Episode 9: Full On – The Urban Hill Climb Race

Urban hill climb racing

Hill Climb Racing Up London’s Swains Lane

I wasn’t quite sure what time I was supposed to be there at first. After checking, I still managed to just miss the 11:30 deadline as I rolled up to the start line at the bottom of Swains Lane in Highgate.

My first view of the hill climb race course
My first morning view of the hill climb racing course

The road had been closed off, a gazebo erected over the start gate, and someone with timing chip technology had put up their equipment shortly after the line, where tape marked out the course.

The route

Swains Pain, as some in London affectionately call it, is a murderously tough, short, and in places very steep, stretch of tarmac that cuts through Highgate Cemetery, where many rich and famous have their final resting place. It’s also a place of pilgrimage for London-based cyclists to come and hone their hill-climbing abilities.

Part way up the Swains Lane hill climb
Part way up Swains Lane hill climb racing course

I’ve often been up and down this hill. So have most other cyclists native to the city, all in an effort to improve their ability to get over hills. It’s pretty out of the way, so unless you live on that hill, why else would you ride up it?

The event

Today was different, in that instead of beating yourself up going back and forth over the thing for the training benefit, this was a race. Hill climbs are a very British thing with a season that begins late October and only lasts a few weeks. This particular event is one of the first of the season and has been part of the cycling calendar for some time. Before Covid struck, it attracted some heavyweight sponsors. One year, it was the Red Bull Hill Climb. This year, after a two-year hiatus, it was being hosted by the fabulous London Cycling Campaign, and my club had been shoehorned into providing volunteers, of which I was one.

Never volunteer, they say

I rocked up to the start line. I was on my fixie town bike and didn’t really fancy the struggle up the hill to the finish line in the wrong gear. Plucking up the courage, I asked a question that I’d end up questioning… “Can you tell me where the volunteer briefing is?” To which the reply came, “Are you a volunteer?” “Yes,” I replied. “Are you able to hold up the riders as they start?” I was asked. “I’ve done that off and on over my lifetime,” I boasted. Suddenly, I found myself corralled into the job, with only 15 minutes before the first rider was off.

I had no time to do anything other than lock up my bike against the cemetery railing and sort my stuff, before getting stuck helping send the competitors on their way up the hill.

The push off

I decided to use the side hold, rather than holding the seat rails. Knowing hill climbs attract a huge variety of riders, from competitive, keen as hell types, to people on cargo bikes carrying their pets, I reckoned there would be quite a few who had not experienced a held-up start. Holding a rider up by the head tube and seat post is a good way to build that rider’s confidence and help them maintain their balance. The purpose of a held start is to make sure that people don’t muck about trying to clip into their pedals and ensure a clean, efficient get-away.

Riders ready for the hill climb racing...
Hill climb racers lining up to submit to the pain.

Then, before I could take a deep breath, the first rider was off grinding up the lane. More followed. I held while another volunteer counted down. Away went another, then another, then another. There were the odd breaks in the flow, but this set the general trend for the day: “10, 9, 8, ‘Good Luck’, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go, Go, Go…” Some were confident, others nervous; some were going for the win, others were doing it for giggles. The atmosphere was buzzing; horns barked out encouragement, bells jangled to jog people on, and supporters supported at the tops of their voices. Essentially, people come to hill climbs to have a good time.

The British hill climb scene

Whether you were there for fun or to record a fast time, as a rider, you put in some serious effort preparing for your moment. You’ll see all sorts of things you only get to see at hill climb events. The bikes people bring are specially prepped for the occasion. If you want to achieve a good time up the hill, you need a light nimble steed. The hill takes anything from 1:30 to 10 mins to climb. To land a top spot, anything that makes you heavier is discarded.

These specialist, lightest bike parts are not cheap, and it’s not uncommon to see a climbing bike that costs more than a decent car.

If, on the other hand, you’re there for the laugh, you might have brought a cargo bike, an e-bike, a fat bike, a recumbent, or a fixie.

Most of these bicycles are given their own category in the event. Some take the opportunity to push their children in buggies. Some pull or push kegs of beer, some play music through a beatbox, and some take pets. Whatever… the one thing everyone has in common is that they know it isn’t going to be easy. No pain, no gain, right??

The local wildlife

Any community street event is going to cause inconvenience to the locals. Organisers have to apply to the local council for permission and notify other authorities, like the police and emergency services. They also need to inform locals in advance of any disruption, and inevitably, there will be those who will not take kindly to it. Most people are, of course, delighted and intrigued to have something different happening on their doorstep. A few, however, are somewhat disgruntled.

A couple of hours into the proceedings, one resident took it upon herself to let everyone know of her dissatisfaction.

She came down the hill, staggering around, obviously having great difficulty standing. Bear in mind it was close to midday, and to put it mildly, she was totally bladdered. It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone this drunk that early in the day. It took some patience, not to mention skill, from everyone to placate her. Inevitably, the organisers took the brunt of the abuse she was hurling, and predictably, the police were eventually called. Despite her best efforts and the sadly pitiful display of a broken soul, things managed to carry on regardless. She eventually went on her way. However, she did return later, and despite repeating similar vernacular, she seemed to be more conciliatory, almost apologetic.

The spectators

As the day progressed, the faster riders took to the line. Casual, inquisitive passers-by fired friendly questions and struck up conversations that helped pass the time. One woman sitting on a nearby bench, who appeared to be making notes on a clipboard, came up and made herself known. I had thought she was there officially taking notes on the results. I was wrong. It turned out that she was sketching what was going on. She told me that earlier she had been up at the finish line, where most of the spectators were hanging out. I could hear them throughout the day but hadn’t managed to get up there to see it for myself. She showed us her work, introduced herself as Alison Gardiner and told us she would make her drawings available on Instagram @alison.gardiner.art.

The hill climb racing results

Lunch was delivered and devoured, and water was supplied to keep the start-line crew sustained. As the afternoon progressed, frankly eye-watering results started to come in over race radio. Times tumbled ever closer to the 1:30 mark until eventually even that target fell. Two riders managed to beat that benchmark by 7 or 8 seconds.

The frequency of the riders setting off slowed as the podium celebrations gathered pace up at the finish line. There was less and less for us to do down at the start.

It eventually all came down to a head-to-head sprint to the line between the fastest in each of the different categories, and we were done! All that was left was to exchange a few high-fives and say goodbye to what was a fantastic celebration of what it is to ride bicycles.

There are other hill climb events happening around the country; my recommendation is, if you get a chance to, seek one out and take a look. If you fancy it, enter yourself in one. As I was leaving, a good friend and fellow volunteer threatened to enter me into next year’s hill climb racing event. I wouldn’t put it past him.

See you next year then on the start-line…

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