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Did I just ride past a Panda?!

We asked our Proper Northern Road Race Series Winner Mary Wilkinson of Team Boompods for a write up of her experience riding this year's National Hill Climb Championships at the Old Shoe in North Wales. After a string of silver medals, Mary will be looking to finally take the stripes on The Struggle in 2023 when the prestigious race comes to the #ColdDarkNorth. But for now, she's left wondering if that really was the Ponderosa Panda that she saw?

(Photos of the Nationals by the very excellent Lewis Guy - a long standing friend of the Cold Dark North and budding snapper of all things cycling and Everton FC!)

Did I just ride past a Panda?!

I'm 6 minutes into a 7-minute maximum effort and I'm literally riding through a sea of people that parts just in time for me to keep pushing on as hard as I can without riding into them. I can't really see how far I have to go but it doesn't really matter. The infernal encouragement will keep going as long as I need to. The noise is something else. I can't even hear myself think. This is probably a good thing, as I don't really want to think about how much this hurting or how much longer I have to endure the pain in my legs.

But back to that Panda...was I hallucinating and I was I imagining the mad people racing alongside me with pots, pans and cowbells too? No, this is the National Hill Climb Championships.

A National Championships should always be special, someone is going to be declared the best in the country at their event. But what makes the National Hill Climb Championships extra special is tri fold; the location and organisation, the fact that it is open to anyone and the most uniquely, the crowds.

Every year I have ridden the Championships, although the challenge remains the get to the top of the hill as fast as you can, one thing that has definitely changed (for the better) is the atmosphere. Year on year the support and number of people watching and supporting the event grows and grows. I thought 2021 on Winnats Pass would be hard to beat in terms of intensity of atmosphere, but I think the crowds on the final, hardest section of the Old Shoe near Llangollen just about topped it. It has subsequently been likened to a mountain stage of the Tour de France and I can only believe that for those few minutes in North Wales, we were lucky enough to experience what it must be like for the pros on epic climbs such Mont Ventoux.

Racing the Old Shoe on Sunday was very much a crescendo...starting out at the base was quiet and still, with all the pain to come. As we peacefully ascended through the tree cover, we eventually emerged across the cattle grid to ever increasing numbers of supporters with the sound of shouting, horns, drums and cowbells building as you climbed higher and higher. The crowds on the final section drawing you in, pulling you along and giving you that little extra energy and strength you didn't think you had to really go all in to the finish line. Then silence as the effort is over and more often than not the floor becomes your friend as you try to regain some sort of feeling and eventually re-find your legs.

This is Hill Climbing. It may ultimately be you against the hill, but with the little help from the side lines you are sure to find that bit extra to help you go that little bit deeper, that little bit faster and make sure you beat that hill.

For the record, there was indeed a Panda and various other interesting outfits on the Old Shoe near Llangollen on a mad Sunday in October. I didn't make it up and all being well they will be in attendance on The Struggle for next year's Championships and maybe they'll invite some of their friends along to join the party too.

We're so very excited for the Struggle in October 2023!

Here's some beautiful shots from Lew of the atmosphere and riders at the Nationals:

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Great piece, Mary - congratulations on your ride and on the silver medal.

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