On conquering Swain’s Lane with a lesser vehicle

For 12 months, Salina Christmas was immersed in online gambling as paid fieldwork for her anthropology on gaming as Deep Play. As with her previous fieldwork on crack dealings in Brixton, this study on Deep Play also caused her to think deeply of moral consequences. Her endurance, however, was built through another type of play outside work: cycling uphill and running the distance. It was Swain’s Lane in Highgate that taught her that uphill struggles are about the flesh and soul that power the bicycle, not the vehicle.

It’s been over a year since I cycled up Broomfield Hill in Richmond Park after repeated attempts.

The founder of our cycling website, GLUE, immortalised the event by designing me a Holmes.cc jersey, “Pain Is Weakness Leaving The Body”. It was a big deal to us because I was ill for some time. I worked hard in getting the strength of my lower torso after my operation in winter 2011.

Deep Play, deep dilemma


Barely a month before that ‘achievement’, I accepted a job working at an online gambling firm based in London with the intention of buying a decent road bike. Gambling is not my thing, but this was also paid fieldwork for the topic I chose to focus on in anthropology, namely games and sports. If I were serious about the anthropology of these two, then I’d have to figure out serious gaming first.

The one year spent was enough for the data gathering of my ethnography on serious gaming. But that one year spent in an adult industry with a set of moral values that run contrary to what we were taught as kids also gave me ample time to ponder on my role as a participant-observer in this fieldwork. It made me question my chosen vocation as an anthropologist.

‘This is another study on serious play and wagering methods,’ I reminded myself, ‘the same kind of play observed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz when he studied the Balinese cockfighting’. In his seminal essay “Deep Play: Notes in the Balinese Cockfight”, Geertz did not let his feelings known on the cocks brutally killed during his observation. Nor did he make any personal judgement on the gamblers and the fight organisers. Thus, it was only apt that I refrained from articulating my feelings about certain practices in online gambling.

Still, I needed a coping mechanism. I hardly drink. So I joined the Serpentine Running Club, a club known for producing top runners and triathletes. I knew the coaches would make me work on my running, cycling and swimming. I knew I was going to get my arse kicked by country-level competitors. This method of intervention that I have chosen actually ran counter to what I did for a living: to market an online leisure activity – another coping mechanism – that does not encourage the player to move his limbs at all.

The Rollapaluza Urban Hill Climb

Cycling and running helped me to focus on ‘the present’ – to be aware of my surroundings, not just to excel in my training, but also for health and safety reasons. Mind chatter distracts the cyclist, and distraction reduces his peripheral vision and reaction time. Not good if the cyclist is moving at speed alongside faster moving objects and with various obstructions on the road. Running was essential in building endurance, especially for those lung-busting moments when one has to sprint on the bike to get away from the lorry at the traffic lights, or grind up some hills.

I had been stepping up my running mileage and time with competitions in mind. However, it was not until The Rollapaluza Urban Hill Climb 2013 that I began taking hill climbs a bit seriously. The competition, held annually on Swain’s Lane – a ridiculous 18% gradient of ascent in Highgate, London – was meant to happen on 11 July 2013.

Initially, I was non-committal about doing it. I only verbally agreed to do it in winter 2012 with a Rapha Cycle Club ride organiser. But by the end of June 2013, with the ordeal of fieldwork finally over and the summer free for my leisure pursuits and career change, I thought: ok, I have had 12 months of cycling and running. Can I now haul my entry level Trek bike up some nasty hill? All 800 metres of it? What have I got to show for, apart from some fancy ethnography in that time?

Pulling one’s weight

To my surprise, I had put on weight since winter by 3 kg to 51 kg. Yes, 51 kg is 6 kg short of Nairo Quintana’s current weight, but that Tour de France 2013 runner-up is only one inch taller than me and more than a decade younger. My racing weight when I was a coxswain was 45 kg. My Trek 1.1c model is aluminium, about 10 kg to 12 kg in weight. With my small salary, I couldn’t afford to buy a carbon or a titanium frame. My Trek is my training bicycle as well as my commuting bicycle. I was advised by a Citibank banker, who earned four times more than I did, to buy a cheap carbon model from Canyon, that online German bicycle retailer and manufacturer. I can’t even afford a Canyon. Worse, I can’t even put the bicycle parts together.

To slim down further, I cut down on the greasy grubs and had only two slices of toasts, two cups of coffee and lots of water prior to scaling up Broomfield Hill a few times as preparation. It was a piece of cake, but I still got chicken feet about standing up while grinding uphill. I sat on my saddle all the way up that 12% gradient bend every single time.

A few days before 11 July 2013, I managed to work myself up into a such a state of fear. After all that mental and physical training I went through, I was close to throwing it all away. I wanted to bail out.

A lousy Instagram of Hey Boo, my bike, at Hyde Park in winter 2013. I sought peace during the commute back from work. Cycling in the cold provided me with enjoyment.
A lousy Instagram of Hey Boo, my bike, at Hyde Park in winter 2013. I sought peace during the commute back from work. Cycling in the cold provided me with enjoyment.

The climb

There was only one way to deal with this. “If you want to float well,” our swimming coach told us during our training in early summer, “you have to abandon all hope and keep the faith”. We must not struggle against the water, but get along with it.

