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Cyclist Rebecca Richardson approaching the finish line of a hill climb with spectators cheering her on

Rebecca Richardson: Hill Star

  • 14 min read

There is something so visceral about the effort demanded by a hill climb, so unrelenting, that every competitor commands respect.

Those who triumph belong to a diverse elect of short and long-course specialists, united by an almost superhuman ability to withstand pain and to continue pedalling when every fibre of their being must surely scream stop. The very best of this elite group can win on any hill.

Riders collapsed and curled into the foetal position the moment they have crossed the finish line are a common sight, but such disturbing scenes have a reassuring concomitant: a camaraderie that bonds the “motley band” who travel together from such unprepossessing meeting points as motorway service stations to the steepest hills in Britain. In one notorious case, even the national designation is insufficient.

The Harlech hill climb, a Red Bull event organised by Welsh Cycling, was held on a street officially designated the world’s steepest. The 300-metre climb of Ffordd Pen Llechin in Gwyned has an average gradient of 17 per cent, and a peak gradient of more than double.

Ordinarily, such savage inclines would be the stuff of nightmares. To Rebecca Richardson (Brother UK-FusionRT), hill climb champion of Wales and winner of the 2019 HMT Monsal Hill Climb, they conjure memories of yet another victory in this purest of cycling disciplines.

“They say time-trialling is the race of truth, but I think a hill climb is even more so. It’s such a simple principle. Everyone understands the concept of A to B. Everyone looks at a hill and thinks: ‘Oh!’ There’s a definite ‘oh’ factor to a hill climb,” she says, laughing.

“And there’s no need for expensive equipment. Anyone can have a superlight bike, very cheaply, unlike time-trials, where equipment is really important. At the end of the day, anyone can do a hill climb and be successful, but at the same time, it’s just so exposing. It takes everything out of you. It’s a test of your mental and physical strength.”

A cyclist collapses in front of the spectator barrier at a hill climb

Meeting the Monsal challenge

Richardson’s triumph at Monsal Head, her 13th of 15 straight victories this season, as of writing, is also her most prestigious to date. While her goal is to claim the biggest prize on the hill climb calendar - the national title - Monsal has history, crowds, and a decorated list of former winners to recommend it.

She arrived at Monsal Dale the night before the race, having won a few hours earlier on nearby Pea Royd hill, another accurate barometer of pre-nationals form and the course used last year to crown the reigning British champions. Her choice of accommodation is revealing of a scene closer than any to the grassroots of the sport: a shepherd’s hut sourced from Airbnb.

“I just wanted to get somewhere I could have some head space. The pressure of riding at Monsal had been building up, subconsciously, for a few weeks, to the point where I’d not wanted to do it. Everybody in the hill climb community is rooting for me to win, expecting me to try and win; expecting me to go for a course record. All of those things mean that you’ve got to be totally ready for that moment when it comes.”

The location of her shepherd’s hut ticked one further box on an exhaustive check list of pre-race preparation. If Richardson’s planning removed a further potential source of tension - a traffic jam en route to the course would have done nothing to ease her nerves - it did not assuage it entirely. She does not normally suffer pre-race anxiety, but has found herself susceptible at the biggest events.

“Before Harlech and this hill climb, I was properly feeling sick, and I never feel sick before an event. Three hours out from my ride, I was sat in my car listening to music, trying to stop the nerves and the nausea, which is really unusual for me, but it’s such a short effort that you have no time for delay in your decision making process,” she says.

“I’d built my own pressure. I’ve created my own social media story around this hill climb season. I’ve sort of put it out there that I’m on a winning streak and that I’m going to try to keep winning - simple as! At Monsal, I felt a bit laid bare.”

Cyclist Rich Stoodley lying on the ground in pain after a gruelling hill climb

Bears, bells and gladiators

Richardson rode the Monsal course twice in the morning, using the time to familiarise herself with the climb and its idiosyncrasies, and to settle upon critical details such as line choice and selection of starting gear.

Practice runs at around 80 per cent of the effort delivered in competition are part of a detailed, pre-race itinerary that involves breaking down the climb into “micro-points”. While such careful preparation pays dividends in competition, it adds to a growing intensity.

It says much for Richardson’s concentration, and for her belief that winning short hill climbs especially requires a mental effort to match the physical, that she refused an offer of very light wheels, extended shortly before the race, deciding to prioritise equanimity over efficiency.

“About an hour before I rode, kindly, I was offered a pair of super light wheels, but it would have been a 15-minute turnaround to put those wheels on my bike from a competitor’s. In that moment, I thought:  ‘Let’s try this.’ Instantly, I felt anxiety. It all comes down to the head game; the mental side,” she reveals.

