The UK hill climb season is a uniquely British quirk of cycling culture that sees riders, racing in a time trial format, grind up climbs steep enough to make your stomach curdle, on courses between two and 20 minutes long.
With few to no flat sections, there is scant advantage to be found in chasing aero gains. While aero road bikes may dominate in today’s pro peloton, here weight weenie culture is encouraged in its purest form, with bikes, bodies and clothing stripped down to the absolute bare minimum.
Chopped-off drop bars, unforgiving carbon saddles, paper-thin tubular tyres and no cake for months on end define this curious section of cycling society.
With the season taking place from early September to late October, the CTT UK National Hill Climb Championships mark the end of this short but intense spectacle.
The vertiginous parcours of the 2022 National Championships on Old Horseshoe Pass attracted many feathery bikes, and we’re pleased to bring you a selection of our favourite bikes from today’s race.
Rebecca Richardson’s Specialized S-Works Aethos
Rebecca Richardson (Team Brother UK) took seventh place in the women’s race riding this stunning, custom-painted Specialized S-Works Aethos.
The bike was hand-painted by Richardson in a “stream of consciousness style” with motifs based on her home and family in Wales.
The bike is dripping with the finest weight weenie carbon exotica out there.
Richardson’s bike rolls on AX Lightness rims paired with Zed Wheels hubs.
Everything is then laced together using Berd polymer spokes. An ultra-light Vittoria Corsa Speed tyre is used up front with a Vittoria Service Course tyre specced out back, for slightly more grip on steep, often wet roads.
Darimo supplies the finishing kit, including the T1 Loop seatpost.
This uses Dyneema fibre loops to clamp the saddle instead of traditional solid clamps.
The bike’s stock SRAM Red eTap AXS drivetrain has been modified with an XX1 mountain bike crankset.
This is fitted with a diminutive 28t chainring (chainrings in the 32 to 40t range are more typical on 1x drivetrains for hill climbs).
According to Richardson, running such a small chainring meant she could remain seated for the majority of the climb, reducing the chances of wheel spin.
It also meant she could use cogs in the centre of the cassette. These offer a better chain line compared to using the extreme ends of the cassette, improving shifting performance and efficiency.
All of this adds up to a bike that weighs just 5.0kg – mighty impressive for any bike, let alone a road bike with disc brakes.
Introducing the Old Horseshoe Pass…
The 2022 National Hill Climb Championship was joint-organised by Velotik and Wrexham Roads Club on Old Horsehoe Pass, which is more commonly known as Old Shoe.
The climb sits to the east of the better-known Horseshoe Pass, taking a direct route up to the eastern flank of Maesyrychen Mountain via the wall-like valley north of Llangollen.
The course climbs 194m over 1.5km at an average gradient of 13 per cent, according to Strava.
The climb starts with a sustained punchy ramp through greasy birch woodland.
Riders then emerge from the forest at roughly the halfway point, marked by a treacherously slippery cattle grid.
The climb then opens onto a grassy moorland amphitheatre, where riders face a series of lung-busting ramps before a shallow 100m sprint to the finish at the Ponderosa Cafe.
Dan Leatherbarrow’s Dolan Seta
Fixed-gear bikes are a regular sight at hill climbs in the UK.
Provided the gradient is consistent and you get your gearing selection right, a fixie offers an addictively efficient and – dare we say it – fun ride quality.
They also give riders with limited funds the chance to build a truly lightweight bike on a budget, all while enjoying heaps of praise from horrified onlookers.
Dan Leatherbarrow’s (Cheltenham & County Cycling Club) Dolan Seta is the prototypical example of a budget hill climb bike.
Based on a Dolan Seta track bike frameset, Leatherbarrow estimates he’s spent less than £1,000 on a charmingly hodge-podge bike that weighs just 5.3kg.
To start, the bike rolls on a pair of X-Treme Nano Elite wheels purchased on eBay for £150, with the rear hub replaced with a double-fixed flip-flop hub for £50 by a local wheel builder.
The carbon shell saddle was also purchased on eBay for just £20, as were the “not very good” new – old stock – 1980s Ultimate brake levers.
These use a nearly all-plastic construction but, crucially, are very light at just 120g for the pair.
Leatherbarrow ran a 38×22 gear for Old Shoe and was very pleased with his ride, taking 49th place.
Leatherbarrow also reckons he came second to 2015 national champion and 2022 bronze medalist, Richard Bussell (AeroCoach) in the non-existent fixed gear category.
Jack Evans’ custom Canyon Ultimate CF SLX
Jack Evans (Gorilla Coffee Cycling Club) joined BikeRadar back in November 2020.
He is one of the best athletes on the BikeRadar team, very nearly tickling a top-10 result at the Sodbury Cycle Sport hill climb back in early October.
That led our Jack to make his debut at the nationals and we accosted him before his ride to talk about his season so far and his tactics for the day.
However, as a teaser, we can confirm Jack rode the same Canyon Ultimate CF SLX as on his recent alpine adventure in Davos.
Joanna Blackburn’s Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod
The Cannondale SuperSix Evo is the perfect basis for a hill climb bike.
Compared to most exotic lightweight framesets, the SuperSix Evo was built in large quantities, so it is usually possible to buy second-hand framesets for a decent price. That the SuperSix also looks tremendous with its classic double diamond lines is another draw for many.
There were probably close to a dozen SuperSix Evos to choose from at Old Shoe, but it was hard to miss Joanna Blackburn’s (High North Performance) no-expense-spared build.
The Hi-Mod frameset has been sanded back to raw carbon and then lacquered, with striking gold logos applied to the head and down tube. The front derailleur hanger has also been removed, saving a handful more grams.
The bike uses an 11-speed-era SRAM Red eTap rear derailleur, controlled by a pair of matching shifters.
A THM Clavicula crankset paired with a 34t Wolf Tooth 1x narrow-wide chainring has also been sanded back to cut every possible gram.
Cane Creek EE brakes and Darimo finishing kit round out the build.
The complete bike weighs just 4.05kg in its optimum race-day spec, though Blackburn cautioned the bike would be slightly over that due to the heavier-duty tyres fitted for the slippery Old Shoe course.
Illi Gardner’s Factor O2
Illi Gardner (Wahoo Endurance Zone p/b Le Col) demolished the women’s field, putting a huge 23-second gap between her and silver medalist Mary Wilkinson (Team Boompods).
Other than a switch to lightweight wheels and a cockpit mod, Gardner’s build shows little concession to obsessive weight weenie-ism.
The close-to-stock Factor O2 weighs just over 6kg in its pictured build, and is the same bike Gardner rode for her former Everesting record in July of this year.
The bike is fitted with an 11-speed Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 mechanical groupset and a trimmed-down 11-32 cassette.
AX Lightness rims paired with Zed hubs feature once again.
According to Gardner, the upright cockpit enables her to remain seated without being excessively hunched over when climbing.
This allows her to pedal at her preferred higher cadences while also biasing weight towards the rear of the bike, improving traction.
A cue sheet (if you can call it that for a 1.5km climb) was tapped to Gardner’s top tube, giving target times split into 200m segments.