Saturday on foot, Sunday on two wheels.
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
Fancy a short cx ride tomorrow? Nothing serious, just pissing about.
Sounds good, yeah.
Tilt at Fiveways at 9.30 good for you?
Yep. See you there dude.
Was thinking Stanmer via the golf course, singletrack and bluebells, up to the Beacon, along the ridge, down to back of Falmer, Uni Singletrack, Castle Hill, South Downs Way round Kingston Ridge, Yellow Brick Road, Shit Farm, Telscombe Tye, Hidden Valley.
Where’s the pub stop today
Erm, we can drop into Lewes and to the Snowdrop…oh hang on, the Abergavenny in Rodmell is pretty much on the route.
I’ve not been to the Abergavenny. Ridden past it loads, never stopped.
We can still get to Uni Singletrack. A few options to get down there.
OK, but then rather than do cyclepath up to Woodingdean we could do South Downs Way climb.
Oh man, that’s a right old grind of a climb
Yeah, but the Falmer cyclepath is boring
Yeah, OK. If we’re going to do that though let’s do the South Downs Way from top of Plumpton Bostal all the way round to Kingston Ridge. I’ve not been that way for a while.
We doing Cream Egg?
Wasn’t going to, but we could. Down this side of Swanborough Hill and back up Cream Egg?
Oh man, yeah! We could do the Double W.
Do all that and then turn around and do it all in reverse.
That’s just fucking stupid. You’re such an idiot. No. Yellow Brick Road. Pub.
Um… we can do the track from here down to the river and along to Southease, up through Shit Farm, over Tye into Hidden Valley, loopy climb back into Brighton. Or past the Youth Hostel, up Itford Hill, down Broken Road, through Glynde…
No. Up Mount…
No. Up Mount Caburn
Can you ride it? I’ve never been up there.
Let’s do that then, it’s a bit steep but the view is amazing. The Downs from a totally different angle.
Cool. We’ve got time for another pint though?
Yeah, and that’s Cream Egg over there.
Fuck, it looks well severe from this angle!
And that dark peak over there is Black Cap, we’ll go back that way. Right over there in the haze, I think that lump is Ditchling Road and the golf course where we started out. We can see pretty much our whole ride from up here.
That’s Lewes race course, the prison is down behind us.
Ah, so Offham is down there?
Yeah, and the A27 is down in there somewhere. Don’t try and ride this in winter though, it’s an absolute bogfest. That beacon you can see up ahead, that’s Mount Harry.
Oh yeah, OK I get where we are.
Take the path to the right and once around the trig point or it doesn’t count…
Disco Inferno? Then Uni Singletrack?
Yep. Oh hang on, Trollburger might be open, not sure if they’re open Sundays…Yes! They’re open. Best non-dirty dirty burger in town. Organic, all locally sourced.
Cool. Don’t know it, I’ll follow you…
Time out and about: the best part of 10 hours
Time actually riding: about half of that
Number of pints: Eight (3 x Darkstar Hophead, 3 x Darkstar American Pale Ale, 2 x Long Man Pale Ale)
Packets of Crisps: Six (Ready Salted)
Burgers: Two (Trollburger, Smokey Mountain)
Disclaimer: Some of the place names used won’t be found on official maps.
Photos with me in them by George
1090 kilometres, 12,200 metres of climbing
Fast long road commutes & cyclocross squiggles across the South Downs. A lot of ‘the long way home’.
A day tilting at windmills with friends.
An afternoon off work and being hammered by the wind over the Downs.
A 200km lap of Kent.
Route plotting, tweaking, re-tweaking, and submitting of DIY audaxes for April and May.
A recovery weekend of sunshine, napping on the beach along the coast, and a short morning ride that turned into a short all day ride with a lot of stops just because it was sunny and warm.
A lot of headwinds.
Custom made luggage arrived from Wildcat Gear
Transcontinental frame back from the sprayers and ready to be built.
Sailing around Sussex with friends searching out windmills. All eight listed on the brevet card found and logged. At the almost the exact midpoint between the starts of meteorological and astronomical spring, it was the first ride in what felt like spring. Gloves off and jerseys unzipped. Riding with shadows and laughter.