I decided to get acquainted with Swain’s Lane the Saturday before the Urban Hill Climb competition. It was a warm day. By the time I cycled up to the lane, it was already 24° Celcius.

The lane is a nasty piece of work. It can be divided into five parts:

  1. The Unpleasant Stroll: From the little roundabout on Highgate West Hill road, through Swain’s Lane until the junction where it meets Chester Road. It is a 12% gradient ascent. Not worth ramping up one’s speed. Upon the advice of fellow club member who cycles a lot, I approached this stretch at 10 kph.
  1. The False Hope: Pass Chester Road on the right, and Makepeace Avenue and Oakeshift Avenue on the left. The lane flattens slightly, providing temporary relief. Upon reaching the entrance of the Highgate Cemetery on the right, one is treated to the uphill view of that final, horrible stage.
  1. The Wall, Part 1: Oh yes, there are two parts of this nastiness. You cycle up a very steep, narrow and shaded lane with an old, greenish wall on your left. The speed should be reduced from 10 kph to 4 kph. I dismounted the first time I went up this section, to my frustration. I tried again twice: once with a pair of trainers, once with a pair of road shoes, and it worked. Out of pain and desperation, I stood on the pedals. I used to be afraid of doing this, but Swain’s Lane left me with no choice. You get on with it, or you can go back down to the train station where you came from.
  1. The Wall, Part 2: This is the final part of the climb that teaches you that it is not about your aluminium frame or your change of gear. At this stage, it boils down to two things: your aptitude, and how disciplined you are at controlling your diet. Your strength and fitness would have taken care of The Wall, Part 1. However, Part 2 is about how much you want it. It is no longer about pleasing the spectators, or bragging about your achievement on Facebook. There is no trick for getting over this phase except that you look down on the tarmac and follow the bend of the hill, slowly, closely, and steadfastly. I pressed on by standing on my toes all the way up. The pain was excruciating. It was like getting your legs overly stretched on a torture wheel. I couldn’t cry like a girl so I screamed. My hands pressed down hard on the handle grips, my arms straight, rigid and unbending.
  1. The Relief: This is when you pass The Wall. There is still a bit to go to reach Bisham Gardens on top of the hill. By this time, however, your arse and legs are hurting so much you don’t want to cycle up standing. The urge is to sit on the saddle. Don’t. Keep going a bit more, than sit, then unclip your shoes, and then, collapse by the roadside.

As I lay crumpled against the wall of a building on top of the lane, two cars stopped at different times. Two handsome drivers asked if they could help. Twice I said, “Carry me home”. Each time the driver laughed and drove off. A strong lady needs no help, apparently.

The post-ride was a subdued affair, an anti-climax. After a few minutes on the ground, I rose, pushed my bicycle downhill and treated myself to sandwich and coffee at a cafe near the train station before taking the train home. Like running, the whole exercise was a solitary experience.

My cheap Trek 1.1c. He's heavy, he rattles, but he gets me good.
My cheap Trek 1.1c. He’s heavy, he rattles, but he gets me good.

A game turns to play

It took me four days to recover from these drills. I went for a spin class the night before the competition. My spin coach, a London Marathon record breaker, could not believe I was going to do it. She said: “You’re going up Swain’s Lane? Blimey”.

On Thursday, 11 July 2013, I rode up to Swain’s Lane, only to be told that the race was cancelled. Camden Council forgot to close the road, leaving the lane strewn with parked cars and big metal containers by the roadside.

I was gutted. So were the other competitors.

In a way, however, climbing up Swain’s Lane was like my fieldwork. I experienced discomfort working in online gambling, but like Swain’s Lane, it gave me the opportunity to work on my ethnographic muscles and sharpen my digital skills further. I came to appreciate Geertz’s work on the Balinese cockfighting even more. There were so many things he left out in his essay – the cultural awkwardness, the social isolation, the doubt at the absence of ‘morality’ in such activity, not to mention the deluge of data. Yet, he turned his observation into such a wonderful and humorous body of work that we forgot it’s about bloodsport and gambling habits.

Last week, slightly over a year after I climbed it for the first time, I tackled Broomfield Hill in Richmond again. Post-Swain’s Lane, I now go around that park clockwise. Twice. I overtook three cyclists. I stood on my pedals. I swayed to the left and to the right, still uneasy doing ‘the dance’. But it got easier. Hill climbs are no longer a game I have an obligation to excel at. They are now ‘play’, something that I am beginning to enjoy.

Salina Christmas aka Wheelsucker did her masters in Digital Anthropology at University College London to major in the Anthropology of Games and Simulation.

The Master of Science, and bike. I took a half day from work at that online casino to get my scroll because I had too much work to do.
The Master of Science, and bike. I took a half day from work at that online casino to get my scroll because I had too much work to do.


  1. Great article, I stumbled upon this as I’m in training for a race in Belgium and in the hunt for hills thought Swains Lane would be the best place for practice in London… Totally empathise with your experience, bizarrely though although it’s painful it always calls you back! Anyway have you tried again? Any chance of upgrading your bike. It’s a great achievement for you to make the climb on a 10-12kg bike a lot of the flashy cyclists have 8kg rides…

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