There were many reasons I had to stop 3 times during my attempt to “summit” Porlock Hill.
The first time, my front wheel was making a funny noise, the second time my left shoe became loose, the third time, as I got off my bike I had to admit, I was out of excuses, I was simply neither fit nor strong enough.
It is in no way comparable to the Col du Tourmalet, the Col de la Madeleine, or for that mater any of the other 23 climbs in the tour de France, but I’m still proud of myself. At its steepest it is 25%, and its gentlest it is 13%, and it goes on for about 1.5 miles, and I cycled it all (with 3 stops).
Lee Phillips, the area manager for Rohan South West and me were doing a short road trip visiting some existing shops and looking for potential new sites.
Day one of our trip took us firstly to Rohan Truro, to meet Glyn, Jerry & the team. We then planned to visit Tavistock to look at the possibility of a new shop, and finally Exeter to visit the new Rohan shop we will be opening in Gandy Street soon.
Our plan for day 2 of our road trip was to visit the Rohan Dunster shop and then Rohan Cardiff. Apart from the obvious work benefits, what this also meant is that with a strategically booked hotel in the Dunster area, I could take the opportunity to cycle up Porlock Hill.
Base camp for this “adventure” was the Rohan Dunster shop. Dunster is 7 miles from the bottom of Porlock Hill. In my head that was 7 flat miles and then the big hill. It turns out the road planners of Somerset had something different in mind.
Within less than 1 mile of the shop I was already on my first hill heading into Minehead, not a huge climb, but seeing as I was not warmed up, and I was expecting a flat road, it was a hard climb. I kept looking around, expecting to see one of those red triangular signs telling me what percentage climb this hill was, that way, I could justify why less than a mile into my ride I was struggling so much. There was no sign, I was still struggling, and now thinking to myself that if this hill was hard and it wasn’t even graded, Porlock Hill is going to be impossible.
Everything I know about fitness tells me that the body takes some time to adjust to the demands of long(ish) periods of activity. I know this intellectually and I know this physically, I know that after 3 or so miles, my body will be used to it and I will start to feel a lot more comfortable, I have experienced this many times, so I know it is true, but, I still thought about going back. The problem was this, I had told Lee is was going to do this hill, Lee was impressed, I had also told some of my friends, they were impressed, there was no way I could not do it, I had made a promise, and even showed off a bit, I was committed!
At the bottom of the hill there is a sign, the sign provides a choice,
1. Gradient 1 in 4 uphill (which is a bright red sign) Or 2. Scenic woodland toll road.
As I stood in front of the sign, I am convinced I could hear the locals taking bets on which way I would go. I re-set the trip meter on my bike to zero, that way, knowing the hill was about 1.5 miles long I would know when I am near the top. I set off.
Good cycling strategy says never start a hill in the lowest gear, keep at least one gear in reserve, so I did. I pushed hard, started breathing even harder and instantly changed down into my reserve gear, I was tired already, I looked up, I was along side a pub, I looked down at my trip meter hopeful that it would tell me that I was already half way up, the trip meter hadn’t moved, I had literally gone less than 100 metres, I was out of gears out of breath my legs were aching and I still had 1.5 miles to go!
The first corner – I was not going to stop at less than 100 metres in, so I kept going. Although the hill starts steep, I very quickly (quickly due to distance rather then speed) approached the first 25% switchback corner. As I approached it, it looked like a solid wall, “it cannot be possible to ride a bike up a hill that steep” I thought.
By this time I was stood up on the pedals, pushing as hard as I could down on one, and pulling up as hard as I can on the other pedal. There was no extra momentum, if I stopped pedaling the bike stopped, no chance for a rest and no chance for recovery.
I rounded the first corner without stopping, delighted that I had made it round the first corner. To celebrate that first small success I looked forward, and then it hit me. Porlock hill is a series of 4 x 25% switchback corners and I felt like I was dying after the first one.
I was now resigned to the fact that I was not going to make it all the way without stopping, it was now a case of how many times I stopped.
The first stop – Stopping on a really steep hill is easy, getting my breath back was quite easy too. Starting up again is hilarious. The principle of starting a bike is that if you can get the bike rolling you get time to clip your feet into the pedals. On a 25% hill the bike never gets going.
I clipped the right foot into the pedal, set it as high as I could and pushed down, this gave me one half turn of momentum, now I had the left pedal at the top with a very short window of opportunity to clip the left foot into the left pedal. I missed it. With no grip on the pedal, my foot slipped off the pedal, and the bike ground to a halt and my calf muscle slid down the pedal stopping it from turning.
After about 3 attempts at this I worked out a different strategy.
1. Sit on the bike and lean against the grass verge.
2. Clip both pedals in
3. Push myself and the bike back upright using my left arm
4. Start to pedal.
This proved to be a much better strategy, it just meant that for the next stops I had to make sure I stopped alongside something I could lean on.
The second & third stops – My 3rd stop was just below the fourth and final switchback corner, after that corner, I thought, it would be flat, I could then take a photo from the top then head home.
I rounded that final corner to see what was not actually a flat road but what turned out to be another ½ mile of 13% hill. Normally I would see a 13% hill and think to myself that this would be tough, this time I was relieved to see 13%.
Determined to nail this last part of the hill I changed up a gear, sat back in the saddle, put my head down and kept going.
The top – There is nothing at the top, no celebratory crowd, no TV cameras, no sign telling me what a brilliant cyclist I am, not even a sign telling me I’m at the top. I took a quick photo, put it on Facebook, emailed Andria and set about the long journey down.
You just get faster – Greg Lemod is credited with saying “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster”. I would actually settle for either, it can’t be harder than it was, and it certainly can’t be any slower.
My recommendation – If you go to Porlock hill and find yourself on a bike looking at the sign that says 1 in 4 uphill or Toll Road, take the toll, it may not be the biggest achievement ever, but it is still something to be proud of.
The bravery of cyclists – As I descended, having heard the news about Wouter Weylandt earlier that day I was unusual reserved and nervous during my climb down. I left my very short climb up Porlock hill with not only a reinforcement of the fitness these guys have to climb the hills but also a new found respect for their bravery in descending steep hills at speed.