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

The Return of Mad Jack

Mad Jack’s – John Seviour Memorial Audax

Last year Mad Jack’s event was supposed to be my first ever audax. It didn’t quite go to plan. This year’s attempt looked equally doomed as Jo and I drove over to meet Mark in Hailsham in sleeting snow. Neither of us recalled seeing this on the weather forecast the evening before. Yet again it looked like if any of us even vaguely suggested not starting we would happily have had a cup of tea at Mark’s and gone home again.

However we actually managed to get to get to the start line on time this year so it seemed churlish not to at least make an effort. So off we headed north out of Hailsham in the continuing sleet. Within a mile I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes and I couldn’t really see where we were going. My usual audax navigation method of having the route notes in my hand or tucked up my sleeve doesn’t really work in freezing wet weather. So we had to try and remember a few instructions ahead mixed in with following anyone we saw with a laminated route sheet attached to the stem. [Always safest to follow the people with laminated route sheets and mudgaurds as you know they are an audaxer. Following someone with a Garmin and no mudgaurds has potential to lead you astray.]

Mad Jack’s ride is three loops in and out of Battle across the High Weald, down to Fairlight where you overlook the English Channel, and back to Hailsham, totalling 125km. The landscape of the High Weald was formed by rivers and their headwaters carving deep steep-sided valleys – ghylls – into the sandstone and clay. The route is beautiful, twisting, corkscrewing lanes sunk into the sides of the hills, from millennia of human and agricultural toing and froing, cocooning us in rock and shadow, trees arching around us, forming tunnels as if we were burrowing through the wealden rock itself. The official 2450 metres of climbing would be gained by continuously riding up and down these deep, dark lanes, occasionally offered some respite and distant views from meandering hedge lined lanes along the ridges. The lanes themselves were carpeted in gravel and mud, bits of tree, moss, and water running out from the surrounding woodland and fields. Where we were lucky enough to see tarmac it was often cratered with potholes. It was if the weald was trying to absorb centuries of human intervention back into the earth, reminding us that we were just passing through this ancient landscape.

Not long after the first info control in Bodle Street Green Mark punctured. It had, at least, stopped snowing but it was still a fumble to change a tube with frozen fingers. Back on the road 10-15 minutes later just past the second info control at Penhurst I had a flat front. After pulling a sharp flint out of my tyre and refitting tube and tyre I checked the route sheet, brevet and the time. Crap! We had 15 minutes to make the first control in Battle which was still 5km away. Any other day that wouldn’t have been an issue, but this was a relentlessly hilly ride in slightly revolting conditions on cold legs. We made it with one minute to spare.

After necking a cup of hot sugary tea we cracked on over the hills to the next control. Flying down the final descent before Burwash Mark and Jo shot past the next turn despite me screaming “LEFT AFTER THE BRIDGE!” at them. I stopped and waited. There was no way I was following them up the next hill. They’d eventually realise I wasn’t with them and come looking for me. No. I phoned Mark. No answer. I rolled to the bottom of the hill to see if I could see them. I couldn’t but then Mark phoned me back and we agreed to meet at the next control seeing as they were already in Burwash. I rolled into the petrol station control with a minute to spare. Again. This wasn’t looking good. We were barely a third of the way through and already right up against it time wise. There was time to grab some custard creams from the boot of the control car before trying to make some time up on the way back to Battle where we could re-assess our situation. The sun was out now so we were starting to feel a vague warmth and being accompanied by your shadow always makes things seem better.

controlsOut of Burwash and we were straight onto a long steep climb. It was at this point I noticed not only was Mark on a standard double chainset, he was also on a 23-tooth cassette. This wasn’t a day for that sort of madness. Passing through Brightling we crested the highest point on the Weald between us and the coast. Sussex undulated away from us until it sank into the sea shining like quicksilver in the sunlight. Frankly it was a rather glorious view and worth the hour of not being able to feel out hands or feet.

Back in Battle we arrived at the control twenty minutes inside the cut off. We’d made up some time but with the terrain, weather and flats it had taken almost 4 hours to ride barely 50km. This did not bode well. The sky was now almost cloudless but we were damp through to our base layers so the warmth was taking a while to take hold. Mark had had enough and decided to head home where he had “…warm children that will give me a hug”. I’m not surprised with that cassette and knowing what was yet to come. However I was determined to continue as I’d not yet failed to complete an audax I’ve started. If I failed within the rules of the game by missing a control or time cut then that is one thing, but I didn’t want to give up whilst it was still possible to finish. Had it still been snowing I would have been on Mark’s wheel all the way back to his for a cuppa but the sun was shining. Jo and I decided to have a cup of tea. eat some food, and check the route sheet for the next section. Sunshine inspired belligerence. That’s riding bikes for you.

punctures

Jo and I headed off on the loop out to Fairlight, on the coast between Hastings and Rye. Within 5 kilometres Jo punctured. Another impromptu stop.

