Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Urban Hill Climb: Somebody Has to Finish Last

I've elsewhere attempted to replicate the experience of "racing" up Swain's Lane during the recent Rollapaluza Urban Hill Climb, so here I want offer a few more descriptions and thoughts of the evening.

First of all, as the day progressed I started to get more and more nervous. I finally jumped on my bike around five o'clock and rode around a little in the clearing drizzle to warm up and settle myself a little on my way to the sign-in. It turns out I wasn't the only one; Damian (00:02:11.390) of CS Grupetto, who rode up after me, said he had to leave work early because he couldn't stand the building anticipation/nerves. Atmosphere at the sign-in headquarters was relatively relaxed and very friendly. The biggest task seemed to be figuring out how the hell to affix the race number to your bike.

From HQ I rode with Damian over to the starting point, and chatted a little about our goals. I'd already realized from looking around at the other riders signing in that my primary goal should be to complete the climb, which had some kind of relaxing effect on me. The people gathered at the starting point were in good spirits, too--in fact, one of the best things about the Hill Climb was the friendly atmosphere, from the competitors to the organizers to the onlookers.

Anyway, eventually Tom (00:01:50.480) of Rollapaluza CC was sprinting up the hill on a time trial bike, which meant that I was next. I hereby apologize to the guys at the start for climbing on my bike earlier than necessary and making them keep me balanced for a full minute. I was nervous! And then the hand was in front of me, and the countdown was going from five and I was off.

In retrospect, I did a lot of things wrong. I've climbed Swain's Lane a lot of times, since I live around the corner from it, but I've never ridden up it as fast as I possibly can (as one of the organizers said to me when I was chatting to him later, "Why would you?"). I'd spent a lot of time beforehand trying to decide how to do my gears. Should I start in the small chainring and just spin it out at a high rate, Lance Armstrong-style? Or should I start in the big chainring and shift down when I hit the steep part after the cemetery gates? I opted for the latter; in retrospect, the former might've been smarter, for a couple reasons: one, my quads were just starting to burn when I hit the gates, and I think I would've had more energy for the steepest part if I'd been in a lower gear; two, my shift into the small chainring was anything but smooth, which disrupted my rhythm and momentum somewhat.

Sometime as this was all going on, Dr. Matt was doing this:

The result of which was this:

One can see that I'm bent over too much; if I'd straightened my back a bit more I could've pedaled and breathed more efficiently. Whatever.

The next thing I did wrong was, as my legs really started to sing with pain, and my lungs started to heave with the effort, and my vision went tunnel, I forgot that I had more gears left to drop. So I ended up pedaling somewhere in the middle of the gears, when spinning more would've been a whole lot more efficient, and probably kept me from near-collapse and pretty much total bonk on the part where the gradient drops as you head for the last stretch to the finish line.

While I was suffering through that final stretch, and seriously thinking I might not make it, somebody on the sideline, sympathetic to my plight, began beating out a cadence on his thighs. I was semi-aware of his movements, and realized that I needed to pedal in time to the sound. I concentrated everything on that sound for the rest of the race, and I'm pretty much indebted to that guy for getting me across the line.

I crossed the line, rider number two, in second place, and held onto it for less than a minute, when Damian crossed the line. From there it was a slow and steady slide to the bottom of the pile, beaten by riders on Bromptons, by Leo (00:03:03.170) of Flying Pigs CC on a Boris Bike (it's not all bad; Leo got some free beers for beating "a roadie, in lycra, with gears"), by men, women and children. I finished with an official time of 00:03:13.190. I'm kind of disappointed; I'd hoped to come in under three minutes. So I may have to try again next year, after I've forgotten all the agony. In the end, I placed fifth from the bottom, ahead of two youth males and two senior females, and dead last of the senior men. At the awards ceremony (complete with podium girls and boy) when the prize for "Dead Fucking Last" was announced, I actually got nervous, thinking of the distinct possibility that my name might now be called. Here's the full results.

Before the awards ceremony I ran into Julian "Crusher" Cunnington (00:01:57.220) of Condor Cycles, who recognized the Key Lime Pie as the bike that he sold me. He was pleased that I'd bought a jacket in the same color as the bike. I felt a little sheepish about having ridden so slowly.

The Urban Hill Climb is far and away the most painful thing I've ever done. I knew way ahead of time that anaerobic events are not my specialty, and never have been, but I don't think I was prepared for quite how taxing this ride would be. At the end, I couldn't see straight (I literally could not see straight), was hyperventilating, my legs throbbed with pain and felt numb at the same time, and basically didn't work for a little while, and I looked like this:

and this:

I'd definitely broken through some new layer in my pain barrier, and I feel somehow more confident going up hills these days. Swain's Lane looks a little different now (I went out the next day and rode a route that finished by going up it again; it was a strangely semi-surreal experience, less than twelve hours later). Most of my riding is long, medium-paced rides, and I don't consider myself a particularly good or fast cyclist, just kind of average. I think the Urban Hill Climb showed me that this is a pretty accurate assessment. I suppose in the General Classification of cycling life some people are overall contenders, some are in for the green jersey, others go for the polka dots, and some are domestiques. I guess I'm one of the latter. But then again, that's not so bad. Is it?



  1. Nice write up of the event, you can always improve for next year! (No 5)

  2. Thanks, Luke (00:02:01.840)! I figure there's nowhere to go but up (and, uh, up) next year...