When I was a kid there were days when I’d go out on my bike all day, bombing around the streets collecting friends, then head up the woods to simply hack about for hours until we got hungry and went home. Jumping over tree roots, skidding round corners, flying down hills ever so slightly out of control, getting off half way up a hill to push it the rest of the way to the top, falling off, trying not to crash into trees. White Chalk Hills Ultracross if kind of like that, but more so. With a bit of orienteering thrown in.
It’s an idea dreamt up by Velomorphé (www.velomorpha.com) with a route designed by Mark Tearle and Sam Winter. The course fits on the bottom half of OS Explorer 123 – Eastbourne & Beachy Head, the orange one – but it feels like riding to the end of the earth. And back again. Twice. Oh, and to make it more interesting it is run on the very last Saturday of the year, in deepest midwinter. Like all great ideas it’s pretty simple. Turn up at The Tri-Store in Eastbourne, pick a number and sign on – it’s not a race but it is really – then ride across the South Downs to where you overlook the Ouse Valley and Lewes, turn around and ride back across the downs to The Belgian Cafe in Eastbourne. It sounds easy, however at 45 predominantly off road miles with 5000 plus feet of climbing up and down 11 hills, it is far from it. I mentioned it’s done in the depths of winter didn’t I? No wonder the tag line is “VAINGLORIOUS | FUTILE”.
Those that take it seriously do it non-stop. Those that take it really seriously stop at the Ram in Firle at half distance for chips and ale. We’re the ones that finish in the dark. The inaugural event in 2012 was my first ever cyclocross ride. The 2013 edition is only my third cyclocross ride. I’m on a borrowed bike (thanks Matt) and wearing road cleats. And I’m making it part of my Rapha Festive 500 attempt. Vainglorious, remember.
There about twenty of us assembled at The Tri-Store, some faces from last year – Jo, John, Biff, Jim, Kris, Mark – and some new ones – Simon, Tom, Paul, Scott (like me last year, it’s his first off road ride). There are two Davids, one who has come from Devon, and the other from America via Belgium. There are others I don’t know and I don’t see them again all day. They must be the ones that take it seriously. There are cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes (cheats1), and single speeds (idiots2). There’s chatting, smiles and laughter, numbers being pinned on, perusal of maps, inner tubes and emergency gels being purchased. Stamp cards are handed out3 and then someone shouts “GO!” Nothing. “Go on then. GO!!” We all pedal like mad up the street towards the first hill of the day. Nothing like a gentle warm up or pacing yourself.
It’s straight on to Warren Hill and the field stretches out into a long line on the slippery grass as the gradient bites. I immediately regret the 170 miles I’ve ridden in the previous three days. Over the top of this it’s towards Beachy Head and some very ominous looking dark clouds rolling over Birling Gap, which is where we head next along the gentle descent of Long Down. As I head up over Went Hill it starts to rain, then it starts to hail. Then it hails really hard. And sideways. Ice is bouncing off my helmet and top tube; it’s stinging my face, being driven into my left ear by the wind. My feet are cold and wet as are my gloves. This is mile five, we’ve barely started. There is some brightness and blue sky to the west but on a ‘cross bike over undulating chalk and grass it’s going to take a while to get to it.
Into Friston Forest next, bouncing down a smashed concrete and potholed lane until you turn onto the lane of mud and gravel. I catch up with a small bunch of riders, last years companions Jo, John & Biff amongst others. After collecting the first stamp from a sandwich bag taped to a gatepost we head on. Next it’s up a sharp slippery climb of chalk and clay before a downward slope towards the Cuckmere Valley. No one is sure if the valley road is still flooded so some scarper up the steps back into the forest to cut through to the car park. As I’m in road cleats and my feet are already wet I decide this is not the option for me. Fortunately the floodwaters have retreated so the road turns out to be the easy option, as Scott and Paul both crash in the woods I later discover.
Out of the valley we head up the hill towards Seaford and blue sky before darting up a track behind the houses that takes us over the Alfriston Road, and up Camp Hill along The Comp to Norton Top and the Five Lords Burgh. Our little group has strung out again, as the stronger riders crack on ahead. John acts like a beacon further the ridge, his bright pink Rapha gilet shining in the sun against the green hillside. Rattling myself to pieces down Heighton and Gardeners hills I catch the rest of our little group. All day we’re like an amorphous blob that stretches and contracts across the downs, sometimes strung out over a mile or more, sometimes clumped together. It makes me think of the ebb and flow of a starling murmuration, but not as graceful.
