I have been fortunate enough to ride the two big mountains in Zwift: the Alpe du Zwift and Ven-Top. These of course based on the iconic Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux real-life climbs and despite being immensely challenging, they were memorable experiences for all the right reasons.
Therefore, when the opportunity arose to test my legs on the real-life Box Hill, I couldn’t pass it up. I was excited to compare the route to that found in Zwift.
But before talking about my experience on the climb, it’s worth explaining where it is geographically and how it has risen to fame.
About Box Hill
Box Hill is situated in the Surrey Hills, south of London, UK, and is designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” (AONB). It is one of 46 nationally protected landscapes in the UK, and has equal landscape status and protection to a national park.
Its direct rail links from London Victoria and Waterloo make it a popular destination. Additionally, it was used during the 2012 Olympic Road Race, where during the Men’s event the climb was tackled nine times.
In terms of stats, it’s not a particularly impressive climb. In fact, if it was situated in the Alpes it would barely get a mention, being only 2.5km in length with an average gradient of 5%, maxing out at 8% with only 129 meters in elevation gain! However, it is its accessibility and proximity to London that gives it its fame.
According to the National Trust, the route has been tackled by 103,268 cyclists a total of 773,437 times. The fastest climb? 4min 37 seconds, at an average speed of 32.5kmh.
It is without doubt the 2012 Olympic Road Race that elevated Box Hill to another level with the event watched by 15,000 on site spectators and a global audience of two million. The route and its surrounding areas forever became associated with road cycling, and it was consolidated further when it was included in the Prudential RideLondon 100 route.
Memoires of Box Hill
In 2012, I watched the Men’s Olympic Road Race at the finish line on the Mall, alongside the wife of recently retired American pro cyclist Tejay van Garderen and the sister of Chris Horner, who were both competing for the US Team. I can recall watching as the British Team sat on the front of the peloton, trying to control the race to bring it home in a bunch for Mark Cavendish to finish off and win the sprint. It was a super strong team that consisted of Bradley Wiggins, who had just won the Tour de France, Chris Froome, who had finished second in service to Wiggins, Mark Cavendish who was the reigning World Champion and had just won the prestigious final stage of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées, Ian Stannard and the Road Captain, David Millar.
My lasting memory of the day was seeing the British Team climbing Box Hill, and I looked forward to the day when I could do the same. Little did I realise that it would be 10 years before I would get the chance to fulfil that ambition.
Box Hill and Zwift
Zwift launched their London map (including Box Hill) in July 2016, so when I started riding on Zwift and ventured out of Watopia, I was delighted to finally ride Box Hill. For the last few years I have been climbing and descending the famous Hill virtually, and consequentially it’s a climb I have come to know well. I’ve learned that no matter what pace you ride it, whether solo or in a group, it’s always a challenge and therefore I wanted to see how I faired when I tackled it in real life.
Box Hill In Real Life
I came with high expectations, perhaps unrealistic expectations. Ultimately, I think I have been spoilt by Zwift.
I was staying in a hotel close by and my plan was to take the bike and ride up Box Hill. However, the traffic and busy roads meant I was rethinking this strategy before even getting on my bike. This was not looking good.
After checking in at the hotel and getting my bike set up, I decided that perhaps it would be better to ascend the climb from the other side, figuring it would be less busy. From Zwift, I know this as “Fox Hill”, however, this does not directly map in the real world.
To get to the back of Box Hill, I had to navigate Pebble Hill Road. I started to get a feeling of being on Zwift, because there was a conga line of cyclists going up this small incline.
I felt unsafe. The road was narrow, there were oncoming cars and cars alongside me and riders I wanted to overtake. This wasn’t nice and made me realise how busy the British roads have become. At one point, as I was overtaking a cyclist, they realised that couldn’t make the hill so suddenly braked and unclipped, causing me to veer out of their way, nearly getting clipped by a car that was passing too close. I wasn’t enjoying this and was relieved to pull off and commence the climb to Box Hill. This is where I realised that “Fox Hill” from Zwift, does not mirror the descent from Box Hill in real life. In truth, the ascent up Box Hill from the back is pretty much a straight road, where you actually go through a small village called “Box Hill.”
