The Hill Climb Project

When we caught wind that the 2021 National Hill Climb Championships was being held at the iconic Winnats Pass in the Peak District National Park for the first time in over 40 years, we could sense the perfect storm beginning to brew – and quickly got to work.

A year in the making, this project is a celebration of everything we pride ourselves in – a passion for cycling culture in all its quirky guises, collaborating with a dream team of talented creatives and yes producing head-turning, jaw-dropping steel bikes weighing in at 5.4kg and ready to fly.

“I’ve been racing and competing in the hill climb season for about 3 years now, and one aspect that’s so fascinating is seeing the crazy light builds on show every year – what components people are using, what parts have been chopped, drilled and removed, people do some mad stuff. Being able to build and ride something insanely light has always felt a little unrealistic and out of reach for me.

For that reason, this build is a dream come true to be honest, I feel very fortunate to ride a bike that’s been specifically built for me. Racing it up Winnats Pass, and looking back at photos/videos from the day has made me realize how special this year and this project has been. This climb itself hasn’t been used as a National Champs venue for over 40 years, and thinking about it, racing a custom build that was painted to represent the climb itself, has definitely made me feel as though I’ve played a small part of hill climbing history. The climb is one of, if not the most prestigious hill climb venues in the UK and to be a part of it this year has been pretty special. Having some of my close family and friends supporting me on the day also made it one to remember, not to mention the buzz and atmosphere the whole way up the climb.

I guess this all stemmed from racing the Hill Climb National Champs last year, which was in Reading – we (myself, Vinny & Nico) managed to put something together at the last minute and modify my bike to bring the weight down to about 6.7kg (shaving a kilo off it’s normal weight). It was after that, we had the thought – how cool would it be to build the ‘ultimate hill climb bike’, to create something insanely light to race at next year’s Nationals, all the while documenting the process along the way.

Hill climbing is so quintessentially British and because of that it felt only right that we use our UK frame builder, Isen Workshop. We also loved the idea of going against the typical carbon builds and showcasing how a steel frame can still be incredibly light. Personally I’ve always been a huge fan of Isen builds, both the paint schemes and the frame geometry. Matt & Caren are incredibly passionate about what they do and you become part of that in the process. First and foremost the idea was to try and make a steel frame as light as possible whilst still being comfortable to ride – that was then very much left in the capable hands of the team at Isen.

Aside from the frame itself, I’d say the wheels have been a separate project in themselves. Watching Nico build them and figuring out how to keep them incredibly light was quite exciting and inspiring to watch.

Another stand out feature for me is the fact that the paint design is based on the contours of Winnats Pass. I’ll never forget unboxing it in the shop for the first time – we had no idea what to expect. The paint design was left purely in the hands of Caren and we had full trust in her to create something outrageous and totally unique…. and she did just that. The trust in the guys at Isen to deliver an absolute one off build was completely justified. The paint scheme and design was beyond anything I could’ve imagined, something I certainly wouldn’t have thought up. Amongst all the black/grey components the frame takes center stage, and riding it this season has turned a lot of heads and created a bit of a buzz, which has been really cool.

My first impressions of riding it were unreal – it’s quite hard to put into words. It felt like nothing I’d ever ridden before, and took quite a bit of getting used to, but you instantly felt quicker going uphill. Even though the weight was 5.4kg all in it didn’t feel fragile or flimsy in any way – it reacted exactly the way you’d hope it too when you’re putting out maximum efforts for 3/4 minutes at a time.

I still can’t quite believe that an idea we had over a year ago, has come to fruition. Not only that, but the fact that I was fortunate to race and compete on it this season. Showcasing such an incredible and eye catching build on behalf of The Service Course is something I’m really proud to be a part of.”

— Matthew Cleave, Hill Climber

“The idea behind the hill climb project was essentially to see how light we could get with a steel frame, some of it out of curiosity, most of it out of necessity. We also wanted it to look cool, and the thin round shaped tubes that steel gives you, just have that classic look that is timeless, and we wanted to do it our way, a sort of an exercise in style.

Once we went over the specs with ISEN (BSA BB, regular 1″-1/8 fork, clearance for up to 28mm tires) as well as the geometry to fit Matt, the only goal was to find the lightest possible components available (or in stock, to be more specific).

The Sram Red 22 it’s still the lightest group out there and assembled with an Easton EC90 power meter crank, Wolftooth chainring and Cane Creek EE brakes takes the whole groupset to 1600g.

The Enve fork inserted in a regular headtube of 34mm was fitted using an Extralite Ultra Top-Bottom headset which weighs just 46g, and we finished our cockpit with a rather stunning THM Frontale combobar, 220g for a 40cm width and 110mm stem. They make a Wahoo mount to accompany, and it’s a thing of beauty.

A crucial element of any bike is the wheelset, and I really wanted it to be the lightest wheelset I had ever built. We had some Enve carbon hubs to start with and the choice for the rim was almost inevitable, being AX Lightness one of the few ultralight open rims available on the market.

Berd make spokes using polyethylene, a material said to be lighter and stronger than steel in the way it’s weaved together. They have the consistency of shoe laces, and they bend like shoe laces when not tensioned, that allowed me to build the wheel with a little twirl at each crossing, that added some extra strength as well as a unique look. The final weight of the wheelset is 770g – strong, light and only recommended for uphill races. Vittoria Corsa Tubular was the tire of choice.

The final weight of 5.4kg left all of us very happy but that shouldn’t take the focus away from this bike to be just as good at climbing hills as it is to be ridden everyday if specced with a regular set of wheels and a double chainset.”

— Nico Venerus, The Service Course

The Bike:

  • ISEN Workshop custom steel frame
  • SRAM Red 11s
  • Easton EC90 power meter cranks
  • Wolftooth chainring
  • KMC SL chain
  • THM Frontale combobar 
  • Wheelset: AX lightness rims
  • Enve carbon hubs
  • Berd spokes
  • Vittoria Corsa tyres 
  • Shimano Dura-Ace pedals
  • Cane Creek bottom bracket and EE brakes
  • Extralite headset
  • MCFK Seatpost
  • Total weight 5.4kg

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