Book Review: A Corinthian Endeavour, by Paul Jones

Sport is just a game. Professional sport is just a marketing activity. Catch me in the wrong mood, and that will be the breadth of my opinion. This book touches something a bit deeper than that.

Have you ever had a goal? It’s usually something predictable, like happiness, or money, or something to do with your job. And that’s fine – me too. But what about something else? What about being driven to your physical limit for some niche competition that forces you to cut your weight and leaves you lying at the side of the road, gasping for breath in the cold? What if you only had a two-to-six-minute effort each year to achieve that goal, and you were only going to be in your prime for a couple of years before being ‘past it’?

That’s hill climbing in the UK. Every autumn, at the end of the race season, a series of events are organised on some of the climbs that (to me) epitomise riding around the country. Short, steep, narrow, and usually on a bit of a poor surface.

If you’re serious, you’re going to need a special bike for the job. There’s no lower weight limit, so get creative with the Dremel and aim for 5kg. If you want to be ‘proper’, you’re going to need to be riding fixed, but modern bikes have admittedly removed any advantage that a fixed gear bike once had.

The bike is just the beginning, though. Say goodbye to pudding. Hill climbs are about power to weight, and you’re going to need a lot of one and not very much at all of the other. How much? According to the book, Dan Evans won the 2017 championships with 504 watts for 3:54 at 64kg. And it was a narrow victory.

What really brings all this down to earth, though, is that this is a (mostly) amateur competition. It’s all too easy for pro rider numbers to become meaningless. If it’s your full-time job to be good at cycling, I’d be disappointed if you weren’t making crazy numbers. This sort of thing really hits home when the people you’re talking about have full-time jobs, but are spending huge amounts of their remaining time turning themselves into expressions of power and efficiency without any real outside motivators.

That’s what A Corinthian Endeavour captures, and that’s part of what makes it really special. At its most basic, the book is a record of each National Hill Climb, running through each event, the conditions, and the competition. What makes it really captivating is the magic that Jones has worked to tie together all of these short annual events to the greater themes – not just of the collective drive for something almost indescribable, but also of the way that this desire is as natural and lasting as the hills themselves, silently challenging men and women to scale their heights for generations, and unmoved by their efforts.

I don’t know what sport means to you – I’m not really even sure what it means to me – but there’s a reason we’re not satisfied just to ‘get it done’ at a comfortable pace. Pushing yourself comes naturally, and it’s hard to say exactly what it is that flicks that switch so consistently. A Corinthian Endeavour can’t explain it either but, as he explores the competition, Paul Jones speaks the language.

You can pick up your own copy of the book here:

 

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