Swains Lane. A stunted brute of a climb, nestled in North London yet unassumingly embedded in the London cycling scene. Its narrow lanes and high walls dissect Highgate’s supposedly haunted cemetery and one of London’s lesser-known parks, Waterlow. The Urban Hill Climb itself may only be 900m in length with an average gradient of 7.5%, maxing out at 20%. However, its ability to make even the most seasoned riders cough for hours after summiting is revered.
This lane that may otherwise be an inconvenience on the commute home, a midweek winter training ground, or for many just a road to avoid, transforms itself into miniature tour climb once a year. Over recent editions this hill climb has grown in popularity and sophistication, now featuring time chips and immediate score printing. Last weekend’s event boasted a record 400+ riders on its timetable with many more spectators lining the course on a sunny September Saturday. Conditions were near perfect for the two-wheeled hordes to willingly flog themselves up a hill as quickly as possible.
This event is unlike many of its green-belt cousins. Its nature is dictated by its location. An urban hill climb. Sure, there are the expected open categories for men and women, youths and juniors. Interspersed between the traditional is the unconventional though, the veritably urban bikes. Bromptons. Cargo bikes. Passenger bikes. To the uninitiated Saturday cemetery visitor, or the local resident off to collect the paper with their Cockapoo, this unidirectional, self-flagellating procession of lycra-clad riders, of all shapes & sizes, would certainly have raised a few eyebrows.
We’re in the 21st century after all, such ultimately wacky events are increasingly prevalent. This really shouldn’t be a surprise even to the residents of N6. What will have raised a ‘Oh my Lucinda, I wonder what they’re all doing here?’ would be in reference to the throngs of casquette wearing, beer drinking, moustachioed supporters lining the comically insubstantial safety tape, shouting encouragement to whichever poor sod had already hit max heart rate at half-way, the steepest section dauntingly bearing down on them. But a genuine and heartfelt encouragement nonetheless, irrespective of age, gender, background or ability. From toddlers to octogenarians, the pavement was throbbing with life.
It’s human nature to encourage competition, to laud effort and to celebrate the superlative. Despite this, we still like to see others deliberately hurt themselves (and sometimes each other). Don’t deny it. When you combine a sadomasochistic spectacle with sun, cold craft beers, cow bells, a crowd mentality and a regular stream of gurning faces, you can probably satisfy the murkiest inner fetishes of most fellow humans. It is this satisfaction that the Urban Hill Climb served up in spades as the afternoon went on.
As you’ve probably established, this doesn’t serve as a race report. Should you wish to review the category winners, the event itself has written a comprehensive summary. Our write up comes from the perspective of simply celebrating our own wonderfully diverse idiosyncrasies. Most entrants knew they (and I include myself and my mass genetically engineered for gradients below 0% included in this statement) did not stand a hope in hell of winning. Why, then, were there over 400 riders chomping at the bit to cross the line?
Simply, for the love of a sport. For something to do. Because it’s there. An event for purists, yet delightfully inclusive. There’s no entry criteria, no qualification categories, no judging panel reviewing your bar ends. You could take a Boris Bike up it and you’d probably get cheered on even more. Sure, those who ended up in the top 10 may have spent an hour on the turbo before the race, drilled holes in their brake levers to save weight, carefully chosen bar tape to save 15 grams and removed the bar ends, just because they can. And yet the crowds shouted, jangled and clapped the winner with his glorious moustache just as much as a bloke in a jacket and tie on a Brompton.
Perhaps the loudest cheer was directed a dad and his daughter loaded in the front of their cargo bike, slowly snaking their way up the course eventually collapsing against the wall, his gear ratios and glutes finally giving up in protest. Admist the roars of appreciation, there was only one thing to do, get off and push. ‘Why did he even bother entering?’ you may ask.
You should rephrase it: ‘Why wouldn’t he enter?’