After last year’s relative success at Nationals on the notoriously nauseating Streatley Hill Climb (36th female), I didn’t give entering the 2021 competition a second thought. Take my money!
When I found out it was going to be Winnats Pass, my first thought was “I’ve heard of that”. What *should* have been my second thought was “why have I heard of that?”… but instead my brain went with “that’s less than half an hour from my new house, great!”. **Insert your cruel (but 100% valid) smirking here** 😀
2020/2021: Absolutely shite, would not recommend.
As many of you know from my social media posts over the last year, things have been far from ideal in terms of training and prep. A cheating ex-boyfriend/coach, a spiral into severe depression and anxiety, a relapse into anorexia (followed by a relapse into bulimia) and a subsequent move 130 miles north to get away from my old life, wipe the slate clean and start again meant precisely zero targeted training. My new coach at https://catenarycoaching.com/, Tim, has been extrememly supportive (and let me get away with far too much laxity – less of that in 2022 please, boss!). But I’m sleeping the best I have in years, I’ve weaned right down on my antidepressants and for the most part I’m eating regular, healthy meals. I’ve no idea what my weight or FTP are – and for the moment, I’m happy with that.
Anyway, back to the 2021 Nationals! Having never ridden in the Peaks before, let alone tried out Winnats, I took myself off to attempt a recce from Goyt Valley 8 days before race day. I got within sniffing distance of Winnats, but unfortunately the cold got the better of me, and I had to head back to the car. It wasn’t all a waste of time though – I did what I now know to be #37 in the 100 Greatest Climbs during my ride – Peaslows (1.6km at 10% average) – and completed it without drama. So off I popped again T-48 hours. The rain held off and it was a stunner of a day, although the wind had picked up. I bettered my Peaslows time by precisely 30 seconds to get a top 20 on the Strava leaderboard…good start. Then I got to Winnats…
Mentally I had been expecting to hit the bottom and ready myself before a recce, but my skills in being directionally challenged surpassed themselves and I found myself at the top, looking down. It was soooo beautiful I pulled over, took a picture, and caught flies for a good 5 minutes! The descent, which had been talked about on Facebook forums, was actually not that bad in the dry. A few minutes to ready myself at the bottom, and the ascent was a whole different kettle of fish!!! The road is steep from the off, and barely wide enough for 2 small cars. Good tarmac, yes, but pools of oil in places, and people weren’t joking when they said that the gorge has it’s own microclimate! A massive headwind with gusts that took me into the paths of ascending cars, and I had to call it quits 2/3 of the way up. Disappointing, but at least I got an idea of the pass. Unclipping and crossing the road to descend once again was comedy gold – as soon as I lifted my bike, the whole thing flung itself as if to take off into orbit. Jeez!!!
In true triathlete style, I elected to run my first cross country race with my new run club, the day before race day. “I’ll pace it” I promised myself and my clubmates. Hahahahaha. If I ever say that again, please slap some sense into me!
Race day arrived; I left reasonably on time, but then got scuppered by the road closure so arrived with less “faff” time than anticipated. I’ll be honest, it was 50:50 whether I was going to bother leaving the house when I saw the weather – if I hadn’t made it up in the recce, what was to say I would make it up on race day?? Once at HQ, I met the lady going off immediately after me who was doing her first nationals, whose husband kindly took a bag of dry kit to the top for me. What a legend. The weather was abysmal, but thankfully less wind than during my recce, and live timings suggested that the juniors and blokes were all making it up, so I felt a bit more positive. The ride over was less “warm up” and more “try not to freeze to death” following an unwelcome downpour of hail. Rude. Bumped into the lovely Laura Owler as we got to the start area, a fellow medic who I know from social, who also struggles with her mental health. She’s a total legend who gets stuck in no matter what, and always with the biggest smile 😀 I waved her off and then found my friend David who had come to spectate and hold my jacket, and at 10:12 I pulled my sodden leg warmers off and made my way to the holding pen. Ordinarily I’d have removed my helmet and gloves, but I was absolutley frozen and genuinely quite worried about the possibility of falling off due to wheelspin, so I forfeighted the extra weight.
Having never done a major hill climb pre-COVID, I don’t know how the starts “normally” are. But this year it was very much a case of roll up, roll straight through to the holder, 1 minute countdown and “Go!”. Very little time to take many deep breaths and take a moment, but also very little opportunity to tense up and over-think it. The bottom of the hill was fine – I tend not to look at my numbers but I did see a 410watts at one point – definitely too high, but less so than at the bottom of Streatley (high 500s!). The lower 1/2 was gruelling but doable, and I stood for the most part.
Just as I reached the point where I’d had to bail on my recce, my legs were burning and things were becoming hazy, and my body kept asking me to sit down. I listened for a bit, but my cadence was slowing badly and the noise from the crowds was deafening – just what I needed to literally pick me back up again! I remember seeing an oversized kebab on a stick (was I now hallucinating?!) and a gradient sign which read “100%” – eurgh!!
I was digging so deep around that last bend, my vision had closed in, everything was tingling, and it felt like I was starting to have an out-of-body experience. I fought with every fibre of my being not to unclip and put a foot down, and the next thing I knew, I was over the finish line. Oh. My. Word.
There were 2 catchers at the top, and boy was I glad of that! I couldn’t unclip, I had nothing left. I was trying to speak and tell them this, but I’m pretty sure I was just making noise. They unclipped both my feet, lifted me off my bike, and when I started to collapse onto the ground due to Bambi legs, they picked me up and carried me over to the grass verge and laid me down to recover. My breathing took soooo long to calm, and every time I tried to move my legs to sit up, both quads started to cramp. I must’ve been down there for 5-10 minutes!
Of course, I had to stay and watch the leading ladies come in – they are truely inspirational. Bithja Jones took the win, with Mary Wilkinson a nailbitingly close 2nd. My pre-race predictions were not realised, and I think the cold/wet got the better of quite a few folk in the top 20. A very slow limp down back down the hill and a chat with one of my new clubmates (and rather good cyclist) Monica Greenwood (15th on the day), and I was ready for a quick swoon over Ollie Bridgewood off of GCN back at HQ, and some well-deserved pub grub at The Peak.
Oh, and I came 43rd by the way!
So, what have I leart from Hill Climb Nationals 2021?
- Even when life has thrown a lorry full of lemons at me, I am still a half-decent cylist.
- Hill climbing is cool.
- The crowds make it what it is – thank you for showing up (especially in the pissing rain!!).
- I have a renewed drive to do better at cycling (road, cross, time-trialling) and hill climbing – roll on 2022.
- I need to do some V02 max training! Or even training… 🙂
- Tunnel vision and numbness are what happens when you are really digging deep.
- Hill climbing is cool.
- N+1 is probably required if I want to be in the top 1/3. Project 6kg beckons…
- Eating helps.
- Did I mention hill climbing is cool?!