This time last year, our marketer-in-chief Joe decided to take on the Magnificent 7 as part of the Sheffield Outdoor Weekender. Read on for how he got on, and why on Earth he wanted to do such an event.
Last year I decided to ride my first ever race on a bike. I’d always been quite a competitive person, I played football, cricket, tennis and anything else I could all through school and university to satisfy my competitive streak. For some reason though, this had never permeated into my cycling. For the most part I was happy to trundle along, admiring the views and enjoying the fresh air. However, having watched the Magnificent 7 riders battle their way up the savage climbs of Sheffield in 2016, I decided I quite fancied a go.
Now I don’t know what it was about the brutal head winds and relentless hail that faced those poor riders as they struggled up Clough Lane that got me interested. Maybe it’s a part of my personality I’d rather not explore! But ultimately what all this meant was that when the route was announced in February 2018, I signed up with only a few moment’s hesitation.
The 2018 route started and finished in Bradfield and included the infamous Hagg Hill climb as well as the Cote de Bradfield, a categorised climb that featured in the 2014 Tour de France. In total, there were seven climbs, dotted around Sheffield on a route that climbed 4,200ft in just under 27 miles.
The Magnificent Seven is a virtually unique race format in the UK. Styled as something between a Hill Climb and a sportive, the only parts of the route that are contested are the seven climbs. The riding done between climbs was to be done at a casual and social speed, on closed roads with a motorbike escort! Hopefully my curiosity in the event beyond possible masochism is starting to make sense…
I only had one ambition going in to the event, and that was to finish it. I tried to train accordingly, although the almost weekly dumps of snow from Christmas onwards made things a little complicated. A 2 mile circuit close to my home that included Highcliffe Road, a 480m climb that averages 13% gradient became a staple. Each week I’d try and go a little quicker or get another circuit in. After a recce ride of the course the week before the event, I felt confident enough that I’d not disgrace myself, and ultimately be able to cross the finish line.
Race morning came around and the butterflies in my stomach were already mimicking the course, rising and dipping more sharply than a drop down Winnats Pass. Arriving at the race hub was my first real indication that this was a ‘proper’ road event. Bikes outside the registration pavilion far exceeded the value of the cars parked up around it. A true Rule #25 event. I was starting to think I might have bitten off more than I could chew!
Climb 1: Mill Lee Road & Hoar Stones Road
Average gradient: 10%
Elevation Gain: 396ft
We rolled out of Bradfield in good spirits, with the riders split into the three race groups; Men’s Sport, Men’s Vet and Women’s. I was in the Men’s Sport category, more by default than pedigree, but with over 50 riders in my category alone I figured I had a good chance of both finishing the race, and possibly not finishing last!
My first real surprise of the day was a pleasant one. Having neglected to read the route correctly on my recce ride the previous week, I found that we were leaving Lower Bradfield via Mill Lee Road rather than Woodfall Lane. Woodfall Lane hosts the annual Bradfield Hill Climb and maxes out at a frankly ridiculous 36%. Aside from the fact that I’d unnecessarily battled up this phantom track the previous week, I felt like I was already slightly ahead of where I needed to be.
The actual climb passed relatively serenely, the aching in my calves proving to be predominantly down to nervous tension rather than any overtraining.
Climb 2: Hagg Hill
Average gradient: 13%
Elevation Gain: 124m
After a brief pause at the top of the first climb, the pack set off again towards the Rivelin valley, and the (literally) looming threat of Hagg Hill. Described as the Queen stage of the course, Hagg Hill is notorious in the cycling scene both in Sheffield and beyond. Despite living in Sheffield for 25 years, I’d never felt any sort of temptation to attempt summiting it in any non-motorised vehicle. In fact, one attempt to tackle the climb in a 1997 Nissan Micra had to be aborted, such is the first ramp of the climb.
As we approached the climb for a rolling start, I could sense that many of the riders had settled into the rhythm of the race, with the pace approaching the climb steadily gearing up. I dropped through my rings, ready to embrace my granny gear as soon as was necessary. We took a left onto the hill, and a literal roar went up. Both sides of the road leading up to the first bend of the climb were lined with spectators, armed with alpine cowbells! The atmosphere was enough to feel like you were gliding up the toughest portion of the climb, and cries of “Allez, allez, allez!” made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. However, as the crowds began to thin out, I realised I had more than two-thirds of the climb left. The climb switched from a short, sharp ramp to a much more meandering drag. My legs and chest burned as I passed a rider with what must have been the slowest overtake in cycling history just before the line. I looked back to the rider sheepishly, but this was a race after all.
