“Please take a banana. I hate them.”
I chase wheels through the southwest fringes of London, from Richmond station over the Thames, out through Bushy Park and over the Thames again by Hampton Court Palace and then through leafy suburbia. I know that I am riding a bit harder than I want to be and should be. There’s a chance I’ll pay for this later. I ride in various clumps of riders but eventually settle into a loose group with a couple of guys in Audax Club Hackney caps, one of whom I later discover is called Ludwig, and a woman called Judith, and we ebb and flow through the green belt.
Crossing a main road the trees wrap around and close in on me as I start to climb. Branches and foliage overlap and tangle above me. It’s instantly recognisable as the start of the North Downs. Sunlight sparkles like constellations through tiny holes in the dense verdant canopy overhead. Spots of light scattering across the road as if I’m riding through a light shower of photons. Looking up brings to mind ancient beliefs about the stars in the night sky being light from our sun piercing holes in a dark dome over the Earth. These roads aren’t as old as those beliefs but exposed tree roots and sunken ways give away a history, thousands of years of footfall carving these routes through the hills. I climb up and down and across the downland, gently climbing the dip slope and cascading down the escarpment side.
After the first control at The Milk Churn in Rudgewick I ride on alone out towards Petworth on roads between roads I know. One of the best thing about audaxing is finding the bits between the bits you already know, piecing together new routes like a jigsaw map. I’m into the weald now, the not-so-lumpy clay bit that sits in the gap between the chalk hills of the North and South Downs. Maybe not so lumpy but sharp climbs are found, sapping energy from the legs. The lanes are still as dark as on the North Downs. Signposts and junctions are obscured in undergrowth and branches, lanes linking and intersecting others that I vaguely know, I’m riding a bit far west for it to all be familiar. Names printed in bold on the routesheet appear on signposts but we never quite touch them, we skirt around them, sticking to the edges, out of sight in the unknown spaces between the known.
Over Duncton Hill the landscape opens out into the familiar forms and colours of the South Downs, it feels like home even though I’m a way from home. Out in the open with no shade from trees I realise how warm the day is. At East Dean I cross paths with Felix on his Blue Riband that he’s had since 1961, with no gears and no bar tape. We chat and ride together past Halnaker Windmill and Goodwood then around the walls of Chichester to the next control at Fishbourne.
Fishbourne Roman Palace. Distant memories of school trips flicker across my brain. Not specific memories but simply knowing that I did come here some time in the past. Somewhere in a shoebox there’ll be a leather bookmark with the name gilded in gold, the things I collected before accumulating records and then bikes and distances. The cafe has the look of a temporary classroom. It only enhances the feeling of being on a school trip.
Again I leave the control alone to head north and west, further away from home and not the shortest line back to London. Direct routes don’t enter into the language of audax. The landscape widens out and the greens fade to yellows and golds, wheat and stubble on the flatlands before I start to climb back over the South Downs. I cramp on the way up to Harting Down, a sure sign that I’m not drinking or eating enough which I already know. I knew I’d pay for going a bit hard out of London too. It’s a long slow climb before I drop sharply down the scarp edge through the trees into a land of blind corners and wild flowers in high hedges.
I’m back in the shadow of the South Downs traversing the weald. Somewhere between Midhurst and Petworth I pass the first village shop I’ve seen since Fishbourne control and pull over to grab a snack and an emergency can of Coke. I refill my bidons with refrigerated bottle water whilst reading the notices on postcards in the shop window, “Potato pickers needed”. I wave as Felix and then Ludwig and Judith ride past.
Soon after I’m climbing again and I’m plunged back into deep green tunnels that smell of warm earth and bark. My second visit to the North Downs. Barhatch Lane I know by reputation only. I’ve never ridden it before and to be honest still haven’t. The sign announcing 21% at the bottom is not what I want to see with 160 kilometres in the legs and as soon as the incline increases I clamber off and walk a hundred metres or so. I can walk as fast as I can pedal anyway. Fortunately the next control is a pub in nearby in Peaslake. Pete from Milltag, who I rode my first audaxes with a couple of years ago, is manning the control so I sit in the sun and chat with him whilst downing yet more Coke and a packet of crisps.
Leaving the pub I’m immediately back in the dark of sunken lanes and when I arrive in the village of Shere I realise that Coombe Lane must be the next climb. It’s by no means the hardest climb along the escarpment of the North Downs but there’s something about this hill I don’t like. It may be that I have invariably only climbed it when audaxing and with many kilometres in the legs. Yet again it doesn’t disappoint and I cramp as I turn the final steep corner. Yeah, I still hate this hill.
Over the top I take a turning I’ve never taken before which leads me onto a open ridge. The skyline of London sticks up from the horizon to my right and to the left Guildford Cathedral stands over the town (In hindsight I realise this was the first time I’ve seen Guildford Cathedral without the soundtrack to the Omen playing in my head). Where the horizon curves across the front of me I can see dark lumps which I figure are the Chiltern hills, or maybe even the North Wessex Downs but surely I can’t see that far? All of Surrey and Berkshire must lie in front of me. I grew up somewhere out there, not far from Guildford, I must have climbed this ridge many times as a teenage cyclist, but I’ve never seen this view before. Out there are places my younger self knew but this view surprises me, it’s almost uncanny.
I descend from the ridge back into suburbia and follow the last few routesheet instructions until I’m back on the same roads I rode out on this morning. Ludwig has been sitting a couple of hundred metre ahead of me since the road into Esher but there’s little strength in my legs to catch him. Eventually I jump on his wheel along side the Thames in Twickenham. By the time I reach Richmond again I’m empty. I climb off my bike feeling exhausted and a little faint, so close to bonking. Ludwig buys me a pint and I order a pizza.
All thoughts of riding back to Brighton are instantly banished from my mind.
My route (including a couple of wrong turns)