Down to Downs [AAA Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud audax perm]

We start the climb up to Black Hill in darkness, up through Hundred Akre Wood, a tunnel of trees lit by the many lumens of our front lights. With few leaves on the trees the ridge of the Ashdown Forest can be seen shadowed ominously against the last remnants of twilight. It’s a long climb, one of those ones that is steep, shallow, downhill, false flat, shallow, steep, steeper, shallow,flat. It’s longer than I remember it being. By the time we reach the ridge the sky is completely black. It can feel like the top of Sussex in daylight up here, when you can see all the way down to the South Downs and all the way up to North Downs, but in the dark of winter it feels even more like the top of the county. All around you can see the glow of towns and villages. Crowborough sits down to the left and Haywards Heath casts orange light into to sky to the west, and inbetween the lights of houses and villages sparkle like fairy lights. We ride back past the garden centre at Duddleswell and start the fast descent back into Uckfield where we started this ride this morning.

We set off from Uckfield fairly late in the morning due to some extra kilometres riding to the start via Mark’s house for morning tea. As well as me and Mark there’s also Vic. Mark is aiming to complete a Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud this year, and Vic is just along for the ride. She also rode The Reliable AAA perm yesterday, not for a GdS badge, as training for an endurance thing next year. I’ve long since given up on trying for a GdS for this year as loads of other stuff has got in the way. This is only my third one of the year and I can’t be bothered to try and squeeze in two more in December.

Like many GdS audaxes the Down to Downs is almost all on home territory but not quite. Once over the A25 and inside the M25 it’s too close to London for comfort so is far less well known to me. The southern most parts around the Ashdown Forest are very familiar, though having said that the first section out of Uckfield into the forest is via lanes none of us have ever ridden before. There’s nothing like an audax you to show you lanes pretty much in your back garden yet never been traveled along. Sussex is crisscrossed by hundreds of lanes so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. More dots joined and one or two fewer main roads to navigate in future.

The first climb of the day is up through Duddleswell and over the top of the forest down to Pooh Corner, where we follow the most direct but undulating (it is a AAA audax after all) route to Edenbridge crossing the border into Kent. Edenbridge is the first control and the highstreet is closed due to a French market. We unclip and wend our way between the stalls and punters, find a cash machine for a receipt before choosing a stall to buy lunch from – Mark and Vic opt for pastries, I head for the tartiflette stall.

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From Edenbridge we head over Toys Hill which I find fairly painful as I can only climb in the saddle. I crashed my mountain bike yesterday and hit my ribs so every time I get out of the saddle I get a twinge of pain forcing me to sit again. In Brasted we stop for hot chocolates before the climb up Brasted Hill (not as horrifically revolting as I remember it from the Greenwich Mean Climb) onto the Kent Downs. Over the top of here we’re into unknown country. I know some of the roads from Audax Club Hackney rides (The Shark and aforementioned GMC) but those head into London via Bromley and this ride heads down towards Orpington. It gets all quite suburban with big roads and traffic as we get to Green Street Green. It’s not that green though. I suspect it was once a pleasant little country village before it was consumed by the spread of the capital. We stop long enough to gather receipts from a petrol station before leaving as quick as possible along a cycle path and back up on to the downs.

After a beautifully fast sweeping descent we’re back over the M25 and A25 and into the safety of familiar countryside. Over the Greensand Ridge at Ide Hill, parallel with our traverse of it via Toys Hill a little earlier, we can see Bough Beech reservoir far below us, our next destination. It’s a view I’ve never seen before and afforded due to autumn leaf fall. Light is starting to drain from the sky and by the time we pass Penshurst Place we’ve flicked our lights on.

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In Penshurst we turn right rather than left which is new to me. It takes us to Groombridge Hill a more direct way than I’m used to via a couple of long draggy climbs and a lovely descent which swoops down across a narrow humpback bridge. We could re-route ourselves via some quieter lanes without adding much distance and with similar amounts of climbing, though with shorter acuter ramps. However this time of year those lanes will be covered in gravel and leaf mulch so in the dark will have required a lot of concentration to stay upright.

