A Box Hill cycling masterclass with Team Sky rider Ben Swift
- Credit: Paul Mitchell
With Box Hill now one of the area’s most popular destinations for cyclists, Adele Mitchell reveals the lure of its appeal – and also picks up some tips from Team Sky rider and Olympian Ben Swift on tackling Surrey’s most iconic hill climb
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2015
The ascent up Box Hill along the Zig Zag Road is a rite of passage for cyclists. Situated near Dorking, it rises out of the valley carved by the River Mole and up to the conveniently situated (and extremely popular) National Trust café at the summit – although, strictly speaking, the ‘real’ summit is a little further on.
Professional and amateur cyclists have been tackling the climb for over a century, and its inclusion in the 2012 Olympic Games road cycling races secured its iconic status. The male cyclists ascended it nine times during their race, while the women rode it twice during their race the next day.
Today, the key to Box Hill’s popularity is not only the fun of following in the footsteps of Olympians, but also the combination of its manageable gradient and distance – an average of 4.9% and 2.5km respectively – with a switchback layout that is reminiscent of a mini Alpine climb. Good visibility and a super-smooth road surface, laid just before the 2012 Olympics, make it all the more enjoyable.
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On average, it takes me around nine minutes to ride to the top – not so long that you think it’s never going to end, but certainly long enough when it starts to hurt. Luckily, the fabulous views over the surrounding Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are a wonderful distraction!
Not surprisingly, Box Hill is also an extremely popular feature on sportives – mass-participation cycle events – including the London Cycle Sportive on Sunday May 10 and the Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100 event on Sunday August 2 this year.
Riding with Ben
Team Sky rider and Olympian Ben Swift is ambassador for the London Cycle Sportive and, ahead of the event, I was lucky enough to be invited to join him on a ride up Box Hill.
Ben represented Great Britain at the Beijing Olympics and has been an extremely successful member of Team Sky since 2010. Needless to say then, he has a busy schedule of training and competitions around the world, so the opportunity to ride alongside him on Surrey’s most famous climb was a real treat – not to mention the chance to pick up some hill climbing tips.
During our ride, Ben told me that the key thing really is to mentally divide the hill into sections to make it more manageable.
“For instance, in a professional race (on roads closed to traffic), the climb starts from the roundabout on the A24,” he explained. “This is because we want to be in a good position in the peloton as we round the first corner at the junction into the Zig Zag Road.
“The second corner is probably where riders will start to accelerate their first attack, then from the third corner it’s ‘power high and on’ up the long straight.
“The fourth corner is where we’re thinking about the sprint to the top. We can sense when it’s coming as the speed starts to ramp up.”
Watching Ben ride, you can’t help but notice how relaxed he is – everything he does on the bike looks effortless and efficient. He knows Box Hill well, having ridden it in competition and in training, and it was fascinating to hear his professional take on it.
It’s certainly made me think again about how I tackle Surrey’s most iconic climb.
• Ben Swift is an ambassador for the London Cycle Sportive on Sunday May 10. The ride takes in Box Hill and ends uniquely with a lap of the 1948 Olympic Velodrome at Herne Hill. To sign up for the race, visit humanrace.co.uk/cycling.
• For more on the Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100, which takes place on Sunday August 2, visit prudentialridelondon.co.uk
Ben Swift’s top tips for riding Box Hill
1 No matter how fast everyone else is going, know your own pace and stick with it. That way you can be confident that you can keep going to the top without fading.
2 Either spin your way up (ride with a high cadence in a low gear) or push a higher gear and maybe stand a little as you climb, which is less monotonous: it’s really down to individual preference.
3 If you have another rider in your sight and want to overtake them then the best thing to do is maintain your pace, think fast and smooth, and pass them in your own time. Try not to put a spurt on: if you do, they will simply overtake you again when you slow down.
4 Box Hill is very open with good visibility but, if you’re struggling on the way up, don’t look for the top of the climb – it may seem a very long way away! Instead, try to look a little way ahead and focus on your breathing, not the pain!
5 If you are working up to a sportive, make sure you train in and on your sportive kit and don’t change anything on the day.
6 Stay safe: if you are riding in traffic make safety your priority and don’t take risks nor try to copy everything you see the pros doing on television!
7 Relax! The switchbacks on Box Hill make it fun to ride. It’s got a decent gradient and it’s an iconic climb, so enjoy it!