2017 was my first year of racing and I can tell you first hand that I’ve learned more than I anticipated. I am nothing short of amateur and my racing record isn’t one to brag about but after a crash during the Full Gas criterium series at Lee Valley in June, I was left with a broken bike and some brand new scars. I decided then to put a hold on criteriums and look for other events happening in and around London. Truthfully, I was not very proactive in my search, as I have to balance a personal life, wedding planning and work along with cycling, but when the Urban Hill Climb (UHC) was mentioned in our club’s group chat, I didn’t think twice.
The Quick and the Brave
Now, let’s be clear, climbing is not my strong suit. Any time I’m carrying myself over a hill it feels as if I’m suffocating. I drool, snot pours out of my nose; my heart beats hard outside of my chest and my stomach burns; it fees like death. But as a cyclist, this is what we do. We deal with the pain and agony of the climbs. We don’t get off of our bikes and push them up the hill; that’s cheating (well, mountains may be different). From what I’ve read and experienced, the pain of climbing never goes away, you just go faster. Hernán told me his approach while on a ride in Kent. He was crushing it on the hills and I was struggling to keep up. I asked him his secret and he said something along the lines of “Mate, there’s no point in going slow on the climbs. The faster you go the quicker it’s over”.
UHC – a truly family affair
That being said, I signed up for the UHC with no true expectation other than to give it my absolute best and have fun amongst other like-minded cyclists. Having never been to Swains Lane (aka Swains) before, we had one month of training until the event and I came to find that climbing Swains is straight-up work. It’s an ascent alongside a cemetery – no wonder why it feels as if you’re going to die afterwards! Training consisted of doing 5 – 7 reps per session with Kostas and Hernán after work followed up with a few pints at the Edinboro Castle afterwards. A nice reward for a hard effort!
The Begining and the End
To give Swains some context, the UHC segment can be broken down into two parts. The first part begins at Chester Rd, alongside the East Cemetery, which turns slightly flat at the top with the entrance to Highgate Cemetery is on your left. The second part begins just past the Highgate entrance, which is walled-in and steep, hitting a max gradient of 16% (according to Strava), finally ending at Bishop Gardens. The walls of this section consume you and any enjoyment is discarded. I’d say it’s somewhat comparable to Edgar Allen Poe’s, Cask of Amantillado where Fortunato meets his fate by being walled-in by Montresor.
Enter the Dragon – probably the steepest bit on Swain’s.
Curry, the food of Champions
On the day of the UHC, I was actually quite nervous as to how I would perform. I was dealing with a really bad stomach bug and the stats from my training sessions weren’t glorious. I woke up that morning and focused on my breathing. Listened to music for motivation and just tried to remain calm. Hernán, Kostas and I met in Regent’s Park and made our way north to Swains. We registered, fixed the numbers to our bikes and did some reps of Hillway to warm up. As our start times approached we made our way to the starting point and got in line, and I shifted into my inner ring and down to the fourth cog for some wiggle room, just in case. As this was similar to a time trial, there was a countdown and a person holding you upright until it was clear to go. Riders were set off in 30-second intervals. First went Kostas, then Hernán and then…me.
“I heard my fiancé, Charlotte, shouting at me and I pushed harder.”
As soon as I was clear to roll, I took a deep breath and began pedalling. I was slightly hesitant on the first section and I didn’t want to burn out before getting up to Highgate. The steepest and most challenging part lied ahead and I wanted to be sure I conquered it. As I was making my way up Swains I could hear the announcer call my name. Looking around were some spectators; I was in the spotlight. I mostly stayed in the saddle but made sure my cadence was high. Once I hit the Highgate, I got up out of the saddle but realised it was too early and got back into position – needed to conserve the leg burn for just one more moment…
Fathers and Sons
…Upon entering the second section, I waited until I reached the second set of speed bumps. This was my indication to get up out of the saddle and sprint up the steepest bit. I pushed as hard as I could. The spectators’ cheering and ringing bells is what kept me going. I heard my fiancé, Charlotte, shouting at me and I pushed harder. My legs were burning, snot and drool making their way down my face. The finish line was in my sights, but I just looked down at the tarmac and pushed until I finally crossed the line.
I definitely needed that hug – Bison and Buzz
Once it was over, it was over. Reality set in with the burning of my legs, the difficulty of catching my breath and the coughing climbing ensues; it was a glorious moment. I saw Hernán; he came over and gave me a hug. His smile was so big and really shed a light on the pain we all were experiencing. It felt great to be there as a team and to be there for one another. We got our times: Kostas 1:41, Hernán 2:04 and me 1:54. It was a moment of glory for the team. We saw Grant and his son, Lowell and Charlotte. We took pictures, shared our experiences and talked with other cyclists who were experiencing the pain of Swains. This is what cycling is all about.
Giving some skin – Buzz and Bison
Wooow, assess this
In assessing my performance, I’d say it was average. My mistakes lied in only focusing on the second section of Swains as it’s the steepest. I should’ve put an equivalent amount of emphasis on the first climb during my training, therefore balancing it out. However, I would say that I was generally happy with completing the segment sub 2:00.
Numbers – 3rd, Buzz. 2nd, Bison. 1st, Honey Badger
The beauty of participating in these events is that it gives you a benchmark, and depending how you’re wired, your results can instil motivation to improve for the next event.
The fastest Honey Badger this side of the River
Needless to say, the 2017 UHC was a fun experience to be part of. It felt good to represent the club, ride with my teammates and support the quirkiness of cycling. I’m already counting down the days for the 2018 UHC!