Tuesday 10 August 2010

Isle of Wight Cycling Festival and the 7 Hills Killer

Only weeks left now until the 2010 Isle of Wight Cycling Festival. This year the festivities run from 18th-26th September and as usual many rides and events are taking place; around 60 in fact, ranging from events just for kids to the now legendary Hills Killer.

Brook Down Descent
The Hills Killer consists of three options: 3 Hills Challenge - Chale Green Stores, Chale Green , 7 Hills Challenge - Apple Tree Cafe, Afton Park, Newport Road, Freshwater and the 14 Hills Challenge - Park Resorts, Landguard Holidays Camp Site, Landguard Road, Shanklin. All the rides finish at Landguard Holiday Camp in Shanklin.

You may notice in this blog that I switch between past and present tense to describe the route and that is because it was and still is very much as I describe it. I rode in the very early days, but it still remains very much the same. It may not be a known fact to many, but The Hills Killer actually dates back to the very early 1990's, and if I recall correctly 1993 was the first running. The very first 7 Hills Killer as it was known then was run in exactly the same format, following orienteering points stretching from Freshwater Bay Car Park to the famous Offshore Sports in Shanklin. Sadly, although the Killer event still exists, Offshore Sports does not, but the shop and its co-owner Ian Williams (author of Cycling Wight and other related publications) can claim to be the legitimate founder of the event all those years ago. I know this because Ian is a good friend and I remember his boyish excitement when he gathered us all up on a club run and told us of his intention to run the event later that year. I rode all these early events for at least the first seven or eight years and worked in the bike shop at Offshore, I was also very active in Mountain Bike racing during those early boom years of the sport.

As mentioned, the format was just the same and the popularity - especially in those early years - was just as intense. At the time, it was the locals that rode the Hills, but it wasn't strange to see 60-70 riders out in the depths of January, ankle deep in mud, clad in Buffalo Cycling Fleeces (yes those nasty jackets that had a strap under the crotch) and Etto helmets, both classic icons of early 90's Retro Mountain Biking. The bikes too were about as retro as you could get, suspension was in its very early years and disc brakes were a thing of the future. None of that put us off though, and every January, Ian would venture out on the trails with his wife Jill, with a bag of markers, ride the whole route and place the checkpoints at fairly obvious locations so that we could all just get on with the ride without spending too much time searching for hidden markers (this element of hiding did go through some varying changes over the years, to the annoyance of several riders, including myself).

The Seven Hills Killer often turned into a  bit of a race, unofficial, but such was the intensity of competition that some of us just couldn't help it. The likes of myself and other MTB race regulars Simon White, Damon Stanley, Will Steward, 90's Master female National Champion Fiona Ecclestone and a clutch of other very fit riders and friends such as the sadly missed Mark Rann (a winner of the event and namesake of the original trophy) and Paul McDermott, who has a ride at this years Festival in his memory. We all knew the best route, where the markers were and what the conditions would be like, so the event became finely tuned over  a number of years.

After the very first event, lessons were learnt, like placing a marker at top of Freshwater Golf Course, not at the bottom of Brook down near the road, where surprisingly only one rider sussed that it would be quicker to go round the Down on the road rather than over it - then promptly got the quickest time!!! By year two, the obvious course was set and competition hotted up. I can't really remember all the facts now, or finishing positions/times, but I know one thing for sure, pretty much each year there was a different winner, such was the unpredictability of the terrain. I think I may have won it twice and I'm pretty sure that I got the quickest time ever 1hour 57mins (until they changed the start finish points in the last ten years) on a freak day in January where conditions where perfect!! No mud, although I seem to remember the trails were totally frozen and three of us finished a ways ahead of the rest with all markers visited and punched within a few minutes of one another; the closest ever I reckon... A few reading this will complain that it is not a race and they'd be right - it isn't a race, but we all knew that getting the quickest time or beating your mates was the appeal. Maybe that's a racers mentality, but this event was the most popular for a reason, and we had many conventional MTB orienterring events on the Island throughout the year.

Freshwater Golf Course Bridleway
That was the old route though, and we had refined it, the whole way sticking to rules and law about riding only on Bridleways and Byways (that's important to remember, even now ;0). There were choices concerning which way to go to get to markers, but we all knew the tricks. Always starting from Freshwater Bay we would sprint up the road to the Golf Club car park/bridleway, shoot through  the car park and onto the chalk trail. This cut out the sapping grass option before the club house before eventually meeting with the chalk track further up, leading up over the main bridleway. The first marker was always on the gate at the end of the Golf Course, and we'd all fumble with thick gloves and/or cold fingers for the hole stamp card we used back then to clip the point and prove we'd been at the checkpoint. The problem was getting these cards out of your pocket, always requiring glove removal. It was pointless shoving them down your top as the sweat would make the card all soggy. This, over the following years, led to some ingenious devices and inventions that meant access the punch card was much easier. Unfortunately some of these devices were pretty nasty and could only be described as only just short of medieval weaponry. The worst I saw was a lump of sharp aluminium zip-tied to the handlebars, just to hold a map and the punch card. I just put mine in a  plastic bag and hung it round my neck.

Chalk Trail on Brook Down
Stopping was what got me, I hated it, and to be honest even now I shy away from such events because of that one aspect. But The Seven Hills had an addictive charm and still does, and this was always enhanced by the stunning views and scenery that you see once the top of Brook Down is reached. Even now, having ridden that trail hundreds of times, it is still awe-inspiring and great to know that this beautiful part of England is on my doorstep.

