If you live in the nation’s capital you may think you’re a million miles from a decent hill but if you look hard enough there are a few beauties both within the city and just on the outskirts where you can test your legs in training or race your mates at the weekend. To begin our search for the best climbs around London, we thought who better to ask than BLOCKHEAD ambassador Simon Warren author of ‘The 100 Greatest Climbs’ series of books. Simon also likes to use our Energy gum on his tough days out in the saddle - hear how he uses it himself.
Click the headers of the below climbs to find the segments on Strava.
Number one on the list has to be the infamous Swain’s Lane. The best climb in the capital it has been used as training ground for city locked riders for generations and is also home to the annual Urban Hill Climb. Of the numerous routes up Highgate Hill, Swain’s Lane is the least travelled by vehicles and one of London’s best kept secrets – for cyclists, that is. Start the climb as the road turns the corner at the base and ride past a right-hand junction. Running alongside Highgate Cemetery the road is smooth and wide, and what little traffic you encounter is likely to be travelling past you as the top of the road is one-way. There is a brief plateau midway past the cemetery gates, and then you are plunged into darkness as the gradient kicks up. The road is just wide enough for a single car, with a high wall on the left and thick tree cover overhead. Power up the slope, which touches 20% at its steepest point. Once past the bespoke house on the left, the gradient eases and a large radio mast appears. Pass this and finish at the T-junction with South Grove. You’ve just conquered Swain’s Lane – a proper cycling hill in the capital. Priceless!
This is my favourite road in south London, and the venue for countless painful hill intervals when I was race training. And why so special? Well, College Road is a toll road, with a booth at the bottom to stop drivers and charge them for the privilege of driving up, which puts many off. This of course makes it much quieter than the other ways up to Crystal Palace and therefore perfect for training. The slope is reasonably steep to begin with, and then you are rewarded with an easing past Sydenham Hill station where you can spin before the gradient bites again. From here, as the road curves right, the gradient increases and you have the added inconvenience of speed bumps to impede your progress. Next the road banks left and becomes Fountain Drive. Here there is a cycle lane protected in places by bollards, and this will take you all the way up to the finish, the hardest part of the climb, to the roundabout at the top.
Just north of London, in Essex, lies High Beach and the climb of Mott Street. Studying the topography, it’s a surprise to find such a tough ascent in this area – there are many shorter hills around, but Mott Street is a proper climb. Begin your ascent at a broken bridleway marker just off the A112. The road bends left, passing the junction to Lippitts Hill, and then rises. A tough opening section flattens where it reaches farm buildings on both sides of the road. A strong whiff of manure is just what you need to propel you up the following lump into the hardest section. The well-surfaced stretch of 12% gradient winds past large gated properties on both sides, levelling slightly half way. The final sector heads into tree cover and the brow comes opposite a bridleway, after which there are just a few hundred metres of false flat before the climb ends at the junction of Church Road.
Muswell Hill’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here, not if you had to ride to the top of it every day after work! There is little option other than to start the climb from a standstill as you leave the giant junction at the bottom, and right away it settles into its 10% slope. The first 100m are quite narrow then the road widens significantly, and you can ride in the relative sanctuary of the bus lane; running the rest of the way to the top, the lane is a godsend on what can be a very busy road, especially in rush hour. I say the slope is a constant 10%, but in some places it drops to 9% and in others increases to 11%, which makes its modest 650m length seem much, much longer. The road never changes direction – it’s just one straight line to the summit, which, together with what you still have to climb, is constantly in view as you toil upwards.
To the south of London lies a hill which holds the record on Strava for the most logged ascents of any climb, the one and only Box Hill. A lot has happened to this humble climb since I first wrote about it back in 2010. It is now known the world over thanks to its appearance as the showpiece of the 2012 Olympics road race. Although fame quickly fades, what will last longer is the fresh, silky surface it received for the games, and today it is probably the smoothest climb in all of Surrey. The aptly named Zig Zag Road leaves the B2209 and begins its ascent beneath a thick canopy of trees. The gradient is steady but significant then levels briefly at the first hairpin, which has the effect of slingshotting you around the bend. To maintain speed, hug the left-hand gutter and hold your line to the second hairpin. Steep through the bend, you exit the tree cover to begin the longest stretch, which can be especially tough in a headwind. Looking right you’ll see the valley below before you enter the trees again for the final right-hand bend and push for the café at the top.
This is my favourite road in the South-East. Why? I don’t know, as I always suffer like a dog on it. The climb is gentle at first as you leave Limpsfield, but above you the vertical chalkface that dominates the skyline awaits. Make the most of the early slopes – they don’t last. Passing beneath the monumental square bridge under the M25, the gradient starts to bite, still not terrible but enough to quicken the breathing and lower the gears. Bending left past the first entrance to the chalkpit, you now know you’re on a proper hill. Ahead, the wicked right-hand hairpin comes into view and from there begins the toughest stretch. Grind round the corner and begin an achingly uniform 20% slog on the perfectly surfaced road. Dead straight, you are offered no respite for over 200m before it gradually bends left and thankfully finishes at the T-junction. OUCH.
The proud owner of the highest point in the South-East, Leith Hill is one of the longer climbs on the North Downs and a road that is raced many times each year, making and breaking riders’ reputations in the process. Leaving the B2126 you have a couple of hundred metres in which to choose your gear and prepare for the ascent. Following a footpath on the right, you climb steeply at first and then you are allowed a slight respite before the road’s abrasive surface starts eating into your reserves once again. It’s steep here and framed with high brick walls that follow the still-steepening rise, which turns first right, then left, where you climb towards an intersection of three roads that form a triangle. Bearing left here you have a chance to ease up slightly. But it’s not for long, as once again the road climbs and you follow it round to the right, drained from the seemingly endless grind, to the car park on your right.
For more climbs close to London check out Simon’s guide to the Cycling Climbs of South-East England. Here. You can also download his app which makes it simple to find and track your progress on all of the official climbs.