History of the Hill Climb Classic
Ernie Hussey, winner of 9 Catford Hill Climbs in a row, which has never been equalled!
August 20th 1887 saw 24 starters tackle Westerham Hill, Kent (then considered almost insurmountable) in the very first Catford CC Hill Climb. Not only was it a challenge to get to the top, but solid tyres on the then unmade roads made it a precarious ride, particulary for 'Penny Farthings'.
For this was in the days of the Old Ordinary or High Bicycle, when chain driven machines with two wheels of the same diameter were just starting to make an appearance. The winner, S. F. Edge of the Anerley BC (later of the Catford CC ) rode one of the new 'safety' machines.
Of the twelve competitors who got to the summit, eight rode safeties, three were tricycles and only one 'Penny Farthing' made it, which came fourth. That was a 54 inch wheel machine and therefore had a 54 inch gear. The lowest permitted gear was 52 inches. (presumably to stop the new chain driven bicycles from having an unfair advantage, as there was a limit on the smallest size wheel that you could use on an Ordinary, due to leg length).
There was also a minimum weight limit of 35lbs for bicycles and 45lbs for tricycles (who said the UCI were original to introduce weight rules!). Since then Westerham Hill has been the climb on 16 occasions and other hills used were Brasted (21); Toys (4); Waller (3); Titsey (1) .But the real home of the Catford Hill Climb is Yorks Hill.
First used in 1935 it has since been used some 65 times. This quiet Kent country lane is transformed every October with hundreds of spectators lining each side of the road urging on the straining competitors with cries of 'Up-Up-Up'. The scene is more reminiscent of the crowds on the 'cols' of the Tour de France but it is also uniquely a social occasion, an opportunity for an annual re-union of many club riders. Being a sunken road, overhung by trees, in the autumn, 'leaves on the line' cause many traction problems.
In 1937 the un-metalled surface defeated all but 16 of the 92 starters. Yorks Hill is a short and sharp ascent. In 1940 a carpet of wet leaves ensured that only four of the 43 starters succeeded in getting to the top of the Hill. To minimize wheel slip, the hill is now swept before the event but in wet weather conditions this is still a major problem for competitors.
The trees caused a greater problem in 1987 when on the day before the event was due to be held the North Downs ridge bore the brunt of the infamous 'Hurricane'. The following day the few Catford members who managed to get through the blocked roads found that the gulley was completely filled with 100s of fallen trees, making racing impossible.
The following year when these were cleared away the race went through a very bleak landscape with barren embankments each side. It is only now, some 20 years later that the new trees are maturing and the 'Hill' is taking on its old aspect. After the 'Hurricane'. The road was churned up by tractors removing the fallen trees so it was resurfaced and is still in a reasonable condition.
One aspect which we hope won't return is that Hurricane road surface. Originally when the lane was first used it was unmade (shades of the 'Hell of the North'!). Short compared with the Northern hill climbs, 707 yards. Very steep, two hard sections of 1in 4. It is a 2 minute lung-bursting aerobic effort.
Best suited to the dynamic track style rider or the road racer with a dynamic sprint (we'd just love to see what Froome would do on it!). The riders' all-out effort means that we need a marshal at the top to support the exhausted finishers and prevent them from falling off!!