Perhaps there is an emotional aspect too; on courses like Monsal, at least. Scene stalwart ‘Rapid’ Rich Stoodley describes the course variously as serene, surreal and enfolding: descriptions recognised by Richardson.

“At the bottom of the hill, it’s like a tranquil autumn day, with riders quietly getting ready to go, but from behind the start line you can see the top of the climb, the flags rising above the trees and the crowd, and you can hear the microphone in the distance. There’s a weird lull, like you’re in a gladiator pen. You know that you’re about to go into the crowds, and then suddenly you’re on the start line and hearing ‘5,4,3,2,1’,” she says.

“Once you get off the ramp, it is lonely: just trees and one or two spectators. It’s not until you’re almost on top of the barriers that you finally see the crowds. The first person I recognised was Rapid Rich, almost in a bear-like pose, jumping up and down in the road with a massive cowbell, shouting: ‘Come on, Shandy! Ride, Shandy!’”

Close-up of cyclist Adam Kenway smiling

A strategic affair

Richardson’s descriptions of her preparation and performance in Monsal shine a light on a fascinating, tactical component; an aspect of hill climbing rarely discussed. While its essence lies in recording the fastest time from point A to point B, there are many and varied approaches to achieving such an apparently simple outcome. Much of the jargon will be familiar to time-trialists: the choice to record a ‘negative split’ (or positive) at certain parts of the course, as part of a broader pacing strategy, for example.

Peaslows Hill in Derbyshire falls into Richardson’s ‘shorter climb’ category. Her winning time was a course record of exactly three minutes. Clearly, her strategy was correct, sealing a day of triumph for Brother UK-sponsored teams by complementing Adam Kenway’s win for Vitus Pro Cycling Team in the men’s event. Compare and contrast with her victory on Great Dun Fell however, which required an effort of 26 minutes.

“With short climbs, it’s a mental game. I suppose it’s a bit like a sprint on the track. A lot of the preparation is in the head. You’ve got a very short period of time for an intense, paced effort and if your head’s not in it, it’s not going to happen. I find the shorter climbs so much harder for that reason, because the mental preparation is that much greater.”

Preparation involves careful consideration of the course before the event, and adopting a strategic approach by breaking it down into sections. Richardson offers the Shropshire climb of Burway as an example. Its steep opening ramp demanded a greater effort at the beginning of the climb to deliver a positive split, before she switched to “survival mode” for the final ramps. Every climb demands an open mind, she says.

Richardson suggests a national series of hill climbs, with a mixed calendar of long and short hills. Victory on the day at Monsal Head or Horseshoe Pass, offered as examples of short and long climbs respectively, would, naturally, retain their prestige, but placings would gain an added significance.

Cyclist Lizzie Banks riding down a winding hilly road

A certain ratio

Equipment is another distinctive feature of the hill climb scene. Bikes are stripped to reduce weight to the bare minimum. Richardson’s Specialized S-Works Tarmac, bought for year-round use but with the hill climb season in mind, has been shaved by Rick Bailey, a builder of bespoke machinery under the Cycles in Motion banner and co-manager of the B38 team, who changed the cables and even the quick-release skewers in her wheels to save grams. The drops have been sawn off her hill climb handlebars and she rides sans tape.

Her gearing has been optimised too, with only a single, 38-tooth chainring and an 11-28 cassette. Some climbs however are sufficiently brutal to make such comparatively accommodating ratios seem inadequate.

“The Struggle was the funniest,” Richardson says, chuckling at the memory of grinding her way up the brutal pass from Kirkstone to Ambleside. “It has 20 per cent ramps. It took me sixteen-and-a-half minutes. The last ramp is so steep. Your cadence drops so low, at that moment, I was thinking, ‘38t is the wrong choice!’ Later, I found out a guy competed with a 42t.”

Richardson provides a detailed description of her gearing choice for Monsal. A pre-race conversation with Christian Fox of the B38-Cycles In Motion team and founder of the UK Hill Climb Forum is revealing of the level of consideration.

“Christian and I recorded a very similar time. Before the race, I’d said: ‘When you hit that ramp, you want to go with 38-21. I know I can tap it up on 23, but I’m going to go 21.’ I hit the ramp in the 21, but half-way up, I chickened out. I was scared that the 21 was going to be a bit too ‘grindy’, so I put it into the 23, tapped to the barriered section, clicked down to 19 and sprinted to the line,” she reveals.

