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Interview: Paul Jones

With that curiously British institution, the hill climbing season, drawing to its conclusion - the national championships are due to be held at the end of October - Paul Jones pops into the Café for a coffee and a chat about A Corinthian Endeavour, his book telling the history of hill climbing in the UK, a history that also manages to get to the heart of why we ride bikes in the first place.

A Corinthian Endeavour, by Paul Jones Podium Café: Let's begin at the beginning. I always thought it was Henri Desgrange who invented hill climbing, when he discovered the Pyrénées in 1910 and then the Alps a year later, but actually by that time the British had already been racing uphill for three decades, is that right?

Paul Jones: It would seem so. There is a discernible fascination in tackling a climb evident right from the earliest beginnings of the bicycle, including on ordinaries. Initially the measure of success was whether you made it to the top; reports stated ‘three got up', or my favourite, ‘five got up, including HL Cortis who rode the hill with one arm in a sling. The clocking was questioned'.

I can't quite fathom the reality of riding a penny farthing uphill, it seems fraught with danger. It would be safer to throw yourself out of a second story window wearing nothing but your pants.

PdC: The national championships came along in 1944, organised by the RTTC. Had there been unofficial championships before that, similar to - say - the way the Hour record existed before 1893?

PJ: People began racing on bicycles as soon as it had been invented, and this includes riding uphill. There was a full hill climb calendar in the 1930s when the ‘season' began to occupy the traditional space at the end of the road season.

Harold Worthern was the pre-war tyro and he won the first championship in 1944, but there was a big pre-war scene. I love looking at the names of the early racers in the press and their lyrical descriptions; "The Finsbury Park Crack, FH Dowell". It links back to an era of muscular Victorians, especially when you see the rider in question is sporting a full tweed jacket and tie with plus fours.

The unofficial championship was Catford CC, at least in terms of press coverage, it garnered a full page and photos in Cycling every year with a lengthy and lyrical narrative describing the efforts of riders like EW Hussey, with references to ‘agony corner' and the ‘deleterious effects of gravity' being the order of the day.

PdC: British hill climbs - they do seem to be peculiarly British, it's hard to think of an international equivalent. I know they used to race uphill on Mt Faron away back in the way way back days and there's a Mt Chauve time trial that gets talked about when people talk about Alfredo Binda, but there's nothing really like British hill climbs: one to three kilometres of greasy leaf-strewn roads with a kick in them, tackled at the tail end of a season. The Spanish used to have the Subida Urkiola and of course there's Il Lombardia, but they're 150-200 kilometres, so something quite different. Have you come across anything to compare to the British hill climbing season?

PJ: In short, no. There is the occasional uphill time trial within a longer stage race, Col d'Èze is one, and there was also a race up Montjuïc in Barcelona, invariably won by the climbers, Lejarreta being an example, but it was erratic.

The British hill climb season seems to be the cycling equivalent of skiffle music, a genuinely British phenomenon with a perverse, DIY aesthetic all of its own. It makes more sense when you see them as short, uphill time trials; a product of a country with no early interest in the dark arts of massed-start bike racing. It's worth noting that there is no equivalent for the British time trial scene either.

PdC: Metrics. I think in metres and kilometres. So when I went looking for details on some of the climbs you talk about in A Corinthian Endeavour, that's what I was looking for in order to understand how long and difficult they are. Time is your preferred measure, levelling as it does somewhat short sharp shockers and slightly longer but more gentle climbs.

PJ: This is probably an accident. I didn't think about it too much. Perhaps it's the racer in me; knowing how long a climb takes is the key metric; how long you have to measure the effort for. Length becomes slightly irrelevant. At times I felt I was inhabiting some sort of pre-decimalisation vortex, with fifths of a second, yards, inches and 1-in-3s.

PdC: Where is Britain's Pûy de Dome, the climb that best mixes geography and heritage?

PJ: There are lots of incredible ascents like Buttertubs and Hartside Fell which don't tend to be used for hill climbs but have a cachet and appeal for road cyclists. In terms of the hill climb ‘circuit', obvious ones are Holme Moss, Winnats Pass, or perhaps the Nick O' Pendle.

Winnats Pass
Winnats Pass

In terms of raw, unkempt beauty, the Burway at Church Stretton (or Long Mynd) is an evanescent and luminous place where Chris Boardman won despite having ‘blown up'. The climb also features in Jack Thurston's book, Lost Lanes Wales, as a place of bicycling pilgrimage.

However, for mythology and heritage, it's Winnats Pass. It featured in the Tour of the Peak, a lost ‘classic' of the road race season, and is still the most frequently visited climb in the history of the championship, despite having been lost as a parcours since 1978 due to an increase in traffic density.

