Tough on the streets
In the heart of London lurks a short, steep hill, where the capital’s masochists come to do battle against gravity. gets to grips with the annual Urban Hill Climb
wo 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.
In October the annual Urban Hill Climb returned to 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 timetrial 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.’
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