At the pointy end: A preview of the women contesting the National Hill Climb title

At 1.30pm on Sunday, the first woman will set off on Streatley Hill, competing in the national hill climb championships. She will be followed, at thirty second intervals, by 109 others, and preceded (earlier in the day) by 31 junior women. This edition of the national hill climb championships is a landmark event for women’s participation, with the highest number of female competitors ever. Undoubtedly, there will be those who cannot compete due to covid-19 restrictions, but there is overwhelming gratitude in the community that the organisers have been able to proceed with the event in a year where many riders’ goals have had to be put on hold.

A successful campaign, spearheaded by Laurie Pestana is largely responsible for the uptick in women competing, and a movement is gathering around equality in hill climbs – with an open letter to CTT reaching over 4,100 signatures (more on that here). With that in mind, I wanted to provide a preview, and exposure of those who look likely to contest the podium on Sunday, and share snippets of their stories with a hope to inspire new women to give it a go next year. Thanks to all of them for making the time to answer my questions.

Mary Wilkinson – Yorkshire Road Club

Mary is the scratch rider, she will be the last to ride the Streatley course. It’s worth a nod to hosting club Reading CC at that point, as since I’ve been aware of nationals, its always been the male favourites riding in the afternoon slot at the culmination of the event. That’s usually when the largest crowds are gathered to cheer riders as they suffer up the climb too. There will be no crowds this year, but Reading have made a statement by switching this up. I don’t doubt Mary will do it justice.

Mary has taken the silver medal twice to date at the national hill climb, one of those times being on a similar steep, short course at Pea Royd Lane, when she was pipped by less than a second by Fiona Burnie (GS Metro) who is not on the startsheet this year. Mary’s form looks better than ever, and she’s had a phenomenal season to date, accruing nine wins and eight course records. After two silvers, and an incredible season to date, I wholeheartedly hope Mary does her form justice, whether that’s enough to see her first nationals win will likely have something to do with the rest of the women in this piece.

Mary Wilkinson, the last rider off at Nationals
Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

As a runner, I was pretty injury prone and dabbled with a few hill climbs during these periods when a friend dragged me to them. I finally accepted that one particular injury wasn’t going to clear, and turned my full attention to hill climbing in 2017. As a new, inexperienced cyclist hill climbs looked like the safest way to take on competitive cycling. The very nature of the events mean you only have to worry about yourself, you don’t have to be a hugely skilled bike handler or deal with a group of riders around you. It’s also your effort so you don’t have to worry about being dropped or not being good enough, it’s ultimately you against the hill. 

Have you ridden the national hill climb champs before? 

This will be my 4th National Hill Climb. My 1st  in 2015 was done on a whim while still believing I could return to running, I finished 7th  and it was an eye-opener to the strength of the women hill climbing. My next two were 2017 & 2018 where I finished 2nd both times by 1.1s and 0.6s respectively! Agonisingly close, but beaten by stronger riders on the day.  The first silver medal was a huge surprise, and I was over the moon with it, I knew I was riding well but not that well! The second silver was a disappointment, I had prepared as well as I could have and was in much better shape than the year before but on the day Fiona was the deserved winner.

Do you have an aim for nationals? 

Not to be second by less than 1s again! Ha! Seriously though, I have huge respect for all the riders taking part (and those that can’t) but I take the mindset that it’s a race against the hill. I can only do what I can do, I can’t control how other riders perform so as long as I finish and have given 100% then I’ll be happy. Whatever position that puts me in that’s the result. 

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why? 

I don’t want to put a jinx on anyone! I think it is a very open event with a lot of strong women riding and as the race is so short it means that everything needs to go perfectly for the winner. There is almost always someone who pulls out a surprise result too so even those who might be ‘favourite’ can’t be sure.

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

Just go for it, if you’re nervous about it grab a friend (or two!) and get involved. There are lots of evening club events as well so if you don’t want to take the plunge in a CTT event give these ago. I’ve been racing against club riders from under 10 to over 70 this year at events and they have been the friendliest events I’ve been too.

Bithja Jones – Pankhurst Cycles

Bithja’s name has circulated a lot in discussions about who could take the nationals crown. She broke her own course record for Streatley hill this season, winning the event, and setting a sub-3 minute time. Her aim is to break that record again and set a new PB. She’s number 478 and will be chased up the climb by final rider, Mary Wilkinson.

