Sky High Hillclimbing

Mike describes was the mind-expanding experience of racing the hills on a 350 Velocette on dope

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Somewhere in the middle of gnarly Somerset, Patrick turned the Transit van off a B-road and squeezed it between the hedges of a narrow lane. “Is this the approach road to the hill?” I said. “No,” he said. “This is the hill.” In the paddock we unloaded the bikes from the van – Patrick’s 750cc Norton Commando, my 350cc Velocette MAC – and prepared for the day’s action. We would get a couple of practice runs and two or three competition dashes up the hill. I forget its name, but it was probably a typical 1000-yarder, and part of it ran between farm buildings. The marshals had to clean the cow pats off the road before the bikes could start running.

I’d bought the MAC – a pushrod twovalve single based on Velocette’s post-war road bike – for £250. I’d been hanging around the west country hillclimb scene for a while in the mid-’70s when Peter Isaac (who was, and still is, secretary of the hillclimb club, nhca.co.uk) said:

“Why don’t you have a go? Adrian Kessell is selling one of his grasstrack bikes – perfect for the hills.”

Adrian Kessell was a top name in Cornish grasstracking, and had been running the MAC on methanol, a fuel that gives a really fat midrange punch. The Velo had been set up for sliding around the left-hand corners of grass tracks, but it also worked perfectly well on the lefts and rights of a surfaced hill.

It’s best to have a target if you’re going racing. I was never going to be in contention for wins, but I always wanted to beat a pair of Morini V-twins that used to appear in the 350cc class. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine anything less appropriate for a nadgery hillclimb course than a 9000rpm redline. The Velo would long have spaghetti’d its valves at that rate.

The Morinis might have had the advantage on the long, power-sapping straight between the Sawbench and Martini hairpins at the 1000-yard Wiscombe Park climb in east Devon, but the way the dope-fuelled MAC spat out of hairpins often made it a better bike on the twistier courses. It was all good-natured, and the Morini guys no doubt enjoyed the challenge of their hi-tech Italian kit as much as I did my agricultural Velo.

Hillclimb racing is famous for its specials and, in those days, for wild-riding Cornishmen. Legendary hillclimbers such as Roy Opie and his 650cc Ariel-Triumph, and Paul Spargo with his 740cc Ariel- Triumph (the Ariel frame gave a low seating position) sometimes used hedges as a kind of wall-of-death springboard onto the following straight. A Midlands rider named Phil Gregory even constructed his own 1000cc V-twin special, based on two Jawa speedway engines, purely for our little enclosed world of the hills.

Paul Spargo was one of the wild-riding hillclimb racers Nicksy tried to emulate on his Velocette

Paul Spargo was one of the wild-riding hillclimb racers Nicksy tried to emulate on his Velocette

The most sublime hillclimb special that I’ve ever seen was the 500cc Velocette ridden by Peter Isaac himself. Some motorcycles talk speed, balance and perfection even when they’re leaning on a jerrycan, and this Velo did. It had narrow, flat handlebars and a lovely little polished-ally sprint tank atop the Venom engine.

If you want to perfect your riding technique, I would recommend hillclimb racing. A run might last only 40 seconds, so you can’t get a single corner wrong. But you have only half-a-dozen corners in which to prove yourself – you have to give it eleven-tenths.

Hillclimbing teaches you how to get the power on early from corner exits, and how to focus. It’s a bit like a MotoGP rider attempting a banzai qualifying lap, except that you’ll wrap yourself into a hedge or a tree, or sail out into a Cotswold valley (as at Prescott) if you get it wrong.

The Velo was leaning on a wall outside my garage one day. A car stopped and a man got out. “What is it?” he said. I told him. “£100?” he offered. The forks were knackered and the Velo really needed attention. The next day he came with a van and took it away.

From £250 to £100 in six months. I might have learnt a bit about hill climbing, but I’ve never learnt how to haggle.