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After gathering more receipts from a petrol station in Langton Green we plummet into Groombridge for the final climb of the day back up over the Ashdown.

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“If you haven’t got a lock you can leave those in here if you want” Turns out the duty manager at the Maccy D’s in Uckfield is a cyclist. It’s not a proper audax if at least one of the receipts isn’t for a Hot Apple Pie and a cup of tea.

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A Reminder

For one reason or another I’ve not ridden much in Sussex this year. There have been trips overseas, to mountainous lands, stage races and iconic summits, tours and audaxes, foreign counties, long long rides to way over there and then back again. Some of these were planned long ago and some impromptu and immediate desires to get away. Home lanes haven’t really been included and there has not even been that much commuting as week days have been spent resting between weekend escapades. When I have ridden Sussex lanes it has been to get to somewhere else, my usual escapes too close to home.

A week or so ago I rode around Sussex, all the places that have been missed. A 200km DIY by GPS audax, a route that was plotted long ago and sat waiting, an idea for maybe a real audax one day, one with info controls and tea and cake in a village hall. A very deliberate route borne out of previous whimsies, meanderings that settled on a course. Stretching back and forth and from there to here and almost back to there again, it’s a convoluted route to include favourite lanes, cover the many landscapes of Sussex, and make up the distance. So many shortcuts possible but not to be taken. Starting in the lee of the South Downs it crisscrosses the low weald and climbs to the Ashdown Forest before descending back into the weald before dropping even lower to Pevensey Marshes. Then it finally climbs onto the South Downs before depositing you back at the starting point. From chalk to clay, fields and forest, high points and land salvaged from the sea.

I rode with a friend I’ve barely ridden with since spring. We started early, both leaving home in the dark to meet in Lewes at sunrise. Once the sun crept over the hills is stayed with us all day, arcing over us before finally dropping beyond the horizon out to sea, ten hours and 175 kilometres later. We set off in the shadow of the downs and finished in the Earth’s shadow.

Starting with bits of new and old commutes we crossed from East to West Sussex in the bright coldness, the strong sunshine belied the chill in the air, noticeable in the long shadows of early morning. Sunlight caught in mist draped across fields, snagging on branches and hedge tops. Easy careless miles, almost on autopilot whilst chatting. Lanes I rode day in day out at either end of days for years, roads I could once have ridden blindfolded but this may have only been the second time this year, the skittishness of gravel replaced by the slipperiness of fallen leaves in the corners.

We were too early for the Tea Rooms as it was Sunday and winter opening hours have kicked in. Dropping past the reservoir I’d never seen it so low, overflowing across the roads yes, but never fishermen casting off from exposed gravel beaches. We climbed almost to the Ashdown but turned away abruptly simply to include a favoured lane. We’d soon be in the Ashdown anyway, once we’d ridden almost back to the starting point, but first we rode off route to find warm drinks and cake before energy dipped into the reserves. Sat in a window in the sunshine. Two sugars in my tea.

Back outside we headed east and north, into the Ashdown proper, over the cattlegrids. A long steady climb all so we could turn back on ourselves and lose all the height in a few minutes, back down to the weald to wiggle around, up and down, in and out of ghylls and hollows. A day after rain means the lanes were mucky, tyres picked up flints and punctures. Onto the marshes and we found New Bridge Road has been resurfaced plus we had a tailwind, an absolute joy. The sun was low again like the land around us and it finally drops as we start the final climb and when the Jevington Road opened out into the saddle between the hills a giant pink moon sat on the ridge as if carefully placed there. By the time we descended to Exceat the moonlight overpowered the remaining traces of the day’s light, the Cuckmere shining like quicksilver as it snaked out to sea, nestled in the blue-black shadow of the valley under the deep twilight. The most beautiful either of us have seen the river, and a view we’d not have seen had we not both punctured a few miles before. The slight annoyance of that delay forgotten. Happenstance.

