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Urban Hill Climb: Two minutes in London

Pete Muir
19 Sep 2018

In the heart of London lurks a short, steep hill, where masochists come to do battle against gravity

Two minutes is a very short amount of time. It’s less time than it takes to boil a kettle for a cup of tea, or to watch a commercial break on TV, but if you choose instead to spend those two minutes racing up a 900m incline in North London, it can feel like an eternity.

On Saturday 29th September 2018 the annual Urban Hill Climb returns. Back in 2016, we visited the refined streets of Highgate, where once a year the residents of Swain’s Lane can peer from their multi-million-pound homes to see strange men and women in Lycra turn red, then green, as they attempt to time-trial up a slope that maxes out at 20%.

It’s a lung-heaving, cramp-inducing festival of pain, which rather begs the question: what’s the appeal?

‘Hill climbs are a quirky, traditional British event,’ says Caspar Hughes, one of the founders of event organiser Rollapaluza. ‘It’s basically: how can you hurt yourself the most, in the shortest time over the shortest distance?

‘It’s a bit like those events where they chase that cheese rolling down a hill, or the Ottery St Mary bonfire night, where they run through the town with lit tar barrels on their backs. Who else does crazy stuff like that? It’s UK masochism.'

Urban Hill Climb 2017 highlights

Urban Hill Climb 2018: Key information

Date: Saturday 29th September 2018
Location: Swains Lane, London, N6

For details of the Urban Hill Climb go to urbanhillclimb.com

No pleasure

Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs and an aficionado of the hill climb scene, adds, ‘I like the niche element to it: stripping the bike down to a bare minimum.

'I like preparing for something so short and so brutal. There is no real pleasure to be gained from actually riding it.

‘You sit at the start line and think, “Why am I doing this? It’s going to be horrible.”

'Of course, the endorphins that are released at the end are more potent than those from a normal bike ride, so there’s something addictive about it. It’s a challenge.’

Warren included Swain’s Lane in his book of the nation’s best climbs, which seems a little odd when there are so many imposing climbs out in the British countryside, while this one is less than a kilometre long and stuck in the middle of London.

His response is unequivocal: ‘It had to make the list. It’s a great climb to ride in the centre of the biggest city in the country. There are nine million people, and if they want to go and test themselves they’ve got a hill to do it on.

‘It’s not as tough as your passes up in the Dales, but it’s one-way, it’s steep, it’s quiet and you can do lap after lap after lap. It’s priceless in that sense.’

The setting not only allows for some truly exciting racing, but makes an excellent location for spectators to enjoy the suffering of others.

The event attracts a decent crowd of cycling fans and non-cycling locals, who look slightly bemused by it all but are soon cheering and shouting encouragement.

Social atmosphere

‘There’s always a good atmosphere,’ says Warren, ‘A bit of London showbiz. There’s usually a fair amount of beer involved, and it’s a bit more social than your average hill climb, which is often in the middle of nowhere.’

‘The fact it’s in an urban environment is what sets it apart from most of the others,’ says Hughes.

‘The accessibility is a big plus point – we had 300 people signed up to race – and the cargo bike category adds a novelty element. It tends to get the crowd going.

‘Now we’ve got sponsorship from Sinclair Pharma and others including Assos and Brompton, we’d like to build the event up and secure it a fixed slot as the first big race in the hill climb season.’

For anyone considering signing up for this year’s Urban Hill Climb, is there any advice from our experts? 

‘As you go round the corner and meet the crowds, that’s where the steepest part is and where the most gains can be made,’ says Hughes.

‘I saw one rider on Twitter say, “Ride at 90% till you see the crowds on the right… then go.”’

Warren adds, ‘If you ride on the left where the nice houses are, it’s much steeper. It might seem like a more direct route, but it will slow you down more, so ride right.

'Either way, the last 50 metres to the line are like riding through treacle. Of course, it helps if you’re nine stone and can put out 500 watts.’

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