Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Could UK-style hill climbs be big in the US?

Jonathan Vaughters climbs one of England’s notoriously steep hills.

Since I moved to the States, American friends have often asked me what I miss most about “England’s green and pleasant land.” I tell them I miss the expected things: meeting old friends for a chat at the village pub, hiking with my brother in the Surrey hills, or watching a good game of English football. But what I really miss—and only a British club cyclist would fully understand—is hill-climb season.

English hill climbs aren’t long, but they’re very, very steep! These short, intense time trials organized by cycling clubs all over the country are among the most popular events in British cycling. Maybe we should import the idea to America….

Hill-climb season happens right now, peaking around Halloween, when there’s a nip in the air, a thick mist hanging over waterlogged fields, and slick, wet leaves covering the back roads where the races take place. These hill climbs are usually two- or three-minute efforts up near-vertical, ancient roads that over the centuries have cut a trench into chalk or sandstone ridges. And the climbs have evocative names such as Horseblock Hollow, Pea Royd Lane, or The Rake.

This past Sunday, a 22-year-old club cyclist from Lancashire named Jack Pullar won the British national hill climb championship on that very hill: The Rake. It starts outside the library in the village of Ramsbottom, passes the Rose & Crown pub a short way up the climb’s easier opening half, and finishes just before another pub, the Shoulder of Mutton. Thousands of fans, most of whom arrived by bike, lined the 874-meter-long climb that averages 11 percent, and has long stretches of between 20 and 25 percent.

Competitors on Sunday had to cope with head winds and a fine drizzle, making it tough to avoid wheel spin on the steepest parts, so Pullar didn’t get closer than five seconds to the course record of 2:16.9. That time was set, remarkably, 19 years ago by Jeff Wright, who used a fixed gear of 42×19 on a good day! Fixed-gear bikes are preferred on these short, sharp ascents because of the more-direct transfer of power to the single rear cog.

Such is the intensity of “sprinting” up these rugged climbs that some riders end up zigzagging across the road or even having to stop and run. Most are in agony when they finish. After his championship-winning effort, Pullar told Cycling Weekly: “My body shut down when I finished, and even when my friends told me I’d won, I said I couldn’t have cared less.”

There are few efforts in cycling that are as demanding as a British hill climb. You quickly go into the red zone, just as you would in a kilometer time trial or individual pursuit on the track. But there’s no elevation gain riding around a velodrome! I can still remember a hill climb I did up that aforementioned Horseblock Hollow, which averages 11.4 percent for a kilometer with some of those nasty 20-percent pitches that characterize English climbs. The anaerobic effort was so excruciating that, on stopping, I lurched to the side of the road like a drunkard and threw up.

It’s because every rider has to race at his or her maximum intensity that hill climbs are so popular with spectators. The starting order in English time trials is different from those in Europe, where the fastest riders nearly always start at the end of the field. In the UK, in a field of 120 riders, the best riders are seeded from the back, but at 10-minute intervals, with bib numbers 10, 20…through to 100, 110 and 120. That keeps the crowd’s interest high throughout the event, usually with a resounding climax at the end.

Virtually all of the UK’s hill climbs take place in September and October, with the top national contenders probably riding a dozen separate races, sometimes twice on the same weekend. One of the most popular, and easily the oldest, is the Catford Classic Hill Climb, which was first held in 1886 and has been staged for the past 127 years, except for breaks during the two world wars. It’s held on a course an hour south of London. Yorks Hill, which starts at a dead-end farm lane, climbs for 646 meters (707 yards) at a 12.5-percent average gradient, with two pitches of 25 percent. Amazingly, despite advances in bike technology and training, the course record of 1:47.6 by South London rider Phil Mason has stood for 29 years!

Just a handful of Britain’s hill climbs are longer than 10 minutes, with the short, sharp ones giving fans the most excitement. And just as cyclo-cross has successfully crossed the Atlantic, perhaps UK-style hill climbs could be the next big thing for bike racing in North America, especially if they are compressed into a similar, short season in the fall.

