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Interview: Maryka Sennema

With the leaves falling from the trees, the evenings drawing in and thoughts already turning to switching on the central heating, British cyclists are currently in the midst of one of the more quaint parts of the UK cycling season: hill climbing. September and October see greasy, leaf-strewn hills with ramps of one-in-four sending out their siren call and cyclists of all talents racing themselves and one and other to their summits.

A Corinthian Endeavour Paul Jones tells the history of the British national hill climb championship in A Corinthian Endeavour and having been introduced there to this somewhat anachronistic aspect of British cycling I wanted to learn a little bit more and so spoke to Maryka Sennema, who took the women's title in 2013, successfully defended it last year and is now gearing up for 2015's championships.

Podium Café: You're Canadian - how did you discover the niche within a niche that is the British hill climb season?

Maryka Sennema: I moved to Holland from Canada first, ten years ago, and though I'd been riding a bike since I was a kid and racing triathlons semi-seriously for a few years at that point, the Netherlands is where I really became a cyclist - even though it was quite flat where I lived.

One spring I did the Amstel Gold sportive which goes up a bunch of similar climbs to what we have in the UK: short, fairly steep VO2max efforts. I was surprisingly decent up those climbs relative to the riders around me, so that's when I discovered that I could climb. Then when I moved to south-west London/Surrey in 2008, I joined a cycling club and started to do club runs and more of those short climbs, I improved my pacing and gearing and lost some weight and got faster up them.

We had some threads on our forum where people would list their best times up some iconic hill climbs, like Boxhill (this was pre-Strava!) so I could see that my times were pretty good versus most men and women. I started training more seriously, took up road racing and time trialling and cyclocross, then started doing hill climb races which were a natural end-of-season type thing for someone like me who was keen to race everything I could - being quite new to the sport really.

My club promoted an open hill climb which is how I probably was convinced to start entering them, especially as I thought I could win. I suppose a lot of it comes down to accidentally finding something you're good at, and then that spurs you on to get better and better at it, and go for some big results.

PdC: The hills - in Britain, they are hills, short, sharp little leg-wrenching lung-busters, typically one to three kilometres in length, I think the longest that's been climbed in the national championships is about ten kilometres. What's the key to getting up them fast, it's something quite different to climbing, say, the Ventoux or the Stelvio, no?

MS: My key to getting up hills fast is being fairly lightweight (within reason! I can't get Chris Froome skinny, just not something I can do as an amateur living an amateur's lifestyle, but I do my best to stay within a lean range), using a powermeter to pace my effort so that I don't die halfway up, and using gears that give me the cadence where I feel most comfortable and can put out my best power. All pretty simple stuff really, but it's surprising how many people can't pace themselves, suffer with gears that aren't low enough, or carry around lots of extra weight...

I actually haven't done a climb longer than an hour, never been to any big mountain climbs (yet) but for any climb it's really just a matter of not going out too hard or too easy, and making sure you have the gears for your preferred cadence. Longer climbs are more threshold or tempo efforts obviously, shorter climbs are more anaerobic or VO2max efforts, but the premise is the same for all.

Hill climbs as they are raced in the UK are time trial efforts, which means everyone can pace it as they like. It's a different story if you're racing in a bunch and have to try and match others' attacks or be dropped.

I'm definitely a better steady rider than a punchy attacking rider but it pays to have knowledge of the climb beforehand so you can gauge which parts needs more relative effort and where you should hold back or ride easier - isopower isn't usually the fastest way to get up a climb unless it's the same gradient for the whole thing. I won the national hill climb last year in the final minute of a 4.5 minute climb - I was actually behind in the first half looking at the virtual timing - mostly because I paced myself to start conservative and hold something in reserve for that final steep part whereas most other women did the opposite.

PdC: Going faster in the second half of a time trial - I seem to have been hearing 'negative splits' an awful lot this year when people talk about time trials. It does actually make a big difference in a hill climb though: it takes a lot of effort to go faster than your rivals on the lower gradient toward the base of a climb while - if you have something in the tank - you can be going twice as fast as them on the really steep bit, which in British hill climbs can be one-in-four steep.

MC: Yes, it's interesting to view the splits for 2009's race up Pea Royd, you can see Lynn [Hamel] went out way too hard and really died in the second (steeper) half compared to Anna [Fischer] where she should have been relatively faster being a smaller rider.

My husband said that on the first ~3 minute section of the Stang in 2013 he had Lynn and I timed even, and it was then he knew I'd win it because he knew I'd have paced myself to keep pushing on over the next seven minutes (a flatter section followed by another steeper final section) whereas Lynn was probably already on the limit.

