Interview: Defending Hill Climb Champion Gunnar Grönlund talks to British Hill Climb Champion Gunnar Grönlund ahead of this weekends big one, the 2012 British Hill Climb Championship on the Rake.

RST Cycle Clothing & Trigon Bikes

As I write this, the Tour de France 2013 is being launched and one of the key highlights of any Tour is the summit finish; the crowds cheering on the riders and the battle between rider and a mountain.

Monsal and the big crowd cheer on Matrix Prendas rider Jessie Walker.

In some small way, the British Hill Climb is like a mini version. When you look at the crowds at events like the Monsal and BEC hill climbs, you can’t help but be carried along on a wave of noise and enthusiasm and this weekend on the ‘Rake’, that same atmosphere will face the riders in the British championship for the third running of the title event on this brutal climb.

When you’re wearing the champion’s stripes, the desire to hold on to them is a very strong one and RST/Trigon Bikes rider Gunnar Grönlund will be doing everything he can to repeat his win from 2011 on the Rake (Lancashire) on Sunday. The favourite, due to his wins at the Monsal and Bec CC Hill climbs will be Jack Pullar but Gunnar is doing all he can to be in the best possible shape for the race and to deny the North West rider that title and stop his unbeaten record.

Gunnar in the champion’s jersey at Monsal. This weekend he defends that on the ‘Rake’.

Both riders are expected to be well supported by their teams and for Gunnar and his RST Racing Team, the event is a very important one. The season has been a very good one already for RST with their Youth riders winning many British titles and their senior team also making their presence felt in road races.

After only two years, the team with a multiple British pro champion at its helm, Chris Walker, is making great progress and the squad will be looking to progress more in 2013 with some racing in Europe providing additional sponsors can be found to help them move forward.

An important part of the team since the middle of 2011 has been Gunnar Grönlund and on Tuesday he was driven to the ‘Rake’ in Ramsbottom by RST Racing team manager Dave Coulson who has many years experience racing at the highest level in Britain.

Gunnar and Dave Coulson look at the course map before a busy afternoon of riding the climb.

Prior to hours of going up and down the ‘Rake’, spoke to Gunnar about hill climbs. The British Champion from Sweden only started doing hill climbs last year after a season where he didn’t race as much as he had hoped he would. With a lot of enthusiasm to race still burning inside, Gunnar wanted to do something that would help raise his profile to get a team for 2012 and the hill climb was the best fit for that challenge. That choice worked out well for Gunnar who led the RST Racing Team’s Senior squad on the road in 2012.

With the road season over and a lot of racing under his wheels, Gunnar’s had a different approach to the Hill Climb season this year. Gunnar chose hill climbs back in 2011 because he’s never really got into cyclo-cross and always been quite a natural climber weighing only 58 kilos or so. “I enjoy the hill climbs and many of the events have quite a relaxed atmosphere around them” he explained.
It’s been a short hill climb season for Gunnar to enjoy being British Champion, six weeks or so, but that he says with all the nervous energy that goes into each event wearing those stripes, is long enough. “I wouldn’t want it to be a lot longer” says Gunnar who added that this year he’s tried to race a bit less than last year averaging only one event per week”.

Gunnar riding the steep section of the climb.

“I haven’t won as much as I won last year but I don’t think that is down to form as I think I am stronger than last year. I have done events to set me up for this (the Rake) which haven’t suited me as much but that’s all part of the plan and hopefully it will work out on Sunday. It’s still been a good season for me in the jersey even though I like to win more. I certainly don’t feel I have let myself down or the jersey.”

“I’m not a powerful rider being quite small at 58 to 59 kilos so the longer hill climbs where you can ride more on threshold and are more like a time trial, suit me a lot better. So the challenge last year was good for me but this year it has been very different so I have done everything I can to prepare for that challenge in racing and training.”

“Last year I felt I peaked a bit early and started to feel tired in the weeks leading up to the championship so I have tried to do it a bit different this year. I’ve also tried to pick out the events very differently to how I did last year because as soon as I decided I was going to defend the title, I knew I needed to do it properly. So I aimed to do events like the Monsall Head and Bec CC hill climbs, the really short ones instead of doing the ones I actually enjoy, the longer ones which take ten or twenty minutes”.

Gunnar and Ashley Proctor crest the top of the climb near the finish for the race on Sunday.

Gunnar’s approach to riding a Hill Climb
The 2011 championship in Derbyshire was on a long draggy type climb and so the race was as much a ‘5 mile’ style time trial as a smash it and grab time trial like the one on the Rake. But every effort, whether it’s a minute or 10 ten minutes requires a pacing strategy.

With the time gap between riders a lot smaller at the top of the results sheet on short climbs like the Rake, getting the pace management right will be key. Which is why Gunnar, and other riders, were on the Rake riding the climb over and over.