Most of the current U.S. hill climbs, up mountain peaks such as Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Mount Evans in Colorado, and Mount Tamalpais in California, are held in the summer and are mass-start road races, not time trials. The few uphill TTs include those at Pinnacle Hill, near Albany, New York; Lookout Mountain, near Denver; and San Bruno Mountain, near San Francisco. These are all 15-minute climbs, which is at the top end of the classic UK hill-climb format.

The nearest we’ve come to a British-style event was the one raced up the Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia, which was an amateur time trial held on the Friday night prior to the Philadelphia International Championship. In 2000, that race was also contested by a number of pros, with the victory going to former U.S. pro champ Eddy Gragus, who recorded a 1:50.18 for the one-kilometer course—which had a flat opening section before reaching the 400-meter Wall and its maximum grade of 17 percent.

Many American cities have steep streets that could host hill climbs—including places such as Pittsburgh, Richmond, San Francisco or Seattle—while most experienced riders know about steep hills in their local areas. Imagine a race up Sycamore Street in Pittsburgh, which was a highlight of the Thrift Drug Classic in the 1990s; or up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, which has seen prologues for the Coors Classic in the 1980s and the more-recent Tour of California.

Short, snappy hill climbs in the autumn are made for riders who race criteriums all summer. In fact, in the month before he started an unbeaten run in this year’s hill-climb season, new British climbing champ Pullar was doing a crit series—and now he’s talking of following in the footsteps of his countrymen Chris Froome, John Tiernan-Locke and Brad Wiggins, and heading to the Continent.

Curiously, British television has yet to embrace hill climbs, but their sudden-death format and enthusiastic crowds are compelling ingredients for great viewing. And in this country, where reality TV is king, a sports event with instant impact could even make it big. I’d love it to happen because, then, I wouldn’t get homesick in hill-climb season.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson 

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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55 comments

  1. bmj

    Pittsburgh has an unofficial race, the Dirty Dozen. 13 climbs, all well above 18%. The steepest, Canton Avenue, is arguably one of the steepest roads in the world. Danny Chew has been organizing the ride since 1983.

  2. John

    In particular, the dirty dozen is coming up. Weekend immediately following thanksgiving, if I’m not mistaken. I’ll be there. Any other velominati in the area should join as well.

  3. Wsquared

    Several climbs around Boulder could be sliced & diced. Magnolia. Flagstaff. The last mile up Left Hand through Ward to Peak to Peak might have the best ambience & duration, but is it steep enough?

  4. MaxUtil

    Los Angeles has a tradition of hill climb events with 4 of the 6 steepest streets in the country. Most of the streets are short though. The best known is the 35+ year old Fargo St event which riders complete in by seeing how many times they can climb the hill rather than competing on time.

  5. Michael Moule

    Sounds like a great idea to me. This would be my best discipline for sure. I recall a couple of similar events as part of stage races back in the late 90′s. One was the Columbia Plateau Stage Race in Oregon, with a short 2-minute prologue that included flat section and then a steep hillclimb to the finish. The other was Tour de Festival (if I recall correctly) in Roanoke, VA. I had a great race there, with the highest amateur finish (I think) behind a few pros.

    Lots of places to do races like this in my current town of San Francisco, including several options on my bike commute home from work.

    There are plenty of good Strava segments out there that would make good courses.

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for your comments. It’s worth mentioning that Fargo Street here in Los Angeles hits a maximum grade of 33 percent. I made it up with a 34×27, but only just.

  6. RX178

    Great read.
    Los Angeles has also had Feel My Legs, I’m a Racer; which has taken place every late winter, early spring since the mid ’00s. It is a collection of some the steepest climbs in Silverlake, Echo Park, and Highland Park. From Micheltorena, [a triple hill climb of torture]to Fargo, Duane, and several other steep lungbusters, it has been a lot of masochistic fun.

    I wasn’t aware that the UK was very enthusiastic about this style of riding. Hopefully it will take root here, as it is very challenging and rewarding to know that once can climb anything, given some will power-and a low gear!

