Thursday 28 October 2021

Winning on Winnats (Part 2): Mary Wilkinson on the National Hill Climb Championships

In the run-up to the National Hill climb championships on Winnats Pass, I have been getting the thoughts from different riders as we approach another momentous occasion in women's cycle racing. This iconic climb just outside Castleton is being used as the setting for the Nationals for the first time since 1977. Given that in those days there was no hill climb competition for women, it will therefore be the first time that a women's hill climb competition is being held there. 

The women's 70+ strong field is going to be very fiercely competitive, with a number of contenders who could be crowned "Queen of Winnats Pass". Defending champion, Bithja Jones gave her thoughts in a previous post. Now it is the turn of Mary Wilkinson (Yorkshire Road Club), last year's runner-up. Mary, a former elite runner and Zwift Academy finalist, has finished in second place on three occasions in the last four years but has never won. Maybe this could be her year. 

Mary pushing herself to the limit at Monsal Head Hill Climb (photo: Anthony Wood)

"Winnats Pass is an absolutely beautiful climb. I think you’d really struggle to find a more fitting location for the championships and I’m really looking forward to it. The winners will be truly deserving champions on a course like Winnats. To me, it’s a really classic, pure hill climb with a fairly constant (brutal) gradient that will push everyone to their limit physically, mentally and tactically.

Having crowds back has already been a huge boost this year at all the events, but I can guarantee that the atmosphere on Winnats is going to take this to a different level. It is such a natural amphitheatre; I can already hear the noise!

I’ve done a few races in the area so I took those opportunities to ride Winnats a few times, as I’ve made the mistake before of not seeing a climb until race day - that can be challenging mentally. It’s certainly a hard climb, but majestic at the same time. I’ve found myself admiring the surroundings as much as focusing on my effort, so hopefully that’s out of the way before the event! Even without crowds the location feels special, so to have closed roads and screaming crowds is just going to be amazing.

I’m really lucky to live where I do and to be surrounded by some of the most amazing roads to ride in the Yorkshire Dales and the Forest of Bowland. We certainly have our fair share of steep long hills, that's for sure! It’s pretty difficult to actually go for a flat ride, but because I enjoy riding uphill so much, that’s never a problem. So living where I do certainly helps you be a hill climber whether you want to be or not.

This is the first year that I’ve had a dedicated hill climb bike. I’ve previously just ridden a slightly modified road bike (i.e. I took the bottle cages off!). I spotted another hill climber selling their specially built bike at the start of the season and I was very lucky that it was my size and I managed to buy it. It’s built around a Cannondale Supersix frame which seems to be one of the most popular choices for hill climbs, and runs SRAM Red Etap.

I’ve worked with my mechanic, Eddie Dickson (Darwen Cycle Repairs) to tweak a few things such as narrower bars and longer cranks. I managed to get hold of a nice set of lightweight wheels, also second hand from another hill climber (It’s a good community!), and have got my trusted Continental Tyres on them.

I really couldn’t be happier with the final build. Weight-wise it comes in around 5.1kg all in, but equally as important I feel really comfortable and confident riding it. Weight is important, but I believe having confidence in the handling and performance of the bike in all conditions is worth even more.

Gearing wise I run a single chain ring up front, either a 38, 36 or 34 depending on the gradient and weather, and an 11-28 cassette on the back. For Winnats a lot will depend on the wind direction, which makes a big difference to the duration and effort and that will determine which chainring I run.

My best race this season was probably the last event I did, at Ripponden Bank (near Halifax) where the power was well above what I’d done for that duration before. The Rake is a close second because of the challenging conditions with the wet road, and the fact that it was an event I’ve really wanted to win. So there was extra pressure from myself to try and put in a performance to achieve that, and I was really happy to execute the ride there.

From a pure statistically point of view, to have broken the course records in every race I’ve ridden this season is more than I could have expected, and to take the win in nine out of the ten races I did is way beyond what I had hoped for. I’ve progressed my training as I wanted to, done all I can, so what will be will be!

I couldn’t really have asked for a better season. I came into it feeling healthy and strong, and have managed to progressively build on this as the season has gone on. I’ve completed all the training I’ve wanted to do, stayed healthy and most importantly I’ve really enjoyed the whole process - the training, the racing and the camaraderie at events. 

I feel that I’m in the best place I’ve ever been both fitness and enjoyment-wise and I think it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate that. Whatever happens at the Nationals I’ve had a brilliant season and enjoyed every minute, I can’t really ask for any more than that.

The level of women’s participation and the standard has increased year on year. When I started hill climbing (only a few years ago) there would be one or two women at events if you were lucky, and our presence was pretty insignificant. Nowadays, we are getting really good numbers of women riding at lots of events, and we are largely treated on par with the men which is great to see. 

There are lots of new riders getting involved too, although this year I think the overall numbers (in men & women) has been lower because of the delayed road season, but I expect that to pick back up next year and beyond. I think on the whole the hill climbing community has also progressed and there is a definite feeling of growing inclusivity and friendship among the riders, which is brilliant and something that will only help the sport grow.

Each year I’ve competed I’ve improved my power numbers and my performances, but every year the level at the top of women’s hill climbing improves too! This can only be a good thing. It keeps everyone pushing for that little bit extra, striving for that extra 1%. 

It’s also great to see that there are some younger riders coming through, because at 40 I really shouldn’t be winning events, although I’m not complaining! As long as I keep enjoying it, I’ll keep competing. 

You can always be the best version of you and as a cycling discipline, hill climbing is the perfect arena in which to achieve this because it really is you against the hill."

[Mary sets off from the cattle grid near Speedwell Cavern at 10.29:30seconds am on Sunday 31st October]

Related post

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

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