Next, I passed a view point that was nice but full of people and I found myself slowing behind cars as they stopped for one last view. Due to the narrow road, I found myself unable to get by these cars and their descent was furthered hampered as they slowed for the many speed humps that were situated on the road. I had to slow to a stop as I rounded the corner to the Visitor’s Centre which marked the summit, as people walked across the road without looking and more cars joined the convoy for the descent.
This was chaos. This was unpleasant.
Given the lack of progress, I took the opportunity to stop and take photographs. I had to wait several minutes for the road to be clear so I could get a nice photograph that would show the climb in its splendour. As I was stopped, several motorbikes roared past me, along with cyclists on all different bikes. This was busy. Really busy.
I reached the base of the climb and turned around to ascend. I had to wait for one cyclist to start his ascent and two cars to pass, before I could get going.
The lower slope of the climb was straightforward and it was here I caught the cyclist who I had given the head start, and I passed them before the first bend. There was a short bit of road before the hairpin where I had to slow then stop as two cars navigated their way round. As I entered the straight section, more motorbikes sped by. Then it was on towards the final corners before the summit.
Without pushing, I did it in 8 minutes exactly.
As I waited to descend, the cyclists I passed had finished and commented “Well climbed!” which I took to be an equivalent to a “Ride On!”
I then decided to descend for another attempt, this time I would push it a bit more.
As I descended, I was stuck behind a car and literally had to ride holding the breaks, I was caught by a mountain biker. I turned to him and commented, “It’s more fun on Zwift!” He agreed.
As I started my second climb, my day out nearly came to an early end as a Quad Bike decided to overtake the car that they had been following and came barrelling down at me so fast I didn’t even have time to ditch the bike in the hedge. He squeezed by me with a small gap to spare.
I was frightened and wasn’t hanging around, so I was up out of that saddle and in climbing mode. I wanted off this climb and quickly. I crested in 6 minutes 51 seconds. I continued on to the descent, the way I originally came up, where I was joined by another cyclist.
The cyclist overtook me, and they were a little larger than me in stature, so I sat behind them in the draft, classic Zwift style, but that plan came to an end pretty sharpish as the potholed road resulted in his bike being rattled so hard that his bidon dislodged and I had to manoeuvre to avoid hitting it, ala Geraint Thomas style (you may remember Geraint hit a wayward bidon in the 2020 Giro, causing him to crash and ending his Giro challenge). I sat up and let the rider go, another close call putting me into self-preservation mode.
This was not fun.
It certainly was an eventful few hours in the saddle, and when you compare Zwift’s version of Box Hill to that in real life, Zwift have accurately recreated the details that are painted on the road and the climb feels very similar, with my ascent times being a good measure of that.
Where Zwift I think has the advantage and why I prefer it, is because it’s simply safer. On Zwift I am not worrying about cars, the road surface, or other cyclists and can cycle at a nice rhythm. If you haven’t ever cycled Box Hill in real life, it pains me to say I don’t think you are missing much. There are plenty of nicer, quieter climbs and areas to cycle within the UK.
They say “never meet your heroes in real life”. Perhaps this should be expanded to “never ride virtual roads in real life” – however, to counter my own point, I can’t help but think how fantastic an experience Alpe d’Heuz and Mont Ventoux are. Hard to say, but one thing remains unchanged: I certainly appreciate riding on Zwift.
What About You?
Have you ridden IRL roads which you’ve also ridden in Zwift? How do they compare?
Next try Richmond… you’ll have an even worse experience as several roads are one-way in the wrong direction.
I will have to ask Zwift to send me out there, for research purposes. 😉
Despite not being able to access the exact Richmond UCI road race route emulated in Zwift because of the unique road closures and traffic patterns for the actual race, you can still safely tackle Libby Hill and the 23rd Street climbs on a weekend morning with little traffic. Libby Hill is traffic-free, and very few people use 23rd Street as it is steep and rough. Both climbs are short and travel over very rough cobbles. To access these climbs, I usually park at Great Shiplock Park since I don’t live anywhere near this area. I’ll ride along Dock Street toward… Read more »
While I miss the “feeling” (mainly the sounds and the smells) of the outdoors on a quiet, winding, country road, this is why almost all of my rides are on Zwift these days (especially after getting hit last year). That I don’t have to worry about where my phone is or if my saddlebag with spare, levers, and my frame pump are on this bike is an added bonus.
