What is motorcycle hillclimbing and why should you do it?
Motorcycle hillclimbing represents one of the earliest and purest forms of motorcycle racing, with a single aim: one rider against the clock, racing to the top of the course in the quickest possible time.
Hillclimbing in the UK is held on paved, twisting uphill sections of single-lane roads, usually but not always on private property rather than on purpose-built tracks. The sport is particularly popular in the Channel Islands and West Country. Courses are usually on quarter- or half-mile sections of track and the racing is conducted via timed sprints through timing lights at the start and finish lines. Hillclimbs tend to be informal and racing is accessible to spectators in a way that is quite unlike modern forms of motorsport.
Just about any type of bike can be campaigned, with single- and twin-cylinder machines popular because of light weight and useable power delivery, making hillclimbing a highly accessible form of motorsport. Classes range from classic bikes (pre 1965), motocross and specials – usually based on modified motocross bikes, usually tuned and with a low centre of gravity – campaigned by hillclimb specialists.
As a rule of thumb, bikes should be prepared to road legal standard (equivalent to an MOT pass) – some race organisers check documents so bring them with you. Preparation is simple – bikes must be in good working order with breakable glass and plastics taped up, mirrors removed, oil drain plugs lock-wired and breather pipes connected to a catch tank. Good quality riding gear is essential and entry fees tend to be nominal, adding to the affordability.
Onwards and upwards
Competing in hillclimbing tests your skill on two or three wheels at a reasonable cost, and immense satisfaction can be gained from setting your own personal time at a track. If winning is your goal then each capacity class is hard-fought, followed by an overall championship based on a run-off for the fastest rider at each championship round.
There are some spectacular tracks around, from starting in the pub car park at Hartland Quay in Devon, to Gurston Down in Wiltshire – a track that is not for the faint hearted – to the parkland splendour at the Bugatti Owners Club track at Prescott in Gloucestershire. All of the tracks are on metalled private roads, generally narrow and twisty.
Fancy giving hillclimbing a go? Day licences and club membership are available to anyone interested in trying the sport without too much commitment. Details and further information are available on the National Hill Climb Association website: nhca.co.uk.
Meet 'Roy the Racer'
Roy Venard epitomises the competitive, yet amateur, spirit of UK motorcycle hillclimbing. Now in his eighties and reluctantly recently retired from the sport, ‘Roy the Racer’ started in off-road motorcycle sport at the age of 18, trials riding on a 197cc James. Having developed the taste for off-road competition, scrambling soon followed. Roy then moved on to speed trials – first quarter-hour constant speed tests, then half- hour speed tests with the aim of covering as many laps as possible in 30 minutes.
“In the 1980s I had the loan of a Triumph 650 Trophy for high speed trials,” recalls Roy. “After an accident at Silverstone which left a 1/4inch BSF bolt in my left foot, courtesy of a passing Kawasaki, the owner removed the loan of the Triumph. Luckily, I had started to build a 1930s Velocette Mac 350 for circuit racing which I then used at Keevil, Cadwell and Pembrey.
“I had been attending the Bristol Classic Bike Show regularly and always enjoyed visiting the NSA [now NHCA] stand. There were always many interesting bikes, from modified motocrossers to classic race bikes, with lots of ingenious specials and some interesting vintage machines. One of the club members manning the stand suggested I tried the sport. So, in 1990, I attended a meeting at Wiscombe and found it to be very laidback with friendly riders, helpers and officials who gave me lots of advice. I joined the NHCA and entered my first meeting at Wiscombe in September 1991 – plenty of time for tea drinking and chatter followed by one-and-a-half minutes of adrenalin. I enjoyed it so much I entered the next meeting which was at Hartland Quay in north Devon – a very technical hill in a glorious setting”.
The trusty Velocette was set up for its new challenge with a bigger carburettor and inlet valve, Venom cams, 10:1 compression ratio, straight through exhaust pipe, everything lightened where possible and rear-sets and a small rubber saddle known to Roy’s bike friends as ‘the incontinence saddle’ – and Roy was ready to embark on his new sport. The vintage class was quite a strong one but Roy made his way to the top in 1995 winning the Vintage Class Championship that year. This feat was repeated in 1997 and 1998. The Velo served Roy well at various tracks around the country until as his 80th year approached, with the need for a lighter, easier starting bike, it was replaced by a much lighter 250 Honda RS – bought for £100 and carefully modified – which remained his steed until his retirement.
Hillclimbers are a friendly and helpful bunch but can be irreverent at times, as Roy was to discover. “When I started hillclimbing I got to know two riders in my class, TM and RD – they were always joking about,” Roy recalls. “Once they put a red flag on my handlebars, on another occasion a lit candle marked off in hours on my front mudguard as my personal timing light. One time at Hartland, TM suggested a better line going into the first left-hander after the start. ‘Rubbish!’ I thought, but my engine faltered as I approached the bend and I actually took the line he had suggested. He was watching so he thought I had fallen for his silly suggestion. However, I did a very good time: 29.26 seconds. Faster than both of them and a personal best for me. They have not been allowed to forget that!”
One of Roy’s most memorable hillclimbs was a closed-race in the Isle of Man, riding from Mayhill – just outside of Ramsay – up to the Guthrie Memorial. Roy entered on two occasions and has the photos to prove it, showing him rounding the Gooseneck with Ramsey Bay in the background below. On another occasion while on holiday in Western Australia, Roy made enquiries with a friend about a hillclimb near Bunbury, only to find on arrival that his friend had entered him into the race on his KSS Velocette. Roy took home the ‘Worthy of Mention’ award and a bottle of Shiraz, although the sunny weather and blue skies, cammy Velo and local ‘sausage sizzle’ were rewards enough.
Roy is still keen on hillclimbing and will continue to support the association, despite retiring at the start of the 2017 season due to failing eyesight. “After 26 years, I shall miss the atmosphere, anticipation, adrenalin and repartee from all and sundry,” says Roy. “I’m hoping to retire to south Devon to be closer to my family – Wiscombe circuit is nearby, so I’ll still be attending meetings there to help!”