UK Hill Climb Champs gallery: Pain faces, mad tech and ‘pea soup’ on The Struggle

The UK Hill Climb National Championships took place in the Lake District on Sunday, bringing together 450 mad British climbers.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 01.11.2023 Photography by
Matt Grayson
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It is Sunday 29th October and the clocks have just wound back an hour offering a much-needed extra hour in bed – or an extra hour to ruminate over kit choices for the 450 harebrained cyclists who have descended on Ambleside for the prestigious, ever-so-British, UK Hill Climb National Championships on ‘The Struggle.’

Conditions in the Lake District might best be described as moist. The promised rain hasn’t really begun, not yet, but there’s a monochrome dampness in the air and there’s a veritable ‘pea soup’ fog at the top of the climb, though mercifully it’s set to retreat as the morning wears on and visibility improves. The later starters might even be touched by sunshine.

The Struggle is pretty well known in the British road cycling scene, the 2.7-mile (4.3 km) climb cutting through the rugged Cumbrian landscape from the edge of Ambleside and up the inconsistent gradients until it meets the Kirkstone Pass (the A592) at the top. This is no Alpine pass; short, sharp cobbled climb; nor a generously winding road to compensate for (and hide from view) the steepness of the hill. This is a typical English, dry-stone-wall-lined country lane whereby someone some day long past laid the fastest route from the valley to the top, gaining 1,243 feet (379 m) with an average gradient of 8%, maxing out around 20%.

Hill climbs are serious business in the UK. It doesn’t matter how flat your county, you can bet the local route-designing oracle will have found a suitable ramp for a damp Sunday wedged between the too-short summer and interminable winter. For some, the local hill climb is a last summit to stretch out the fitness regime before the descent towards mince pies and too much wine around Christmas; for others it’s the biggest block of the year, with hours, days, weeks spent honing their hill-climbing craft, which includes preparing the perfect bike.

While there are equipment regulations – no TT bars or bikes, nor tandems, and all must have working brakes – a competitor has a great deal of freedom when it comes to designing the perfect climbing bike. Methods might include anything from simply borrowing a pair of lightweight wheels, to the more costly and/or mathematically justified alterations: event-specific groupsets, stripping bar tape, bodged bike lights (compulsory), hacking bits off handlebars, drilling holes wherever is possible (hopefully) without damaging the bike’s integrity …

Among the 450 riders qualified to race on Sunday, there were plenty who’d gone the whole nine yards, while others were just there to measure themselves against past attempts. One of the main draws for hill climb season – says I, who have never yet been tempted to race such an event – is the atmosphere around the race. Cycling clubs, families, and friends put in a lot of effort to support their riders, some more than others. You’re guaranteed to see a variety of noise-making paraphernalia from horns to kitchen pans and wooden spoons, and all sorts of costumes of varying effort. What’s more, as the day stretches on, the roadside becomes ever-more saturated with bodies as racers finish their efforts, recover, and join the throng.

It’s one heck of a day out, and on this last Sunday of October, the weather – more or less – held! Here is a small selection of photos from The Struggle, including a taste of some of the tech on show.

