If there was a list of 100 British time trials you must ride before you die, Beacon Roads Cycling Club's Little Mountain Time Trial at the end of April would be pretty high on it.
It's a cracking event, from the beautiful but challenging 39.5 mile (64km) course in the West Midlands to the seamless organisation and marshalling, to the friendly post-race atmosphere at Great Whitley village hall, where much tea and cake is consumed while the results are updated on the board.
I'd been hearing good things about the Little Mountain for well over a year before I sent off my entry for it. Partly because the organiser, Ruth Eyles, is a regular and valued contributor to our forums, but also because everyone I'd asked about it had rated it highly. So I trained hard over winter, planned out my racing program appropriately and even booked a B&B two months in advance. Unfortunately, the best laid plans ...
I managed to inflict a grade two tear on my left calf muscle in February, and recovery was slow. Not least because I kept racing on it, slowly losing fitness and the will to live. And to make matters worse, a few weeks before the Little Mountain, I managed to ride into a roller door, which resulted in nine stitches to my face and over a week off the bike. But I'd made a promise, and wanted to keep it.
Smiling before the off, trying to distract myself from the pain ahead (Photo: Paul Deane)
Unlike most time trials, there was a separate category with a decent prize for the fastest rider on a standard road bike (no clip-on bars or aero helmet). This is perfect for those who are intimidated by full time trial bikes, as there is a different benchmark to compare yourself against.
I decided to take the 'old school' approach, mainly because I didn't feel up to a full-gas effort on a TT bike but also because I thought it would be fun. The UCI would have approved, although unfortunately they weren't at Great Whitley village hall when I signed on and checked the rules with Ruth and her assistant. Shoe covers okay? Yes! That's minutes saved right there.
I was number 90 out of a good sized field of 100, and after a brief warm-up to wake the legs up, greeted the starters just before 9.30am. I assumed the position, got the countdown and I was off!
The top of the first hill, one of the easier climbs (Photo: Jeff Jones)
The road went uphill right from the word go – always tricky at the start of a time trial. It's so easy to go too hard and you end up paying for it for the rest of the race. A heart rate monitor is useless at this point, and I didn't have a power meter so I had to go on feel. Shocking, I know, but again more old school bonus points.
I passed my one- and two-minute men in the first 10km. This is always good for confidence but it's also a factor of how the fields are laid out. The faster riders are usually given numbers ending in '5' or '0' to separate them out, while the slower riders are slotted in between using a similar grading system. Laying out a field is both a science and an art.
The first of the two circuits that make up the course was 27km long and was definitely the faster one. Good roads and gentle undulations rather than savage gradients made for a pleasant ride, and I reached the start/finish area in 41'30. I did some calculations and reckoned sub 1hr45 was doable, because I knew the second 37km lap would be harder. In the end I wasn't too far off but let me tell you, it was tough going.
The climbing started straight away on lap two, with a couple of kilometres of gradually steepening gradient that had me reaching for the 39x25. I caught my four-minute man just over the top, and tried to hold him off on the fast descent down to Stanford Bridge (great views on this bit). I'm normally a steady descender but being on a road bike helped me keep up the speed into the blind corners.
The climb out of Stanford Bridge was the longest one, and the steepest part of it is timed. It's a soul destroying sight seeing the road point straight up for the best part of a kilometre at an average gradient of around 10 percent. Even when you get to the end of the timed bit, the road keeps going up, tormenting you for longer. Not to mention the headwind! But at least at the bottom there's some scenery in the form of a church on the green hillside that overlooks the valley. A brief but pleasant distraction.
I reached the top without overcooking it, important given that I was only just over half way. The next 10km was probably the hardest, though. A block headwind, steep undulations and a coarse road surface combined to kill my average speed, and I knew I wouldn't make it up on the return section. After an hour or so, I had the first of two energy gels, hoping to avoid blowing up and throwing up, as I did rather spectacularly the previous week in the Dursley Hilly.
The turnoff at Bromyard Downs couldn't come soon enough. I was sick of grinding away in the 53x19 and was looking forward to the wind being across me rather than against, as well as 7km of smoother roads on the A44. I savoured that bit, because I knew the final 10km wasn't easy. Gel number two was consumed, and I hoped it would last me to the finish.
This is why Ankerdine hurts (Photo: Neil Peart)
Ankerdine. The only good thing about this climb was that I'd ridden up it the day before so I knew what to expect. It's a kilometre at an average of 11 percent and hitting 17 percent in places (unfortunately coinciding with the worst road surface). It's also the second timed climb: there's a prize for the lowest combined time up Stanford Bank and Ankerdine. And to make matters worse, there's a sharp right hander at the foot of the climb so all your momentum is lost.
I was thankful for my 39x25 as I ground my way up, feeling the first twinges of cramp. I passed a couple of riders in bigger gears who were barely turning the pedals. Forget being macho – small gears are your friend!
Ow (Photo: Neil Peart)
Getting to the top of it without dying was a relief, and I enjoyed the next bit of downhill into Martley. I passed cyclo-cross legend and Islabikes founder Isla Rowntree with an 'on your right' just before a bend. I was worried that I'd cut her off but afterwards she said I'd given her plenty of room. Good, at least I didn't annoy the industry!
The last 6km were back along the same road I'd set out on. Even with a tailwind it wasn't an easy finish as it was more up than down. I was running low on fuel (or fitness, depending on how you look at it) and couldn't punch it over any of the hills as I would have liked. But at least I didn't have a gastric-induced fail before the finish.
I crossed the line and yelled out my number to the timekeepers, just in case. Job done! Then it was back to the HQ to consume tea and cake and chat to fellow competitors while waiting for our times to be posted. This is one of the best bits of time trialling and I've always found it to be a friendly sport.
Finish! (Photo: Paul Deane)
I'd clocked 1:46:43, some six minutes behind winner Bill Moore of the Shorter-Rochford Road Team. It was Bill's third victory in this race, having also won in 1997 and 1998, and he was justly pleased. I finished seventh overall and was fastest on a road bike, so I was more than happy with my efforts.
The quickest woman in 2:01:41 was Marina Bloom (Rugby CC), a past 12-hour and 24-hour national champion. There was even a prize for the fastest 70+-year-old rider, which went to Brian Taylor of Midland C&AC. He was also on a normal road bike and clocked 2:25:32. I'd love to still be racing when I'm his age! Click here for full results.
Men's podium: David Barnes (2nd), Bill Moore (1st) and Stephen Price (3rd) (Photo: Paul Deane)
Women's podium: Isla Rowntree (2nd), Marina Bloom (1st) and Fenella Brown (3rd) (Photo: Jeff Jones)
And that was that. I left Great Whitley buzzing from the event and the atmosphere around it. The organisation and the marshalling was top notch thanks to Ruth and her gang of merry helpers at the Beacon RCC.
I'll be back.
Want to get into time trialling?
Time trialling is a great way to challenge yourself on a bike. For a beginner it's less intimidating than road racing because you don't need pack riding skills. You also don't need any special equipment – even a shopping bike will do.
Many clubs hold regular weekly time trials. They usually cost a couple of quid to enter and are run over quiet courses in the evenings. If you get the time trialling bug, you can enter an open like the Little Mountain time trial (there are thousands of opens held in the UK throughout the year). These require you to join a Cycling Time Trials affiliated club and post your entry into the organiser in advance, using a standard entry form.
For lots more information, visit Cyclingtimetrials.org.uk, the official governing body for time trialling in the UK.