Hill Climb season

‘The final effort, my legs are screaming, my lungs are screaming, I’m overwhelmed by total exhaustion.’

It’s the beginning of September, and Ben Turner has just finished his first hill climb race of the season, on the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The race is one of dozens of hill climb competitions held around the country each year during September and October.

Today’s race is a 1 mile climb with an average gradient of 7.6%. The men’s course record is held by 2018 British Hill Climbing Champion Andrew Feather, at 4 minutes 16. Ben is aiming for sub 5 minutes. He finishes 4 seconds inside his target, and represents a solid start in Ben’s quest to qualify for the national championships at the end of October.

Screaming is a word Ben uses a lot when he talks about hill climb races. Chatting about the Quantock race, he says ‘My legs were  screaming from the shock, but I couldn’t help it. I was trying to keep the cadence right, but the adrenaline just won’t let you slow down.’

Ben’s strategy for the season is simple: build a really light bike and train on a lot of hills. He’s helped by living between Exmoor, the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills. If you ride here, you climb.

Owning a bike shop also helps with the steed. Ben’s tool for the job is a 2008 Scott Addict, put together using carefully sourced components from eBay. ‘Part of the beauty of hill climb racing is building a bike,’ he says. ‘The bike needs to be stiff to allow for every last ounce of power to be driven through the pedals. And it needs to be light. Your main enemy on any climb is gravity.’

‘I love the creativity of it, and getting rid of the stuff you don’t need.’ Ben’s bike has shortened bars, no bottle cages and a single chainring. Grams count.

After the Quantock opener, races follow every week. One particularly brutal weekend in September includes 4 different events, finishing with the steepest hill of the season on the Sunday afternoon. Just under a mile in length, Widecombe Hill in Devon averages an 11.7% gradient, ramping up to 20% several times. According to Ben, it starts steep, is steep in the middle, and then finishes steep. The course record is held by a certain Chris Boardman MBE, and the race attracts some of the best climbers in the country.

Ben is 5th vet home, in a time of 6 minutes and 4 seconds. Chris Boardman’s record is 4 minutes 10 seconds...

Other races also go well, with 2 first place finishes in the vets category. Qualification for the Nationals is becoming a possibility. One more race, chasing students up a 7% hill in the Bristol University Cycling Club race (Ben hopes they’ve all been on the piss the night before), and Ben will find out whether he’s made it to the national championships.

A 4th vet finish secures Ben’s place. During 2019, Ben has got his weight down to 62kg, ridden 4,500 miles  and climbed over 330,000 feet. Now it has all been worth it. He’s going to the nationals in a fortnight’s time. 

The championship is being held on the famous Haytor climb in Dartmoor. It’s a long climb, over 3 miles, with an elevation gain of 1000ft. Ben’s previous best on the hill is 15 minutes 55 seconds, and after qualifying he switches his training, focusing on longer, sustained efforts of 12-16 minutes. 

The race brings out the famous names of the hill climbing scene. Previous champions and pros, pitted against keen, sharp amateurs. Pre-race breakfast of porridge and chopped up Mars Bar consumed, Ben waits for his start time of 10.45am.

He’s 45th to go in a men’s field of 180, with the pros and previous champs heading off last to ensure a grandstand finish to the day. 

From the off, Ben is out of the saddle as the gradient kicks up. ‘There were a load of spectators making a right din,’ Ben describes. ‘Cow bells, people shouting, banging on things. I’m trying to keep my race face all the way. As I draw up alongside them the noise is overwhelming, it’s a small taste of what it might be like to be a grand tour rider on Mont Ventoux. That race face went pretty quickly, I couldn’t help but smile. What a buzz.’

But there’s no time for recovery, no time for indulging in the surroundings. The danger with hill climbing is the sudden blow up. One moment the legs and lungs are fine, and then without warning the gradient takes it toll instantly. Ben finds his lungs at the limit, his body starting to refuse what he is asking of it.

He eases off a bit, and the mental battle begins. Ben calls it tunnel vision time. He’s back out of the saddle, still pushing until the summit comes into sight.

One last drive, hammer down through the gears and over the line. ‘My lungs were heaving, vision blurred. I just slumped over the bike, ready to puke.’

14 minutes and 49 seconds. A personal best on the hill by over a minute, and 15th vet out of 62.

SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling’s Ed Laverack took the men’s title, putting down an incredible 7.25w/kg on his way to a course record 11 minutes 37.

And so, to the final race of Ben’s season, his local hill climb in West Buckland, Somerset, organised by the Wellington Wheelers Cycle Club. 

The rules on the Wheelers entry form are to the point: ‘Wait until you are called. Ride like hell to the top. Return to the village hall as indicated. Eat much food and drink much tea. Await your results.’ It’s been a brilliant season, and a perfect place to bring it to a close. 

HQ at the village hall is busy, lots of warm welcomes, pre race chat, people catching up with each other. Volunteers are dishing out endless teas, coffees and bacon sarnies, whilst race organisers head off to their duties. Without them none of this would be possible.

Ben is intimate with the hill. It’s on his commute home, and Strava says he’s ridden the climb 141 times. This is Ben’s fifth year at the Wheelers race, and after all of the season’s successes, he’s hoping for his first ever podium.

Greg LeMond famously said ‘It never gets easier, you just get faster,’ and for Ben’s hill climbing season, never a truer word was spoken. Another PB, fourth overall and second place vet. Not quite a podium, but a well earned medal and a cruise back down the hill for vats of tea, slabs of cake and more bacon sandwiches.

Hill climbing season is over. Time to ride the Levels for a few weeks.

Ben runs Turner Cycles, a repair shop in Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset. His background is road racing, but struggling to find the time to commit to the hours of training and having done okay in a couple local hill climb races last year, he decided he'd have a go proper in 2019. His aim was to qualify for the national championships in Dartmoor. Ben lives in Taunton, and mostly rides on the Blackdown Hills.