The Rake - one of Britain's shortest but most gruelling cycle races

Lancashire hosts one of Britain's shortest but most gruelling cycle races every October. Former record holder and organiser Peter Graham charts its history

It is a mere 947 yards from start to finish, but don’t be fooled by that. It has an average gradient of 1 in 8 and an awesome, lung-bursting, leg-breaking stretch of 1 in 4 near the top.

This is the road leading from the centre of Ramsbottom up to Holcombe Village and to describe the climb as severe would be an understatement. There is even a handrail on the steepest part to help panting pedestrians. This part is simply known as ‘The Rake’ and it’s a name to bring any cyclist out in a sweat.

It has always been a challenge. As long ago as 1929, when the Bury Cyclists’ Club was formed, members would try to see how far up they could ride before falling off. Eventually, as first one then another succeeded, it became a question of who could climb fastest and this developed into an annual time trial every October.

Road racing with massed starts and staged events such as the Tour de France may be more familiar but time trialling is very different and just as popular among enthusiasts.

Back in 1944, the governing body of the sport decided to have National Championships for time trials including a Hill Climb Championship. It occurred to two local aspirants from Bury that they had the ideal training ground. It was The Rake. The decision to train in Ramsbottom was a good one. Eric Wilson, riding for the Rossendale Road Club, and myself, riding for the West Pennine Road Club, won eight National Championships between us.

Our choice of the Rake for training brought the course into prominence and in 1962 it became an open event. It was shortly before this that a very strong easterly wind made conditions ideal and I managed to complete the climb in 2 minutes 18 seconds. This time was to stand for quite a few years.

Most Read

The contest attracted as many as 70 riders from across the UK and it was not long before ladies wanted to have a go. In 1978 Mandy Jones, from the West Pennine club, became the first female to complete the climb. She was only 16 and I promised her a fiver if she could do it. It was money well spent because four years later she won the ladies’ World Championship Road Race.

In 1991 things really took off. The organisation was taken over by the Lancashire Road Club. Terrific sponsorship was obtained from local businesses, mainly Geoff Smith Cycles of Bolton, Quick’s, the Ford agent at the time, and Lepps the jewellers of Bury.

With over �1,000 in prizes the event became known as the richest bike race in the world. It certainly was if you calculated it by pounds per minute! Lepps even offered a Rolex watch for the fastest rider to beat the record of 2 minutes 18 seconds.

These prizes brought in the top stars. Chris Boardman, winner of an Olympic gold in Barcelona came over, Malcolm Elliot, winner of the Tour of Spain arrived as did Graeme O’ Bree, the World Pursuit Champion. But winning in sunny Spain was a different matter to climbing the Rake on a chilly October morning and none could beat the record.

Finally, it was 1993 when a relatively unknown rider, Jeff Wright, recorded 2 minutes and 16.9 seconds, and then went even faster the next year. Jeff is now the owner of two Rolex Watches!

In 2007 another phenomenon occurred. A lady from Kendal entered the event. Her name was Lynn Hamel and she was tremendously fast in flat time trials but her climbing prowess was unknown. Lynn did not disappoint setting a new ladies’ record of 3 minutes 12 seconds which still stands and was faster than quite a lot of the male competitors.

Two other riders entered intent on causing a sensation. They did. Julian and Nicholas Monk of the Rossendale Road Club turned up on a tandem and made the climb in 5 minutes and 21 seconds Certainly a first!

See the Rake’s progress

This year the event will take place on Sunday, October 16, starting at noon. Peter will be the commentator. All eyes will be on the event because next year, Olympic year, the National Championship will be held in Ramsbottom swelling even further the huge crowds. So come along and see for yourself the prowess of these amazing cyclists as they power their way up this famous climb and afterwards receive their rewards from the Mayor of Bury at the Shoulder of Mutton Pub.