I’ve haven’t been up Box hill since the 1990’s, and it sounded a lot better back then. I do find increasingly that I have more fun on Zwift than on actual roads. It’s fine out in the country, but this morning 3 times I had to swerve to avoid cars reversing out of their drives, 1 close pass by a car driving way above the speed limit and had a lorry pull out of a junction forcing me to brake sharply (and I was only out for 90 minutes). I would much prefer to ride out in the fresh air,… Read more »
Tim I feel this do much. Some people have a hard time understanding why I ride pretty much exclusively on Zwift. Sure, comfort, convenience and the ability to race whenever I want plays its part, but more than anything it is safe.
Totally with you, I grew up riding outside and only now am I starting to worry about the roads being too busy. Today, I did my Mountain Massif special Jubilee event, I had so much fun, I was, how do you say it “buzzing.” In contrast, I was relieved just to get off that hill in one piece. What I did realise later is that I got a flat tire from the poor roads….
Was hoping to ride Innsbruck in a few weeks time does anyone know if that is possible (one-way roads etc), I rode box hill a few years ago on a quiet day so not so traumatic.
I was out in Innsbruck recently and took a look at many of the landmarks from ZWIFT. The majority of the route is certainly rideable including the leg snapper and longer climb. The only bit to be wary of would be the section through the centre of town past the golden roof and monument. You can come through here but it is a very busy area with a lot of pedestrians so early or late night help
This is a really good article Tim, thanks. I have 55 attempts on the 100 Climbs Box Hill segment IRL (many others will have many more, no doubt) and I have to say that this is not my experience. I cannot recall a time that my ascent of the climb has been impeded by anyone, pedestrian, cyclist, driver or otherwise. In the summer, in particular, I find the climb a useful benchmark for the effects on the road of my winter training on Zwift. Many of my Surrey Hills routes start with a Box Hill ascent, when my legs are… Read more »
Thanks Nathan, I will certainly follow you on Zwift and if I am out that way, I will link up with you for sure. Nothing beats local knowledge. I should have mentioned that this was Sunday at 4.30pm. I was way busier earlier, hence why I waited. I did take photos of my experience as I didn’t want people thinking I was exaggerating.
I just tried to find you on the Companion app but couldn’t, maybe you can follow me. Thanks
Hi Tim, I have followed you on Zwift.
4.30pm on a Sunday explains why it was busy – I’d normally do a Box Hill ride (about 90km round trip from SW London) on a morning, but last year I went one weekend afternoon and the climb was mostly cars instead of mostly bikes. Definitely less fun. I do like it as a climb, the surface is nice and it’s just hard enough to be challenging if you put some effort in without being miserable (looking at you, Whitedown Lane). I’ve been up Pebble Hill Road once, on the way back from Brighton, and never again. It’s way too… Read more »
I’ll plus one that Whitedown comment Joanne!
+2 for whitedown. Nasty hill
Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez are definitely in my list for next year. Great post. Loved each single line.
I would describe your ride as “riding a bike in England”.
Yeah, it is becoming unpleasant.
Nothing can beat a pleasant country ride on a beautiful day with barely a car in sight, but if you live anywhere near a large city I find it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have that experience. After two years of Zwift, whenever I ride in the real world (unless it’s a closed course) my honest reaction is “this kinda sucks actually…. it feels dangerous and unpleasant and not the least bit relaxing”.
Zwift: Most of the good, none of the bad.
Totally agree. I miss cycling outside in Spain where the rods are wider and quieter, well where I was anyway and appreciate it is not always the case but nearly different to the UK for sure.
Best to head out early when there is no traffic. Ride on!
Yes – go back at 0630 on a Sunday morning and you’ll have it almost to yourself 🙂
I used to live near Box Hill and I would only ride it on a Sunday morning as early as possible, certainly before 10am, especially in the summer. The descent down Pebble Hill is only fun if there are no cars around, which is rare, unfortunately.
Box Hill IRL is a great little hill climb segment with the legendary zig zags and the Surrey Hills area offers a tonne of fun climbs, so I don’t think you’re doing it justice. Just gotta pick a time & date when it’s not full of cars and ur gucci. Tonnes of cycling clubs frequent the area and they can’t all be wrong. Zwift is good & all but it ain’t got nothing on the real thing, and I don’t think we should be writing articles which put people off trying it out..
nice article Tim. Makes me all the more thankful for zwift.
