Doorstep Epic Plus

A few years my friends Jo, George, and Oli, joined Le Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux. Their stories from that day led me to attempt the feat last year. Their rides that day also inspired the idea of the Doorstep Epic. I’ve toyed with the idea of having a bash at George’s particular Doorstep Epic ride – that joins all the South East climbs in the 100 Climbs books into a 285km ride – for a while. I saw that our friend Vic had ridden it last week whilst I was off riding to Wales and back, prompting me into a last minute decision to try it at the weekend. The choice to ride it a week after completing the 400km London-Wales-London struck me a tad daft, but I was feeling pretty good after LWL. I wouldn’t normally consider another big ride so quickly but with the Transcontinental Race coming I’ll have to do this day in day out so I thought “Sod it, let’s see what happens.” I also decided that it needed 20km added and an extra couple of hills to make it up to a 300km AAA audax for this season’s Super Randonneur attempt. In for a penny, in for a pound. George’s route was tweaked, a virtual brevet purchased, and route submitted for a DIY by GPS perm.

Just after 4am on Saturday morning I shut the front door behind me and pedalled off up the hill towards Devil’s Dyke. The streets were quiet except for foxes scampering down twittens and a few clubbers crawling home. Up at the Dyke skylark song mixed with the dawn chorus filled the dark sky above my head. Brighton glowed orange behind and below me. As I turned for the descent to the weald the grey blue haze to the west was diluted by the approaching day.

By the time I hit the top of Steyning Bostal a thin grey sky was temporarily stained orange and pink by strengthening sunlight. The first of the Sussex hills were done. The rest of them would have to wait until the return leg later in the day, for now I had to head north to the Surrey Hills. Fifty kilometres of rolling weald and stiff headwind through a trilogy of Greens – Dragons, Barns, Bucks – to Cranleigh to start the suite of Surrey climbs; Barhatch Lane, Coombe Lane, Coldharbour Lane, Leith Hill, White Down, Box Hill. At least two of these I don’t particularly like. On the plus side all the lanes in the Surrey hills are literally that, in the hills, sunken holloways that would protect me from the wind. It was still early, about half 7, so hopefully I could loop around them all before all the other cyclists came out to play and clogged up the lanes.

First up was Barhatch Lane. I’ve only ridden this once and to be honest I walked a fair chunk of it (I was having a particularly miserable time that afternoon). However it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it, I sat in a low gear and worked my way up it steadily, out of the saddle for the steep bits, but not going deep as I knew there were a long way to go after this and a lot more climbing. The descent from the top into Shere was lovely, speeding through a tunnel of trees and exposed roots. Coombe Lane next, a hill I’ve had a hate/hate relationship ever since I first made it’s acquaintance. Steady away again, and out of the saddle for the sharp left-hander. Annoyingly there was a car on my arse so I couldn’t swing wide and had to take the steeper inside line but second Surrey climb dealt with without fuss.

From here there was a long fast descent before throwing myself around a tight right hand junction and dumping most of the gears for a short rise onto the Ranmore Common road. The decent into Dorking was great fun on an empty road where I could use all the tarmac and chose my line. I followed the one-way system out of town onto the bottom of Coldharbour Lane. I really like this climb, my favourite of the North Downs climbs. A nice even gradient, a couple of short ramps but nothing serious, and you can big ring the top section around to Leith Hill. Darting across the cross roads on Leith I dropped down Tanhurst Lane through the bluebells and rhododendrons and around Leith Hill Wood to start the proper Leith Hill climb. Over the top and half way down the other side I cut left to double back around to Peaslake via Radnor Road. A quick stop at Peaslake Stores for a late breakfast sausage roll and to stuff a cheese straw (they’re infamous, ask a mountain biker) in a rear pocket and then headed for White Down via a twisting burrow of lanes.

