There are some forms of motorsport that seem to simply defy logic, and the laws of gravity at the same time. Yet, there always seems to be a brave bunch of enthusiasts who are willing to take the risks early on and create something from nothing.
This, friends, sums up motorcycle hill-climbing in a nutshell. What started out as an exhibition to prove manufacturer dominance, has turned into a legitimate and sanctioned sporting event that pits highly customized motorcycles against mother nature and gravity.
For over 100 years, motorcycle enthusiasts have been taking their machines, and their nerves for a ride up some of the steepest hills in the world.
Where it all began and where it all ended up is one hell of a story that we can't wait to tell you all about it.
Ready? Let’s do it!
The Early Days
The credit for inventing hill climbing goes to none other than the groundbreaking Indian Motorcycle Company. In the early 1900s, Indian would run their motorcycles up the steepest hills around the Springfield Massachusetts factory to prove that they were powerful enough to go over some of the roughest terrains.
These exhibitions started to gather an audience, especially since not every ride up the hill would go as planned, and the antics of falling riders were just too hard to ignore. Within a few short years, these demonstrations turned into recurring events, and manufacturers like Triumph were also muscling in on the action and looking to challenge Indian in timed events. American stalwart's Harley-Davidson joined the Insanity around 1910 and quickly began to dominate the sport. Yes, pushing a motorcycle at insane speeds up the hill became a sport. God Bless America.
Tucked away in sunny Southern California, San Juan Capistrano became the hub of hill-climbing activities during the 1920’s. Not only were Southern Californians excited about all forms of Motorsport, but the unique terrain of Southern Orange County proved a fertile ground for hill climbs. The "Hill of Thrill", otherwise known as Capistrano Hill, would go from a few hundred spectators in the mid- 1910's to over 20,000 by the early 1920s.
Riders would take heavily modified motorcycles that had long, stretched wheelbases and giant dirt-grabbing tires up hills like Capistrano Hill at incredible speeds. Remember, Capistrano Hill had over a 40° angle and not all bikes successfully made it to the top! Urban sprawl in the construction of Interstate 5 would spell the end of this unique event in 1927, but the hill-climbing bug was well embedded into the hearts of off-road enthusiasts everywhere.
The big three American manufacturers (Indian, Excelsior, and Harley-Davidson) saw these hill-climbing exhibitions as an opportunity to show off the quality and durability of their unique products. By 1928, both Excelsior and Indian released limited production, purpose-built factory specials, specifically designed for hill climbing.
In 1929, Harley-Davidson would also release a motorcycle from the factory that was specifically designed to climb hills. This unique model, known as the Harley-Davidson DAH is an extremely rare motorcycle and most are found in museums throughout the country.
Unfortunately, the depression would lead to the demise of the Excelsior brand, as well as a major cutback in motorsports funding from both Indian and Harley-Davidson. This effectively ended factory-backed interest in hill climbing events around the country for quite some time.
Although most of the country was focused on getting through the depression, and then World War II; many riders in the Golden age of hill-climbing we're still interested in continuing this unique tradition after the tough times had passed.
The sport resurged to popularity in the 1960s, and especially the 1970s because motorcycle culture was changing right before the eyes of a nation. Dirt bike culture had taken hold across the country, and riders of all ages and skill levels were taking their Scramblers through some of the roughest terrain and up some of the steepest hills for both bragging rights and informal competition for prize money.
One of the main reasons for the rise in popularity of not only motorcycle hill-climbing, but motorcycle racing, was the release of Bruce Brown's "On Any Sunday" in 1971. This documentary love letter to all forms of motorcycle racing features a segment on the infamous Widowmaker Hill in Draper, Utah.
For the first time, riders from all over the world got to see the positively insane sport of hill climbing, and its popularity positively exploded.
AMA Sanctioned Events
Today, there are AMA sanctioned motorcycle hill climb events all over the United States, culminating in the National Grand Championship at Valley Springs Motorcycle club in Bay City Wisconsin each summer. There are multiple classes, including all manner of displacements, and age brackets.
Hill climb events are very simple. Events are either timed to see who makes it up the hill the fastest, or which writers can make it up the hill the farthest. The most technical hills are nearly impossible for a motorcycle to scale and provide some of the most incredible footage that any motorcycle enthusiast can hope to see as riders push their bikes to the limit.
High horsepower, nitromethane-powered bikes with preposterously long wheelbases scramble up seemingly vertical faces with a level of ease and terror that is unmatched in the world of motorsport. Some classes start out as something like a Honda CBR 600, while other classes such as the unlimited class, are racing motorcycles up to 1100 cc. In fact, there's not a lot of limitations in the insane unlimited class, and the only limitations for power seem to be budget and nerves.
Most of the AMA Hill climb bikes are utilizing an inline 4 from a street bike due to the additional power that these unique engines can provide. Although they can be a bit of a handful in the handling department, championship-winning hill climb bikes all utilize an I4 engine with engine internals that are similar to what's run in an NHRA drag car.
Power on these professional hill climbing motorcycles is around 300 horsepower! Yes, you heard that right, 300 horsepower. Piloting these 300 horsepower insanity machines up incredibly steep hills takes a fair bit of luck and skill. The right line, the right gear, and the right amount of nerve all make a difference. The later you come in the order, the more challenging it is to make it up the hill because these machines completely destroy the ground and make it tough to find the right line as the day wears on.
Do yourself a favor, find your local AMA-sanctioned pro hill climb event and stand on the sidelines to watch the madness. If you have even a drop of gasoline in your blood, it's an experience you won't soon forget!