Towns spread along the coast sparkled sodium orange but we followed the red shining beacons atop radio masts on the hills inland. Skirting the floodplain on the edge of the forest we hear a tawny owl cry. The zigs and zags of the flatlands around Ripe. We ended in the pub where plans and ideas have been dreamed up over the years. We sat with ale and crisps and the warmth of satisfaction and fatigue.

A gentle reminder that what lies just outside the front door can be more than enough. Home feels like home again.

You Are Here

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You are here.

Yeah I know, the little animated arrow following the blue line on the screen tells me that much, but not a lot more. It’s zeroes and ones, information without knowledge. Satellites pinpointing my coordinates, nothing more. It’ll get me from A to B but won’t tell me anything about the journey. GPS has the inherent contradiction of showing precisely where I am without explaining where I am.

This isn’t going to become an anti-technology rant though. I’ve recently bought a Garmin and I like it. It makes it easy to get from place to place, particularly in areas I don’t know. It’s made audaxing a whole lot easier even if I’m a little uncomfortable with using a computer over a typed route sheet. It seems like cheating, diminishes that overall warm feeling of self-reliance. However in the middle of the night or in howling wind and rain a line on a screen is a hell of a lot simpler to follow than a list of instructions.

This also isn’t going to be a paper is better than computers rant. I plot routes online all the time. Often with a paper map to hand, the best of both worlds, the two things complement one another. The paper map contextualises things and the digital plot calculates accurate distances and profiles. I like the internet and all the things it makes possible but it’s not perfect. It may not have edges like a paper map, it’s scope is endless, but my view of it is limited by scroll bars and flicking between windows. Unlike a map I can’t unfold it on the floor and lay it out, lean over it as if a giant surveying the land around me. OK, I can’t Streetview an OS map but again those photographs only give me limited information. A map places me in the surrounding topology, I can see how things fit into the wider landscape, contours and landmarks give a sense of location. I know it’s no more ‘reality’ that the things I can find online, it is also simply data, a graphical, coded representation of a possible reality – but it’s one I’ve learned to read so I understand the hints and clues it contains.

I’ve also used Strava for years to record where I’ve been allowing me to virtually explore further afield when I get home – those bits of rides when I pass the end of lane which looks nice and think “Where does that go?”. I can upload my ride and then zoom in and follow all those lanes that strike off at tangents. They then become part of the next ride.

The Garmin definitely makes things easier, fewer stops to check bits of paper and maps, but still I feel something is lost. It’s not the Garmin’s fault, the problem is me and how I use it. I need to remember it’s a tool, just a thing, same as a map is just a thing. However one of those things makes me think and look, the other allows me to be lazy. That laziness is my issue though and a constant battle to be fought. I can’t allow it to narrow my field of vision, to suck me into a digital simulacrum of the world actually around me.

When I plotted routes previously and created a list of instructions I’ve had to trace the route in my mind, follow it on a map. The act of writing things down somehow fixed it in my head. I had an idea of where I was going, enough to sense when I may have gone off course. However following a list of instructions successfully is also based on the premise that firstly I’ve written them down correctly (I am very good at confusing left and right) and the I follow them correctly (I am very good at confusing right and left). I tend to route rides via the smallest lanes I can find on the map. This means towns and signposts are few and far between. This invariably means beautiful and quiet rides but missing an instruction, getting out of sync, sometimes finds me lost hoping my sense of direction is good enough to at least head vaguely the right way until I find something that corresponds with something on the list of places. Worst case scenario there’s always a back-up GPX file on my phone (see, I told you I wasn’t anti-technology).