Out of the second hairpin and I instantly remembered the grind that is White Down. Not only is it steep but it always goes on for longer than I ever remember. However again my legs didn’t feel too bad and there wasn’t the usual swearing through gritted teeth. On the rapid descend down the other side towards Great Bookham I check the distance and time. I was still on a 15 hour schedule which was good. Turning for Westhumble and Box Hill I came across another sneaky little climb. That’s the problem in the Surrey Hills, there are a lot of hidden climbs between the ones everyone knows. I was starting to realise that it was these draggy stealth hills between the big ones that were going to be trouble. I knew where the big ones were and knew a few minutes of effort and they were over. The little dinks and lumps in between were the things to be worried about, these were sapping the energy.

Next up was the one everyone knows – Box Hill. I don’t get the popularity of Box Hill. It’s a bit boring and the café at the top is rubbish, yet cyclists flock here. I know it was for the Olympic road race, but so was the Kingston one way system and that’s not rammed with cyclists every weekend. It’s also wide open to the wind. Over the top and my legs were complaining a bit and it felt like I was slowing. A glance at the time and some quick mental arithmetic and no, I was still on schedule. Crack on.

George had warned me that the section joining the Surrey climbs to the Kent ones was a bit dull and he wasn’t wrong. The roads themselves are pleasant enough (except the bit around Salfords) but I was back into the wind and everything seemed to be an annoying false flat. However it was the perfect section to get some food inside me ready to tackle Kent. I completely squandered this opportunity. I eat the cheese straw from my back pocket, a packet of crisps bought from a corner shop, and a handful of Jelly Babies for dessert. Not really a sensible lunch, and an error for which I would later pay.

The first Kent climb wasn’t actually in Kent but still in Surrey, and it was shit. I will happily never ride Chalkpit Lane again. It reminded me of Boxley Road further along the North Downs ridge out of Maidstone. Basically a steep hairpin bend followed by a straight steep ramp to the top. This isn’t actually dissimilar to White Down and in itself is bearable, but White Down is a quiet narrow lane buried into woodland. Chalkpit Lane is a lane in name only and clearly a popular road over the ridge for car drivers. It also carried me into the hinterland between the Downs and London. It’s all just a bit scruffy and trafficky up there for my liking. I was much happier once I’d dropped off the ridge and back outside the M25.

Next up was the back and forth and back again over the greensand ridge. Hosey Hill is a gentle introduction, nothing extreme, a gentle spin. At the top I’ve hit the 200km mark and realise I’m a bit behind schedule but not by much, fifteen minutes at most. Down the other side and around to Four Elms I started the climb of Toy’s Hill. About half way up I rapidly regret not having bothered to stop for food in the previous 80km. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the hollow faint feeling of the pre-bonk. Shit. I pulled into someone’s driveway and stared at my feet for a minute or two. Probably three. I stuffed a few Jelly Babies in my face and had a swear. I just needed to get to the top as it would then be a (very) rapid descent into Brasted where I knew there was a café. I clipped back in, swore at my stupidity again, and pedaled. Slowly.

After inhaling a panini, double espresso, and can of fizzy pop I’m back on the road. Transcon team mate Jo had been riding out to meet me and accompany me for the final part of my ride. He was just the other side of Chiddingstone in a pub waiting. By my reckoning this was about 20km away. Less than an hour on a good day. Maybe not in the state I was in. Ide Hill next, final ascent of the greensand ridge and a climb I’ve done enough times to know is nothing to be afraid of. It’s what lay beyond it that I was scared of. A short loop to take in Yorkshill.

Halfway up Yorkshill and I was looking at my feet and an inner monologue of “Pedal. You’re not fucking walking!” echoed around my head. A hundred metres later this was repeated. At the junction at the top I stopped for a few deep breaths and a word with myself. There was only about 85km to go. Just a normal ride. Plus I should have a tailwind all the way back now. Easy. I ignored the fact I had to get over the Ashdown Forest and South Downs, there was some respite before I would hit all that. I checked my phone, Jo had moved from the pub to watch the village cricket game down the road.

