Cyclists go through pain barrier for “the love of Monsal”

Graham Briggs
Graham Briggs

A peaceful beautyspot was transformed into a sporting battle ground of guts and determination at the weekend to the delight of hundreds of spectators during this year’s 2013 Monsal Hill Climb cycle time trial.

Over 100 cyclists from all over the country gathered on the rise near Bakewell on Sunday with breathtaking landscapes belying the gruelling pain that was about to unfold for competitors aiming to conquer the 675 yard steep sprinters’ climb that reaches up from the depths of the valley below Monsal.

Russell Downing

Russell Downing

Event organisers Sheffrec CC welcomed a massive influx of spectators for the 83rd annual Monsal Hill Climb which has fast grown into one of the greatest Peak District tourist attractions as riders take it in turn to clock up the fastest times.

For one famous cyclist who has reached professional highs with international victories, Russell Downing likes nothing better than coming back to the Peak District to take part in this prestigious pro-amateur hill climb.

Downing, of Net App Endura, told event co-sponsors the Derbyshire Times: “I remember coming out here as a kid. It’s wonderful to be able take part and see how the event has developed. I just keep coming back for the love of Monsal.”

This classic boasted the best field ever with both the men’s and ladies’ national hill champions and it did not disappoint as riders smashed personal best times.

Sheffrec organiser Marc Etches said: “What distinguishes this ever-growing popular event is that we always try to get a mix of riders of all ages and abilities from amateur club cyclists to pro stars. I can’t think of any other sport where amateur competitors can so readily rub shoulders with their heroes from the top end of the sport.”

Monsal was packed with riders warming up on turbos with race-faces stern with concentration while past knights of the road looked on and rubbed shoulders with old rivals as they revisited past glories.

Amazingly vociferous spectators have become Monsal’s very own Barmy Army as riders told how the cheers push them beyond their limits. Every one of the brave 126 riders turned themselves inside out to cross the summit in sheer agony.

Marshals caught shattered and exhausted competitors as they crossed the line gasping in pain with many retching and shaking uncontrollably with faces contorted under the strain.

Downing revealed no matter what your ability, pain is the same for everyone. He said: “The burning and build up of blood in your arms and legs makes this a very hard challenge.”

The suspense was heightened as the back end of the field began turning in finishing times around the one minute 30 second mark after completing this one-in-six steep climb.

Graham Briggs, of Rapha Condor, first got tongues wagging with an amazing one minute, 21.4 seconds. Popular Downing - who has been recovering from a broken collar bone - clocked up a very close one minute, 22.5 seconds, but it was Madison Genesis rider and national hill climb champion Jack Pullar’s one minute, 19.9 seconds that clinched the Monsal Hill Climb’s Dick Aldridge Memorial Trophy.

Pullar was delighted to retain his Monsal crown for the second year after a tightly fought battle with this year’s second-placed Briggs and third-placed Downing.

But no doubt the terrific trio will be tempted back after closing in on retired pro-rider and local legend Malcom Elliott’s record for the fastest time at the Monsal Hill Climb with his incredible 1981 performance of one minute and 14.2 seconds.

No spectator could have possibly been left in any doubt that this Simplyhealth and Pelican Cycles sponsored event is among the best hill climbs on the country’s cycling calendar.

Other worthy winners included The Monsal Hill Climb 2013 School champion Matthew Cosgrove, of Sportcity Velo, Junior champion James King, of Team Sportscover, Vet’s over 40s champion Darren Otter, of Rutland CC, and Ladies champion Jessie Walker, of Matrix Fitness Racing Academy.

Monsal regular Downing, whose record of Monsal’s second fastest time still stands in tact, added: “This year was a great competition and as tough as ever. It was all about how much was left in our legs at the end. It was a great way to crown 2013.”

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How cyclists prepare to take on this cruel Monsal Hill Climb time trial challenge tends to vary from rider to rider but those who have been left traumatised by its brutality will tell you there is no escaping its agonising pain.

Even this year’s top three riders Jack Pullar, Graham Briggs and Russell Downing heaped praise on anyone brave enough to take it on.

A static start in the bowels of the valley is always preceded by screams from the crowd at the summit as the previous rider crests the hill. But then it’s the deadly silence that falls on the next rider alone at the start line as he or she knows there is now no going back.

A marshall’s thirty second warning, followed by a ten second warning and a frightening five second countdown unleashes the hell of Monsal as the rider pulls away.

There is no hiding place as the climb ramps up at the half way mark and the last 30 metres smash your body as your legs begin to explode with pain. Riders gasp for more oxygen and are besieged by an overwhelming drowning sensation at the summit.

In many cases, as even this year’s top trio conceded, the last stretch is a blur and its the screaming crowd that pulls riders over the line as they crash to the ground for a long, slow recovery that eventually turns to a deserved sense of pride.

But whatever the preparation, whatever the pain and whatever the result, - in the words of pro Russell Downing - they will be back for the “love of Monsal”.