With the Garmin once I’ve plotted the route I’ve probably simply downloaded it. I won’t have gone through it in my head in the same way I do with paper routes.  The vagaries of online route plotting tend to try and send you across a field or down a bridleway which doesn’t appear to exist every now and again anyway. Fortunately I know this from paper lists so I know not to put all my trust in that blue line. I mustn’t be tempted to follow it blindly. Somewhere sometime it’ll be wrong.

The screen. That is the real issue. I go out on the bike to avoid screens and there I am with one attached to my stem, visible out of the corner of my eye, asking to be looked at, checked constantly. It draws the eye like a silent television across a noisy pub. It can separate me from the now. In full view it creates anxiety that a piece of paper in my pocket out of sight never did. Why when I’m riding a straight road with no junctions do I look at it to make sure that this is still the right straight road with no junctions rather look at what is around me? I have absolutely no idea and it’s a newly formed habit that needs breaking before it sets in. A list on a piece of paper may be no more meaningful that blue line but at least I take it from my pocket and hold it up in front of me, level with the view around me, check it, stick it back in my pocket. I look up not down.

I have to figure out my relationship with this little screen on my handlebars, make it work for me. I have now entered the 2017 Transcontinental Race and if I get in it is far too long to make a list of junction by junction directions, and I can’t carry maps for half of Europe. I will have to follow that blue line and hope – really hope – I plotted the right blue line.

If not I’ll find a petrol station and buy a map.


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Here to There to Here

“Spoke to Andrew at TiC who wants to know when we’re going up to say hello?”

Within a few minutes we’ve planned to ride to Cambridge and back in a weekend. Two hundred and twenty odd kilometres each way. The idea to enter the 2017 Transcontinental race as a team means it doesn’t take much for talk of a ride to rapidly (instantaneously) escalate into talk of a stupid ride these days.

Routes are plotted, tweaked, replotted, a weekend chosen, and then routes submitted as DIY by GPS audaxes for the points and this season’s SR attempt. Jo isn’t bothered about the audax stuff, this is #transcontraining. The points mean badges though and I like badges.

We realise that the weekend chosen is a year on from when a friend passed away. A 450km round trip in two days seems as good a way as any to remember.

Saturday

East Sussex

Over the familiar hills and along friendly lanes as far as Pooh Corner before entering that lesser known corner of the county, the bit up in the north-east that borders Kent, not quite close enough to ride regularly.

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Kent

A pretty triangle enclosed by motorways and those in a rush, a quiet slow space surrounded by noise and speed. Trying not to get caught up in the garish club runs and failing. Looking to Essex across the river. Raspberries and sticky buns on the ferry.

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Essex

Running out of tarmac across the scruffy hinterland of the Thames estuary, past the fruit pickers under the pylons and tower blocks and a Constable sky, a clunking shuffle in the metal shed and the glowering eyes of the security guard. We might be in the right county for Constable but The Haywain this isn’t. A while later an emergency tea stop at a pick your own fruit farm. A glance at the map to work out where we might be and how far is left.

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Cambridgeshire

Landmarks and views start make sense, a familiarity embedded from previous rides. However darkness falls quickly and then does the rain. The red lights of Addenbrooke’s cranes shine red in the sky visible from miles away guiding us to our quarry. Except I routed us hither and dither so the target keeps moving. Past the airfield in the pitch black and the rain gets heavier, senses of humour are starting to be lost. We just want to get there now. DNA and railway lines.

We arrive dripping and bedraggled at This Is Cambridge HQ. We are handed tea and red wine and food and our kit is cleaned and dried. Wine and chat lasts into the night. Thank you Andrew and Daf.

Sunday

Cambridgeshire

A damp dullness hangs low over the flatlands and we grind into the drizzle laden headwind – flashbacks to this road and that audax when 25 kilometres was done in silent through and off with the fixie riders, heads low trying to avoid the wind. Big skies and vast fields, a dissolving horizon, washed out browns and greys, muted tones flattening that which is already flat.

