Hill climbing is one of the toughest niches in all of cycling. Particularly popular in the UK, the traditional hill climb season spans just two busy months in September and October. Riders tackle a simple time trial format - usually up the steepest local gradients organizers can realistically find, making for short explosive racing.
Like in any discipline, there are those who take it seriously, and those who don't - and after a two-year break from any sort of competitive hill climbing, I decided to spice up my ride at the 2023 Urban Hill Climb, with some retro tech.
Enter the Mk4 Raleigh Chopper.
It's fair to say that since its original release in 1972, the Raleigh Chopper has become a pop culture icon. Helped by its appearances in shows such as 'The Goonies', the Chopper was at the top of every kid's Christmas list back in the '70s - and Raleigh has decided to bring it back again.
Released this summer, it is fair to say that the Mk4 bike lies a country mile away from the kind of bikes we are used to seeing at hill climbs. A steel frame with geometry designed for town cruising, a three-speed Sturmey Archer hub gear, and an 18.2kg weight penalty were all working against me for my run up Swains lane.
The climb itself is typical of a British hill climb, short and steep. While an average gradient of just 7% doesn't seem like all too much, maximum pitches of over 20% would ensure a great deal of suffering for me on a bike that is the true juxtaposition of performance.
It's worth noting, too, that while my bike was certainly out of place at the event, the Urban Hill Climb is about fun as well as performance: there were categories for cargo bikes, and folding bikes alike - so my bike went down pretty well with both the spectators and my follow competitors.
As mentioned before, this was my first time racing a hill climb in over two years, so I put everything into my preparation to ensure I pulled off the best ride possible.
Things started with consuming an entire margarita pizza 40 minutes before my start time... My questionable nutrition choice - which I will attribute to 'carb loading' - was supplemented by a less than scientific warm-up around a nearby car park and then it was off to the start gates.
On the start line, I was met with a host of quizzical looks from my fellow competitors as they looked at the curious combination of a man in Lycra aboard a child's bike. Before I knew it though, it was go time.
Initially, the climb wasn't too steep which allowed me to get into somewhat of a rhythm for the first 400 meters at around four per cent. This shallower gradient allowed me to gather speed - and leaving me needing a gear change, which is easier said than done with a 45cm saddle height.
I was soon met with a wall of noise coming from the spectators either side of the road, which unfortunately only meant one thing: the steepest section was here. Thus far I had taken the climb relatively conservatively, which allowed for some minor crowd work, but now it was time to dig in.
I dropped the bike down into gear one, and gave it everything. Out the saddle, just trying to keep a high cadence - it has to be said I did a relatively decent job! I managed to keep the bike moving through the toughest section, helped in no small part by the exuberant cheers of the spectators.
After a final push to the line, it was time to gasp for breath, grab some water and sit in pain on the bike - a right of passage for any hill climb.
As far as results go, mine were... as expected. I posted a time of 2m21s, which was a whole minute off the fastest time of the day. Within the folding bike category, I came a much more respectable 5th, but really that wasn't what this race was about.
The Urban Hill Climb is a truly accessible sporting event for cyclists, right in the heart of the UK's capital, and what made it so great was the atmosphere, and support from both riders and spectators.
A silly, yet brilliant day out - but it did leave me thinking... what bike should I ride next year?
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1