Diary of a fourth category racer: September – of time trials and hill climbs

The falling leaves mark the end of crit season and a return to something more familiar...

As the leaves begin to fall and Peter Sagan is crowned world champion for another year, September heralds the end of the road racing season – and the beginning of an altogether more esoteric type of competitive cycling; TTs and HCs.

While time trials do run through the year, there’s a noticeable increase in TT activity as the road season draws to a close. Hill climbs, however, are definitely a preserve of the autumn months, when a layer of decaying leaves and wet gravel coats the roads of rural Britain, making climbing uphill fast even more difficult than usual.

Hill climbs tend to last about three minutes. Organisers have traditionally sought out the steepest, most agonising climbs in their area on which to stage such events, so that won’t be three minutes you enjoy, unless you are a very particular type of masochist.

Autumn is hill climb season (Pic: Matt Grayson/BBBC)

In some ways, time trials and hill climbs are the same. They are both governed by the same organising body (Cycling Time Trials), and a hill climb follows the same basic format as a TT; each individual starts at a given interval apart, then completes the course as fast as they can.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

A TT is about the effort a single rider can put in against the clock, turning themselves inside out for 10, 20, 50 or even 100 miles. They are long and bloody lonely.

The hill climb, on the other hand, is pure pageantry – the winner is the rider with the fastest time, still, but there are kudos on offer for panache, painface and persistence too. And that goes double if you compete on a tandem.


Another difference. In a time trial, it’s as much about the gear you’ve bought as it is cycling ability. Turn up to a local club 10 and you’ll find the car park of the race HQ (which is always exclusively either a church hall or a primary school) littered with expensive turbo trainers and specialist TT machines that mostly cost in the multiple thousands of pounds. Unless you are very, very good (like, Steve Cummings good), you cannot win a TT on a regular road bike – you have to get the gear.

On the other hand, there is very little you can buy to make you go uphill faster, barring a canister of helium to use to fill up your tyres with, or a hacksaw to lop off the ends of your drop bars.

More differences. In a hill climb there are spectators – and by that I mean actual people who came with the specific intention of watching your hurty face and not just confused dog walkers. Absolutely nobody in their right minds will stand on the side of a dual carriageway in Buckinghamshire to watch a time trial.

If the above gives a little idea bit about the ‘what’, we should probably talk about the ‘why’ too.

Why ride in one of these unique painfests? Well, it is vastly easier to take part in a hill climb or a time trial than it is to participate in a crit race.

There are no categories like there are in road racing, so any rider can enter any race they like. You’ll also find that the lack of a charging peloton of novices provides considerably fewer crashes, smashed frames and shattered collarbones.

I have ridden a handful of hill climbs, but only one time trial. The experience was enough, quite frankly, to put me off for a lifetime. Turning up to a church hall (or was it a primary school?) in Surrey, the car park was full of sensible family cars and a dizzying array of unsensible, expensive TT machinery.

My friend and I had ridden to the event HQ from the train station nearby, and it appeared we were the only ones to do so, everybody else had driven their treasured speed machines directly there, no doubt in an attempt to protect their wafer-thin race tyres.

We were also among a very select few who had turned up with the intention of riding on road bikes, not TT steeds.

If there was one consolation to be drawn, we were by far the youngest people at the race, so our natural fitness would work in our favour.

‘I wonder how many of these old lads I’ll catch up to on my run through the course?’ I thought to myself, idly, as I put on my regular cycling jersey, wryly amused by the beer-bellied chap in a custom skinsuit waddling across the hall.

Just you and your bike… they don’t call it the race of truth for nothing (Pic: Golazo Cycling/Sportograf)

Exactly none, was the answer to my question. The better question would have been, how many of these ‘old lads’ will overtake me?

Three. Each one purring past with unbelievable ease, making next to no sound and seeming completely untroubled by the effort they were making.

I, on the other hand, found the entire experience agonising. How hard should I push? How fast was I going? Was it supposed to hurt this much, or less, or even more? Was it wise to eat a full English on the morning of the race? That last one, I’m fairly sure was a ‘no’.

I finished fourth from bottom. The only people I beat were a couple of septuagenarians on road bikes and a chap who missed his allotted start time. Never again, I promised myself.

My first hill climb, on the other hand, had me instantly hooked. Crowds lined the short, steep hill that constituted the course. A man on a microphone kept the spectators apprised of what was happening in the race.

There was a place to buy tea and cake. There was even bunting strung haphazardly across the the road between the trees. The whole thing was a beautiful microcosm of English eccentricity.

Time trials can be lonely, whereas hill climbs are often well supported (Pic: Tom Owen)

I rolled up to the start line, a chalk line drawn beneath a B&Q gazebo and presided over by a wizened man in a folding camping chair with a clipboard and a stopwatch.

“Number 67,” he barked. The man wearing dossard 67 glided up to the line. The master of the Gazebo of Pain began a countdown, “5,4,3,2…”. And off went Mr. 67.

I was 68. Next to go. Suddenly I felt very, very nervous. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. I had read online that the worst thing to do would be to go off too hard, but with a modest group of racers behind me waiting to go, I felt the pressure to perform.

As my countdown reached one, I pushed off hard, hammering the pedals and trying to gain enough momentum to sit comfortably back in the saddle. The gradient pushed back immediately. After 500m I felt the white, harsh taste in the back of my throat.

I had done exactly what I meant not to do and gone too hard at the beginning. At about 800m I saw the first spectator, then heard the man on the microphone. I turned a slight bend and could see all the way up the ‘straight’ to the finish. “God, it looks steep,” I thought. “I might not make it.”

I pushed on, with the lactic acid already filling my legs. This was an awful idea. Why do people do this?

Hill climbs: awful, and yet excellent (Pic: Matt Grayson/BBBC)

And then I entered the tunnel of noise where the spectators were thickest. These total strangers were cheering me, a complete nobody, as I put in a really quite terrible time in an obscure amateur bike race. I felt like a rock star.

I stood out of the saddle and kicked with everything I had left. I managed two or three pedal strokes before plonking back down once again. And then, mercifully, it was over. I sort of half-dismounted, half-fell into a ditch just past the finish line, wheezing profusely.

It felt awful, but excellent. As I lay there, wondering if it was really anatomically possible to cough up a lung, I knew I would be doing lots more hill climbs…

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