“Even with a two minute effort, there is a lot of pace management” says Gunnar. “That is the reason we’re here today; to learn how to pace the climb because in these events, you run the risk of blowing too soon and losing a lot of time. Even on these short climbs, you need to get the effort right by riding the climb quite a few times to see where you can gain time, where you will lose time and then work out a pacing plan.”

It will take control too which isn’t easy when you have a number on your back, pressure to win the biggest event of the season and the crowd screaming in your face to go faster from a foot away. Adrenalin, red mist, pressure; it will all need to play second fiddle to control because as riders know, it’s easy to just smash it from the start line and then park up on the worst part of the climb.

So, on Tuesday, Gunnar was doing what he says is one of the most important things he can do pre-race; riding the whole climb, breaking it down and then riding it section by section and becoming at one with it in his mind and legs.

“The time trialling work I have done before starting hill climbs has helped me a lot” says Gunnar “but I am still learning for sure. The one at BEC for example was better for me than Monsal Head. At the BEC, I dared to go for it a bit more than I did at Monsal where maybe I held back a little too much.”

“And BEC was fifteen seconds longer which isn’t a lot but makes a difference to me and the Rake should be longer again than the BEC CC one. (Ed – The record for the Rake is 2minutes 14 seconds where as the winning time at Bec was 1.42 …)

Long before the recce of the Rake though, Gunnar has been training for this type of climb. Because these race efforts are so short, Gunnar explained that he’s had to train specifically for them to develop his anaerobic system a bit more than he would normally during a road racing season.

Gunnar also added that the training has also included trying to gain more strength in his arms and shoulders because riders in hill climbs tend to be out of the saddle a lot. To do this, Gunnar has done that training in the Peak District for the last six or seven weeks on climbs.

“I tend to not use the turbo because you never use your arms or upper body like you would on a climb. Even on a rainy day, I prefer to be on the bike”.

Talking about the effort in a hill climb, someone said to me how they lose all feeling in their arms as they go into oxygen debt and Gunnar says that pretty well describes what happens in a hill climb effort.

“At BEC, my arms and legs were numb for the final 15 seconds and I don’t know if I feel that much pain because you are so focused on getting the effort all out, you don’t feel that much until you finish when it catches up with you and you feel quite sick.”

“On the bike though, you just go all out and after a while go numb for the final bit, the legs turning into jelly and you start to slow down while you’re trying to press on.” And that’s where the pace management notes he’ll be making after assessing the gradient changes on the Rake will be so important so he doesn’t go into the red too early because he knows on the Rake, if you park up on a climb that’s 1 in 5 or 1 in 6, you will park up!

So key to that management of the effort will be gear choice. At Monsal where Gunnar was third, he used three gears and the BEC climb was about the same. On the Rake where the gradient changes are more than the aforementioned climbs, he doesn’t expect it to be more than four gear changes because as he explained, with each change, you lose a fraction of a second.

Gunnar will have a 10 speed block on the back and a single chain ring (42 or 39) and should he use the straight through block he had on for the recce, the ‘jump’ between gears will be kept to a minimum. Talking about his Trigon bike which weighs less than six kilos, (see more here), he says it’s not all about being super light.

Last year and champion after his first season of doing Hill Climbs.

“I want a bike that won’t fail me and I do all my training on this bike as well so I know it won’t break down on me. It’s the same with tyres and I’m going for standard road tyres that have quite a bit of grip. They are a bit heavier but I don’t want a puncture and if it rains, I want some grip so it’s not all about being light.”

Gunnar has chosen integrated bars and stem because he says on a climb like the Rake which is so steep, you need bars that are stiff even if they aren’t the lightest. Gunnar hasn’t gone for a long cranks either and has decided to stick to 170mm ones which he feels happiest with.
So with the recce done, Gunnar now has plenty of time to finish the preparations for the race. Having already ridden the climb over and over and over, he doesn’t expect to have to do that on the day. Instead, there’ll be the breakfast three hours or more before the start in the afternoon and then on arriving, getting his number and pinning that onto his RST skinsuit.

The warm up for the short race is far longer and Gunnar uses the same warm up for a hill climb as he does for a time trial which is between 40 and 50 minutes with some short bursts which will help open the lungs as well as ‘activate’ the legs.

Then, at 2.30pm, the time will arrive for Gunnar to start his effort. By then, his rivals will all have set their time and the only person who can beat Gunnar, will be Gunnar himself. Whatever happens, he will have done everything he can to be in the best shape he can be on the day and that is all any rider can do.

Good luck to Gunnar and all the riders on the ‘Rake’ on Sunday. VeloUK will of course be there…


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