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If it's steep, good deep

Rebecca Richardson writes about her National Hill Climb Championship on the 'Old Shoe'.

Rebecca Richardson National Hill Climb Old Shoe

📸 Garry Main

A simple rule of thumb on a hill is that the steeper it goes, the deeper you go (the harder you ride). The problem with the “Old Shoe” is that it is hard at the bottom, hard in the middle and steep at the top too. To add to this conundrum for a hill climber, it is a bit too long a climb to be classed as an all-out “power” effort.

Over the last three months, I have been specifically training for this event. My coach, Liam Holohan, carefully laid out a plan of intervals. Nicely varied weekly interval sets of varying time periods, each enough to make me feel sick, accumulating in two maximum 8-minute intervals a few days prior to the national race.

I went out to recon the Old Shoe climb in Llangollen five times over a period of eight weeks. It was lucky that I live so close. Every time I rode the climb, it was just so tough. Unlike some climbs, the Old Shoe never was easy, and there is no ‘easy’ pace for the consistent steepness of the gradient.

The first half of the climb to the cattle grid (which is also not level) is deceptively steep, and with the top out of sight, it is all too easy to go too hard. The horrible part about the first half is that it remains in the trees all year round; green algae/leaf mulch, which never seems to dry off fully. You can't see too far ahead, a long unending tunnel of trees, dark wet tarmac and slime, the occasional grit bit, fallen leaves, and no obvious distance markers.

Then the cattle grid is a hurdle to contend with. Try and muster some speed, brace, roll over, wheels bumping, hands sweating. Nothing is worse than a 23mm Corsa Speed tyre navigating a wet cattle grid on an uphill travelling 10 kph. On the championship day, the organisers put down grip tape onto the grid, and on my run, I had the distraction of a marshall re-doing a section of tape as I approached him, yet I was most thankful for the diligence.

After the grid, things get bad. A quick, steep, but prolonged ramp. The steepness brings a sharpened reality of the fatigue already built up from the first half. It is a small introduction to the rest of the climb and the first time a peek of the near top comes into view. Championship day, you crest this ramp, having been in solitude to see a line of crowd, four – five people deep in places for the last 2-3minutes of a gruelling experience.

Rebecca Richardson catching her minute woman at the national hill climb

📸 James York.

As I head to the base of the final ramps and reach the first few spectators, the ringing of cowbells and the shouting and screaming starts. I can hear my name, and my legs are turning. I stay seated but want to slow down. I keep the cadence going, legs and head protesting. Up ahead, I see Simon Warrens ‘100’ sign, a sign on a stick waved by the author of the book “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist's Guide to Britain's Hills”. Simon happens to be waving his significantly large sign on the 200m line, just where I have planned to start a long sprint.

“The stars have to align. You need have good form, be a good self-believer, execute good pacing and overall have the ability to suffer.“

It is a fortuitous moment; he doesn’t realise that he has become the man with the F1 flag. As my wheel passes his banner, it is as if I have only just been warming up my tires for the entirety of the climb before it. Suddenly it is all systems go, full throttle, and my body and mind as on fire with excitement. The crowds are dense and noisy, I have a big smile that probably looks like a grimace, and as they shout at me, I shout back. I am so full of energy and life, and this moment is amazing to me. My speed doubles, my energy doubles, and my confidence rockets sky-high. A strange dichotomy when you consider the built-up fatigue from the first 5minutes of the testing climb.

Up ahead, I see another competitor, my minute woman, set off one minute before my run. I am going to catch her before the top. My sprint has given me so much momentum, and suddenly there is no way to get around her as a photographer is in the way. I slow down, and I wait until he has moved, I weave around, and I have to start a sprint again. But then the top is finally there, and my body collapses onto a marshall, the Ponderosa Cafe in the backdrop, day trippers sipping their tea and probably wondering why several hundred scantily clad skinny cyclists are hurling themselves into the arms of a man in high-viz.

Coming 7th of 74 women overall in a time of 7 minutes 51 seconds. I executed my race plan and conquered a hill that has always had the best of me in every recon; I recall two occasions when I simply stopped two-thirds up the climb, unable to go on any further, even breaking down in tears once at the futility of my attempts to master the climb.

The next day in the aftermath of the national champs, I look at the strava segments and see that I have matched the best four riders in the second half but paced the first half too conservatively and lost all of my time here. It summarized how difficult a climb this is to pace. No part of it is easy, and the bold succeed. I should have been bolder and should have believed in myself a little bit more.

This is a useful take-home for next year in terms of believing and having confidence. Hill climbing is a complex sport; this is why I like the challenge of it.

And finally, my bike. A 5kg stripped-down road bike with mountain bike cranks for a teeny 28T front chain ring which I hand-painted with doodles. Hope you like it…

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