Dr. Hutch: It’s hill-climb season…
Super-light wheels could save you time or cost you dearly, especially if you lend them to a friend
It is hill-climb season. Just a few weeks for riders to celebrate the end of the road season by flinging themselves up stupidly short, steep climbs on misty autumn mornings.
Sometimes they do it in the rain, with back wheels helplessly spinning on wet leaves. Sometimes in freezing temperatures, which leave the collection of exhausted riders at the finish line coughing like a sanatorium in a Brontë novel.
There were a couple of seasons in the mid 2000s when my friend Bernard took up hill-climbing. This was not an enthusiasm born of any actual talent for getting up hills.
It was more the revelation that since hill-climbing was limited to a very short season at the very end of the year, he could leave off doing any training until around the beginning of August. Or September. Or, if he lowered his expectations even further, October.
He never won a hill-climb. He never came near. His closest brush was at a race on a climb called the Rake, in Lancashire. It’s proper 25 per cent — not the sort of 25 per cent that your mate claims to have got up in the big ring on his holidays.
The road even has a hand rail for pedestrians to cling to in vertiginous terror on icy winter mornings.
It also has a pub at the top, and there is a subset of the competitors who take their finishing time, not from crossing the line, but from the bang of the bottom of their emptied pint glass hitting the bar.
Bernard took more than twice as long as the winner to get up the hill. But he drained his pint in 5.8 seconds, and claimed a stage win. These days he is not as honest about the exact circumstances of this bike race victory as he might be.
But that was not his greatest hill-climbing success, not in his eyes anyway.
That came at a climb in Kent.
He borrowed my wheels for it. They were very nice wheels. I had bought them only a few months earlier, after an extensive audit of my possessions revealed that if I sold everything I owned, including anything I owned jointly with Mrs Doc and also anything she owned outright on her own, I’d be able to afford them.
Bernie headed off to the start. But minutes and minutes went by, and he didn’t arrive at the finish… He eventually hove into view, walking with a swagger and carrying his bike.
My back wheel was now a weird pretzel shape. The hub had sheared completely in two, and the spoke tensions had twisted the two halves apart. The rim looked like an optical illusion.
“Not up to the job, me old mucker,” he said with a contented smile. “I produce an awesome amount of torque off the line, you know. So hardly surprising that cheap kit can’t cope. Don’t worry, I don’t blame you for it.”
“It didn’t break when I rode up the hill on it!” I said.
“No,” he said. “I don’t suppose it did.”
He seemed to think he’d done me a favour: “Surely, if it was going to break, then surely the sooner it broke the better?” he said when I started to protest.
My own favourite memory of Bernard’s climbing career came in Surrey. Late for his start, and prevented by the local regulations from riding down the hill, he tried to run down the road in his cleats.
He was almost at the bottom when he slipped. He half-slid and half-rolled the remaining dozen yards to the feet of the timekeeper.
The sangfroid of the timekeeper was something to treasure. He looked disdainfully at the heap at his feet, and all he said was: “Number 44? You’re late.”