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

North Country

Heading south to pay a visit to the north country. Drifting off the ferry in a sleep-deprived daze and heading up the hill on autopilot. Riding in a puddle of light and easy familiarity in the silent blackness, red lights blinking atop the wind turbines I can’t see, beacons out across the coastal plateau. Knowing when to change down and when that corner tightens more than expected. Almost riding into a ditch whilst distracted by the sound of turbine blades cutting the dark air above. Birdsong and the smell of rape colours in the black. Light eases into the sky as the lanes become unfamiliar on the way to somewhere familiar. A bakery open early, one pastry eaten on the corner, the other tucked in a pocket for later.

Riding a fault line between clay and chalk. Recognisable features and spiraling skylark song, the same as home but different. The pays de Bray and the pays de Caux. Mud and lime. Twisting sharp climbs and flowing waves of downland. A hare gallops through a field, following a cropped line. An owl launches itself across my path and glides low and disguised against the brown earth, it sweeps into the trees on the field’s edge, dislodging a couple of startled pigeons.

Riding between church spires and dog bark tag. Scrap yards and derelict barns. Hot chocolate at half distance. It turns a bit Belgian spring classic as I ride between fields into a wall of drizzle and headwind. I even find a bridge of cobbles. An impromptu coffee stop in a sad looking town, a closed fun fair on the main street. Primary colours vibrate against damp grey. A man smokes a cigarette under the café canopy whilst the kid from the dodgems orders a morning beer. A solitary carousel spins its tune into an air of melancholy and rain.

The route corkscrews around the hills, in and out of valleys and through the forest. The same place names appear on signposts, the direction and distances changing: The ebb and flow of a convoluted and twisting route. In and out of the wind. Wattle and dawb houses indicate what lies below my wheels on this side of the river. Legs tire over the final climbs as sun breaks through the cloud. I swoop through farmland to the valley floor to spin the last few kilometres back to the port.

Route

Jo Burt x Reilly Cycleworks

I’ll be riding down to Bristol over the next couple of days with Jo Burt to visit the Bespoked handbuilt bike show. Jo is riding a bike newly built by Reilly Cycleworks in Brighton. I made a film of the complete build from drawing board to a test ride up the park (yesterday!).

 

No doubt I’ll do a report of some kind about the ride to and from Bristol, plus some highlights from the show, when I get back.