Game Changer - Rebecca Richardson
Photo by Matt Grayson Photography
Scaling the heights of popularity, relevancy and accessibility is the sport of hill climbing.
Imagine boxers in a ring, the crowds cheering, the intensity. The fighters focused, throwing punches, hurting, feeling pain. The media capturing the brutality of the sport with the fighters framed against the spectators gesticulating. On the tv, people sit on the edge of their sofas, their bets in, who will take the win? Who has the edge today? Take Kieran Japanese style racing, the professional kieran racers earning livelihoods from racing on the track week on week, become national heroes, with the whole country engaged, with big money to win in betting.
Hill climbing has everything that these two sports offer. The intense pain is written all over the faces of athletes as they suffer as they scale up steep UK climbs, the spectators experience as they crowd the roads.
What are the opportunities for making it a professional sport like the Japanese Kieran, is there a synergy in comparison between the fighters in the boxing pen and the hill climbers battling out for the win. Lincoln hill climb, four riders, 50seconds, a battle to the line on cobblestones, elbows out, positioning key, the crowds roaring on the riders as they sprint uphill over the rough stones. Winnats National Hill Climb, making “The Times” rag, how many UK cycling events get into the big daily papers?
Imagine a hill climb in a natural stadium setting? This was Winnats Hill Climb. A natural amphitheatre as if created by the Romans to create the perfect cruel setting for spectators to watch athletes stretch their minds and bodies to scale the steep 17% gradient for 3min and 4min. The rivers of water running down the road, torrents of rain from the sky creating a darkened moody atmosphere.
Crowds packed onto the road dressed head to foot in waterproofs coated in a sheen of glistening water, the tarmac almost indistinguishable, the noise deafening as it seemed to echo around the high cliffs that tower over Winnats climb. The gorge closing in on the riders, channelling them into one path only, to go directly up the spout of the gully, and if unlucky to fight the down-drafts as the whipping winds throw themselves off the cliffs onto the riders, like a medieval gauntlet conjured up my nature.
The start line, two gates, 30second intervals. You are on a treadmill, herded into position, “quick, quick, number 196 next” shouts a Marshall through the rain and crowds. One and a half minutes to go. I am ushered forward to the holding pen, under an umbrella, “take off your coat and hat” says the marshall with urgency. I need to wait, staying warm is critical, 60 seconds left, yes, yes, I whip off my raincoat and hat, “here, to me” Ben Norbury, mywindsock.com is at my side, my literal last-minute wingman. Next thing I was ushered forwards, over the mat covering a cattle grid, and then stepping into the start gate, under a canopy. The light under here is darkened, on the other side, I see Winnats climb for the first time that day, the road stretching away. People lining it. In the start gate, there are two people, a timekeeper and a holder. “Right, get in the saddle, clip in your feet, I’ve got you” My body sways with the holder's grip, I sense the spectators who crowd the start gate watching and waiting, their eyes on you. I stare ahead, focused, my mind becomes blank, from the corner of my eye I see another competitor go from the second start gate, 30seconds left, then 3,2,1 GO!
Push the pedal, out of the saddle, a few metres, now in the saddle, head down, tap tap tap, not too much effort. Don’t worry, you are not going too slow, Maybe I am? No, don’t go too hard. The mental battle commences. “Go on Rebecca” “looking good” spectators throw comments seconds in. Ignore, ignore, just focus. 10% gradient, 30seconds in, the road turns. Now it begins a 17% gradient to the end. In the saddle, choose that gear, stay committed to the plan, tap-tap, keep the cadence high, remember fast legs will be good power. Stay seated “REBECCAAAA REBECCA” someone is screaming like a banshee! Then more and more, shouting, “Rebecca” clanging, banging. No, No, stay focused, I barely think, I look down, but my eyes focus on nothing, my legs tapping, 2minutes in, my body shows the first sign of weakness. I look up, no, don’t lookup. Dogs barking, more shouting. Stay seated, I fight the urge to get out of the saddle, I fight the urge to go full gas, I have to wait. As I look up I see a wall of people. What is this? Where am I? All markers on the hill have disappeared. I make a snap decision, when I get the wall of people I will start my final maximum effort to the finish line.
Photo by Trax Photos
The next thing I enter the tunnel, and the noise is deafening, too much too much I think. No, embrace it, I switch my mind in a split-second, utilising all the mental training I have done for this moment, I tell myself to use it, use the noise. My mind is wearing down, this is the point I can change everything. Do I say Yes or No to my brain? I say YES. I throw my body out of the saddle, the pain is unreal, I start shouting with the crowds “GO ON” I tell myself “GO ON”, the spectators shout back at me, or are they shouting with me? “GO ON” Something surreal and beautiful happens, my brain is blank? I have nothing in my head, it is some kind of meditative state, the pain tips over an edge and becomes joy, I feel alive and my bike is now reacting to every pedal stroke. But it is short-lived and my body reminds my brain that everything is not ok, and not too soon as the finish line is arriving. Is this really coming to an end? I can’t believe it. I crossed the line, falling into the two catchers, then gathering myself, body slumped over the bike. Behind me, I hear the loudspeaker say, “Rebecca takes the lead at 4min 13sec”, with only four more riders to go, I am gob-smacked. I am at least 5th. Then in rapid succession, the remaining four cross the line. It was announced, I made the podium, 3rd at the National Hill Climb Championships 2021 on Winnats. The best race of my cycling career yet! Best race I have ever experienced, and a fortuitous outcome. I defied the odds, and the predictions to take a podium spot. Now if I were a betting person…..
Photo by James Lucas @rabausten