Hertfordshire

A fried breakfast as early lunch is utilised to avoid an impending very dark very grey cloudbank. It’s well timed as rain starts to fall heavily outside as mugs of tea are placed in front of us. Back out under blue skies and we cheer. Then we turn back into the headwind.

An American Airlines plane skims overhead with wheels down, indicating that we must be near Luton. The hills get bigger and steeper, lanes get more enclosed, some respite from the wind. A few miles on a big fast road are endured before we escape back into the narrow lanes.

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Buckinghamshire

Into the unknown. Is this the Chilterns? Where is this? Are we still in Hertfordshire? Routing a ride on the smallest roads you can find means county boundaries are unmarked and blurred, back into the realm of the places between places. The rain must have fallen heavily here because we often find ourselves riding through floods, unclipping shoes to hold then above splash and wake. We are grateful to have missed this deluge.

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Berkshire

“Oh hang on, isn’t this bit from the St Crispin’s Night Ride?”

Big houses and royal residencies, greenbelt and the fancier suburbs. Roads known to my teenage self but only faint recollections now.

Surrey

Roads better known to my teenage self and bits of the audaxes that run out of south London. Darkness falls as a full moon rises. Canary Wharf is visible over the hedges from the ridge but then suddenly we drop into the narrow lanes and droveways of the downland. Mist lies low in the fields and we feel the chill when we drop into the dips between hills. Barthatch Lane is way more fun going down than up.

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West Sussex

Crossing this border always feels like being home again no matter how far is left. Autopilot can be switched on, or it would be if a dense fatigue wasn’t starting to envelop me. Onto the disused railway and the legs instantly feel heavier as the drag on the tyres increases. Scrambling past back fences and a dog’s bark carried on the wind. After what seems an eternity (sorry Jo) we end up on the same flood plain as the end of the ride to and from Wales, the last big ride that finished in the dark – this time fewer kilometres but the tiredness is the same.

Home

Lie down.

Get up and eat.

Lie down again.

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Bunking Off (Reprise)

One last continental fling before the clocks change, a ride half done before daylight. Guiding the girl on her way to Paris from Oxford to the Avenue Verte by the lakes. As our routes part company we wish her luck and disappear into the valley, into the silence of the darkness. Stopping, we search for constellations. Orion hunts in the early morning as a plane passes the full moon, a contrail lit silver against the blackness of space. Sirius sits low in the sky shining brighter than the blinking lights of the aeroplane. The handle of the Plough dips over the hillside behind us. The moonlight, bright and clean, exposes the soft curves of the hills ahead. We trace a line though the lanes in a bubble of light, not with the familiarity of home roads but the gentle comfort of vague recognition and remembrance. Out of the valley and into the forest, beech nut cases crackle under wheels, a sound not unlike that of distant fireworks. The glow of light from the baker’s day starting whilst the village sleeps attracts four hungry cyclists. We sit on a wall and eat warm pastries from paper bags. Setting off again the topology subtly shifts as the darkness slowly dissolves into day. The twists and dips of the valley and forest roads soften into the gentle curves and undulations of the farmed plateau. Things straighten and flatten further and we enter a land of lines; neatly drilled fields, pylons and wind turbines, straight narrow lanes and wide horizons. Wave hello to the farmer in the tractor etching more lines into the landscape with a plough. Corn rows and the steady rhythm of the beets. We return to the sea and lose ourselves looking for coffee in a maze of quiet streets of the coastal resort out of season. A pretty box of pastries is bought from next door and unwrapped at the table outside the bar. We climb over the cliff and follow the coast road, dipping in and out of closed down seaside villages, hibernating, lying dormant until spring. The last switchback before Dieppe, a rainbow over the sea. A few minutes later the rain catches up with us and drenches us within minutes. We sit dripping in a restaurant and order steak and frites times four. Comfortable seats are then found in a warm bar and we while away the time until we can fall asleep on the ferry back home.

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