I should start with an admission:
I’m not a professional cyclist. I’m an addict.
But that hasn’t stopped me from training, living, and eating as though I am one the last couple of years.
Even if I was physiologically capable of doing so, I won’t ever ride professionally. I’m already knocking on 30’s door, and came to the sport too late.
My infatuation with cycling is largely thanks to my father-in-law (a keen cyclist himself for decades – Sorry Ian, I know that makes you sound a bit old), who took me Mountain Biking in the Swiss Alps one year with his mates.
Before we arrived I watched countless YouTube videos of hour long descents. I listened as the group would excitedly recount tales of twisty downhill singletrack. Describe the thrill of soaring through the air as you skillfully bump off a tree root. Or explain how effortless and perfect the berms are there, allowing you to carry dangerous speeds through tight corners. It sounded equal parts awesome and terrifying.
The thing is – and much to the confusion of everyone else – when we got there I enjoyed riding up the hills just as much as I did flying down them.
A rather out of shape Ross gets hooked on cycling in the Alps. The rest is history.
Jump ahead two years…
As much fun as I had, our MTB trip was nothing more than a gateway drug into the World of Road Riding. Pretty soon the occasional weekend trip to the Lake District could no longer satisfying my cravings and so around Christmas 2011 I bought my first road bike.
I said hello to lycra and goodbye to my free time and money. I was hooked. Not long after I started riding I discovered Strava, and over the next few years went on a mission to try and claim the King Of The Mountain for every climb I could find. I entered and even won a few open hill climbs and was getting fitter and faster all the time.
And so to justify my obsession, at the end of 2014 I set myself an ambitious goal;
“To compete, and finish Top Ten at the 2015 National Hill Climb Championships.”
The National Hill Climb is held annually on the last Sunday in October, and is traditionally the closing event of the cycling season. This year the arena was a short, steep hill of just under a mile long in Yorkshire, known as Jackson Bridge.
The event is a niche discipline in cycling. Dominated by professional and sponsored riders. All with years of experience in their lean, immaculately shaven legs. So what made me, a nobody with a full time job and limited experience, decide he was capable of competing with the big boys?
When I first had the idea to target the National Hill Climb as a serious goal I had been riding for roughly three years. Thanks to some local success in club level hill climbs (I won the first two I entered) and Strava, I knew I had a certain gift for cycling up hills at speed. My body is naturally built for it; I have long limbs, am naturally light, and have an ability to maintain a high level of effort for sustained periods of time.
I don’t weigh much and I can put up with being miserable better than most.
Why Top Ten though?
The honest answer to that question can be found in a ride I did on my last day in Mallorca back in May 2014. At the time it was one of the best climbs I had done in my life.
After an easy pootle out, and a spot of lunch at the lighthouse I decided the legs were feeling good and I would do one last big effort to cap off the week. I hit the infamous Cape Formentor climb hard and over the next 15 minutes grimace, and sweat my way to not just the summit; but also the Strava KOM. On uploading my ride I was amazed to discover I had beaten (Champion System rider and well-known hill climber) Lee Baldwin’s time by 3 seconds!
That stuck with me. And so in October the same year when Lee placed 8th at the National Hill Climb I thought to myself “Damn, that could be me right? Why not have a go next year and see if you can crack top ten too.”
And so that’s exactly what I set out to do.
And so it begins…
From November 2014 to October 2015 being able to cycling up a hill faster than most people in the country was an obsession. I logged something like 900 hours on the bike, I rode around 30,000 miles and climbed in excess of 350,000 feet.
In January of 2015 I designed and built http://rossmalpass.co.uk to document my training. It was my way of showing the World “Hey! I’m not just wasting my time with this cycling thing! I’m actually trying to do something with it.”, and amazingly people started showing an interest in my cycling.
Actually, no. No one cared about my cycling, what they were really interesting in is #WhatsInRoss. My food posts are by far the most popular articles on my website! Maybe I should’ve tried becoming a Chef instead?
I’m a quiet, shy guy by nature and so even announcing this to friends and family as something I wanted to achieve was a big deal to me. I’m competitive, always have been, but quietly so. If I don’t believe I have a chance of doing well, I won’t put myself out there in the first place. Instead I’ll practice, practice, practice until I feel good enough to win. It’s all or nothing. Balls deep. One hundred and ten percent with me. The reason (I think it’s the reason anyway) is that I’m terrified of embarrassing myself. I believe this has roots in a traumatic School assembly experience – but that’s a story for another time.
The point is if I was doing this, I had to be committed. And to do that my family had to understand why I was turning down their delicious homemade sticky toffee pudding. Or refusing that second helping of Cottage Pie. And why I looked more and more like a Prisoner of War as the year progressed. No, I’m fine, honestly… I’ve just given up food for a while.
Then there would of course be the hours of training. The missing of social events, the recovery tights, and the bike coming before everything else.
Luckily, my family are very understanding. Except for Nan. Nan will never understand my refusal of her Scones with jam and butter. If you say no to one of Nan’s scones you’ll get it lobbed at your head. I found that out first-hand.
I did some daft things during 2015 in an attempt to arrive on the start line in October on top form.
A few of which I considered “essential” and in hindsight were actually at best ludicrous, and worst dangerous to my health.
The existence of a Hill Climb specialist can be a lonely, hungry, and frustrating one.
I spent the first few months of the year exclusively on the turbo trainer. I only rode my bike in my garage because my coach at the time decided I was doing too many junk miles. This meant twice a week I was pushing myself to exhaustion.
At times I was probably one step away from an eating disorder. If you remove the bike from the picture, all that remained was a tired, gaunt looking guy with a restricted diet and a concave stomach. I would avoid certain foods. I didn’t have desserts or treats for months on end. I would even eat lunch on my own at work, while colleagues socialised over food at fancy restaurants and pubs.
Then I’d spend cold evenings by myself. Riding up the same hill ten times or more until my legs cramped and I thought “shit, I’ve still got to get home yet”, that’s not going to be much fun.
All of this in preparation for an event I failed to even qualify for.
That’s right. I’m writing this having not even taken part in the race I trained so hard, and made so many sacrifices for.