Hill climbers

The RCC tackles the UK hill climbing scene

“It’s a brutal form of cycling racing, like an out of body experience. You have to go hard enough to make yourself almost pass out otherwise it’s just not enough.”

Rows of eager fans and more than a few confused locals are stood on Swain’s Lane, a savage scar of tarmac which lurks malevolently between the leafy London suburbs of Highgate and Hampstead Heath.

Residents stumble out of their shiny apartments to be confronted by a cacophony of cowbells; shouts of encouragement, borderline abusive in tone, and a steady string of frightened cyclists out to defy gravity and oxygen debt.

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The uniquely British Hill Climb in all its horrific glory has come to Highgate for the Urban Hill Climb, and the Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) riders are out in force. The Event HQ is the local public library, where the commingled smell of embrocation and an overused-toilet will linger in the senses of the so-called Highgate literati in the week ahead.

The hill climb is the perverted sibling of the time trial; replacing speed, souplesse and rhythm with zig zags and ragged, rheumatic rasps. The classics of the UK season, which takes place once the road season is over in the autumn, include the Nick O’ Pendle and the Rake; mini monuments to absurdity and heroism.

Gary Beckett has organised another classic, the Bec, for many years; and it is sponsored this year by the gentlefolk at Rapha, who are also sponsoring today’s Urban Hill Climb. Occasionally the continental pros have a go; David Millar retired at the Bec in 2014, whilst Team Sky’s Ben Swift came 19th last month. The specialist nature of the event is clear.

The Urban Hill Climb is a short one, ninety seconds for the super quick, with the added attraction of the reigning national champion, Maryka Sennema, lining up at the start. “This is going to be so short and so painful,” is her simple message. Two ladies from the Dulwich Paragon CC are also gearing up for an assault on the climb and on each other; “What’s the worst that can happen, apart from the extreme pain, shame and humiliation?”

The crowd gathers between the cemeteries to watch the riders lurch symbolically past, dying on the slopes. Hill climbs capture the imagination and the National Championship event to be held this year on Matlock Bank is over-subscribed. Riders and spectators gain experience of the white heat of competition, enhanced by a closed road experience; it’s two minutes of Alpe d’Huez’s Dutch Corner, somewhere in England.

The Rapha Cycling Club has more than its fair share of anti-gravity fans, with Wednesday and Thursday rides taking in the lumpier bits of the English capital before work. These morning rides are led by members like Russ Ashford and Richard Applin, who also raced at the Urban Hill Climb. Will Adams joins the Wednesday ride and is a competitor on Swains: “I was going really well, then just got really slow really quickly”. He’s being humble though, having ridden away with 2nd place, and another club member Livio Nannetti won the vets category.

The RCC has certainly taken to this discipline in its two short years of existence, last month winning the team prize at both the Bec and Catford Hill Climbs, the first time since Kingston Wheelers did so in 2012. RCC member and chapter coordinator Joe Cox, pictured above, won the Manchester Wheelers hill climb on the fabled Brickworks road in September.

Back at the Urban Hill Climb and there is a camaraderie amongst the men and women in grey and pink as they wait for their times and exchange stories of suffering. Russ Ashford is store manager at the Rapha Clubhouse and in between sharp ragged breaths he shares his thoughts; “We put our name to it and support the events. It’s bloody hard but it’s egalitarian. All I wanted to do was a personal best whereas the quick people have the flow of it.” Rapha ambassador Will has the last word: “I’m dying. It’s so hard, but it’s awesome”.