Wednesday 27 October 2021

Winning on Winnats (Part 1): Bithja Jones on the National Hill Climb Championships

Excitement is mounting as riders gear up (or even down!) for the National Hill Climb Championships this year at Winnats Pass. 

This hill, set in a natural amphitheatre in the Derbyshire Peak District, near Castleton, will be the scene for the heroes testing themselves, straining every sinew to battle up the 25% gradient as fast as is humanly possible over 1km. 

There will be some exciting contests to be had on the slopes of this infamous climb, which was last the venue for a national hill climb race in 1977, long before many of the competitors were born.  

In the men's competition the likes of Tom Bell and Andrew Feather have taken turns to get the better of each other in individual battles throughout the season, though previous winners like Adam Kenway, Ed Laverack, or Dan Evans could throw in a surprise on the day. So we wait with baited breath to see who will prevail in the War of Winnats Pass. 

Meanwhile, the 70+-strong women's field will not be a totally clear-cut affair either. Defending Champion Bithja Jones (Pankhurst Cycles) could be the bookies favourite, given the numerous wins and course records achieved by the Reading-based rider. She again, beat arch-rival and last year's runner up, Mary Wilkinson on Monsal Head earlier this month. But maybe local knowledge may play a decisive role, and northern-based riders like Wilkinson, plus Macclesfield's Monica Greenwood could edge ahead. In addition, one rider, Illi Gardner has managed to get the better of Jones this season, when the 22-year old World Everesting record holder was the fastest woman up Bowden Hill Climb, near Chippenham in early October.

Over the coming days we will hear the thoughts from some of the competitors.

Here is what defending Champion Bithja Jones has to say:

Bithja storming to a win at Monsal Head in October (Photo by Anthony Wood)

"It’s very exciting. I’m not thinking about it too much or else I’ll get really nervous, but it’s always good because it means I usually perform better when I’m nervous.

I've been up Winnats Pass three times. The first time I went up it I thought, 'I will go easy just to check it out – go in a low gear and just spin up' but you can’t do that on a road bike. There’s no easy way up it. Even in your lowest gear it’s hard work. It’s really really steep - a proper power climb, though quite long for a power climb.

It’s totally different from Streatley Hill, last year, and I will definitely take more time than up Streatley. I do really well on the short steep climbs, so in terms of the steepness it suits me. But in terms of length, it’s maybe just a tiny bit long. But we’ll see how I go.

Somewhere like Monsal Head, where I did really well this year, is probably my perfect climb. I was sad that I missed the Bec and Catford Hill Climbs because I was suffering from a really bad cold, and they would have probably been really good for me because they are very steep and a bit shorter than Winnats. 

I didn't race last weekend because I wanted to make sure I could be prepared for Winnats. In the first couple of weeks in October I had a cold and had to take it easy, but I am now better, just in time for the Nationals.

It’s so special to race on such an iconic climb for the first time in 44 years, and I am so so chuffed that I will be a scratch rider on Winnats Pass. That’s just amazing.

I'm looking forward to having spectators too. I raced up Haytor for the Nationals in 2019, but because it is such a long long climb the spectators were spread out a lot. Then the following year the spectators were mainly the marshalls because of Covid. This year, Monsal was amazing and Leith Hill too. Having spectators makes a massive difference and definitely makes me go a few seconds faster, I think.

Monsal was brilliant. It was absolutely amazing. There were barriers on the last quarter of the course, so people were standing in rows, even four deep. There was a massive noise. It was amazing, with the most people at the top, but by then it was all a bit of a blur for me! I loved it so much.

I have won nearly all of my hill climbs this season. I came second at one in Chippenham. It was really icy cold and so wet, and I felt cold during my warm-up. I was freezing cold when I got to the start line and felt really rubbish. Illi Gardner won that one, and she’s a really strong rider to look out for anyway; she will be one of the main contenders at Winnats, I’m sure. She’s amazing. Apart from that race, I have won all my races and set new course records on almost all of them as well.

