Diary of a Novice Randonneur, pt.3 – The Ditchling Devil

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When I unload my bike out of the back of my mate Paul’s car outside the Windmill Cafe there are already a lot of cyclist milling about. As I thank Paul for the lift and saving me the long uphill drag from Hampton I spot Pete from Milltag. After a quick “Good morning” I grab my brevet card and Jaffa Cake. Breakfast of champions! Dead on 8 we’re off and a large clump of riders heads south. It’s early on a Sunday so there’s little traffic about and we are shifting through the streets of south London at quite a pace. There’s not a cloud in the sky and it’s already warm. The group splits into smaller and smaller groups. I recognise the route from when I did the annual London to Brighton charity ride a couple of years ago. We’re in a fast group that seems to be mainly made up of Kingston Wheelers.

As we hit the first of the climbs at Carshalton I drift out the back but catch up again on the descent, but with each of the next couple of climbs around Chipstead and Hooley I drop back a little bit more each time, requiring more effort to close the gaps. I can see Pete ahead but I decide to ease off a bit as there’s a long way to go yet. I’m not the only one falling off the back of the fast group and slowly sole riders coalesce over the next few kilometres, a few Wheelers, a couple of Dulwich Paragon, we’re picking riders up as they get caught at junctions. Soon there is small gang of us working together. Not long after passing under the M23 we pick up Pete who dropped his chain somewhere along the way. More riders join us as we hit Turners Hill and head towards the first control at Highbrook, 55km in.I lean my bike against a wall and head for the village hall. As I near the smell of bacon sarnies wafts out of the door. I’m starting to like this audax malarkey. Inside I get my brevet stamped, grab some food and fill my bidons. A few minutes latter we’re back on the road, and lanes I know well; Hammingden, Plummerdon, Slugwash, Hundred Acre, Streat. I’ve ridden these lanes week in week out all spring, I know every turn and undulation, where I can carry speed into a corner to get over the next lump. Along the way we pick up Mike (@23mmuk) and form a working party of three that sticks together for the next 100km.There’s much chatting as we head further south, the South Downs looming larger and larger ahead of us. On Streat Lane we pass the Brighton Velo Cafe Sunday ride and Lois (@claudandi) shouts hello as we whizz past. We’re nearing Ditchling Beacon. I drop down a few gears in anticipation. As I turn onto the Beacon I drop through all the gears. It’s now very warm, it’s less than half distance, and it’s not a day for racing up the Beacon. I forget to check the info control as I top out over the climb as I’m just concentrating on breathing and pedalling. Fortunately Pete and Mike did remember to check the info control.

Once over the top it’s down into Patcham, past the Withdean Stadium, and up to Dyke Road. If I turn left here it’s a 2km descent home. I turn right. We’re heading back over the downs, up the slow drag to Devil’s Dyke for the next info control. From here it’s the fast descent into Fulking and along the bottom of the downs to the lunch control in Upper Beeding. Parking the bikes up outside a house we walk around to the back garden to be confronted by gazebos, parasols, tables and chairs, big bowls of food and a massive earn of chilled water. We get our brevets checked, sit in the shade, and tuck in to some much needed lunch, pasta followed by rice pudding and peaches. I’m definitely liking this audax stuff. Many thanks to Bob from Brighton Excelsior and his wife for their hospitality.I’ve ridden the next stretch as far as Plaistow a few times so knowing it is pretty flat so we crack on through Steyning, Ashington, and Adversane. As we pass by Billingshurst I start to feel lethargy in my legs and yo-yo off the back a little bit. I catch back up and whilst Pete and Mike have a nice chat I draft them, just pushing the pedals around as I stare at their rear hubs. I pass a corner at Plaistow where I once marshalled a race so I know the next feed station must be soon. I just need to get there. I’m sure they’ll be cake and tea. Arriving in Chiddingfold we’re presented with a bucolic vision of English village life, a village farye on the green, brightly coloured bunting and stalls contrasting with the green grass and bright blue sky. The checkpoint is the village cricket pavilion and indeed there are many cakes laid out. A cup of tea is ordered and I pile in a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

After this final brief stop we just need to get back over the North Downs and back into London. I’m really feeling the distance now but manage to keep up with the pace again. We’re riding those distinctive Surrey lanes that are worn deep into the North Downs, all exposed tree routes and the smell of warm earth. Pinpricks of sunlight piercing the green canopy flicker across my retinas. Descending towards Bramley I see a flash of red in front on me and realise Pete has dropped his brevet card. I ask a rider behind me to let Pete know as I turn back for it. When I get back to Pete he’s not with Mike but we assume we’ll catch him at the next junction.However we miss a turning and checking the route notes delays us enough that we don’t catch Mike again. We descend through Surrey villages towards the A25 and the final climb of the day up Coombe Lane. Pete rides alongside me as I grind my way up but I’m quickly dropped (again). The climb seems longer and more relentless than the last time I rode it, but that’s probably because we’re 160km in to the ride. Pete is waiting for me at the top and we start the descent towards the outskirts of London.I can feel faint twinges of cramp in my calf muscles so I use the descent to stand on my pedals and stretch my legs. As we hit the rolling roads towards Cobham I sit on Pete’s wheel making the most of the drafting possibilities. Somewhere after Cobham I fall off Pete’s wheel on the gentlest of inclines and I just don’t have the energy to jump back on over the top. The gap slowly drifts wider and wider between us until I lose sight of him into Esher. I get caught at all the lights through Esher so have no chance of catching him again. It doesn’t matter now though as the finish line isn’t far and I know where I’m going.A little while later I roll up to the final checkpoint in Richmond Park and find Pete and Mike sat with a beer. I get my brevet stamped. I’ve ridden 208km in 9 hours and 18 minutes. I stagger into the cafe to find myself a beer.

(There’s a nice piece over at Cyclisme Spandelles about distance, time and the loss of bearings. I’m yet to ride a 600km audax but I have a 300km ride lined up for July. There’ll be a report soon after. First up is a short weekend tour over to Normandy and Picardie at the end of June.)

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