I do like how zwift has replicated different courses and I hope they continue to do so. Can you imagine riding the UCI WC in Africa or Taiwan’s KOM challenge??!!
Thanks for the feedback. I would love it if they created another big mountain based on real life. Maybe we need to do a poll and present to Zwift 😉
Great article. I have been up Box Hill many times pre-2012 as it was on my local cycling club’s Sunday coffee loop. Cyclists always outnumbered the 2-3 cars we encountered. The best experience, however, was tackling the climb on closed roads as part of Ride London-Surrey (sadly no longer). Since moving away from the UK I haven’t experienced it recently, but it looks like it may be the victim of its own popularity now with many people driving there to make the most of the area and the views.
Alas it is just too popular nowadays – it’s probably the most famous climb for Londoners (population 10 million!) to head for in an easy morning loop.
There’s a crazy event called the Ballbuster (I did about 15 years ago) where you run Box Hill loop, then cycle it 3 times than run it again. Proper tough day, although hardest thing was getting out of car park at end as by that time of day the tourists were arriving in numbers……
Try riding the Yorkshire (Harrogate) routes from Zwift. In addition to the traffic, potholes & narrow roads you also get lots of traffic lights, one way streets (in the wrong direction) & endless roadworks, you’ll love it.
Welcome to cycling in the UK: terrible roads, terrible traffic and hostile drivers 🙁
Unfortunately this is pretty much the definition of a “normal” experience on UK roads as a cyclist, it really is disheartening – even living in a so-called designated ‘cycling city’ of Oxford is constantly dangerous with limited to no safe separated cycling lanes, constant close passes by speeding vehicles, and dodgy road surfaces.
bucket list would definately be to try Alpe d’huez, then watch the pros go up it during TDF. It pains me i cant get all the stars to align as i will be in France this year in July but will be no where close to the alp!
Champs Elysées. incline is spot on, but the traffic is insane with just a bike lane to separate you from 8 lanes of traffic. the Etoile roundabout is another story as right of way rules apply making getting across it on a bike complicated. most people choose to ride the outer road that goes around the Etoile, but lots of lights to work through. in short, I don’t recommend this for any rider not experienced in urban warfare.
The more you ride with traffic and cars, the more you learn to own the road. Making space for your self and allowing you to enjoy it more. Say that some drivers are complete d*** heads
I rode Box Hill IRL back in October 2021. It was a weekday morning and I found it very quiet indeed. I did a video too with stats overlay in case anyone’s interested. This was before I’d done it on Zwift. When I did ride it on Zwift I was really impressed with how familiar it looked. Anyway here’s the video link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWAxLKhHprw
I took it on in real life in the 2018 PRL and I loved it. This was before I had joined Zwift so now I have fond memories of both. However, I do think the closed roads helped massively in real life as I can imagine it’s pretty hairy with cars and pedestrians. I’ll stick to Zwift for now though based on your review. It would be great for Zwift to include some more famous climbs as I’ve heard all 3 (Box Hill, Alp and Ven-top) are extremely similar to the real world climbs. Imagine being able to tackle Stelvio… Read more »
Stelvio on zwift is a great shout…and Tourmalet?
Nice article – which is particularly interesting as I used to ride in the Surrey Hills (inc Box Hill) a lot with the Kingston Wheelers when I lived in London, but haven’t been there for 15 years at least.
I had assumed that the Box Hill road markings on Zwift were a Zwift invention – it hadn’t occurred to me that it was Zwift recreating real life! That blew my mind!
Box Hill can get fairly busy but in my many (circa 40) experiences of riding it in real life in the early morning – when most cyclists seem to ride – have been very positive. Really unfortunate that one ride at a very busy time has resulted in an article that is not representative of the Box Hill experience. I agree that roads are much busier and in bad condition but feel this article does not describe what most of us experience. I started riding on zwift 6 months ago which was great to get through the UK winter but… Read more »
Boxhill isn’t that bad really depends on the time you go
Sounds like bad day/time.
I just moved from CA to London and immediately wanted to try Box Hill. Ridden it twice in two weeks now. It has been sweet. Barely any cars. Just a few cyclists. Ridden up at 9am first time and 10am the second.
I already had quite a few horrible riding experiences and close calls here but Box Hill are has been far from that. Wish I lived closer.