Across a ploughed field of chalk and clay, full of chunks of flint, we reach the summit of Snap Hill. I can see the radio masts atop Beddingham Hill. I can also see the relentless up and down and up and down of the grass track to get there and I can see John’s pink gilet shining on the next ridge. There are dog walkers and sheep that look at us like we’re fools. They are probably right. Over the cattle grid at Beddingham Hill we join the South Downs Way (SDW) west to Red Lion Pond. Looking out over the Ouse river twisting towards Lewes I know we’re effectively half way and it’s nearly time for lunch. First of all we need to drop down the scarp edge of the downs and loop back up to the radio station. I pass (Devon) David coming up the hill as he had a Garmin malfunction and he’s doing a backwards loop. As I’m lifting my bike over a gate a well to do looking chap appears at a fence informing me that the path isn’t a public right of way and there’s a shoot about to start. This information is reinforced further down when I pass first a beater and then a fella with a cocked shotgun. Ultracross indeed.
Back at the radio station after grinding up a lane of smashed tarmac, rubble and bricks I rejoin the SDW but east this time to the top of Firle Bostal. Half a mile of freewheeling on smooth tarmac and I arrive at Ram. There are a lot of dirty bikes leaning against walls and dirty riders supping pints and eating chips. All of our little group are here plus Mark and Kris. They must have been here a while as I’ve not seen them since we left Eastbourne.
After the most refreshing pint of Harvey’s I’ve had in a long time, probably since the one here last year, it’s along the bottom of the downs on Comp Lane. We scramble through trees and gloopy mud to pick up a ridiculously revolting climb, a steep grass track that cuts across the steep contour of the escarpment back to the SDW. It’s really rather hard walking up wet grass slopes in road cleats. I can see John’s pink gilet glowing near the top. Looking east I see Windover Hill, which is part of our route. Unfortunately I also know that we go up and down the scarp another couple of times before we get there. No wonder FUTILE is half the tagline.
A few hundred yards along the top of the downs and it’s straight back down to Comp Lane again via Bo Peep Bostal. Then another few hundred yards further along Comp Lane we turn straight back up the escarpment. Another steep slippery grass track up to the SDW. Futile remember. After another puncture is repaired it’s straight back down again towards a place marked as Sanctuary on the map. If only. We immediately turn back on ourselves up the flint laden chalk path to Long Burgh and then straight down a gravel track into Alfriston. I’ve noticed that the light is fading, a mix of cloud and lowering sun. Hmmm.
The road out of Alfriston is closed as the village has been submerged under Cuckmere floodwaters for a few days now. Some of us hop up onto the raised path around the flood, others jump straight in including Jim who appears to be up to his knees in water at one point. He doesn’t care, it’s washed all the clay, mud and grass off his bike, and it feels twice as light. Heading back across the Cuckmere River we’re on the final stretch home. Well sort of, as you’ve probably gathered the UCX course doesn’t exactly follow the shortest path between points on the map. Crossing Milton Street we start the long, long slog up and over Windover Hill but (America via Belgium) David punctures a tub. It then turns out that the tub has been slashed by a piece of flint. The last we see of him he is walking over the side of the downs towards Wilmington with his bike over his shoulder. People shout various options of how to get back to Eastbourne. We’re not sure we’ll see him again4.
As we ride the ridge of Jevington Holt it starts to rain again, then it hails again. We cower amongst trees waiting for the worst to pass – to be fair there was yet another puncture being fixed – and decide that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to miss out that last dog leg bit through Willingdon Hill to East Dean and the last (unnecessary) climb along Ringwood Bottom. We could just drop into Jevington and then up and over into Eastbourne via the Weald Way and SDW. I say ‘just’ but this is still a good few miles and it’s cold and wet and getting darker.
The descent into Jevington is interesting at the best of times – tree roots, chalk, flint, clay, leaf mulch – but in the wet it’s super slimy and sludgy. There’s a lot of squealing brakes and blinking of rear lights. Then all of a sudden Mark and Kris are lying on the ground. We check they are both OK and then laugh. I missed the first crash but apparently this is the second time today Mark has taken out Kris. Across the Jevington road we start up the rubble strewn track over Bourne Hill. It’s now raining really hard and getting properly dark. I can no longer see John’s pink gilet as 1) he’s covered it with a waterproof, and 2) he’s long gone. It’s become every man for himself back to Eastbourne…
In the warm and dry of The Belgian Cafe riders are drinking strong dark beer, dipping fries in mayonnaise, and regaling each other with stories of epic derring-do and stupidity, whilst Mark hands out prizes for best crash (himself obviously) and most futile ride (David and his slashed tub, he made it back). I love this ride. Don’t get me wrong it is as hard as hell, and worse than that when it rains. However it’s ridden by a great bunch of people in exceptional good humour – gang mentality sets in, that perfect mix of support and laughing at each other. This more than makes up for everything the weather and South Downs can throw at you in December. At least I didn’t fall off this year.
1 Meant in jest
2 Partially meant in jest. Again vainglorious, remember.
3 There are stamps to collect en route to prove you get all the way round. Unless you forget some like me.
4 We do.