Culture

Sawn-off brakes, T-Rex suits and nana’s cakes: The wild and wacky world of UK hill climbs

The autumn hill climb season sees intense competition mingle with all-for-one community spirit in a small grassroots scene.

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This is part one of a two-part series diving into the UK’s best-kept cycling secret: hill climb racing. Check back soon for the second installment. 

The steepest climbs, the strangest bikes, and the most zealous fans. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of UK hill climb racing.

The British hill climb calendar sees racers in skinsuits, dinosaur outfits, and anything in between riding stripped-down, modded-out bikes up the shortest, most severe climbs in the nation.

Playing out across a condensed two-month autumn schedule, hill climb (HC) racing is serious stuff for the dedicated few, barely known by the wider world, and one of the last outposts of old-school, no-frills racing.

“There’s a lot of contrasts. You’ve got riders in race suits on modern bikes that are tweaked out to be as lightweight as possible – but then you have some school hall as HQ and there’s a massive spread of home-baked cakes,” recently crowned national HC champion Tom Bell told VeloNews.

“It’s just humble, grassroots racing. There’s definitely nothing fancy about the facilities or the organization or any part of it.”

The short, gnarled climbs of the UK make racing the pure VO2-max effort everyone wants to avoid in training.  Competitors start one-by-one from a dead stop, and victory is determined in anywhere between two to eight minutes of pure “type two” fun.

“I doubt myself before every race, and wonder ‘why am I doing this.’ I know just how much it’s going to hurt, how deep I need to go. And then afterward you want to sign up for the next one – you just feel absolutely exhilarated,” two-time women’s champion Bithja Jones said in a call last week.

“It’s a weird enjoyment that’s for sure. You have to be a certain type of person to enjoy it.”

The hill climb scene is relatively little-known, but one that top racers focus on all year long. Bell, a former elite mountain biker, currently doesn’t mix hill climbing with other types of racing. Jones only dabbles in some track competitions.

Both time and money are poured into making or modding the lightest components and frameset, diets are dialed down through summer, and training focuses entirely on the racing effort required.

But at its heart, hill climbing is friendly schoolyard racing at its best.

The proportion of riders taking part in T-Rex outfits, workman garb, or on folding bikes equals those in with a chance of claiming the typically modest prizes available.

“You ride up a horrendously steep hill, feel like you’re about to be sick at the top, and then instead of going back to your car and going home, most people just walk down the hill and cheer everyone else,” said Nick Latimer, HC veteran and co-organizer of this year’s nationals.

“It’s unique even within the British scene – the hill climb community is quite different. There’s a sense everyone’s in it together,” Latimer explained.

Community centers, nana’s cakes, and kebabs on sticks

UK Hill Climb, Matt Grayson
Apocalyptic weather didn’t stop the fervent fans at the October UK HC championships (Photo: Matt Grayson)

Like the equally quiet and quirky world of the UK 10-mile time trial circuit, HC races are typically organized on a shoestring budget pulled together by local cycling clubs.

The facilities are threadbare – typically the type of community center or village hall that more normally plays host to kiddies’ parties or parish council meetings.

As it’s Britain, tea and cakes are available at HQ. Treats are baked by volunteers’ grandmas and served with a scalding cup of “PG Tips” by organizers’ parents, cycling club veterans, and anyone else that is willing. Bigger events bring roadside burger vans for fans if budgets stretch that far.

Although small-scale, hill climb races bring a fervent following.

Locals and scene’s stalwarts pack the roadsides in the finest Tour de France style. Banners, signs, and banging pots and pans are the norm. The staggered start and steep grades make for a slow-motion gallery of pain faces and the perfect spectator sport.

“There’s a lot of atmosphere usually on the hill – people with cowbells shouting at you, waving signs. I’ve seen someone with a big cutout of a doner kebab on a stick before,” said Jones [see lead image – ed]. “You go up through a tunnel of noise with people shouting at you and running. It’s almost aggressive and loud. It’s amazing.”

Sawn-off brake blocks and home-hacked lights

Bithja Jones’ national championship bike is typical of the stripped-down approach to tech among HC racers. (Photo: Toby Davies)

Just like the go-to backward cap for racers, the hill climb scene is characterized by the mad mods racers make to their bikes.

When the route is 100 percent uphill, every gram counts, and without UCI regulation, riders can go as far as they like in shaving weight.

Single chainrings, sawn-off handlebar drops, and stripped-down bar tape are commonplace, and fixed-gear bikes are used where gradients and gearing allow it. Some racers go as far as cutting down brake blocks and swapping out frame bolts for more featherweight options.

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Jones’ championship-winning Tifosi Mons weighed in at a relatively “standard” sub-six kilos (13 pounds). The bolts are all titanium, gear cables have been replaced by lighter brake cables and shortened, and even the left-hand shifter has been stripped out.

“It’s part of the fun, figuring out where can you save just a few more grams,” she said. “We’re working on it. I hope next season it will be significantly lighter if we can get a bit better gear.”

The recent introduction of a mandatory rear light added another challenge this season.

“It became a new thing – who can make the lightest rear light. People were buying tiny LEDs and taping them to the lightest button battery that they could find, and then taping that to their seat post,” Latimer said. “I think the lightest was about four grams.”

The funding conundrum

UK hill climbs are currently regulated by British body Cycling Time Trials, which also oversee the 10- and 25-mile TTs that occupy another small niche of UK cycling culture.

Races draw small, if any, sponsorship. Funding is typically from local businesses, bike shops, or purely via donation. Interest from bigger governing bodies such as British Cycling or the UCI is minimal, and the HC national championships are far removed from the national road, time trial, and circuit-race events previously won by the likes of Mark Cavendish, Lizzie Deignan, and Geraint Thomas.

It’s like the unregulated, underground space that U.S. gravel racing found itself in, some 10 years ago.

Like the North American boom in gravel and the conflicts that big backers and increased officiating bring to the scene, UK hill climb specialists are stuck in two minds as to whether wider interest would be a good thing.

“I’d really like to see it be more popular and potentially more legitimized because I think it’s still seen as kind of amateur level of racing,” said Bell, who turned to hill climbing after pausing his MTB career.

“I think there’s sometimes a perception that a WorldTour pro can just turn up and blitz the field, but if you look at the numbers it’s a very specific effort that road racers focussing on three-four hour races don’t necessarily have.”

With the experience of recently organizing the national hill climb championships, Latimer can also see the upside potential of wider oversight and the finances that typically follow.

“It would help in some ways if you had a big organization behind it. They’d have a better ability to fund an event where you close a road for a longer period of time, and you can run the event more on your own terms rather than that of local council officials,” he said.

“But for atmosphere, it’s quite nice because it’s such a niche area of the sport and people look on and think ‘oh, what’s that all about?’ I think you get a little bit of interest and respect from other people who haven’t done it because it’s just a little bit different.”

For now, UK hill climbing will be raced by the few and kept as low-key as the back-road climbs and community halls that play host to the races. It’s hard to see that changing any time soon – but that’s what the forefathers of gravel may have thought too.