I flew down the Bough Beech side of Ide Hill and kept spinning as big a gear as possible, out of the saddle for the little rises. I was flying, or that’s what I told myself but was under no illusion. I knew I was being flattered by the overall downward trajectory of the landscape, I was being tipped off the Downs back into the Weald. Oh, and I had a tailwind. I passed the village sign for Wellers Town and then waited what felt like miles to pass the pub and reach the cricket green. I turned through the gate and collapsed on the grass. Jo handed me a scotch egg.

After fifteen minutes had passed and an unlucky batsman had been caught out (actually to be fair he gifted it to the fielder) it was time to get moving again. The fifteen hour schedule was lost by then, but sixteen was still possible. The hills of the Ashdown loomed to the south and this would be next. Being a stupid route catching all the 100 Climbs hills there would be a short pointless going the wrong way just to come back to where you were already bit to take in Kidd’s Hill. Before I got that far though I had to get over Black Hill. Well, the summit is Black Hill but it’s about three climbs that gently and not so gently undulate from the floor of the Weald up to the roof of Sussex. The last two times I’d ridden this had been respectively on 100 and 200km AAA audaxes. In winter. In the dark. It was nice to ride it in warm daylight for a change, and despite being further into a longer ride it felt easier than the last two times. Not fast but not painful. It was good to have Jo as a rabbit to chase and his wheel to tuck in behind over the top of the forest towards Chuck Hatch and Kidd’s Hill. Known locally as The Wall Kidd’s Hill is one I generally try to avoid. In fact I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ridden it. Straight into the lowest gear at the bottom (no point pretending I was going to use any of the others) and slowly twiddled the pedals to the top. That was the second last hill. Just the Beacon to go.

A quick stop at the petrol station in Nutley was required to refuel one last time. Going #fullaudax I sat on the forecourt with a can of coke, wrapping chicken bites in cheese slices. Dinner of champions! I was back on familiar territory so knew the route from here was predominantly downhill until we hit the South Downs. Having Jo to talk to also helped as I suspect if I had still been soloing my thoughts would have been slumping into the realms of ‘this is stupid’ and ‘where’s the nearest train station?’.

Slugwash. Hundred Acre. Streat. Home lanes. Autopilot. The South Downs reared up in front of us. Deep breath, last hill. Done it loads of times. Like all of the day’s hills it wasn’t the fastest I’ve ever got up it but nor was it the slowest ascent. I’ve had some horrors on the Beacon in the past and this didn’t get filed in that particular back catalogue. The sixteen hours mark was hit as I crested the summit. Not quite home but near enough. I could almost see my house from up here and it was downhill all the way home (well, mainly downhill). Given that I’d ridden London to Wales and back again the weekend before, and this ride had accumulated almost 5000 metres of climbing, I’ll take over sixteen hours.

Thanks George for dreaming up such a stupid ride. I’m not sure who is the bigger idiot, you for thinking it up in the first place, or me for deciding what it really needed was extra distance and hills. Also thanks Jo for riding out to Kent to keep me company and shepherd me home.

Ride numbers and stuff: https://www.strava.com/activities/973985997

Greenwich Mean Climb 300km [Brevet des Grimpeur du Sud ride #6]

04:29, Dyke Road, Brighton, heading for London.

Underworld are played on the radio in the car and two men in their mid-forties reminisce about coming home at this time of the morning rather than going out for a bike ride.

05:47, Blackheath, London.

Applying chamois cream behind a bush on the edge of Blackheath. There is more than likely a law against this sort of behaviour. Fortunately it’s dark and no other idiots are up at this time of day.

06:00, Cutty Sark départ, Greenwich, London. 0km.

tweaked colour 4 tweaked colour 5Ivan from Audax Club Hackney hands us our brevet cards from the boot of a car near the Cutty Sark. Tea and coffee are available on a trestle table set up around the corner in an underground car park where a bunch of hi-viz clad riders are gathered listening to the rider briefing. We forego warm caffeine and follow blinking rear lights along the long straight Roman road towards Kent.