As we waited for the other category riders to finish, I wolfed down a chocolate HobNob bar (other high sugar bars are available) and started chatting to a few Sheffield Uni CC riders. This was one of the highlights of the ride, the social sections of the ride were genuinely social, once everyone had caught their breath!
Climb 3: Blake Street
Average gradient: 14%
Elevation Gain: 25m
The next climb was something of a free hit. Although Blake Street is the steepest road in Yorkshire, its length meant it was likely just to be a short, sharp sprint. You’d be up and over it before the lactic acid properly kicked in. That was the plan at least!
The rolling starts were becoming more and more aggressive, and as we swept down Addy St and took a couple of left turns, I found myself virtually spat out the back of the 50-man pack before we’d even hit the climb. I was ever so slightly annoyed at myself for letting my concentration lapse. However, once we turned onto Blake St itself and the noise of the crowd lifted again, I reminded myself that I was just here to enjoy doing something a bit different.
The climb was virtually over before I had chance to take it all in, although the lactic acid definitely kicked in before the summit.
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Climb 4: Fern Road & Thrush Street
Average gradient: 10%
Elevation gain: 41m
After the sprint up Blake St, the next climb offered an entirely different challenge. And one I was not particularly looking forward to. Although the stats for climb 4 were not especially intimidating on paper, the cobbles of Thrush Street promised to mix things up.
Another frantic rolling start kicked off the climb, and the relatively benign gradient of Fern Road lulled me into a false sense of security. That all changed once we reached the cobbles. I’d been trying my best to stay out the said and squeeze whatever power I had out but as soon as I hit the uneven surface, my rear wheel bounced uncontrollably. Forced to sit down or lose all control of my bike, I completely lost any rhythm and discovered a new-found sympathy for the Paris-Roubaix riders. The cobbled backstreets of Sheffield have never felt quite as romantic since.
Climb 5: Birch House Avenue & Birks Wood Drive
Average gradient 10%
Elevation gain: 77m
Mercifully, we were treated with some respite between climbs 4 and 5 as the course dropped into the upper Don valley. There were 4 miles of welcome social riding before the next climb in Oughtibridge. Spirits were fairly high in the peloton, a mixture of relief to have made it this far, and a general exhaustion induced delirium creeping in.
On any other day, this climb would be tough but passable. But after four climbs at full pelt, it proved to be something of a banana skin. Despite being neither the steepest nor the longest climb of the race, the fifth climb of the day felt like the biggest ‘drag’. But the crowds were out again, and it was slightly surreal seeing people wander to the bottom of their driveways to give a group of amateur, lycra-clad enthusiasts a cheer. I’d go into more detail about this climb, but it turned into such a grind that I ended up just keeping my head down and trying to keep the pedals turning! I rewarded myself with another chocolate bar at the top of the climb, and prepared for the home strait.
Climb 6: Back Lane
Average gradient: 12%
Elevation gain: 118m
Although the Cote de Bradfield carried the prestige of being the final climb, and the pedigree of being an official Tour de France categorised climb, it was the sixth climb that I felt offered the bigger test. Back Lane rose from Damflask reservoir to the very top of High Bradfield and was brutally steep in places. Not exactly a sea to summit climb, but not far off.
The legs were still turning over well so I fancied giving this one a real push. Back Lane threw up another unexpected challenge though. As the name suggested, the climb was up little more than a narrow farm lane, which would have made 50 riders racing a challenge at the best of times. This was before we all realised that the middle of the road was still full of slush and ice, an unwelcome remnant of the Beast from the East.
For once I hadn’t been caught out by the frantic rolling start, but as soon as we hit the climb we were effectively blocked in to whatever position we started in. Any attempts to switch from one side of the lane to the other risked crossing the ice down the middle and almost inevitable wheel spin or worse. About half way up the course, the road opened up a little and I put the hammer on, which at this stage was probably closer to a tuning fork… I passed a few more riders and tried desperately to take one of the uni riders I’d been chatting to on the line. No luck this time.
Climb 7: Cote de Bradfield
Average gradient: 9%
Elevation gain: 227ft
We had finally reached the finale. After what was effectively a lap of honour of High Bradfield, we rolled onto the last climb of the day. The plan was to completely bury myself, and this proved very easy to do as the first 100m kicked up savagely. I’d pretty much blown and found myself sitting between the leading pack and the chasers, unable to find any sort of rhythm and with little left to ride for other than to hold position. Facing the threat of an imminent cramp, I pushed on, and with cowbells ringing in my ears I gratefully crossed the finish line. I can’t imagine I rode up that climb with anything like the grace or ease of those Tour de France riders four years previous, but with crowds lining the summit I felt like I was in that peloton. Not bad for my first race ever!
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