Maryka Sennema wins 2014 National Hill Climb Champs

Once, when those who competed in them were concerned that greater public awareness of bicycle racing might lead to a total ban on bikes on British roads, time trials operated under great secrecy. Rules stipulated that the riders had to be dressed head-to-toe in plain black, and the races would be held at the crack of dawn on secret routes identified by a code rather than a name, so that only those who had been accepted into the time trial world would know where to meet. Though the British League of Racing Cyclists proved in the 1940s when it created the race that would become the Tour of Britain that the majority of the public – and, just as importantly, the police – were in favour of cycling competitions on the roads, many time trial-orientated clubs still use codes and many races are still held at dawn, though this is as much to avoid traffic as to escape detection nowadays. As a result, the non-cycling public are generally unaware of just how many time trials take place.

The British hill climbing scene is all of the above and more: even many cyclists and cycling fans have little idea of how many of these races, which are essentially time trials on short and usually punishingly steep roads, take place around the country. The hill climb season, which continues for just a few weeks at the close of the road racing season, culminates in the National Hill Climb Championships which was held this year on Pea Royd Lane at Stocksbridge in Yorkshire, a 1,027m (or 1,200 yards, the unit generally used in British hill climb events) route that tests riders’ skill and strengh by combining a couple of sharp and gravelly corners with an ever-changing gradient before it hits the lung-busting 20% incline near the top.

See Pea Royd Lane on Strava

Maryka Sennema of Kingston Wheelers went to the race as defending champion, having also won on The Stang, another infamous Yorkshire hill climb course, last year. Here, in her own words, is the story of how she retained her title.

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It was great to see 29 women on the start sheet and another 8 junior women all gunning for the last big event of the season, the RTTC National Hill Climb championships. This is the only CTT championship still run as one big event, and while there are separate men’s and women’s awards for it, the results are printed as one great list with the women’s times scattered amongst the men’s. But with over 280 entries for 180 places and a mere 15 reserves allowed (no EOL of course!), this may be the last year that this happens, as some of the more vocal movers in time-trialling are calling for separate events next year and more entries allowed. Here’s hoping!

This year’s course is Pea Royd Lane, site of the 2009 champs, but now completely resurfaced into 1100m of lovely tarmac. With a nice tailwind blowing, mild temperatures and dry roads, conditions are as perfect as you can ask for a late October hill climb in Yorkshire. I am off last, being the defending champion, and for once nerves nearly get the better of me in the hours before the start — the pressure you put on yourself is ten times worse than what you perceive from others! But feeling confident in my recce a few days before and my pacing strategy, I take to the line and wait to go. Once the countdown starts, everything shrinks to that small tunnel of road in front of the bike, and with my hat pulled low I was ready.

(More below the photo…)

BHCC

Sennema in action on Pea Royd Lane (© Russell Ellis)

Up the first steep rise from the start line, and there begins the tug of war between one voice and the other in my head: “easy easy don’t start out too hard, don’t overcook it, gear down” and “you’re going too easy! losing time! wake up, this is a race!” Thankfully this only lasts about 2 min and then I hit the bridge at halfway and the pain kicks in anyway, drowning out both voices and proving I hadn’t really riding that easy after all. From now, I can only focus on turning over the pedals, pull all the energy into the centre of my body, glance at the powermeter for motivation, and soldier on til the final corner when I know from my recce that there’s just over a minute to go.

At that corner is my husband, usually shouting something encouraging but today snapping pics with my daughter sheltering from the wind behind him (not that I noticed them much til I saw other pictures afterwards). It’s good that he didn’t shout much, as it would have been something along the lines of “you’re 10 seconds down!” which I am, well behind the eventual 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed riders who will end up within 2 seconds of each other. No matter, it’s time to pour it on now, except there’s not much left to pour out of my legs. At least the powermeter is saying I’m not dropping watts and that means I am having the strong finish I know I need to win this event. The splits from 2009 showed how many went out too hard in the first half and paid dearly in the final steep minute, but that’s not what will happen to me today. But can I really make up over 10 seconds in only 300m?

Coming up to the announcer now, who’s standing about 30 secs from the finish line, and I can hear him saying something about past multi-winner Lynn Hamel but I’m not sure what. Then a man appears at my left shouting “you’re level, you’re level, you have to kick now!” and I realise what he means. Little does he know, in another handful of seconds is where I’ll stand up on the pedals for the first time since the start and power my way to the finish line, just as the road rises for one last steep kick. Everyone else who’s been standing up already will wince in pain at yet another lift in gradient, but for me and my style of climbing, this is a perfect finish, with the road rising pretty much exactly 15 secs to the end, just enough to empty the tank of whatever top end power I have left.

Cross the line, two guys in hi-viz jackets “catch” me, I take a second to stop the Garmin and look at my time, around 4:35 which is what I reckoned I could do on a good but not great day. Watts pretty good. But is it enough to win? Did I take it too easy early on? Never really felt that great, legs sluggish and lungs screaming the whole race. Nagging doubt and I don’t want to hang around the finish and talk about it, I just want to ride on and get away from the crowd and the race and find some clear headspace again.

20 minutes later I am riding slowly back at HQ having ridden down the descending road, up it, then down it again by way of cooldown. 4:35, 4:35… is it enough? At HQ I see my family, the times for the final handful of women are only just going up on the board now. “Yep” says my husband, deftly hiding his surprise (admitting to me later that he thought I was going to lose when he saw me at the final corner) and it turns out that 4:35 is nearly 7 seconds enough to win. Relief! Joy! I’ve proved to everyone I can win again and last year wasn’t a fluke, proved to myself that my training worked and my strategy for pacing the hill was a success. But as quickly as I savour the moment, I’m already thinking about next year. With more and more fast, strong, and tough women showing up at this race, it will be much closer than 7 seconds next year. How can I train harder, make my bike lighter, and find those elusive extra watts on race day? All of that will be needed and it’s a welcome challenge!

1 Maryka Sennema (Kingston Wheelers) 4’35.3″
2 Lou Collins (Beeston RC) 4’42.1″
3 Lynn Hamel (Trainsharp RT) 4’42.6″
4 Nicola Soden (GB Cycles.co.uk) in 4’43.9″
5 Josephine Gilbert (VC St Raphael) in 4’48.6″