My usual tactic is to follow wheels for as long as possible. Take a turn on the front if asked but generally the front runners will chat away as people slowly drop off the back over the first 50km. This means you can ignore the route sheet for a bit, warm up and wake up slowly, saving energy for concentrating on navigating when the peloton inevitably breaks to pieces on the first big climb. When that happens leave the handful of fast riders on the front to it. There’s no way you’re getting around 300km if you blow up after the first hundred. Anyway, it’s not a race.

Three hundred kilometres. Four thousand five hundred metres of climbing. That’s a heck of a lot of riding. The usual fear lurks in the back of my mind: the bike or, more likely, my mental and physical capabilities can easily fall to pieces somewhere. I read the route sheet in sections bookended between the controls, this way it’s just a series of perfectly manageable short rides shoved together.

We head east through the suburbs before turning south and into the North Downs. The first big climb is going to be over the Greensand Ridge on Ide Hill across to Toys Hill, but before then there are a fair few rolling kilometres of Kent. It starts to rain and George regrets forgetting to pick up his waterproof when he left home. My decision not to put the mudguards back on may have been a mistake. By the time we’re in the foothills of the downs the rain has eased and shadows are fading in and out across the tarmac. We start to climb, arm warmers are rolled down.

08:50, a car park in Edenbridge, Kent, 66km.

tweaked colour 12 tweaked colour 13Whilst we’ve been randonneuring through rural Kent, Audax Club Hackney have driven ahead of us with the trestle table to set up a guerrilla style control in a car park. There’s also a man dressed as a shark. We don’t ask why. I make a couple of cups of tea whilst our brevet cards are stamped.

Just as we leave we bump into my friend Dan who is recently back from Paris-Brest-Paris. We set off towards the Ashdown Forest and our pair becomes a trio for the rest of the day. The route sheet makes no mention of a well known hill, The Wall, but we know we’re heading that way. Much discussion ensues about whether we’re going over it or not. Some optimistic (and ultimately incorrect) interpretation of the route notes makes me think we aren’t. George opines that we’re near enough to do it anyway. He’s like that George. No ride is ever already stupid enough (see his Morvelo Doorstep Epic film). Anyway, I was wrong – “Oh, this right. I was thinking of the next one”. At least we weren’t riding fixed like the guy tacking into the gradient.

Over the top of the Ashdown Forest we can see as far as the South Downs. Past the garden centre at Duddleswell it’s noses on stems and backsides in the air for the long fast drop into Maresfield. Autopilot kicks in at this point, I know the way to the next control at Laughton and then to Seaford. However I lose my bearings briefly coming out of Uckfield – I may know most of the lanes in Sussex but I still don’t understand how the big roads connect up – but then we find ourselves in Palehouse Common. A little group has coalesced around us since Uckfield and we hit the top end of the Lewes Crits circuit in a pack of 6 or 7 riders. From here it’s the flatlands around Ripe to Berwick and Alfriston. Coming out of Alfriston we can see the white horse on the side of High And Over. I’m glad I fitted that 11-28 block a couple of days ago. Cresting the hill we see the Cuckmere River shining like quicksilver, twisting and turning as it carves its way across Cuckmere Haven out to sea, a turquoise band between the green of the downs and the clear blue sky. The westerly wind is so strong we have to pedal down towards the sea.

12:07, Seaford. East Sussex, 132km.

tweaked colour 15 tweaked colour 18We can almost see home from here. We try not to think about that as we drink tea and chomp through pasties, before turning around back over High And Over and head towards the Sussex-Kent border. We gently climb to Horam before the properly nasty climbs of the High Weald start up through Mayfield to Wadhurst. We’re not entirely sure we’ve gone the right way but again these are (almost) home lanes and we can find our way to Wadhurst. An audax route sheet is just a suggested route, it doesn’t have to be followed. As long as you hit all the control points you can take whatever route you fancy between them, as the controls are placed so as you can’t take shortcuts or avoid hills.

