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.