A young rider warms up on rollers wedged in between parked cars.
Of the 450 riders, 74 of the sign-ups were from the UK’s junior ranks, the youngest just 12. One of those whippersnappers is seen here warming up in a carpark, the sort of scene that will become familiar if he continues to race his bike.
A rider loads a bike into the back of a van that's had some modifications for van life.
This pair has been around the block, their van decked out for just such a weekend competition.
A custom painted bike with the slogan "Pain is temporary" on the top tube and "Born to ride for life" on the down tube.
A rider climbs up The Struggle road past a sign that warns of a 20% gradient and that winter conditions can be hazardous.
The Struggle has been home to an annual hill climb since 2019, and this year earned hosting responsibility for the national event, run by Struggle Hill Climb founder Jack Talbot. His job ranged from corralling the volunteers to chasing sheep off the climb at 6am on the morning of the event.
A minor bike modification for hill climbing: no bar tape on carbon fiber handlebars.
Reigning hill climb champ and eventual winner Andrew Feather – there’s nominative determinism at play there – broke with tradition in many ways, including leaving his handlebars intact and running disc brakes on his Cannondale Lab71, which weighed in at about 5.7kg.
Lights are required, but this tiny model features an exposed coin-cell battery and LED emitter and not much else: no housing, and a zip-tie handlebar "clamp."
A working set of lights is compulsory for all competitors, but there’s no minimum lumen level. Andrew Feather was one of the many who got creative with their lighting for the national event.
A saddle with no padding on the shell and some skateboard deck tape for grip, as well as a tiny rear light.
As lightweight as possible – Rebecca Richardson went minimal too, with light and saddle. Note the skateboard tape for maximum grip on what she expected would be a predominantly seated climb – max. watts!
This modification shows a TT "cowhorn" handlebar with a set of Shimano Di2 remote shifters dodgily taped on with electrical tape.
Tom Andrews exhibited some classic alterations for his hill climb steed.
Cyclists climb the stone-wall-lined lane in The Struggle. It's a lovely scene with greens and browns of autumn on the hills and a small lake in the distance.
A peaceful pastoral scene. And some ruddy cyclists.
Fans holding a Muckle Cycle Club flag cheer on a competitor.
2024 hosts Muckle CC were out in force. They’ll be welcoming the circus to Northumberland in a year’s time.
A rider climbs in The Struggle, with several others visible in the distance behind.
Margaret Docking of Ruthin Cycling Club/Clwb Seiclo Rhuthun travelled from Wales to defend her title in the 70-74 age group.
A rider climbs up to the saddle summit amid green and brown hills. Dense fog lines the hills up ahead.
You can see the ‘pea soup’ beginning to lift at the top, way way way off in the very far distance for Mr 217.
Fans wearing warm waterproof clothing blow vuvuzelas and clang cowbells to cheer for riders.
A rider who's finished his own TT effort stands on the side of the road cheering on another competitor.
The road was lined with other riders once recovered, or even lower down the hill, those yet to race.
Pure pain face on a female rider during the climb.
A rider on a tri-wheeled handcycle climbs to the top.
The ‘Lanterne Rouge’ Geoff Pickin was one of the riders of the day, cheered on his way for his 50-minute effort. My arms hurt just writing this. Chapeau, Geoff!
A rider in a black kit with yellow and red stripes climbs during the race.
One of the local host clubs, Barrow Central Wheelers (alongside Lakes Road Club), was naturally well represented.
A close-up of a rider during the climb, from the side. His mouth is wide open, his gaze ahead, and he looks in obvious agony.
Simon Warren, of 100 Climbs fame, logging his entry for Best Pain Face.
Another hill climb equipment mod: a no-padding saddle with holes drilled in the carbon shell.
Simon Warren is a seasoned hill climber and his bike shows it: the classic carbon saddle with 5 grams drilled out of it, over a pair of featherweight Zipp 303 wheels that Simon bought in 2004.
A rider rides past a painted sign on the road that reads "Cake will come, pain will end."
Another rider and sign on the road, this one reading "It's a struggle."
Strong pain face here on a rider in red and white skinsuit, mouth open, dripping sweat and snot as he climbs in the drops.
One of the most prestigious of the titles up for grabs is the Best Pain Face, which whittles down a 32-strong shortlist until the winner is chosen by Cold Dark North’s Instagram followers on Sunday (5th November). And yes, this chap (Ben Huddart of Lancashire Road Club) is a finalist …

Update 5th Nov: He won!
That same rider from behind now on the climb, lined by crowds of fans, like something you'd see in a Tour de France mountain stage.
The crowds are never not fantastic at hill climbs.
A fan beats a metal pot with a wooden spoon to cheer on a rider at the race.
A fan dressed in an inflatable T-Rex costume runs alongside an obviously hurting rider.
A rider in black and yellow/red kit collapses at the finish after his ride.
Another local lad, Edward Quick (great name) of Barrow Central Wheelers, after his effort.
Another rider at the finish, doubled over his handlebars, face screwed up in pain.
The St John’s Ambulance was ready and waiting, along with volunteer ‘catchers’, at the top of the climb to rescue the riders from their own self-flagellation. The event itself was raising money for the Great North Air Ambulance, and by the end of Sunday, the amount raised was nudging £14,000.
A rider sits recovering at the finish, eyes closed in exhaustion. he's draped in a silver emergency blanket.
A look down-valley, with fans lining the road and climbers ascending.
A young rider's face displays the effort: mouth open, grimacing as he stands up on the pedals.
Fans line the road: T-Rex guy is here, plus a man in a chemist's lab coat with a large papier-maché inhaler reading "Salbutamol" and a fan with a sign that reads 100% for the gradient.
A climber’s POV.
Finally: a rider climbs as the sun peeks out from behind the clouds.
Is that … a shadow?
Salbutamol guy cheers on a rider wincing as he climbs.
Fans cheer on a rider, one holding a sign that reads Up! Up! Up! multiple times.
If in doubt: up.
An exhausted rider at the finish in an emergency blanket, with a woman smiling sitting next to him.
Chocolate fixes everything, a story in two parts, part 1.
That rider smiles as he receives a box of food.
… and part 2.
A rider seen through the crowds lining the climb.
An exhausted rider leans back on the grass at the finish, covered with his emergency blanket.
The winner exchanges a smile and a handshake with an official at the finish.
Men’s national champion Andrew Feather, who also set a course record of 11:48 on his Cannondale Lab71 (he thinks it’s also the first win for disc brakes ever).

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