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The toughest climb in London: How to climb Swain’s Lane

Charles Graham-Dixon
27 Oct 2020

We take a look at one of London’s most famous climbs, and talk to some of the best hill climb specialists about how to climb it

City cyclists across the world will know all too well those elusive days where the legs feel incredible, the bike is a feather and you fly up a local climb only for traffic to halt your progress as you wave goodbye to that imagined Strava KOM.

London is a case in point. A place where being a cyclist is not always easy, when a climb offers the possibility of a traffic-free ascent within the M25, it’s certain to become something of a cycling mecca.

Enter Swain's Lane, a punishing hill in leafy North London where riders can train in relative peace.

An urban Alpe

Swain's Lane averages around 8% gradient and maxing at 20% over 900 metres, making it a way off an alpine ascent on paper. But it's become a fixture of London's cycling culture.

The location of the Urban Hill Climb race, it’s even earned an entry in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist's Guide to Britain's Hills, and enjoys legendary status amongst London’s vertically-challenged cycling community.

The Urban Hill Climb attracts riders from all over the capital and beyond

Whether a session of club hill-reps, an organised race, or just hunting after a new PB, a huge number of London's cyclists will have a tale to tell about tackling this short, sharp, brutal slope.

Perhaps one of the climb's main draws is that despite its central location and steepness, it's a pleasant spot to spend a training ride. Located in the posh and picturesque hills of Highgate Village, it sits alongside the resting place of some of London’s most famous deceased residents – Highgate cemetery.

In fact, if you need a way of motivating yourself on a lonely ascent, it’s claimed apparitions of some of its internees occasionally wander the climbs’ lower slopes of an evening.

Unsurprisingly, the road itself has a colourful history, dating back to 1492, when it was called 'Swayneslane', though for several hundred years it was referred to by the less fetching ‘Swines Lane’. A title probably seeming more fitting to the cyclists who empty themselves on its inclines.

Granted, it’s one-twentieth the height and length of the Stelvio Pass, and high stone walls rob riders of the potential panorama of north London, but it’s quiet, picturesque and, crucially, a proper test of the legs.

Like the similarly proportioned Koppenberg in Belgium, Swain’s exerts a pull out of proportion with its measly vital stats. Rising from the saddle, pushing every sinew – when climbing it you know that you’re one of thousands to attempt it, and in a small way, creating a little imprint within cycling lore.

The Climb

Like many lumps in the UK, particularly those used in hill climb races, Swain's Lane is short, punchy, and very steep. The Strava segment is 0.9km in length although the Urban Hill Climb uses a shorter distance.

The lower slopes are wider, beginning at a relatively gentle 5-6% before passing the gates of Highgate cemetery, turning slightly left, and kicking up viciously as the road narrows.

‘It's very short but not quite a flat out sprint’, explains multiple hill climb champion, Tevjan Pettinger. ‘Just hold back a little on the lower flatter slopes but then keep accelerating all the way to the top. Ideally you should be feeling pretty dizzy as you cross the line. The most important thing is to make sure you do the climb fresh as it's all about explosive power.’

Given the climb’s brutal gradient, much depends on how the mind and body feel on the day. For instance, my own PB of 02:28 and 114th overall, was achieved during one of those magical rides where my legs, bike and mind felt excellent as soon as I left the house.

For hill climb specialists, this climb boils down to tactics, ‘Swain's is all about one thing – pacing!’, national hill climb champion Dan Evans tells me. ‘It’s actually a difficult climb to get right because although it’s short(ish) it really bites hard in the last third where you reach the walls’

Before this last mega steep section, the gradient is relatively gentle at 5-6%, so the mistake can be, and certainly one I made in my early ascents, is saving your legs for the steepest part. For a fast time, the approach has to be a little more cavalier.

Going for time

‘My tactic for going fast up there was to ride at a manic, uncomfortable pace for the first section,’ says Evans. ‘Then I let the crowd urge me to the top at the point where the walls close in and it all gets a little disgusting.’

The word ‘disgusting’ is right. Passing the cemetery gates, the vicious kick-up comes into view and the 20% ramp looms like a wall. The climb winds into the shadows and trees, swallowing riders up into darkness. 

Cyclist magazine races up Swain's Lane on a motor-assisted bike

For riders doing endurance reps of the climb, low gear, seated spinning is fine at this section, but riders wanting to climb Swains fast should opt for an out of the saddle, maximum effort. 

In line with Evans’ advice, when I achieved my fastest time on the climb I was close to full-gas on the 5-6% section, big ring, high up the block, with major torque going through the pedals and a dramatic gurn on my face. As the 20% slope began, I switched to the small ring but midway through the cassette- neither grinding nor spinning, hanging on, emptying the tank.  

As the 20% gradient levels out, it is tempting to be lulled into a false sense of security. The rest should be a doddle, right? Do not be fooled. In many ways, the biggest challenge remains. 

Push for the line

The major Strava segment is incomplete until the end of the road, so an effort is still required to get over the line in good time. Lungs will scream and only lactic acid in the legs remains, but grit your teeth, ignore the pain.

When you reach Pond Square you will be gasping. It’s over. What now? Turn left, descend Highgate West Hill, ride to the foot of the Swains Lane and climb it again.  

Poring over one's Swain's Lane Strava history will make interesting viewing for many riders who climb the hill regularly. If ever a segment was a barometer of both progression and general form, this is it. 

My first recorded attempt was a sedate 03:55, which I remember well. One year later, a dramatic improvement of 02:39, and 02:28 six months later. To paraphrase Greg Lemond, it won’t get easier, you’ll just get faster. 

While Swains Lane may not possess the glamour of the Tour’s Alpine passes or the punishing gradients of the Vuelta’s more sadistic climbs, urban riders wishing to test themselves will not find much better than this stinging, painful hill. 

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