PdC: Let's talk about community. There's something very compressed about hill climbing in Britain that seems to accentuate certain things. With a hill only being a couple of kilometres long, a small crowd can seem quite large: there's an extra intensity to it, which in itself creates a reason to be a part of that crowd. Is hill climbing more communal than tear-assing up and down the drag-strips that make up the main time trialling circuit, or does it just seem that way?

PJ: Undoubtedly. There is no affinity with the A419 or any other arrow of tarmac. It's a death strip. Why would you ever go there? The increasing self-deception of the TT scene is absurd; the justification for using certain roads seems ludicrous. If you race on a dual carriageway, sooner or later something ugly is going to happen.

For me, cycling is increasingly about the search for companionable roads, away from the hostility of traffic and hermetically-sealed motorists with barely suppressed rage. And yet time trials opt for the worst of these roads in search of seconds of time. There are better ways to spend a Sunday morning than standing on a bridge, watching a time triallist on a dual carriageway.

Hill climbs present a complete contrast, and there is a hilarious contradiction, insofar as the more beautiful and incandescent the landscape, the more horrible and brutal the experience will be. Each rider takes a long time to come past, they're only doing 8mph or some savagely slow pace, they look shot to pieces, it's completely gladiatorial and engrossing. It's the closest the UK amateur can get to Alpe d'Huez.

In 2012 I rounded the corner on the Rake and three drunk-looking men shouted and screamed in my face from about a yard away then fired off an air horn an inch from my ear. It was sensually overpowering and the tunnel of people at the top has all kinds of disconcerting effects on your progress. There is no escape.

PdC: Technology. You're no Luddite, but you do comment a few times on the atomisation of society - particularly insofar as it impacts cycling - brought about by new technology, in particular the internet. The battle of Strava versus clubs, for instance. Harnessed properly though, do you think that things like Strava could actually bring people to hill climbing?

PJ: I'd have to agree with Maryka Sennema on this one, and your last statement. I think that in the book at times I do come across perhaps more of a Luddite than I intended, and perhaps even a little bit ‘anti' certainly elements of the sport. More cyclists is always a good thing, it's healthier and just better for everyone.

However, I think there is something to be said about the incessant commodification of cycling, the eye-watering expense of high-end kit and the way everyone seems to be a neo-pro these days, head-to-toe in Castelli with £1k wheelsets for a Sunday bun run.

Despite these reservations, I'm not entirely sure I made my point in the right way and it's a fine line between subjective comment and snide remarks. There's a lot of ambivalence and I never quite resolve it. That's writing I guess, and the difference between writing a blog, where you can say whatever you like, and writing a book, where there are slightly different shades of responsibility and awareness.

I use Strava and use technology. We have a year long Strava hill climb competition in the club (Bristol South CC) and it's been a spectacular success. I noticed recently that a club broadened their hill climb championship to anyone who rode the course (or segment) on Strava within a certain week. These are all good things, and competition makes things more competitive, and so on.

What I'm kicking against is the way that an outdoors experience can be negated very quickly by a relentless focus on the digitised experience, and it often goes hand in hand with the current wave of high-disposal income purchases and unfeasibly expensive wheelsets that never get ridden in anger.

PdC: You write about yourself a little bit in A Corinthian Endeavour - you were a participant in some of the races you wrote about - so let's get a little bit of your own story: how did you come to discover hill climbing and what brings you back to the national championships year after year?

PJ: I came to hill climbing for two reasons; it was easy to enter, and I was quite thin. I'd always sought out climbs and lived in London for a long time. I used to head to Toys Hill (the steep side) as a point of pilgrimage and came to relish the experience of riding uphill, and then dropping friends at a certain point.

When I moved to Bristol we used to organise some slightly guerrilla events; one taking in lots of Bristol's more unpleasant inclines and another we just called the ‘Hell Climb', using a Slayer album cover as the artwork. There was another unofficial hill climb in Bath where I pretty much destroyed everybody, we took in three climbs out of the city in an afternoon and I just rode away with it.

After that it seemed normal to do hill climbs. In my first competitive event I had no idea what to do, I rode fixed, full tights, heavy wheels, jacket, the lot, no expectations, didn't want to come last, and somehow came fifth in an event won by Tejvan Pettinger [national champion, 2013]. I resolved to do lots more the next year and rode the National on Dovers in 2010. It was unlike anything I'd ever done before, the camaraderie and bonhomie, the spectacle and the baying crowd.

It's great to feel a part of something, and to be good at it; it's good for your self-esteem. In the book I'm trying to frame other people's experience through my subjective view, it's a way of filtering and interpreting.