It didn’t start out like this. Setting off along the coast, the sea fret hid the view beyond the cliff edge to our right. We barely caught sight of the first windmill up on the cliff. In and out of the Ouse and Cuckmere valleys we turned inland, away from the Downs and fog for the first ride across the marshes of the year, or simply the first time for some of our small peloton. Hazy horizons and diffuse sunlight. Climbing to edge of the hills of the High Weald our shadows flickered into life. After bagging the fourth windmill and almost half way round we stopped at a garden centre, sat outside in the sunshine with tea and bacon sarnies.
Weaving back across the weald, we passed through the village that I’ve only ever known by it’s name on signposts. Despite all of us crisscrossing this county for years we all found new ways and places, the best kind of ride. Back on roads we know and which tilted every so slightly downhill the pace rose until we hit Uckfield. My internal audax sat nav kicked in and I sent us the wrong way, automatically turning for McDonalds. All the way around the roundabout and we were back on track. Familiar lanes, autopilot, but the next two mills, Chailey and Oldland, were new to us, both less than a mile from roads we know like the backs of our hands. Oldland involved some off-roading to find but worth every effort. Standing in the sun we could see our next quarry, Jack and Jill standing on the Downs across the way. However before that there was a tea and cake stop in Ditchling. There was no rush. The days are stretching out again, there was plenty of daylight left.
Climbing to Jack and Jill we could see Oldland Mill stood across the fields, it’s whiteness concentrated by sunlight against the haze. We realise we must have seen it across the way hundreds of times without really noticing or knowing what or where it was. Now we know. And where that lane behind the Ditchling war memorial leads. Back over Devil’s Dyke and we could see the sea for the first time despite having ridden next to it for an hour earlier in the day. We hurtled down the hill for the final mill at West Blatchington, then turned for the pub.
1030km. 12000 metres of climbing.
Started with a rest week and a pilates class.
Some longer and faster road commutes.
Some indirect wiggling about cyclocross commutes on beautiful mornings.
A loaded ride to Kent and back for a family birthday party.
Weekly swims and a short pilates routine every couple of days.
A damp and windy 200km audax a couple of counties away.
Reilly frame ready for the sprayers.
Template sent off to Wildcat Gear for made to measure frame bag.
A few more bits and pieces bought – silk sleeping bag liner, head torch, an extra dry bag.
It’s dark when the alarm goes off. I think to myself “I can’t be bothered today” and doze off again thinking about getting the train to work a bit later. Something in my brain makes me get up five minutes later and fall out of bed into my cycling kit. I laid it out ready on the floor last night when my resolve was stronger. Out on the street I flick on my lights and pedal up the hill. I weave through quiet streets until I cross the dual carriageway, the boundary between the suburbs and the downs. I open the gate and spin the pedals, the rear wheel struggles for traction, squirming around and spinning on damp grass and chalk. My legs feel useless, I should have stayed in bed. I look to my left, daylight is coming, golden light drifts over the hills, tufts of mist stick out of coombes and hollows, silence surrounds. My spirit rises with the sun. I wish my legs felt the same. I scramble and trudge through mud and flint up to the ridge. I turn towards the rising sun. It’s warm, too warm for this time of year, I remove my gloves and unzip my jacket. Across the Beacon, too early for the ice cream van. Along the ridge, through more gates. So many gates. My legs seem to have remembered what to do, my speed picks up. This is glorious. Turn right through the trees. Follow the fence line to the vanishing point. Bounce down the steps to the side of the dual carriageway again. I start to climb up to the ridge on the other side, rear wheel slipping and sliding, no grip, legs start to complain again. A cloud sits atop the hill, I zip my jacket back up and climb higher into the cloud. I know there’s a radio mast just there but it’s obscured by the grey. Over the crest I speed down the gravel track, before altering direction yet again, another gate, say hello to the dog walker. Descending out of the cloud into the valley mist weaves in and out of the trees, sunlight filtered through water vapour and branches. I’ve never seen the valley look so beautiful. I’m riding fast now, by feel rather than sight. That magical moment when everything works together, flow. I lock up a wheel and slide into a gate. Ha! This is brilliant. I carry on riding a bit too fast, a little bit out of control, I’m going to be late for work. One last hill and then I really must turn for work. One last hill. Damn job, I want to keep riding all day.
In a parallel world I’m watching these hills pass by a train window. Longingly gazing at them. Frustrated.