Climbing Portsdown Hill – A Cyclist’s Story

Photography by Alan Ford.

Aspiring local road racer, Jordan Clarke, shares his passion for cycling in this intense account of a less-than-average bike ride. 

The rain hammers hard. It falls from the clouds and drags my spirit with it. It runs from my head, rolls down my back, round the cheeks of my butt and off the rear of my saddle into my rear wheel, only to be slung around and splatted against my white staining jersey. This is going to happen for at least another 50 kilometres. The joy.

Glasses don’t really help either. They fog up as my heavy respiration forces warm breath from my mouth upwards onto the cold lenses. I wipe them often, but they just get smudged and grimy from the dates I’ve eaten and the sugary energy bars that keep me going.

My helmet may as well be a swimming pool. Every time I tilt my head, captured rain falls through the vents and runs down my back. The helmet is essential: the chances of crashing are considerably higher due to the lack of friction.

Damn the rain.

I aquaplane a few times, leaning into corners. It’s scary, but exciting in an adrenaline-boosting way. It grabs your attention. It makes sure you don’t forget that every corner is now your enemy.

My shoes are waterlogged. Each turn of the pedals creates a squelch, a noise that becomes irritating as time goes by. My toes are going numb, a feeling I’m still getting used to. The only parts of me that stay warm are my hands and legs. Mainly because I have two pairs of gloves on and my legs are constantly spinning around. Had it been a warm day I would be travelling a lot faster: the risk of crashing would be reduced. But no, I decided I would ride in this weather.

People often ask why one would go and ride in the rain. The answer is simple. I love cycling more than anything in the world. More than rhubarb-and-custard sweets, more than a cold one in the summer, more than the smile on my girlfriend’s face. When you truly love something, you’ll do anything to feel that feeling of happiness, joy, ecstasy…

So here I am, soaked and fresh, ready to face a bitter rival. My journey has not been too long, but it is enough to warm me in preparation for the battle that will soon happen. Portsdown Hill. The closest and steepest incline from my house. The hardest part is getting from the roundabout in Cosham to the lights at the junction for the QA Hospital.

Today, in the rain, however, everything seems to be in slow motion. The quick acceleration from the roundabout to the junction is perfectly timed so as not to get stuck at the lights and lose all momentum. That happens a lot: instant mood killer.

Here it comes.

Now the fight starts. I’m in the zone and the adrenaline is pumping after the acceleration at the roundabout. The first kick comes as you leave the junction. This section gets to around 4% before levelling out to 1% after only 400 metres, and I’ve only climbed 10 metres. The next 100 metres is an easy 0-1.5%.

Now I’m feeling it. My legs are spinning. My gearing is on the point.

“I can do this all day long,” I assure myself.

Then comes the next section. The first time you know you’re really starting to go up. Over this 400 metre section, the gradient is anywhere between 3%-7% with a maximum of 12%. This is the section where my legs scream back at me for putting them through hell. They ache, from my skinny ankles up to just under the scar behind my knee cap on my right leg. Every muscle wants me to stop the onslaught of lactic acid flooding my vessels. Now I’ve elevated 20 metres over 400 metres on the road.

Finally I reach the last push, the final 400 metres, peaking at 8.3% over 20 elevated metres. The section with the awful green cycle lane. The kind that causes you to be forced by vehicle users on to the dirty, gritty and grippy part of the road. Guess what? There is no way I am using it this time. I want to get to the top as fast as I can. I am not going to let myself be slowed down by a truly terrible section of cycle path that drivers assume I ought to be using.

Head down, focusing on breathing. Arms stretched out, forcing the bars away from my body to help push me further into the saddle and increase power output. Greasy-looking knees and upper calves gleam with the little sunlight that meets them as they rise and fall with each pedal stroke. The crest is coming, and so is the end.

The local hills are brilliant to ride on. Ask any cyclist you know who lives around Portsmouth. Portsdown Hill in the rain is absolutely epic. Every time I climb it in the rain, I feel like a professional. Racing as fast as my legs can possibly allow me to reach the top. Soaked with sweat, rain and snot. Then finally being able to throw my arms into the air in triumph. The winning move. The well-earned downhill. The bragging rights.

That’s why I do it.

Photography by Alan Ford via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).