You'll go up this at Brook Down if you do the 14
A quick descent down the Chalk to the first road crossing and onto Brighstone Down, up another big climb over the top and a fast descent into Strawberry Lane car park. I think there may have been another checkpoint somewhere on that leg, but I can't really remember. Still, this was the only way to go, so marker or not, we all took this route and even in the worst conditions this section was always quite quick as the water just rolled down the sides of the down into the valley. Across the road then onto the climb up Limerstone down over the loose stones, rocks and chalk to another marker, quick punch of the card and then another descent, scaring lots of sheep, to the top of Shorwell Shute.

Best Views of the Island, top of Brighstone Down
It was at this point (after three hills and a few smaller lumps) that things would get very difficult, the mud from now on takes on a different consistency: sticky, smelly and gritty. I can't really say where today's Hills Killer goes from here because I've not ridden it for a while, mainly because of clashes with Cyclo-Cross events on the mainland, but I'm pretty sure one of two ways is still used to get to the top of Chillerton Down where I think another marker is normally placed. The first choice was to go straight across the road at the top of Shorwell Shute, up the trail and past Lorden Copse. This was and still is nasty in winter; fast in dry or frozen conditions but muddy, wet and slow in rainy, mild weather, often requiring dismounting and running for most but the fittest. The point at which this trail meets with the byway going to Chillerton mast is the same point at which you can reach from choice two at the top of Shorwell. Longer but a lot quicker, it was easier to drop down the shute to the left going in a Carisbrooke direction and take a right turn up the byway, still on tarmac (although rough) and to the same point that the Lorden Copse trails ends up. Masses of time and effort can be saved here.

Following the descent to the Chillerton road after peaking Chillerton Down, it was then a case of a large section of road to get to Chale Green. There is an option to cut cross country but it was avoided at all costs, again, winter trails made this almost impassable without walking through thick mud, and at this point a heavy mud laden Mountain Bike. So, we all headed for Chale Green. The next checkpoint was Hoys Monument and this threw up several route options and was possibly the most argued section of the Seven Hills.

It was possible to go pretty much straight up, through Gotten Farm, following the steep bridleway to Hoy but again, this was just too heavy going, requiring running and walking. It was shorter though so many took this option. Myself and a few others would take the risk of heading out on a longer route on the road towards Godshill then doing a right turn to the Hermitage and a road climb almost to the top. The legal use of the bridleway meant doing a field section, which is never very nice, but once through the field it was up the gully and to the top where Hoy's Monument stands. A  longer route, but I still maintain, quicker, easier, much less muddy and psychologically sound.

From the monument it is a flat trail (still  muddy) across the ridge to the kick up to the Pepper Pot on St Catherine's Down. Fortunately, cresting the Pepper Pot was never required, but possibly the worse part of the entire route - in my opinion - was the flat, ankle deep muddy trail leading to Crocker Lane. Massive puddles, sticky mud and grass banked sides that looked rideable but often weren't. This hell-hole always required dismounting, running and tripping over in deep puddles and grassy tufts, cyclo-cross style for nearly a kilometre, at a point where tiredness was starting to creep in. After this though was a tarmac descent and then some more tarmac respite down King Gates Lane, Kemming Road and onto Ventnor Road to decide how best to get up onto Ventnor Down for the next marker.

Again, there are a few options and most included steep, unrideable muddy trails. A lot of us chose again to go slightly out of the way and take Weeks Lane off the Whitwell Road through Weeks Farm, past the Yappy dog that would always chase you into a cow holding pen, often full of cows, and after a fight through the Bovine masses it was then possible to traverse the field across a not so steep bridleway (but still not always rideable) to the next marker atop Ventnor. From here it was down past Ventnor Golf Course, down the fast decent, left turn, bit more trail and out onto the road at Upper Ventnor - the start of the hardest part of the whole ride, and ironically, this was all on road climbing Down Lane, possibly the hardest and steepest climb on the Island, to the very top of Ventnor Down.

Once at the top, after too long hearing your heart beating in your ears and black spots clouding your eyes,  it's as good as downhill all the way to the finish, but once across the ridge, the descent gets progressively trickier as the foot slopes are reached and the mud comes back with a vengeance. Depending on where the markers are and where the finish was, the event sometimes meant a final flurry through America Wood. Great singletrack, but a lot of mud, and at this stage any kind of technicality on tired arms, aching backs and dead legs proved just a little too much, and the finish could never come quick enough.

The Hills Killer isn't a race and that is highly emphasised, but it is hard not to feel a little competitive in a timed event, and back in the day there were several of us all vying to get the fastest time, if not the record time and since those early days, the event has gone through a lot of changes. Different starts, different finishes, markers in random and sometimes hidden places, different organisers but always attracting the stalwarts and the first timers. Since its inception, the 14 Hills is now proving popular amongst the endurance riders and the 3 Hills is appealing to beginners and those just wanting a quick-ish' ride. Whatever the appeal though, the event attracts, in the main,  people doing it for fun and people doing it for competition, that's human nature, but makes the event quite unique against standard format MTB orienteering.

The route I have described above is by no means a comprehensive guide to the Seven Hills, but it does cover the actual seven hills used, so it will vary depending on where the organiser places the markers. I may even have a go myself this year to see how much it has changed, and maybe get some photos to re-blog, but to be honest, once I get my competition head on, I will find it difficult to ride casually, so don't hold your breath.

~ Sean W

(pics copyright Netguides/Sean Williams.)
Pictures are from parts of the route but not from the event itself and not always in the right direction - unless you do the 14 hills. If you are lucky, the same conditions may be present  for the 2010 festival - give or take a bit of mud and sun. I hope you don't have the conditions I describe in the blog!!)

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