Bithja Jones sprinting to the finish at the Walbury Hill Climb
Photo: Steve Dixon

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I did my first ever hill climb in August 2019, a few fellow cyclists from my cycling club, Pankhurst Cycles, had noticed that I was quick up hills and had suggested it. I was fairly new to road cycling then and had never heard of hill climbs before. I really enjoyed it and signed up for a few more. I just really like pushing myself, finding my own limits and improving on my previous self. I like the feeling afterwards when you feel exhausted but you know you have achieved something. You feel very alive!

Have you ridden the national hill climb champs before? 

In that same year I signed up for the National Champs up Hay Tor. I was very nervous about it and we managed somehow to fritter away the time between arriving and me starting with finding the loos, signing on and drinking a coffee, so I ended up cycling the race without a warm-up. But it was a great experience, the atmosphere was amazing and I won my age category.

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why? 

Mary Wilkinson. I have never raced against her, but her name pops up everywhere and usually in combination with amazing times and wins.

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

Do it! Get some supporters to come with you who can cheer you on at the race and if you feel nervous about the other riders, spectators or the official stuff (like racing with a number on your back) just focus on the hill. It’s just you against the hill like on a normal weekend ride when you feel like cycling up a hill really fast. Give it all and enjoy it!

Alice Lethbridge – Torelli

Alice Lethbridge deserves a crown for being one of the best all-rounders of our time. I first became aware of Alice when she took the 12 hour time trial competition record, which she’s combined with the 15 mile and 100 mile records. She has held the indoor Everesting record, races for Weston-Homes-Torelli-Assure, races in the Zwift premier league, and has a number of wins on her British cycling record. Alice is here because I don’t doubt she excels at anything she puts her mind to, and another result at nationals would add to her portfolio nicely. She’s won open events and set course records this season, and is strongly involved with the campaign for equality. Alice is an inspiration.  

Alice Lethbridge has finished in the top ten at nationals on four previous occasions
Photo: Sharon Backhouse

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I was inspired to take up cycling by going to watch the Olympic road race in 2012 – Box hill is pretty much on my doorstep. I wasn’t confident riding far from home on my own so I did lap after lap up Box hill. In 2014, someone suggested I give my club’s Open Hill Climb a go as I was often getting up hill faster than the men on club rides, and I did pretty well so it all started there. I was lucky to be in the same club as the reigning National Hill Climb Champion (Maryka Sennema), so despite the lack of publicity about women’s hill climbing, the discipline was on my radar.

Have you ridden the national hill climb champs before? 

Yes, I’ve done 4, starting at Pea Royd Lane in 2014. I nearly didn’t go as a high profile female athlete who had multiple national medals, looked me up and down in a car park at a time trial event a few days before entry closed and said ‘I wouldn’t bother with the National hill climb if I were you, you’re far too heavy to do well’. The National at Pea Royd was only my 4th ever hill climb but I came 6th and proved her wrong…

The atmosphere at Pea Royd was amazing, and I also raced at Jackson Bridge in 2015 (8th), Bank Road in 2016 (8th) and Hedley in 2017 (9th). Bank Road was the most pain I’ve ever felt in a race in my life!

 If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why? 

Ooh that’s really tough! I can’t choose one. It’s such a short climb that if anything goes wrong you have no time to rectify it. In the absence of the really strong Welsh riders due to the unfortunate lockdown situation, I think the podium will come from Bithja Jones (super power and expert local knowledge), Mary Wilkinson (always up there whatever type of climb it is; a true mountain goat) and Bexy Dew (new kid on the block and revelation of the season). If Bexy wins, I’m going to claim I helped, as we’ve been pushing each other up Zwift climbs in lockdown. You can never rule out people like Jo Tindley and Becky Hair too. It’s such an amazingly high quality field this year, and I’m sure there’s a few more dark horses with so many newcomers to hill climbing. I know I’ve really got my work cut out this year to maintain my record of top 10 finishes.

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough or not built the right way to have a go at anything. If you enjoy going uphill then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Believe in yourself – the only person that puts limits on what you can achieve is you. (PS If anyone has any questions, feel free to drop me a message!)

Nicole Coates – Torelli

Nicole Coates also races for Torelli, and will be competing for the team prize with Alice Lethbridge, and teammate Caitlin Peters. She says she aiming for a power PB, and isn’t quite sure what to expect on the shorter climb! Nicole is a fantastic hill climber of the mountain goat variety. She won the Porlock hill climb earlier in the season, and picked up a second win at the Team Tor 2000 event too. Both longer climbs, but I think the steep gradient of Streatley could suit Nicole down to a T so she’s one to watch.

