The Magic of Monsal

We join the Walker family at England's best-loved hill climb

This year, Monsal Hill Climb is 87. The car park is a carnival of riders in brightly coloured skinsuits on lightweight carbon fibre bikes, and it’s difficult to imagine the race as it was in 1930 – a few mates riding out to Monsal Head at the end of the track season, timing each other as they raced up an unmade road.

One thing is for sure, Monsal is still thoroughly British, and uniquely Northern. Rolls stuffed with bacon are on sale at prices that make visiting Londoners double take. No banging beats here, just the whir of turbo trainers, the cheer of an excited crowd, and the blare of the tannoy.

20-year-old Team WIGGINS rider Joey Walker is here with his dad, Chris, a former pro and past winner at Monsal. His big sister, Jessie, has won here too, and today Joey hopes to take his first win.

So what brings hundreds of people to a short, steep hillside in the Derbyshire Peak District? Here’s Paul Jones, author of A Corinthian Endeavour and expert on the UK hill scene:

“If you’ve never done a UK hill climb, felt that horrid feeling of callow legs convulsing in paroxysms of lactic acid, seen – or failed to see – a crowd baying at the side of the road, sensed the world around you shrink away to nothingness as your peripheral vision slides away in a red wave of oxygen debt, been helped, catatonic, from your bike in as close an approximation as you can get to death without actually dying, then you haven’t lived.

Preparation for a hill climb is simple. Make the bike and rider as light as humanly and mechanically possible. The hill climb diet involves not eating anything from August until November, until a line of corrugated ribs undulate against a jersey, perfectly complementing a constellation of drillium. Bikes, components and riders whittled down and shot through with holes, whistling in the wind, ready to collapse.

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Darryl Webster of Teka Professional and four-time winner of the National Hill Championships in the 1980s says it’s totally shit or bust. Webster was au fait with the level of suffering needed to excel. It doesn’t matter if I black out after the line, he said. It won’t kill me.

For a hill climber, it is this level of effort that makes the discipline different to any other form of racing. The savagery of an all-out assault on the senses over a very short period of time threatens to disentangle body and mind.

For such a brutal event, the list of alumni is surprising. Previous national champions include grand tour stage winners Brian Robinson, Malcolm Elliott and Chris Boardman, who won three times. Hugh Carthy was 4th on the Stang in 2013, Alex Dowsett and Luke Rowe did battle on Peak Hill in Sidmouth for the junior prize in 2007. A far cry from the Mortirolo, but an indication of the importance of the event as a springboard to loftier goals.

The hill climb season is here. Stop eating, start drilling, get riding. Live a little by dying a lot. It’s fun. Honestly.”


To find out whether Joey managed to emulate his dad and sister at Monsal on Saturday, watch the film at the top of the page.