More constantly undulating gritty, slimey lanes of varying degrees of steepness followed until the long steady climb up to Fairlight started. I was really feeling it in my legs by this point but out here there was no real option than to finish the ride. Well, there was an emergency plan loitering in the back of my mind which involved freewheeling into Hastings and getting the train home…but I was determined I was finishing, plus if we didn’t stop at the cafe at the next info control we could make up some time again. Looking south the sea shone turquoise under the blue sky. Turning north, the way we needed to head, thick dark grey cloud loomed. Hmm…

As we descended Fairlight towards Rye it started to hail. Excruciatingly hard. It stung the face as the front tyre stuggled to find any grip on what was a fast snaking descent. Fortunately it lasted only a few minutes and sunshine returned along with the short steep climbs back to Battle for the third and final time. We got our brevets stamped back at the main control. However this time there was a children’s party in the cafe. It seemed a bit weird to be hanging around a cafe in lycra surrounded by small children and fairy cakes. So we popped down the road to a deli for a pork pie and cup of tea in the warm. Checking the route notes and time we realised we had a little under two hours to cover the final 25km to make the arriveé cut-off. We hadn’t bought lights as we hadn’t expected to be out all day, so our cut off was sundown which was sooner.

It was flat and fast out of Battle so we maintained a decent average, but again we were soon rising and falling on awkwardly surfaced lanes. Over hedges the sky was red like glowing embers with the sun shining gold not far from the horizon. The rest of the sky was a darkening blue. Somewhere on the way towards Ashburnham we caught some other riders just as we hit a difficult descent. Jo managed to get in front but I got caught in the middle so couldn’t pick my line as far in advance as I would have liked. Thud. My rear wheel hit a pothole. I knew instantly that I’d be lucky to get away without a pinch flat. Within 100 metres my fear was confirmed. With the light fading fast and 15km to go it wasn’t perfect timing. Tool roll unfurled again.

One more info control and a couple of short climbs and I knew it should be pretty much flat all the way back into Hailsham. This was just as well as the light was almost gone. We going to have to sprint the last few kilometres or we’d be finishing in the dark. Fortunately the last few kilometres were slightly down hill so with heads down we frantically pedalled for the finish. We turned into the arriveé in twilight with 24 minutes to spare. Jo went in to get our brevets validated whilst I looked after the bikes and texted Mark to say we’d be round for a cup of tea in 5 minutes.

brevet mad jacks

The Lanes – Spithandle Lane

On a late summers evening I’ve chased my shadow home along here. In the depths of winter I’ve entered one end of the lane in drizzle with a bunch of riders only to emerge from the other end, two and a half miles later, in snow and having lost one of our mini-peleton somewhere along the way. On another occassion I remember belting along here early on in a century ride on a day so cold that our gear cables froze and apart from the hardiest, one by one riders peeled off home early, And that was in spring!

spithandle01Running almost parallel to, and slightly north of, the spring line Spithandle Lane leads from near Ashhurst in the east to Wiston in the west, from the edge of the River Adur flood plain into the shadow of the downs. Or to Wiston Tea Rooms if you’re in need of tea and cake. About ten miles from home it is either near the beginning of a ride when legs are warmed up, or at the end of a ride, usually a long one, when legs are tired. It’s relatively flat, seeming to pivot in the middle somewhere like a seesaw. You gently roll up for a while before starting to roll back down again, no matter which way you are riding. It’s usually quiet but sometimes you’ll come face to face with a car, but much more likely is other cyclists, horse riders, dog walkers or possibly a tractor.

spithandle05To the south lies Wiston House (1576) to the north Peppers (1611) and the lane runs through parts of Wiston and Pepper’s estates. Riding east to west you first pass Calcot Wood on the left, open fields to the right, before being plunged into darkness in Great and Little Pepper Woods. The branches of trees from each wood interlocking over the lane. As with many lanes that wend their way through woodland the seasonal differences are pronounced. Under the thick verdant canopy it’s usually darker here at midday on a sunny summer’s day than twilight on a gloomy winter’s day. In winter zebra stripes of light below your wheels mirror the interwoven branches above your head. In summer bright pinpricks pierce the foliage dotting the road with spots of light tracking the sun as it moves across the sky hidden above, beams tracing across tarmac like slow moving searchlights. Looking up is like looking up at the stars in the night sky. In the autumnal setting sun colours are muted, desaturated in the fading light, but vibrant wedges of golden light cut through the trees like torch beams.

spithandle04You exit the woods around a sweeping s-bend that is gentle enough to be taken at pace. Further on there is a s-bend that always catches me out, forgetting how quickly it tightens and twists. Even if I’ve ridden it the week before I’ll still go piling into it way too fast. It’s worse from the west as you  come to it along a long straight slightly downhill section of road, picking pace up nicely.

spithandle03There are more small woodlands to pass through; Pepper Furzefield Wood, South Copse, Spithandle Copse, Guesses Wood, Guessgate Wood, the landscape gradually opening out into hedge lined pasture. The familiar outline of Chanctonbury Ring appears up on the ridge of the South Downs away to the south. There is evidence that a route ran this was as far back as Roman times, but have people been travelling the way of Spithandle Lane as far back as the Iron Age?