It's the style of rider really, I'm a conservative pacer which helps a lot in longer climbs. On something like the Rake I'm not so sure, three minutes is pretty short for a hill climb to be won by tenths of a second, and you can't afford to lose any time by going even five per cent too easy in the early part, yet you also can't go out too hard either or you'll pay dearly later.

The Catford climb is shallow to start then insanely steep at the end, and it's taken me about four times racing it to get it "right" as I always go out too easy in the shallower part. It's hard to override that part of my brain that says "you're going too hard!" and I can imagine it must be the same for someone who always goes out too hard, to override that part of their brain that's screaming "you're going too easy!"

PdC: What sort of numbers come out during hill climb season? It's busy with events up and down the country, I can see that from looking at the schedule on the CTT site, but does it attract many riders? Does it attract enough women riders?

MS: Hill climbing is definitely a niche sport, but no more than time trialling really, except that perhaps many average to heavy riders will give hill climbs a wide berth because they don't feel they'll be competitive, or because there's no "target" to reach for (like there is with trying for a personal best at a set distance time trial like a ten or twenty-five).

The fact that it comes late in the season is sort of a drawback as I think there are a lot more roadies who would be great at hill climbs but who feel like their season's over and they can't face more races! Racing a short all-out effort is quite mentally and physically brutal, I don't blame anyone for not wanting to do it.

Hill climbs are much better for spectators though, as they are short, the riders pass by relatively slowly and more animatedly, the courses are often narrow and you can get really close to the riders. So while many hill climbs don't get loads of entries, the big ones are full (Bec, Catford, Nationals) and also have great crowd support.

I do wish more women would enter hill climbs and I think the likes of Strava have helped to show many women that they are actually good enough to compete, but I suspect there's something about suffering so publicly that maybe doesn't appeal to most women...because hill climbs really are suffering, and in a very public way in the moment.

It's possible that women are more concerned about being "embarrassed" as well, coming in last or looking silly, but that's really a perception more than a reality. Just taking part tends to gain the admiration and respect of the spectators, and nobody really cares about where you finish or how fast you went!

PdC: There does seem to be quite a community spirit around the hill climb season, something that's more noticed in cyclocross than in road racing or other time trialling, would that be fair to say?

MS: I think time trialists tend to be more lone dogs only because so much of the training and racing is done solo. And the fact that there can be upwards of two hours between the first and last competitors in a time trial means some people don't even see each other at HQ! But the time trial forum has quite an active following, so they maybe make up for it there.

Road racing is definitely more stressy and uptight, but that's probably due in part to the nature of the racing, fairly high risk, in a close bunch, etc.

Cyclocross for all but the top riders is mostly muddy fun, a time trial effort surrounded by dozens of your fellow riders so to speak, so it probably combines the best of everything which is what makes it fairly chilled out and fun.

PdC: Are you conscious of the history of hill climbing in the UK, of the heritage behind Catford or the nationals, in the same way - say - heritage is part of the attraction of something like that Amstel Gold sportif that helped get you going, where it's an equal part to the parcours itself?

MS: I have a bit of a sense of it, but to be honest I'm actually quite a selfish racer...I race pretty much for myself and my own results, and in all honesty if I weren't any good at it I'd probably not bother to do it at all!

Sometimes I think the biggest fans and aficionados of these events are the non-competitors, those who don't compete or at least don't compete for a result but only for their own love of it. Sometimes the people who are the best at it are actually the least "fan-like" of anyone (myself included!)

As my own racing has achieved success over the years, I've been less and less interested in what the pros and others are doing, I can't remember the last time I actually followed the Tour de France every day and watched every stage. I'll keep track of what my friends and racing mates are up to, but beyond that I'm not really a fan of the sport of cycle racing these days, I certainly don't follow it closely or revel in the history or have idols from long-ago and all that.

PdC: Is hill climbing going hipster? David Millar chose the Bec for his retirement party last year, so is there a lot of facial hair and tattoos about this year?

MS: Possibly? The Rollapaluza guys ran the "urban hill climb" up Swains Lane for a few years and it got a huge following - was oversubscribed in fact. It was definitely something that appealed to the urban hipster type as well as the roadie/hill climber type. They've not been able to run it in recent years I think because they struggled to get the road closures. So that's probably testament to its popularity, the fact that it's getting harder to get permission to run it.

PdC: Will you be defending your title, going for the treble in the nationals, on Jackson Bridge up in Yorkshire?

MS: Yep that's the plan at the moment. I have my usual lead-up races both local and further away, starting this weekend and going 'til mid-October. Then up north again for another probably rainy/windy/dire day at the national hill climb.

I was fortunate to ride the course last year as it was fairly close to Pea Royd and where we were staying that week. It's another five-ish minute variable effort which should suit me, I hope, but you never know 'til the day how it will go.

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You can find Maryka Sennema on Twitter, @smaryka

Our thanks to her for participating in this interview.