Rich Cartland: Coming to a Head
As the hill climb season neared its conclusion, it was tradition that it finished with the biggest and most prestigious race of the year, the National Championships. The current reigning National Champion and Team Hunt rider, Andy Feather, made the journey from where he lives in Bath to Hunt’s back garden in Sussex to hone his form for the upcoming Nationals and ride a couple of hill climbs that he hasn't ridden before.
The ESCA (East Sussex Cycling Association) event on Firle Beacon was in the morning, and the Beachy Head CC event on Butts Lane was in the afternoon. Being very close to each other geographically meant it was easy to do both on the same day. The National Champs was held on Winnats Pass this year, which is a similar duration to ride as both Firle and Butts Lane (at about 4 minutes for the fastest), they were great events for Andy to polish his already very shiny form.
Until recently, Andy had enjoyed a 22 race winning streak, often setting course records along the way, however the previous week, Andy and Tom Bell clashed in a 2-stage hill climb. Tom is his nearest challenger for the title and finished second at the Nationals last year. Andy won the 1st stage and Tom won the second, but Tom won overall on cumulative time, so Andy was keen to get back into winning ways.
Firle Beacon: The rain began just as we started warming up, no one was expecting rain, and there was an air of disappointment. I like riding in the rain less than most, almost everyone I’d say. However, the good thing about hill climb races is that you can keep warm on the turbo/rollers until minutes before you start, you then get to the line wearing a jacket, take it off and within a minute you won’t notice the rain, as the pain in your legs will give you something else to think about.
I have quite a regular and well-practised process for a hill climb; sign-on, test ride the climb to check road conditions and that the bike is working properly, warm up on the turbo, ride, get changed, go home. Speaking to Andy his process is very similar, except that after riding he collects the trophy and then goes home.
For Firle Beacon, I opted to not ride in the rain and get wet, risk a puncture and get my bike dirty, so I just kept warm on the turbo. My justification was that I had ridden the climb hundreds of times before, including the evening before. Andy didn’t fancy getting wet and risking a puncture either, so after his warm-up on the rollers he rode down the hill and the very first time he rode up it was to race, he won and set a course record… in the wet... and with a bit of a headwind!
Butts Lane: A few hours later was the Beachy Head CC event. The sun had come out and it had warmed up. The event is one of the best hill climbs on the calendar in my opinion, it’s a closed road event and the headquarters is a pub right at the bottom of the climb. They’ve got loud speakers for music and commentary, and it always gets quite a good crowd.
Amongst the spectators was one-half of the Hunt founders, Tom Marchment, who came along with his family to give the team a cheer, which was amazing to see, but put a bit more pressure on as you don’t want a disaster in front of the boss.
Fortunately, I didn’t have a disaster and was happy with how I went. After finishing and getting my breath back a bit I managed to watch Andy finish. The climb has a nasty kick to the line and I was shocked/amazed as to how fast Andy came across the line, needless to say, he won but also sliced 20 seconds off the course record!
2 wins and 2 course records a pretty standard day of racing for Andy. Once the prizes had been given out we sat down with Andy to ask him about his preparation for the Nationals this year and how he felt it had gone and what keeps him going.
Rich Cartland: What kind of climb do you prefer in terms of length?
Andrew Feather: I prefer a 2-4 minute climb I’d say, the type that suits a more explosive kind of climber and I think its that last bit that makes the difference so that you hit that red line at the end, a climb of around 10-12% with a bit of a change of gradient, I liked the climb this afternoon so an average of about 12%. Winnats Pass is just relentlessly steep which is quite hard mentally as you are going to be going quite slowly and there is no recovery anywhere. Part of the battle is that you’ll be going flat out but not going very fast which is why I don’t like a headwind and its then that you can get those thoughts that you’re not going very well and your performance drops, I think so much of it is in the head.
RC: How much of it is a mental battle?
AF: So much of it is a mental battle and you’ve got to be willing to push yourself right to the limit but when there is a crowd you can sometimes go in a zone beyond yourself. When its just one man and his dog it can be difficult but when there a big crowd you can go beyond yourself where you get the tunnel vision.
RC: So did you find it strange at the Nationals last where there was no crowd what so ever, did you find it difficult to raise your game?
AF: I did a lot of reccies of the course so I knew exactly where I was and the line I was taking, there’s an element of having good legs, being mentally prepared but also everything going perfectly on the day.
RC: How do you think your preparations have gone this year?
AF: I’ve been pretty pleased, I’ve managed to better my numbers from last year, even though I’m a year older, at some point I’ll start going down, but its gone well this year and my weight is at a good level. At the start of the season I wasn’t too bothered, but I’ve started to be a bit more disciplined, so I’m not eating loads of cakes and going out for McDonalds twice a week. It does make a difference, I do roughly the same volume a training all year round which is about 11-13 hours per week probably, but it does come down to not eating a packed of biscuits at night, not eating an additional portion at dinner, its just those small changes that allow me to drop 3-4 kilos.
RC: Do you find that difficult to keep up?
AF: It's one of the nice things about the hill climb season is that it is relatively quite short but I still eat a couple of chocolate bars a day, I’m not rigidly strict I had 2 packets of wotsits at lunchtime, I just try to rein it in a bit towards the Nationals.
RC: What motivates you to keep going?
AF: Doing new courses, the family come with me which is nice so we link it in with seeing new places, it might sound like I‘m really old but I’ve got a National Trust card and we make a day of it.
RC: Do you ride much the day before a race?
AF: The day before a hill climb I like to do a couple of hours, I made the mistake last weekend of doing a steady but hilly ride which I really felt in my arms the next day, but always at the Nationals I do nothing the day before, I don’t touch the bike. I think the rest even if you put on a little more weight as a result of this is more important than riding, which makes a huge difference. I think for Winnats, pacing will be key and not to go out to hard for the first 300 metres because if it’s a headwind it will be a long climb, longer than some people think.
RC: I saw you used the 36UD Carbon Spoke wheels today, what about at the Nationals?
AF: Because of the conditions today I used the carbon spoke wheels and they felt really stiff, they’ve got the Schwalbe Pro One TT tubeless tyres on which are a little wider and I run them a little lower pressure than tubs, so I get more grip but at the Nationals I’ll be using the Hill Climb tubs and lower the pressure if it is wet.
I’m really looking forward to it and it’ll come down to who ever wants it most and who has the best legs on the day and nothing goes wrong.
You won’t have to wait very long to see how it all goes and if Andy defends his title, he’s off at 9:55:30 on Sunday 31st October.