  7. Nathan

    You might say I’m something of a specialist when it comes to hills in the UK – I’ve spent my year trying to tick off all 100 of the “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs” (as per Simon Warren’s first book – see more detail over on my blog at http://www.100climbsfor2012.blogspot.com).

    Anyway, I have only 7 to go now, which gives me a little time to look back and reflect. I’d love to see and participate in races up some of the hills in the book – the 33% Ffordd Penllech in Wales, the epic Porlock in Exmoor, the cobbled climbs around Manchester of the Shibden Wall and Swiss Hill, and of course the daddy of them all – Hardknott Pass up in the Lake District.

    And to think, I was feeling pretty happy with myself for being near the end of my challenge, only to find out that the swine has brought out a second book of another 100 climbs. Well, that’s my 2013 sorted then!

  8. Bruce

    We had one here in the Upstate of SC for two season, Paris Mtn hillclimb TT. About a 9.5 minute effort for the top guys. Sadly it did not last, dont know why, it was the perfect lead in to a long day on the bike. Warm up, do the TT and then ride home or go on up to hit the foothills.

    HUMP

  9. Anthony F

    We had a hill climb series at work.

    It started with a short prologue to establish a start order; followed by three stages on three consecutive weekends. The first stage was up Mt. Baldy from the bottom to the ski lifts. The second was a section of Angeles Crest Hwy. The final stage was to the top of Mountain Gate from the bottom at Sepulveda.

    The whole point of it was to calm things down at work. A bunch of ex racers who still rode a lot created an environment with dangerously rising testosterone levels. It worked. Somewhat. A pecking order was established, at least as far as climbing was concerned. Naturally, sprinter types cried foul and wanted a rematch someplace else. Like the track.

    It was a lot of fun. We started dieting. And secret training. We started weighing things. And shaving grams. We raced in our lightest jerseys, bibs and socks. We made sure our pockets were empty, the one bottle not quite full. I took my watch off.

    A cool side effect was the sudden appearance of old style weight weenie stuff. 185 gm Clement Nuovo Super Seta Extras on carbon bikes. Cloth tape on bars which had their ends trimmed. Aluminum bolts. Old tricks applied to new bikes.

    I didn’t win. I suck at climbing. But it was some of the funnest racing I’ve ever done.

  10. Brian M

    We have the VA Cycling Assoc hill climb every year at Wintergreen Ski Resort. The James Beazell Wintergreen Ascent 6-mile climb with gradients reaching 14 percent. It’s a tough one!

  11. Alex C

    The CRCA resurrected a hill climb in NYC (okay, it was held across the river in Jersey) this past summer, along River Road. Hopefully they’ll bring it back next season. Manhattan comes from the Algonquin (I believe) word for “hilly island” and there are plenty of perfect length hills along the Hudson river, but not many of them break double digit grades. http://www.crca.net/racing/open/alpine-time-trial/

    1. Padraig

      RX178: Mountain Gate runs west off of Sepulveda one mile up at a 12-percent grade. The road lies between Wilshire Blvd. and the Sepulveda Pass. It’s a beast.

  12. Anthony F

    Hi RX178,

    We had those 3 yrs. ago. Each of those locations (along with Stunt) has been the site of actual LA races/ hill climbs from the 80′s and maybe 90′s. I work with guys who raced those back then and we were trying to re create them.

    You can see Mountain Gate from the 405 South as you crest the hill (Mulholland) heading towards Westwood from the valley. It’s the residential street to your right. It’s a little over a mile in length.

    For sure I’m no climber. But Mt.Baldy and Hwy 39 to Crystal Lake and on to ACH are my all time favorite LA places to ride.

    1. Padraig

      GeeTee: Nah, Vaughters is in the little ring. If you click on the image in the post you can see a much larger version of it.

      For those who may not be aware, with most of our posts, you can click on the image to see a much larger version for more detailed viewing.

  13. Wsquared

    Jeez, IMO the consensus is that short, radical hill climbs are really
    cool. I agree with John’s original premise that they would make great reality TV. (Beats the hell out of dull last 30k Tour de Grand Fenwick finishes with Phil & Paul.) Who knows what local heroes would emerge? And then there could be a playoff!

