I come from Lincolnshire. Home of precisely no famous road cyclists – at least according to my knowledge and a cursory search on Google. There is a “Grand Prix” boasting actual cobbled climbs, but what they don’t tell you is that pretty much all the climbs are up and down the same ridge.
The only ridge, the only ridge in almost all the county, until the Wolds. The flatlands of Lincolnshire have more in common in language and landscape with the Netherlands than some parts of the UK. I am at home in landscape with horizon sat back, relaxed. ‘Hills’ mean that I’ve gone on holiday, via my dad swearing at the caravan as he tries to pull it around the York Moors or beneath Welsh mountains.
I say all this by means of emphasising: I am not a climber. I am a cyclist, however. I’ve ridden bikes in the way that you do when you live in a small village miles away from your school and mates. The first bike I remember was a beautiful ‘graffiti’ green splattered black Raleigh mountain bike with – here’s the important bit – NO STEPOVER FRAME.
Even back then I was doing my best to buy bikes that had no concessions to manufacturer’s ideas about femininity. Until three years ago I rode bikes in an A to B manner. My first proper ride, and my first challenging climb came 20 years after that first bike.
I took up triathlon without really meaning to. I don’t really remember signing up, but I do remember the break up that prompted it. You can measure my shifts in my relationship to sport as an adult in a couple of break ups, actually. Not in an unhealthy way, but sometimes really digging in on the bike, or in a run, or in the pool, asking your mind to sit back and let your body scream and shout with effort, has been the best possible thing for me in moments of distress.
I am a swimmer by training, a runner when the pool was shut, and after running through one winter break up until my body just felt like mud and frost I began thinking about how much I missed competing. No time to belong to a swimming club though, and not really into long distance running (at that point) I noticed a mate from school was talking about ‘triathlon’ on Facebook. ‘Huh.’ I think. ‘That would mean I could compete at swimming, and then, well, I already run, and I ride my lovely hybrid from my house to the train station really fast sometimes, I’m sure I could do that’.
That’s what saw me sitting on a £129 brand new (steel) silver and red Raleigh road bike. My first road bike, aged 26. I rode the handlebars in the way they came in the giant cardboard box until I saw other people’s bikes and quietly changed them.
I train on the bike in running shoes and tights, and a pair of blue woolen mittens. I ride 20km of icy drizzle and get a) as cold as I’d ever been and b) proud. And I head into my first sprint distance triathlon, which I chose to do back in my home county, thinking ‘well at least the ride will be flat’. A 24km loop that will be the furthest, at that point, I’ve ridden, but at least it will be flat.
Enter Burton Hill, a 1km climb, only 5 minutes into the cycle route, with a max gradient of 15.4%. My first real climb. And totally unexpected.
My first climb is hard. My first climb goes on forever. My first climb sees me shift out of the saddle, pushing down with all my weight, each step gradually pushing my bike up, bit, by bit like a step machine, while I see the road curve and get even steeper and think ‘I don’t think I can actually do that’. I see someone wearing race number ride back down the hill and suddenly I panic that there must be a rule I didn’t read where if you put your foot down or stop you have to start the hill again and well, frankly, screw that.
I dig in.
I struggle to breathe, and slowly, while people seem to dance by me (as a strong swimmer, I set off late in the field so they are all burly men wearing full aero helmets) like they are lifted by invisible forces. My breath heaves, my legs fill with sand and mix with sweat to form setting concrete. And I discover a thought in my head; ‘I will do this’.
I get to the top.
Kind marshals applaud everyone who does. One of them says ‘well done’. I swear my thanks. “That was one of the hardest things I have ever done” I think, but there’s a cleanness to having done it. Of earnestness and grit.
I took up triathlon without really meaning to. But as I crossed the finish line, my mum took one look at me and said ‘you’re going to be doing more of this, aren’t you?’
This year I attempt my first full distance or ‘Ironman’ triathlon. I’m also making a piece of theatre called ‘Equations for a Moving Body’, about the journey of that. And for Total Women’s Cycling, I’m writing a story of 5 climbs. 5 moments when I owned cycling, from a flatlander, to someone who learned to love how it feels to earn hills, bit by bit.