“The thing is, I chickened out from my plan. I should have stuck in the 21. Christian followed my advice. I beat him by 0.1 of a second, but the point is, I changed the plan, which I try not to do. In my mind, I wasn’t completely decided on the 21 in that moment, and I should have committed to it.”

The team assisting an exhausted cyclist who is greeting spectators after a hill climb

A family affair

Like many specialist cycling disciplines, the hill climb scene has cultivated a family atmosphere. Something about the comparatively small community and the regularity with which it gathers (in season, at least) has fostered friendships and friendly rivalry. The cyclo-cross community can make similar claims, but Richardson, who has competed in both disciplines, cedes the edge to the hill climbers.

She cites several factors: the simplicity of the event and equipment, its comparatively low cost, and the quality of the competition and its consistency. The last factor is especially pertinent to women’s racing, she maintains, identifying Lucy Lee and Jess Evans (the latter one half of hill climbing’s ‘golden couple’, with husband Dan) among her regular competitors.

“The hill climb scene is like a big family. I had the same experience with cyclo-cross, but the hill climb scene takes it to another level. Everyone cheers each other. We’ll all openly discuss tactics. There’s no hiding. We all want each other to do well. Even at the top, you can discuss tactics with riders like Andy Feather or Calum Brown, guys setting great course records, and there’s just parity among us all as competitors,” she says.

“On another level, even the organisers will be shouting and cheering you all the way. It’s become quite emotional. Every weekend a motley band of riders collects at some bizarre and random spot, like on the edge of a motorway! It’s really fun. We all get on really well. We’re totally obsessed hill climb nuts! It feels like a special moment in time for us all. I’m sure after the nationals, we’ll all head off and hopefully see each other again next year.”

Ask stalwarts of the hill climb scene to describe its appeal and the answers are varied. The aforementioned Dan Evans, British champion in 2014 and 2017, opts for the one-word phrase “weird”.

The aforementioned Rick Bailey is more expansive: “Intense, fun, bonkers, niche, friendly, unique, painful, wild, funny and pure.” Like Richardson, he highlights the sense of community that unites a scene quintessentially British and curiously addictive to those who push themselves to exhaustion in the name of fun.

Cyclist Rebecca Richardson looking determined as she approaches the finish line of a hill climb with spectators in the background

National service

Already the Welsh champion, the British title would be a fitting addition to Richardson’s increasingly decorated palmares. Claiming the ‘stripes’ is arguably the only accomplishment greater than winning at Monsal Head.

Monsal’s unrivalled, 89-year history and the sheer scale of support it attracts adds to a significant prestige, but Richardson maintains that the national title is a greater accolade. Her belief shows an impressive consistency: she offered the same opinion when we discussed the matter two days before her victory. Winning has not changed her view.

She describes herself as goal driven. Since the road season reached its final throes, her target has been to win the national hill climb title. Victory at Monsal, while not directly comparable (the course for this year’s national championships on Devon’s Haytor Down is longer and better suited to her characteristics), has offered a valuable boost in confidence.

“Everyone talks about the nationals, whether it’s a short climb or a long climb. I think it’s interesting that a hill climber is considered someone who can do both. If you can do Monsal and a long climb like the course for this year’s nationals, you’re covering all grounds.”

Richardson’s winning time on Monsal was exactly two seconds faster than runner up Emilie Verroken (Maxx RT LV), nearly seven seconds better than third-placed Becky Hair (Hilston and Impington Bicycle Club), and just seven seconds short of the course record of 1.42.8, set in 2016 by Lou Bates; an impressive achievement for a rider with a preference for longer climbs.

The effort seems too short for any rider to know if they have “good legs”; the magical feeling to which Grand Tour stage winners typically attribute their success. Post-effort, almost every hill climber reflects that they could have given more on a certain section. After delivering her customary fast finish, Richardson can reflect positively on her performance at Monsal - and what it might foretell.

“The main parameters for success in a hill climb are an ability to deal with pressure and to deal with pain. I felt that I dealt with both at Monsal. I couldn’t even talk to anyone in the last hour: I was just calming myself. I feel I’ve proved that I can deal with the pressure, and obviously with pain. I’m looking forward now to the nationals, because I’ve got over Monsal. I’ve got a clear head. It’s an indication, physically, that I’m in the right place.”

A national title would be a fitting end to what, at time of writing, has been a campaign of unbroken victories for Richardson. She talks of being “in the moment”; recognising that this is a special season by any standard, and allowing herself to enjoy it. For hill climbers, specialists in pain, October is the cruellest month. For Richardson, it might also be the most rewarding.

Images by Tony R Wood. Visit tonyrwoodphotography.com

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