  14. Philalm

    Hill Climbs are booming here, including some city centre races that draw very large crowds.

    The Frome Cobble Wobble (due to run on 12 December 2012) has been going since 2009 and takes on a vicious cobbled climb in Frome, Somerset. Some footage of last years event here – http://road.cc/content/news/44681-updated-official-video-cobble-wobble-2011.

    Red Bull have discovered hillclimbs recently, running the Red Bull Hill Chasers event on a Saturday night in central Bristol (England)- a head to head, knockout competition) (http://www.redbull.co.uk/cs/Satellite/en_UK/Article/Red-Bull-Hill-Chasers-2012-Charge-Bikes-footage-021243172320887)

  15. peter lin

    @padraig

    You’re a beast to conquer a 33% grade with 34×27. I have a hard time with 25% grade with 34×28. Some friends rode the 6 gaps in Vermont this year and many people were on 34×32 for lincoln gap.

    1. Padraig

      Peter Lin: Beastly stupid, maybe. I was completely spent at the top. A few years before I did it with a 30×25 (triple) and didn’t paper boy; went straight up that thing. Also completely spent at the top.

  16. RX178

    Padraig, Anthony F; thank you for the info. I’ll see if I could go make a ride up it via Mulholland this weekend. I’ll hit up Deep Canyon on the way back.
    Thanks.

  17. Bobroberto

    Yeah, Boulder has some good spots. Best one is Lick Skillet Gulch, nasty, dirty, a real groaner as I recall, only rode it once with road gears. But it does ends in Gold Hill for drinks. Amazing to see how cycling has taken hold since we first rode Mt. Evans in ’62. A few nice steeps in the foothills here in Tucson.

  18. Jakula

    The Cherry-Roubaix has at times included a hill climb in its lineup, in addition to a crit and road race. If I remember correctly Wayne Hill Rd. is 1km with a nasty pitch

  19. Paul

    I’m a transplanted Englishman too, and we have lots of short, sharp hills here in New Jersey, and just over the river in Bucks County, PA. One of my favorites is the climb by the cemetery leaving Lambertville, NJ. Another is Eagle Rd near Newtown PA.

  20. Matt Ruscigno

    The Dirty Dozen in Pittsburgh, which I’m happy to see someone already mentioned, goes back nearly 30 years! http://dannychew.com/dd.html
    Sure, it’s unofficial, but it’s as much of a race as any other, minus the red tape.
    I organize a similar race in Los Angeles, which has a paltry 7 years under its belt: http://truelovehealth.com/category/feelmylegs/

    I guess we’d call these ‘underground races’ but the enthusiasm and participation is there!

  21. Lachlan

    I regularly seek out training rides in the US that remind me of hill climb season. (Its hard, only a few roads in any given region are like this!)

    I love Hill Climbs as races for many reasons but not least because they are the only races I have throw up after and seen many others throwing up after. I normally couldn’t stand for at least 10 minutes after a race.

    Chris Boardman once wrote an advice column on how to deal with hill climbs and the part I remember is “your legs can be bright purple at the end – this is normal. As is having a headache for a few days after.” Words to that effect anyway. :)

  22. slappy

    well the Ophir Hill climb in Ophir Colorado, right Ophir the hill from telluride, is a bit long, but so glorious. Mass start, with hikers, bikers, and last year in October when it snowed, skiers. 24 minutes was the fastest this year, and it’s so steep and shaley above tree line that the top runner just nipped the top biker to the pass, and it took almost two hours for the guy with the tag along on the back of his bike with a trailer behind that to get up with the two kids, but it hurts so nice.

  23. Les Borean

    RX178: You want climbs?
    If you make it into the Santa Monicas, Yerba Buena Rd, about 2 miles up from PCH you’ll see Yellowhill Rd off the right. Starts with mid-teens grade and upwards from there will present you with pitches of 20+ percent . This continues for about a mile to the end of the road.

  24. Land Shark Steve

    I love this idea. I live in N. GA near Brasstown Bald which has been a part of the Tour De Georgia and other races. It’s always great fun to see the some of the best cyclists leaving it all on this course.

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