Nicole Coates on her way to victory at the Porlock Hill Climb
Photo: @i_love_the_shire

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I got into hill climbing through my brother, he had been doing it for a couple of years and I decided to give it a go my first being in 2018! I like the personal effort, but my favourite thing is the community, everyone is so kind and supportive and it feels like a sport that’s for everyone!

Have you ridden the national hill climb champs before? 

Yes, my first was last year up Haytor! I came in 10th and first under 23, I love a longer climb and I was inspired by the insanely quick times of the ladies on the podium!

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why? 

There’s so many insane women on the start sheet so that’s a really hard question. Mary Wilkinson has to be my top pick! I also think that Bexy Dew will be flying, she’s mega quick up a short climb!

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

Do it! You definitely won’t regret it! If you are a bit worried about entering then don’t be, there’s so many women out there who will be more than happy to answer any questions you have and will be there to cheer you on up the climb! It’s definitely a community you want to be part of!

Bexy Dew – Army Cycling

Bexy Dew has had an unbelievable first hill climb season, and I think it’s fair to say she’s a natural talent. Racing mostly in the Western Time Trials Association hill climb series (WTTA), she’s racked up six wins, course records, a 2nd and a 3rd, and enough to win the series outright with a perfect score. It being her first season, she’s improved throughout and I think that makes her a great contender for nationals. She goes well on the short steep stuff, is in great form, and may be able to dig that little bit deeper for the big event.

Bexy Dew will race the national hill climb for the first time, after an incredible first season. Photo: Paul Paxford

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I stumbled upon Hill Climbing this year after the cancellation of the Road Race Calendar. I was really keen to do any form of racing so entered my first TT and my first Hill Climb. I really enjoyed both but hill climbing was more attractive as it didn’t require any specialist equipment, I could race on my normal road bike. There’s something really quite special about the pain of a hill climb – such a short, hard effort and crossing the finish line is a euphoric relief!

Have you ridden the national hill climb champs before? 

This is my first season of hill climbing and my first National Championships. I am excited to see the times of the fastest male and female competitors, many of whom I look up to and have been avidly following on social media.

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why? 

It’s so difficult to choose! I believe in Alice Lethbridge and think she will ride an inspiring time, and it’s hard to overlook Bithja Jones too who is current course record holder. As I’m writing this I can think of at least 4 more names I think will contest the podium – it’s going to be a great battle and I can’t wait to see all their amazing times!!

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

Just enter! I wish I had started sooner. It is not an elitist sport at all, it’s such a friendly environment and it’s purely about your own individual battle against the hill, no one will judge what time you do! You definitely do not need any specialist equipment before starting, I have raced all season on my road race bike and will be riding the Championships on it too!

Becky Hair – Magspeed Racing

Becky hair will also be racing the national hill climb for the first time. She raced her first hill climb in 2019 and has had a fantastic season in 2020. She won Matlock CC’s Bank Road hill climb last weekend, a climb of similar duration and likely even steeper than the nationals course. Becky put in an incredible time, and managed to put 11 seconds between her and the next woman. It’s not her only win either – she’s taken victory at Leith Hill climb too and set a new course record in the process with a 20 second gap to the next woman. The duration of nationals will likely fall between these two climbs and I think Becky has a great shot of being up there at the end of the day.

Becky Hair on her way to victory at Leith Hill – Photo by Paul Paxford

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I got into hill climbing because of one of my best mates! She talked me into Monsal Head Hill climb because I’d always be the little one trying to beat everyone up the hills on group rides (I had a bit of reputation for that, but I think it’s because I live in Cambridge which is flat as a pancake so I get excited every time I see an incline!)

Do you have an aim for nationals? 

I’m hoping for top 10, and hoping to finish with a time of 3:0-something, I have done two recce’s of the climb and each time have finished in a time of around 3:40ish but I am hoping I can knock a lot off on race day.

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why?

I think Mary Wilkinson has a decent chance, but also Bithja Jones as she cracked out an insane time at the warmup event! It’s such a shame that Rebecca Richardson can’t be there as I think she would have been really good competition for the top spot too. Someone else I’m looking forward to seeing race is Bexy Dew – she’s come into it this year and from what I’ve seen on social media she has been smashing it and has put down some disgusting watts!

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go? 

You turn a corner, you see the road rise up high, but you keep pedalling, and you conquer it. That feeling is the epitomy of why I cycle – to challenge myself. I am sure that is why most of us ride; to push ourselves. Hill climbing gives that feeling of elation, as you look back down the hill that scared you five minutes ago. It teaches you that you have to keep going, you can’t stop, you won’t stop, you will beat the road. You can do more than you think, you can get that bike to the top. Do not be scared of hills, pain is temporary, the feeling of elation is something you will never ever forget.