PdC: Let's talk about a couple of the people you write about. You got wonderful interviews with Vic Clark and Eric Wilson, two champions from the 1940s and the 1950s, who talk with warmth about the whole thing, the hills and the races and the men they raced against. Both of these guys got into hill climbing through touring, the sort of background that stopped being cool around about the 1980s. The touring though, I suppose that must have helped in learning how to ride the type of hills raced in Britain, it's typically through touring that you stumble upon that sort of hill.

PJ: It's the same with Gareth Armitage [national champion, 1975 and 1978], at one point I speculate that he'd probably ridden nearly all the hill climb course in the country whilst touring, without even realising. I imagine these brief moments where he's in a horrible contortion of effort, but is struck suddenly by a vague sense of déjà vu, of a different time in the same space, but much slower and more pleasant.

There was a point where touring became a byword for SPD sandals and weird beards, and a part of me is fearful of the future for the human race when I see anyone under the age of 30 on a Thorn, but touring seems to be cool again. Bikepacking and micro adventures are all the rage, Carradice are selling by the saddlebagload and it's once again seen as a necessary escape from a dizzying, dense and overwhelming modernity. It's certainly something I've done more of and again, looking at Jack Thurston, the sense of escape and the journey is articulated beautifully on The Bike Show and in his writing.

PdC: Darryl Webster - four-time national champion, 1983-1986 - is the other guy I wanted to mention here. Webster is in some ways typical of more modern riders, insofar as the heritage of hill climbing was unimportant to him at the time he was riding, but he's become more understanding of its importance - to others if not to himself - in the years since.

PJ: Darryl Webster is particularly interesting. In fact, there were three or four - Jeff Williams [national champions, 1979, 1981 and 1982] and Pete Longbottom, who I became drawn to and at some point I'd like to write something more about the 1980s, the pre-BC British roadmen.

Darryl seemed to mellow a bit over time, or at least understood that the event meant something to other people. Beyond that, I get the sense that there aren't many things in life with which Darryl Webster doesn't have a challenging and intense relationship; friends, family, the global capitalist system, cycling, the past, the future, everything. He's a complex chap, and I like and value him all the more for that. I'm reminded of the scene at the end of View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, where a lawyer says of a character that ‘he allowed himself to be wholly known'. Darryl is Darryl, there isn't the careful veneer with which most of us hide certain aspects or avoid things; he calls it as he sees it.

PdC: It took until 1998 for women to be allowed race alongside the men in the national hill climb championship, and 2003 before the fastest woman was actually recognised as a national champion. How do you find the women's stories compare to the men's?

PJ: I wish there were more of them, going back further. The lack of a similar women's event meant that there is no Eileen Sheridan or Beryl Burton to write about. I feel as though the mythology is being constructed now. I'm surprised by just how long it took to run a women's event and feel it is an oversight.

It would be good to see Hayley Simmonds ride this year (she is), or one of the current crop of ridiculously strong roadwomen, even Laura Trott. In many ways, that's what has shaped the men's event, the battle between the specialist and the professional, whether it's Bob Maitland [national champion, 1945 and 1949] against Vic Clark [national champion 1946-1948], or Jim Henderson [national champion, 1998-2001 and 2003] against Stuart Dangerfield [national champion, 1992-1993 and 1995-1997]. I'd like to see Katie Archibald take on Maryka Sennema [national champion, 2013 and 2014].

PdC: The future. With A Corinthian Endeavour you're introducing hill climbing to people like me who've never really thought about it in great detail. David Millar chose the Bec hill climb for his swan song in 2014 and Maryka Sennema mentioned how a hill climb had been part of Rollapaluza and you've already mentioned the way some clubs are using Strava. Are you hopeful for the future of the sport?

PJ: I'm incredibly optimistic. The low set up cost, simplicity and ease, along with the largely traffic free routes in beautiful places mean it's a viable and sustainable, as well as an accessible form of the sport.

I don't think people realise how easy and stress-free it is to participate in a hill climb, beyond the obvious discomfort in coughing up a small section of lung tissue.

Rollapaluza are going to run their ‘urban hill climb' again next year, and the CTT are toying with the idea of a year-long series. In the South West, where I live and race, the field size is on an exponential curve, to the extent where I can't win events anymore, although that might be more to do with me being elderly and infirm. Every silver lining has a cloud.

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Paul Jones is the author of A Corinthian Endeavour (Mousehold Press, 2015).

You can find his blog at traumfahrrad.com and he's on Twitter, @traumradfahren.

You'll find a review of A Corinthian Endeavour on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Paul Jones for participating in this interview.