Race Report - The IOW 7 Hills - 'Bone Shaking. Record Breaking'

I love local races. There is something unique and special about competing close to home—the friendly faces and familiar surroundings produce a completely unique atmosphere. The '7 Hills' holds a particular place in my heart though, because 16 years ago it was my first ever mountain bike race. This year, it was all about setting a PB on the Isle of Wight course…


The Isle of Wight Classic

The 26 mile race runs across the Island, from Freshwater Bay to Sandown Airport. It is an orienteering set-up, but along a pre-defined mostly signposted route; with 75 percent of it off-road along the central and southern ridges of the Isle of Wight.

Most previous editions of the annual race have been held in September, and I have competed in conditions ranging from scorching 'Indian Summer' heat, to Force 10 winds and torrential rain in the tail-end of a hurricane. The event has now shifted to a March date, which gives it far more of an early season 'Spring Classic' feel.

My fastest time on the course before has been 2 hours 11 minutes—set on that day when the hurricane headwind was still blowing itself out. This year's conditions already looked significantly more favourable, and a PB was certainly a possibility.

The majority ride the '7 Hills' on mountain bikes, but for 2019 I decided to take a gamble; opting for the 3T Exploro 'Gravel Bike' as my ride of choice. It was either going to be a lot of bone-shaking descents and walking, or it was going to be fast… It turned out to be both.


The Race

The Land Rover roars up the 20 percent gradient in front of us, signalling the end of the short neutralised section, and the start of the race. Everyone clicks down a gear and jostles for position; the first of the seven hills has begun.

I am already in my lowest gear—the 3T Exploro is set up 42-42 as the bottom gear ratio, which means any kind of incline requires a good bit of power. Nothing for it… get out of the saddle, and hammer on the pedals.

My spurt of speed soon takes me to the front of the conga line of riders (aside from the two guys on e-bikes well up in the distance). I glance down at my computer screen and confirm to myself that this is definitely the biggest threshold effort I have done in a long time. Let us see if the 'Timmy Turbo Diesel' has still got what it takes…

I reach the top of the first climb with good friend and ex-team mate Adam in tow. He rockets off down the descent, as I wince and grimace—being shaken about like a rag doll trying to keep pace on the fully rigged Exploro.

The second hill follows immediately, and Adam and I share the multiple gate openings up and over the summit—one of the disadvantages of being the front-runners.

By the time we reach the Isle of Wight Mountain Bike Centre I am wondering what I have let myself in for. My hands are already feeling sore, and my buttocks are in synchronised complaint. I glance back at Adam's suspension and large tyres and wonder if I can follow him on the next descent down through the centre.

We both reach the bottom of Cheverton Down together, miraculously. Then, thankfully, I am granted the first 'road' ascent—up the concrete washboard surface that takes you to the radar station at Chillerton summit.

Now, the skinny tyres and rigid forks come into their own. I click down through the gears and accelerate up the road; a gentle north westerly tailwind assisting the ascent.

On reaching the first checkpoint at the top, Adam has dropped out of sight behind. I get my brevet card signed and go off rattling my way down the descent.

The section of road from Chillerton through to Chale is a welcome respite for the hands and shoulders; if still a flat-out exertion of the lungs. I arrive at the next checkpoint at the bottom of Hoy dripping in sweat (why did I wear winter tights and a thermal jersey?!). A friendly reception from event organiser Phil and his family distracts me from the discomfort though, and I head on towards the monument at the summit.

Climbing over slippery rocks and through foot deep mud is not easy on a gravel bike—they were not designed for that. The Hoy ascent demands a certain amount of running/walking, and I make the occasional look back down the trail to see if Adam is coming steaming up behind. Hopefully, he got distracted by the cake at the checkpoint below…

From Hoy, it is a fast descent and then rise towards Stenbury Down. I get glances of my other old team-mate Stu up ahead on his e-bike. I bet he did not get off and walk that last section with those tractor-like tyres.

Once over the top of Stenbury it is a rapid downhill to Ventnor, before the final climb of Down Lane. This climb is 'my climb'—in 2017 I completed it 38 times from sea-level in one day, during the St. Boniface Down Everesting. Doing it just once seems (sort of) easy now.

Along the top. Down the incredibly bumpy steps. Then a blast along the disused railway line through to the airport. Finish. Time for a cold drink!

Setting a new course record of 1 hour 45 minutes pales my previous PB into insignificance. My heart, legs and lungs are going to take a few days to recover; I am not sure how long my hands and forearms will take…

A fantastic local event, on an incredible first day of spring. Long live the 7 Hills.


Many thanks to the GPSport.org team for a great event and to Malc Attrill Photography for the superb photos.








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