Jo Tindley – CAMS-Tifosi

I first became aware of Jo Tindley watching her race at the Bristol GP, part of the HSBC national crit series, in a stacked women’s field. In slippery conditions on a technical course Jo looked thoroughly at home and finished with a 2-3 with teammate Elizabeth Bennett. She’s got to be one of the best crit racers of the time. This year she’s racing for CAMS-Tifosi, and in September, Jo made the decision to race a few hill climbs. Despite the late switch from road race training, she’s stacked up some incredible results. She took her first win recently at Matlock CC’s Riber hill climb, and came 2nd at Bank Road – pipped by Becky Hair. It will be her first National Championship.

She lines up with strong teammates who will be hot competition for the team prize. CAMS-Tifosi will miss Wales-based Illi Gardener – Illi won’t be able to race due to lockdown regulations but would have also been in contention for the win. It’s testament to the strength of the CAMS-Tifosi roster then that they still have a great team able to fight for the team prize. Jo will be joined by Katie Scott and Jessica Finney on Sunday.

Jo Tindley made a late switch to hill climbs, but it hasn’t stopped her racking up impressive results. Photo: Bob MacGregor

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

This is my first year hill climbing, and I started pretty late – making the decision in mid-September. I kept training all season and was ready for the Amstel Gold race on the 10th Oct. I rode my first hill climb the weekend before and came 3rd – I have been racing for 20 years and never done anything like it! I love the feeling of pushing myself to the limit, in road racing you don’t do that like you do in a hill climb!

Do you have an aim for nationals?

My aim is to win.

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why?

Mary Wilkinson, having raced against her I have seen first hand how incredibly strong she is!

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go?

Give it a go and don’t worry about what others think. Go and enjoy the event, once you have raced one you will want to race more!

The Junior Women’s Field

The contenders for the title of Junior female hill climb champion also look super strong for Sunday with names like Freya Richardson, Kate Richardson and Ellen Inglis lining up. Abi Smith is off last.

Abi Smith – Moonglu CC/GB Development Squad

Abi Smith looks like a fantastic contender for the junior women’s title. She’s had an incredibly successful season on the road, becoming the junior women’s national 10-mile champion, and came 2nd in the national 25-mile event. Abi has competed in just a couple of hill climbs this season, but set both 5-minute and 20-minute power PBs so is certainly in good form. She’s ridden nationals once before, in 2018, and came 2nd – she says she would love to go one better this time, but has just come out of her ‘off season’ so ultimately would be happy to just feel she’s done herself proud with her performance. I guess we’ll see on Sunday!

Abi Smith is last off of the Junior Women – Can she do enough to better her silver medal from 2018? Photo: Damien Bramley

How did you get into hill climbing and what do you like about it?

I started cycling properly in 2018, having switched from triathlon. I was living around the North Yorkshire Moors, and with so many climbs around, I was forced to be half decent at them to get to the top! For anyone who’d like a couple of 33% challenges, I can recommend Blakely Bank, Rosedale Chimney, or Boltby Bank…

If you had to choose one other woman you think will win this year who would it be and why?

Mary Wilklinson is my bet for the Women’s title – I’d love to climb as fast as her one day, I reckon she’s got a sub-3 minute time in her legs!

What piece of advice would you give to a woman reading this and thinking about giving hill climbs a go?

HAVE NO FEAR. Go enter that event. It doesn’t matter if you come dead last – who cares! It will be worth it.

Until Sunday,

What I’m taking away is that 2020 will see an incredibly strong women’s field contest the national title – both in the juniors, and the seniors. That is in no small part due to the incredible hard work of individuals like Laurie Pestana, and clubs like Reading CC to raise the profile of women’s racing, and encourage women to get involved. I think it’s inspiring to see the diversity of backgrounds that are found amongst the top racers, with both veterans of the sport who have competed at nationals before and complete first timers coming to the end of their first hill climb season. Their accounts of their experiences in the world of hill climbing are overwhelmingly positive and if this article inspires one woman to take the leap and give racing a go next year then I’m delighted.

I can’t wait to see how they all get on on Sunday. The best of luck to you all, and all the others who are racing. Congratulations on being a part of history.

One thought on “At the pointy end: A preview of the women contesting the National Hill Climb title

  1. Excellent article. It really does look like a strong field will be competing to the last 100th of a second and a winner is hard to call but let’s hope that this is where it all starts for that equality we know should already exist. Chapeau to all who ride the hill!!

    Like

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