When Simon Warren first published his “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs” back in 2010, he probably never dreamt that it would spawn a whole series of guide books about climbing hills on a bike. He’s now the author of twelve separate publications which cover all the regions of the UK as well as Belgium and famous climbs of the Tour de France.
He was appearing at the Chiltern 100 Cycling Festival last month where he was signing books and chatting affably to all and sundry.
He explained how his love of cycling started back in 1988 when he was deciding what to do with the babysitting money that he had saved up. Initially drawn to purchasing a skate board, he was put off when he realised he couldn’t actually ride one. “The older lads had racing bikes in garages covered with tarpaulin, but you could see how narrow the back tyres were. I thought, that’s it I’m going to buy a racing bike.”
His cycling mentor was his uncle who, “grabbed me by the ear and took me to the A1 to do a Time Trial, and I was hooked. That combined with seeing Greg LeMonde win the Tour de France. I was gripped by the emotion of it on that day. I was a cyclist for life after that.”
That first bike was a Raleigh Corsa, but it was replaced only a year later by a Vitus aluminium frame which became his racing bike for a couple of years. “It was the nicest thing I ever owned and wish I hadn’t sold it to some bloke.”
Although he raced a lot and even held a first category racing licence for a while, racing at the highest national level, he felt that the races just got too hard. “I couldn’t justify going away and leaving a young family every Sunday and getting my head kicked in.”
So in order to satisfy his love of cycling and justifying it to his long suffering wife he decided to write a book about it. “It was all research now, not jut bike riding. It was my cunning plan which I’m still stringing out now!”
Simon explained that his love for climbing the steepest and hardest climbs in the UK and now Europe came as he realised that he didn’t have the courage to go down the hills as fast his mates, “but I was always the first to the top.” When he entered Hill Climb competitions he was more often than not in the top ten.
“I wanted to take my club mates out and find hills so that I could go out and beat them. I suppose to boost my own ego.”
His first big conquest was Terrace hill on the Vale of Belvoir. It was before the days of sat nav and Strava in 1989 and he went out with an Ordnance Survey map and a big sandwich in his back pocket. He confesses to still enjoying poring over these old fashioned paper maps, looking out for triple chevrons which mark out a hill as a proper challenge.
His idea for the book was born out of his own desire to have such a book and be able to tick off all 100 climbs. “I love the names – anywhere you go in the country these names instil fear in the locals.” His favourites remain Riber which goes past Riber Castle and Newlands Pass in the Lake District. “ When you get on that road you’ve got green to the left of you, green to the right of you and you’re just submerged in this inredible, sheer natural beauty around you. I love going back there again and again.”
It’s the solitude of the climb that he loves. “It’s very rare that you can find someone that climbs exactly at your pace. You’re always alone in the mountains. A bunch of us went out to do the Marmotte a few weeks ago, a big group of mates. Within 2 seconds of starting we never saw each other again for 10 hours. It’s a solitary pursuit - if you’ve got your mate on your wheel you want drop him, not sit there chatting to him.”
All of us have a bogey climb and Simon is no different to the rest of us. “Ah, Chapel Fell in County Durham, the first time was the national hill climb in 1992. We arrived the day before, had a recce, then woke up next day, and it was a foot of snow, we couldn’t race it. Then when I did go back I had such a gruelling head wind that it almost ground me down to tears. It is actually the highest paved road in Britain. By the time I got to the top I just never wanted to touch the bike again. There’s always a head wind. I hope I never have to do it again.”
He confesses to being obsessed with Strava and hates it when he loses a KOM. “But I got a couple recently so I’m still in the game!”
His favourite places to cycle are in Belgium (“great beer, great steaks, cobbled hills”) and the Southern Alps but he’s covered the Pyrenees, the Vosges, the Jura and the Massif Central in his quest to defy gravity.
As far as his favourite rider is concerned it remains Alberto Contador. “He’s a pure climber. I don’t care what dodgy steaks he ate. He has such panache, the way he dances up the climb, the way he has a go. We’ll not see the likes of him for a while. He races on instinct, he doesn’t look at his power metre, follow his watts on the way up. I wish Contador had a few more years.”
Not content to sit on his laurels, Simon has now ventured into the digital age with the launch of an app of “100 Climbs” which you can download from Google Play so that you can track how many of the climbs you’ve done on your phone. He knows of six people who have successfully documented all of them and he has specially made gold medals to award to anyone who does the same.
He leaves us with a couple of top tips to help you improve your climbing: “Know your enemy. Do a bit of research. If you’re in your bottom gear and it’s not turned steep yet, hasn’t got to 20% then you’re in trouble. Pace yourself, go at your own pace, don’t try and follow another rider’s speed. Learn to listen to your body.”