15:01, a shop in Wadhurst, 177km.

tweaked colour 29 tweaked colour 30A can of coke is emptied into a bidon and a bag of jelly babies cracked open. The route sheet is turned to the next page and the sandwich bag re-taped to the stem. It’s time to head back to the seaside. The next part of the route is in that part of Sussex that is a bit too far from home to be regular riding country. Every now and again I have a “Oh, we’re here” moment as I recognise a lane from some of the early season audaxes I did. Eventually we pop out on a main road near Battle and I have my bearings again. A signpost says 6 miles to Bexhill, the second coastal control. A lot of unexpected climbs are squeezed into those 6 miles. When we finally see the sea sparkling ahead of us there is a collective sigh of relief.

16:59, Bexhill seafront, East Sussex, 210km.

tweaked colour 45 tweaked colour 48After demolishing a bacon sarnie George proceeds to eat Dan’s chips, “He did say help ourselves didn’t he?”

Our shadows are long as we roll out of Bexhill. We’re on the final stint now. Admittedly it’s 100km back to London but psychologically this is the finishing straight. We chase the sun up the slope back onto the High Weald (again) before the rollercoaster of hills starts (again) as the sun finally drops over the horizon. The view back across the twilit weald is stunning, muted green and blue hills rippling away towards the coast. We flick on our lights as darkness seeps into the sky.

19:48, Sainsbury Local in Crowborough, East Sussex, 254km.

tweaked colour 54 tweaked colour 56More food is bought so we can tuck the receipts as proof of passage in our brevets. It turns out it’s not the right control and we should be at a petrol station up the road but we’re tired, it’s dark and I can’t read the route sheet. Dan and I feel bad at depriving George of the classic audax experience of eating a packet of crisps on petrol station forecourt in the dark.

Couldn’t say where we go next as it’s pitch black and we’re now following Dan’s Garmin. I know we climb back over the Ashdown and then back out the other side. Despite not being able to see the landscape there’s something comforting about riding in a small group in the dark, in a puddle of light from each others’ headlights. Your world only extends a few metres to the front and side of you, there are no reference points, no real sense of where you are or what the road is doing. With the need for navigation negated, you don’t think, you just pedal. If it gets harder then you must be going uphill, if you can freewheel then it must be downhill.

We revisit the North Downs, more than half a day since this morning, the steep scarp edge this time. The 28 cog gets called into action again. We rest our weary legs on the long descent down the other side. According to the route notes we are heading for a “monster climb”. I don’t what this hill is called but about half way up I blow-up spectacularly. Fortunately George and Dan have disappeared into the black so they don’t see me climb off, stare at my feet for a moment, mutter a swear word, and then walk 30 yards to the corner where the gradient eases slightly. By the time they see me again I’m pedalling, slowly but pedalling. I reach them and stop, reach into my pocket and one by one eat half a bag of Jelly Babies.

Right then, let’s crack on, 30km at most to go. Through the trees we can see East London lit up like a tiny toy town down below. We smash ourselves along the bus lane on the long drop into outer London. No matter the length of the ride when you can smell the finish you find extra energy from somewhere. Weaving in and out of the Saturday night traffic I lose the wheel of George (ex-London bicycle courier) and Dan (London bike commuter) but can see their rear lights enough to chase them through the streets of south east London.

23:04 Arrivée, London, 312km.

tweaked colour 58 tweaked colour 59A bunch of us stand on a street in Blackheath whilst a couple of people stare at Garmins and say, “Well, it says the finish is here”. This goes on for longer than it should before one of us notices there’s a big Audax Club Hackney banner strung across a house a few doors down. Ah, that’ll be it then. Can you tell we’ve been in the saddle for 17 hours? We knock on the door and wheel our bikes in. Someone takes my brevet card, another person asks if I’d like a cup of tea or beer, and yet another hands me a bowl of stew and cous cous and points me at a table full of other food. I like the audax scene.

“Does anyone want seconds?”

Correction. I love the audax scene.

 

Many thanks to Morvelo and Audax Club Hackney

Route: http://www.strava.com/activities/390873880

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