The Hill Climb is a peculiarly British tradition. It’s technically a time trial but oh, it’s so much more than a time trial.
There’s no out and back, no A-roads, no eye-wateringly expensive monstrosities carved from chunks of the blackest carbon. Typically taking place on a short but steep section of rural road, competitors set off one at a time and for a few intense minutes give it everything they’ve got.
Riders originate from the amateur circuit but the meticulous way some of them approach hill climb season would put plenty of pros to shame.
Power to weight is everything in a hill climb and any extra gram is only slowing you down. A second or two can easily be the difference between winning and losing so, for the most dedicated competitors, if it can be dispensed with it will be.
For many it is as close to the experience of a professional race as they will ever come: the intensity of the effort, the crowds lining the road, the noise. The noise.
Hill climb season lasts for about a month, beginning as the leaves are turning red and concluding with the National Climb Championships at the end of October.
Last year’s champs took place in Hedley on the Hill in Northumberland. The men’s race was won in a time of 3 minutes 54 seconds by Dan Evans. Joscelin Lowden of Lewes Wanderers took home the women’s title.
What stands out from photographer Russ Ellis’s shots is the pain. The classic hill climb shot is of the rider in full flow, their face wearing their very own version of the grimace known as “hill climb face”. While there’s a few of those in this selection, most capture the aftermath of the participant’s run. Collapsed on the nearest patch of grass or gravel to the finish line, as the rider desperately fights to feel human again.
Let’s give Russ the final word:
“It’s just a group of undernourished cyclists craving cake and a beer, riding bikes that have been on even more of a diet than they have.”
A version of this article was first published in Rouleur 17.8