Hell on Wheels: Cycling Tackle the Hills


cycling bucs hill team‘YOU’RE GOING ALL THAT way just for that?!’ At 5.15am on the day of the competition I struggled to answer this question. One reason is that the ‘hill climb’ is a British pecu- liarity. Like trainspotting and queu- ing, to an observer there isn’t much to appreciate and the participants don’t seem to enjoy it much either. ‘Vicious’, ‘lung-busting’ and ‘a right f****** b******’ are how cyclists de- scribe these climbs. The other reason is that I’m not very good at answer- ing questions at 5.15am.

To give some context, the LSE Cycling Club was set up last year. It has been holding Casual Rides (for everyone), Deutsche Bank Club Runs (for those a bit too fond of Ly- cra), Wednesday training (for those far too fond of Lycra and pain), and off-bike events ranging from pub crawls to bicycle maintenance ses- sions.

Using bicycles acquired through the LSE Annual Fund, we competed in the BUCS 10 Mile Time Trial outside Oxford last April. Backed by our Racing Sponsor, Deutsche Bank, and with Gabriel Costelloe as my successor at the helm, we left LSE on Saturday 24 October at 6.30am.

Preparation began with laps of a bumpy loop around Muswell Hill and Alexandra Palace, with a fast lap at the end to stretch the group out – with encouraging results. Two days later, selections were made on the basis of each cyclist’s aver- age wattage over 10 minutes on the LSESU Gym’s Wattbike divided by their bodyweight (power to weight ratio is everything when climb-

ing). And power testing is a brutal process: among our conversations were the words ‘He absolutely ru- ined himself’, ‘They couldn’t stand afterwards’ and ‘I was slightly wor- ried we’d killed her’. It was a bizarre ritual of a succession of us getting on the Wattbike, being shouted at, and then crumpling on the floor for a few minutes.

On a broader point, the first week had been encouraging. Though training was pursued with the Hill Climb in mind, we’ve also aimed at developing our members as cyclists. As well as lectures on ‘The Rules’ and debates as to whether or not Cavendish really is past it, this is primarily group riding skills. And for good reason – this is what differen- tiates cyclists from heathens (triath- letes) and everyone else that simply rides a bike. Riding in close forma- tion takes time and attention, but the result is that cycling becomes more sociable; safer; and much, much faster. Almost everyone who joined was new to group riding but (after a lot of shouting) the group became tighter and tighter. The real measure of success has been how newcomers have been integrated: \they’ve been led by example and given the odd tip by other members.

But back to BUCS. Seven cy- clists bundled seven bicycles into the minibus in front of NAB and we left at 6.38. Along Kingsway, through Camden Town and along the M1 the darkness lifted. Some slept with jackets around their faces, others discussed pedals, one did microeco- nomics reading.

We arrived at Calver, about 10 miles out of Sheffield and into the middle of nowhere, four hours lat-

er. The big round hills of the Peak District were a welcome change from London’s square skyline. It was also bloody cold. We surveyed the competition and were promptly in- timidated. Most bicycles were worth more than all of ours collectively and Cambridge had a gazebo. Ollie and Marlene, who had come along to support the team and go cycling, were unperturbed and left for a tour of the area.

Disappointingly, a mistake with the entries meant that Jack and Jed couldn’t race. Practice was about to close, so Gabriel, Alex and I rushed across with them and recce’d the course as they went as hard as they could (this involved yet more shout- ing). This course was 1.2 miles at an average of around 10 percent. De- spite being a time trial of sorts, the British hill climb is nothing like the flatter, longer time trials you’re used to seeing: it’s short, sharp and full of people without helmets or anything else that might weigh them down.

So, back at the bus the three of us talked about the course. It felt much steeper in the first half, with a section flattening out about three- quarters of the way in and then an- other ramp towards the end. The road surface was good throughout and allowed enough space for de- scending riders and cars to pass by in both directions. We agreed that as long as you paced the first section, you would be able to hold it for the end and perhaps pick up some mo- mentum. Pacing was crucial: the fear was going out too hard and blowing up, leaving nothing left for the final section.

The reality of hitting the hill in anger is something else though.

There’s so much more volatility in staying that close to the limit the whole time. Halfway up Gabriel heard a beep from his Garmin and saw a warning notification: ‘Warn- ing: Maximum heart rate exceeded’. (The file says 200 bpm – although he swears he saw 206.) Alex ‘got caught up in the moment’ and held 60 watts more than he had planned for the first 0.2 miles. He never made it back apart from in bursts at the end. I hit the wall within 15 seconds. Now that’s almost a contradiction in terms: the glycogen stored in your muscles should make those seconds the easiest (rowers describe it as ‘five free pulls’ in which you can go flat out before finding your rhythm). The ceiling was lowered and I barely got within 10 bpm of my maximum heart rate. The way to avoid this is to taper training properly, sleep and eat well beforehand, and warm up effec- tively. I didn’t do any of these things.

You also ignore the mental ele- ment at your peril. My legs weren’t being very accommodating and nor did I have the concentration to put them in the right place. Others went through the pain barrier On the other hand, the effect of the road- side supporter is unpredictable. The rushes of noise from Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam briefly mut- ed the pain in my legs and lungs. Alex describes it as ‘surreal’, and attributes his recovery in the final straight to the man dressed as a banana in particular.

In sum, a race like this, simple asitis,isstillnotatestof‘whois the strongest cyclist?’ Being naïve to the other factors involved, as I found out, is costly – Gabriel beat me by half a second.Gabriel

By Maurice Banerjee Palmer

Alex Dugan