The first motor racing British hill climb championship was held in 1947 and won by a man called Raymond Mays driving a “British Racing Automobile”. That’s cool, but cyclists had been flogging themselves up steep inclines over a short distance for 60 years already.
British cycling has always had a fixation on testing oneself against the clock. Here, unlike many other major cycling nations, time trialling is a dominant subculture. In fact, it’s so widely taken up by riders at every level of the sport that it’s not even a subculture at all. Within the world of time trialling, hill climbing is the shortest and punchiest. Not being blessed with long, sinuous alpine roads, carefully laid down to make lugging cargo as easy as possible over harsh terrain, British planners tended to take a “get it over and done with” approach to pathfinding. Usually, straight up-and-over is best practice, leading to short, sharp, unrelentingly steep lanes strewn all over the British countryside. Even in cities, roads like Swain’s Lane in North London take a no-nonsense approach to elevation gain, hitting the high teens in terms of gradients. It’s these roads that for over a hundred years cyclists have chosen to test themselves on.
Whether we do it consciously or not, most rides involve some kind of competative hill climb. It could be competing against mates on the club run, trying to set a PB on a solo ride or just trying to make it over the last roller on your way home after a monumental bonk. Perhaps that is why competitive hill climbing has been a constant of the Britsh cycling scene for nearly 130 years, it’s something we all do, we all understand the struggle against gravity and we all know the pain. Hill climbs are the essence of amateur cycling boiled down to a bite-size chunk that everyone can take part in, a test of rider vs landscape played out over a few minutes rather than a few hours.
Maybe that’s it? Maybe as British cyclists we just love watching people gurn uncontrollably in close quarters under canopy of some trees in the middle of nowhere. Because it hurts, it really, really hurts. It takes a certain type of massochist to wake up at 7am, drive or ride to a freezing cold scout hut, pub patio, temporary gazebo or village hall and then flog themselves for about 2 minutes. Some weekends might involve 6 hours of driving for less than 10 minutes riding. And do we choose to do this when the sun is out and the days are long? No. We wait until the roads are wet, the clouds have rolled in and there’s mist coming out of our heaving mouths. October is prime hill climb season, with events starting in September and building to a crescendo at the national championships when most people are getting their pumpkins and fake blood ready.
The late-season, bad-weather, cult status of these events creates a great atmosphere. We were recently at two of the biggest hill climbs near London and loved seeing the support for amateur riders on a wet Sunday morning. The Catford Cycling Club Open Hill Climb is the longest continually running bike race in the world. Since 1887, cyclists from all over the UK have flocked to York’s Hill to smash their way up the 0.8 mile course. It is British hill-climbing in a nutshell. Around 2-3 minutes of lactate inducing, eyeball-swelling, leg-shredding, mind-bending effort up a tiny lane that nobody would otherwise know was there. By the time the best riders are setting off towards the end of the start-sheet the tiny lane is lined with scores of people screaming encouragement at the riders.
The story is the same at the Bec CC hill climb on White Lane, just up the road, held later that afternoon. Like a mini Tour de France carnival, the participants and spectators take their featherweight bikes (some with spokes made of string), rollers and other paraphernalia to the next hill to rinse and repeat the morning’s exertions like a moving carnival of weight weenie-ism.
A special shout out to all those we’ve seen over the last few weeks taking part in Milltag kit, particularly: UCL Cycling Club, ASL Racing, Dartford Road Club and Rue Morgue CC. Thanks also to Sam Holden Photography, Dave Hayward Photography and Trevor Mould Photography.