The last gasp of youth, Tim Dawson (2011)
Original article first published at thesundaytimes.co.uk on 27 May 2011
Few people are impressed when I tell them that my best ever result as a competitive cyclist was to claim fourth place in a hill climb – in Norfolk. But flat as East Anglia might be in the public imagination, Norwich’s Gas Hill is a brutal, quarter mile, one-in-five ramp from close by the banks of the River Wensum. The Alps, it ain’t, but it is enough to leave competitors near comatose at the summit.
It was 1985 or 1986 when I made my attempt, by which time the event had been running for nearly three decades. It attracted a couple of hundred spectators and well-wishers. Norwich in those days did not seem to have experienced quite the precipitate decline in cycling that affected much of the country. There were at least a dozen bike shops in the city and there was even ‘Gasp Up Gas Hill’ for riders the Windcheetah recumbent, that the then unknown Mike Burrows was manufacturing elsewhere in the Norwich.
By the early 2000s, however, enthusiasm for the race had apparently waned so much that it was wound up – until now that is.
Ken Joliffe, who organises the local cycle racing league on Lotus’ test track, was looking for a way to create a more public cycling spectacle. Norwich City Council was not keen on a criterium in the city centre, but officials had fond memories of ‘the Gasp’ and suggested a revival. “We looked at the hill and decided it was a great idea”, enthuses Joliffe.
The format of the event – on the evening of Friday 8 July – has gone through various permutations in its time, but this year Joliffe has taken inspiration from the increasingly popular Four-Cross events, where heats of four riders tackle a course together. “It creates a bit more of a spectacle than a simple time trail”, Joliffe explains. Indeed, the event is being held as part of the city’s Lord Mayor’s parade weekend.
Joliffe hopes to assemble a sufficient field to allow for one event for cyclists who already hold British Cycling racing licenses, another for other adult cyclists and a children’s team event. You don’t need a racing license to take part – but you do have to enter before 17 June. There is a bit more information here, as are Joliffe’s contact details.
From my hazy recollections, the lactic burn in your legs starts within four or five pedal strokes. The rest of the event is a battle with that pain, and then oxygen debt by about half way up the hill. A pleasant experience it is not, but it is very short. And the sense of achievement? Mine has lasted more than quarter of a century, if that is any gauge.
In the middle-aged spirit of trying to reclaim youth, I may even join Joliffe and co in July and see what a toll the ensuing decades have taken on my performance. I don’t hold out much hope for my prospects, but coming last in a hill climb in Norfolk would be an even more comic addition to my palmares.
TD May 11