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The Master of Monsal

Cycling Legends guide to the Monsal Hill Climb with the fastest man ever to ride it.

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Chris Auld

Monsal Head is pretty tourist trap in the middle of the limestone Peak District. A place where walkers who’ve slogged up from the Dale take a breather, where families tumble out of cars into the café or across to the ice cream van, and where the more reflective admire the view down the valley while the River Wye flows tumbles and turns beneath them.

Malcolm Elliott 170D7852Image of Malcolm Elliott

But once a year everything changes, Monsal Head becomes a coliseum where the gladiators are cyclists, each one locked in combat with the gradient and trying to do their best time in the Monsal Hill Climb. 

It’s 88 years old, first held in 1930 when the winner was C Newell of the Sheffield Phoenix Cycling Club in a time of 2 minutes and 51 seconds. The record fell every year until 1941 when Laurence Dodds, also of Sheffield Phoenix, broke the 90-second barrier with 1 minute 29.6 seconds. Dodds reduced that to 1 minute 24.3 in 1946 then Tom Simpson, the only non-Sheffielder to hold the record, did 1 minute 23.4 seconds in 1957.

Simpson was 19 and within three years he was riding the Tour de France, winning classics and eventually he was Britain’s first world professional road race champion. There’s only been one since, Mark Cavendish, and with three victories in the five races called the Monuments of Cycling, Simpson is still the best single-day rider this country has ever produced.

Image of Tom Simpson Rainbow Jersey

With victories like that Simpson’s Monsal record held a mystique, a feeling of invulnerability. Or it did until 1980 when Malcolm Elliott broke it with a time of 1 minute 20.6 seconds, then flew up the hill the following year in 1 minute 14.2 seconds. Elliott is from Sheffield, so civic pride was restored, and his record survives today despite 36 years of some of Britain's best bike riders trying to beat it.

It’s the longest standing record in British hill climbing, and a couple of years ago I met Malcolm on the climb, got him to ride up it and comment on the various bits. You won’t be surprised that there aren’t any secrets to going as fast as he did, other than fitness and class, but it was good to see him climb the hill he’s made his own.

“There’s not much to say really. I used a fixed gear when I set the record, so gear choice was important, but riders tend not to do that now. I suppose the secret is going as hard as you can on every bit of the hill, even the flatter bit after the start.

Image of Malcolm Elliott

“It’s a straightish road, but it gets steeper towards the top. You have to ride as hard as you can for the length of the climb. It’s easy to overdo it at the start or save too much, you’ve got to get it just right so you are all out at the end.”

Image of Malcolm Elliott Malcolm Elliott 170D7935 830

“There isn’t much space to stand near the bottom, all the spectators are near the top where they stand on the bank. You start hearing them about now.”

Image of Malcolm Elliott

“The steepest bit is near the end.”

Image of Malcolm Elliott

“The finish is just as the road bends left at the top. There’s usually a mark painted on the kerb to indicate where the finish line goes.” 

Image of Malcolm Elliott

And finally a tip from the master.

“I’ve always done weight training. I feel that it helps build and maintain muscle mass. When you break cycling down to its simplest form it is about having lots of power with as little weight as possible. Increasing your muscle mass increases power and cuts fat. Keeping control of your diet cuts fat too, and fat is useless weight.”

Image of Malcolm Elliott


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