My training this year has been so different. Last year I just did everything on my own and just went cycling, and rode up a few hills. This year is different. A friend of mine asked me if I would consider having a coach. I thought maybe I should try it because last year I proved that you can do well without a coach. But this year I wanted to see how far I could get if I got professional coaching. 

So I am now being coached by Matt Clinton who was national hill climb champion in 2008, and a podium finisher in the national hill climb championships eight times in a row.  So he’s been training me for the last four months. I am doing intervals on the turbo now, and I’ve got a power meter - all the things that I didn’t have last year. 

It has made a massive difference and I’ve actually learned to like it as well. At first I didn’t like riding the turbo trainer, but now it’s fun. I’ve never worked as hard on my bike as I have done in the last four months on my turbo trainer. If it didn’t make a difference I would have been hugely disappointed and I would never find a coach again. 

Coaching does makes a difference. It has helped me finđ my potential I guess, so you can go that bit further if you have someone who knows exactly what you need, to train for a hill climb.

My bike is a very nice Tifosi Mons hill climb racing bike, and my amazing, committed mechanic, Rikki Pankhurst at Pankhurst Cycles (in Pangbourne) is always working on it between races to make sure everything is all right, and he is finding bits where he could save yet another few grams. He will be chopping off the drops, as I won’t need them on Winnats. He’s got a few more ideas where he can save a bit of weight and have it ready for the Nationals. So he’s very amazing there. At Pankhurst Cycles they are always supporting me, taking me to the races and making sure the bike is absolutely race ready before the start.

At the moment the bike weighs 5.8 kg. It’s heavier than some of the bikes of my competitors, but you have to get it right for what suits you. If you go for too light a bike, sometimes it gets a bit flexed and then you lose power in the end. You need it to be light, but also stiff. I’m really happy with the bike as it is at the moment.

I will have to be ready for damp conditions, given that you are out of the saddle most of the time because of the nature of the climb. However, for whatever reason I have never had any real trouble with wheelspin so far, even in the races where others were struggling. What you can do is to adjust the tyre pressure, and then maybe it’s technique as well, where you put your body weight on the bike as you are cycling up. 

Also Winnats, at least hasn’t got any trees, so you won’t have damp leaves to deal with. We’ll see how it goes, but the conditions will be the same for everyone. So we will all have the same problems to tackle, I guess.

Monsal Head podium (L-R) Mary Wilkinson, Bithja, 
and Rebecca Richardson (photo:Anthony Wood)

Thanks to the massive campaign last year, I think women’s hill climbing has become so much more exciting and so strong. Everyone in the field has stepped up, and I’ve definitely stepped up in my training - and so have my competitors. We will have an even stronger competition this year. 

Mary Wilkinson is in top form this year, and there's also Rebecca Richardson, Joanna Blackburn, Monica Greenwood. You never know how things will go. The hill will suit some people better, and there may be some surprises. It’s down to the form on the day, though I think it will be very very close. It will be exciting.

My seven-year old daughter Frieda did her first hill climb two weeks ago. It was 1.5km up Belmont Hill in Bristol. She enjoyed it, but she was exhausted. My son, Jerome has just started track cycling. 

I think they are inspired by me, but they have also got a little bit used to me hill climbing and so they expect me to win everything! I have not really disappointed them, I hope. But I think that day will come. I am getting older and my competitors are younger and younger – Illi Gardner is half my age! But at the moment it’s going well. 

I think it will be an amazing atmosphere at the Nationals, especially with the way Winnats Pass is set up on these steep banks at the side, like an amphitheatre. It will be such a big party."

[Bithja sets off from the cattle grid near Speedwell Cavern at 10.30 am on Sunday 31st October]

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52 Cycling Voices - Bithja Jones

The pain of hill climbs

National Hill Climb Championships - over and out

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