The slight increase and spike just after 0.25 miles was likely when I glanced down and saw a sad little 4 at the front, but I struggled to wind it up any more. Still, I kept the power pretty consistent at around 465 watts up the steepest section even though I was really starting to struggle mentally, before the gradient then eases off dramatically for the dreaded drag to the line from 0.4 miles.

My power immediately drops at this point to around 350 watts at that point, but this was always expected as I just always struggle to hold my power when gradients ease off to that extent. From there I clicked through the gears to the line and pushed as hard as I could out of the saddle, though in retrospect from looking at the data I maybe should have changed gear less and tried to spin more (but this is tricky when your arms are starting to fall off!). Maybe next year I’ll try sitting back in the saddle for this stretch…although I have tried this in the past with even less success of sustaining power…

Anyway, regardless of what you’re power figure actually was, the most important feeling at the top of a hill climb is the feeling that you couldn’t have given any more, and that was how I felt. It was an agonising 1 watt off my a power PB for that length of time in 2020, which I had managed on Holloway Lane near the top of the Hambleden Valley in August, so considering that I had felt equally faint at the end of that Holloway Lane effort I don’t think there was anything more to give on Streatley from me this year…and I could be happy that I had tried my hardest!

Admittedly I must not have tried as hard as two other riders who crossed the finish line whilst I was still in recovery mode… Hamish McDougall, pale as a ghost started throwing up and then James Bevan was in absolute agony and had the medics rather worried. Thankfully I believe they both recovered, and also both put in fantastic times. Somehow I need to find that extra bit in the tank next year…

Once I recovered enough to stand I donned my hi-vis marshal jacket and made my way back towards the steepest section under the trees that is just before the crest to cheer on the remaining riders, and gawp at the speed of some of the guys. Course record holder Cameron Biddle looked like he had also gone too hard too soon, struggling massively on the steep section. However he must have really flown out of the blocks as he still posted a pretty fantastic time of 2.16.9, but it was just short of his own course record and not quite enough to topple a 2:14.87 by earlier rider Charlie MacTear’s who was still in the lead.

There was soon a new leader though, as Andy Nichols flew past and shaved 2 tenths of a second off Charlie MacTear’s time. We were now until the final 5 (except it was a final 4 because 2019 champion Ed Laverack couldn’t make it the event) and I can gladly say that (at least from that point on…) Richard Gildea and I got the seeding spot on! The previous course record of 2:12.9 was consecutively broken by each of the 4 riders as they made mincemeat of the toughest hill in Berkshire. Calum Brown did a 2.12.1, followed by 2016 champion Adam Kenway with a 2.08.7, then Tom Bell rode a remarkable 2.05.9 (at which point I thought he had it), only for 2018 champion Andrew Feather to shave another second off and take the win with an unbelievable time of 2.04.9.

Both Tom and Andrew had made that steepest section look like an absolute breeze. They were both out of the saddle but their cadences were still high, which was not only unlike me but also pretty much every other rider who had been through. I filmed Andrew as he went past and the clip is here:

They also both posted their data to strava afterwards and they both paced it very consistently (albeit very powerfully) all the way, with very consistent power lines all the way up (although even their power dipped slightly on the final shallower section – it’s not just me!)

Andrew Feather (1st):
Max power: 796
Ave power: 654

Tom Bell (2nd):
Max power: 644
Ave Power: 540

Calum Brown & Andy Nichols both had a bigger power spike off the line, and then a more evidently descending line the rest of the way more akin to my power line, just significantly higher all the way!

Calum Brown (4th):
Max power: 1599!
Ave power: 694

Andy Nichols (5th):
Max power: 871
Ave power: 559

Rod’s excellent video of footage from the men’s event is here with those guys all shown at the end:

After the men’s event came the women’s, for which there was a huge record sized field featuring some extremely dedicated hill climb specialists alongside several (hill climb novice) pro riders. One of the organising team was former national level youth cyclist Laurie Pestana who had done a great job promoting an all-inclusive event and somehow persuading so many big names to enter. It was going to be interesting to see how the HC novice pros matched up against the non-pro HC specialists…

The two favourites of the hill climb specialists were local rider Bithja Jones and Mary Wilkinson. Bithja held the course record, with a storming time of 2:54 set in the previous months warm-up event, a full 15 seconds quicker than any other women had ever been up Streatley. The pre-2019 course record of 3:09 by former National champion Maryka Sennema, which Bithja had already beaten by 6 seconds last year in very damp RCC 2019 hill climb, before setting the 2:54 at the DPCC event in the dry last month. So, it was going to take something special to even come close to Bithja…

But if anyone could it was Mary Wilkinson, who like the men’s winner Andrew Feather was impressively unbeaten in hill climbs in 2020. The reason they hadn’t faced each other this year is since, even with covid causing cancellations all season, there was still at least one hill climb event in both the southern and northern regions almost every weekend. So, with much less good reason to travel further afield in 2020 they hadn’t yet competed against each other this year…

Bithja & Mary were the last two riders off, but by the time they were on the course a mindboggling 13 competitors had already gone sub-3:09, so would have broken the course record pre-2019! However only two riders had gone sub-3 minutes, and they were both dramatically tied for the lead. It had turned out that the hill climb specialists had the edge over the pros (hurrah!), as it was 2019 Scottish National Hill Climb Champion Becky Storrie and Macclesfield Wheelers Monica Greenwood who had both posted 2:58.85 so were both guaranteed at least a podium.

With the start times only 30 seconds apart we could see both Bithja and Mary approaching the top of the climb, so I took the opportunity to try and film them both, but did a terrible job…

Bithja crossed the line and had set a new course record of 2:47.94! Mary seemed about 30 seconds behind on the course so it was going to be close…

Mary crossed the line, and it was close, but she was just behind with a 2:50.87. It would have been a new course record only 34 seconds earlier, but she would have to settle for 2nd place.

Rod’s excellent video of the women’s event is here:

I went over to congratulate an exhausted Bithja, who couldn’t seem to quite believe what she had just achieved, before slowly descending back down the return route to HQ to sign-out.

By the time all the results were confirmed, my final position was 89th out of 214 in the men’s classification. Top 100 achieved! And a big improvement since I started 5 years ago. Whether there is any further improvement possible in 2021 is dubious…since I have stuffed myself on cake ever since.

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