 

First published by Nowhere Fast Cycle Club in August 2013

The Lanes – Spronketts Lane

This is less about a single lane than a network of lanes that transport you from the chalk downland hills to the clay lands of the weald, quiet narrow lanes bookended between the A23 and A281 and bisected by the A272. There are many of them, running north-south or east-west, no diagonals – Foxhole, Cross Colwood, Colwood, Twineham, Wineham, Longhouse, Picts and Bob Lanes, Bolney Chapel Road, and Kent Street – all interconnected and, one way or another, leading to Warninglid. In the middle holding this mesh together is Spronkett’s Lane.

IMG_20140405_134203Of all the lanes in Sussex I’ve ridden these more than any other, first on weekend rambles but then regularly four, five, six times a week as a commute. Twenty six miles north followed by twenty six miles south. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Maybe not deepest winter, not when it would be dark all the way in both directions. One week I rode them all five working days but then I was too tired to ride at the weekend. I know these lanes in the dark, the cold, the rain, but most fondly when the sun is near the horizon at either end of the day and shadows are long.

IMG_20130529_084158Pulling kit on listening to Farming Today before leaving the house as the pips announce the start of Today. Closing the front door behind me the moon still hanging over the city, I’d climb slowly from the sea to the top of Devil’s Dyke in the dark or under that deep intense blue of early morning. From up here the whole of Sussex spread below me like a crumpled map. Jupiter or Venus still visible whilst the stars recede into the brightening blueness. The moon fading towards the horizon. Half asleep I’d wonder why Venus was over there only to realise it was a plane. The horizon was where I was aiming and I would see the weather that would be my company for the next hour or so. Some days I could see all the way to the North Downs but others only as far as the sloping edge of the South Downs mere metres away.

IMG_20121004_091714_croppedSwooping off the downs I’d hit these lanes in the half light of breaking day awaiting the first shadows. The hum of tyres and gentle drivechain whirr would be accompanied by the dawn chorus, birds flitting in and out of my light beam, maybe feeding on insects attracted by the light. I could switch that light off and navigate these roads by memory. I knew every inclination, every bend, which lines to take to avoid that pothole or that manhole cover. I knew where the ice would lay in winter, where rainwater would run off the fields or out of the woods, the corners where gravel would pile up. I could ride almost without thinking allowing my mind to wander, to find it’s own thoughts.

IMG_20140324_163726The further north I got the lighter it got, sunlight starting to catch tips of bare winter branches, then scanning down trunks until duplicate shapes in shadow form seep across the ground. Rabbits would suddenly appear from hedges and a little further north from here I would regular see deer, frozen like statues in fields before bounding into woodland with a clatter of hooves on tarmac. Some mornings light would hang in the mist and drape across my path like net curtains caught on the branches. As the days got longer and the trees fuller sections of these lanes would be dowsed in a thick green light pinpricked by shafts of flickering bright white light. When the days got shorter and cooler again the greens would be replaced by shades of brown and gold above my head and below my wheels.

IMG_20130726_191921In the mornings I’d ride whichever lanes were the shortest way north. However in the evening I’d use the lanes more as a long cut home, never knowingly the most direct route, a dawdle that aimed ultimately southwards but mostly likely wove east and west first. The flat angular corners of Bob Lane, or the twisting turning rollercoaster ride that is Cross Colwood Lane. The fast flowing downhill curves of Longhouse Lane and Kent Street became firm favourites. One day belting along Longhouse Lane I swerved to avoid what I’m sure was a grass snake, by the time I’d stopped to look back whatever it was was gone. I could ride such a variation of lanes to and from work that I needn’t ride the same route all week. Sometimes I wouldn’t retrace my tracks for two or three weeks if I rode home the really long way on stretching summer evenings, further west the other side of the A281 or even across the A24.

IMG_20121004_092317_cropped

To north these lanes cut through small woods or lined by shaws, thin strips of woodland between the lane and the fields beyond. Trees casting shadows opposite ways to that morning, ever changing patterns of light on the road in front of me. As you travel south the landscape opens up and flattens, more obviously arable, and the shadow trees less tangled. The dark silhouettes of the South Downs visible in the distance. Many an evening I would chase the setting sun across the weald and over those chalk hills, to where I could see it dropping behind the sea beyond the city. Time to flick on the front light again for the freewheel back home.

IMG_20130418_092527 IMG_20130418_093224 IMG_20130418_093352 IMG_20130423_091052 IMG_20130529_200227 IMG_20130726_190646 IMG_20140216_144737 IMG_20140216_145947First published by Nowhere Fast Cycle Club in February 2014

The Longest Day

I have places names and road numbers scribbled on bits of paper in my pocket. Today is going to be the longest ride of the year so far. Looking at the forecast it’s probably the warmest too. Gilet and arm warmers are stripped off by the time I get to Lewes. It’s a long steady climb from here all the way to Blackboys, at first barely noticeable but steepening as I cross the A22 and into the woodland of the High Weald.

IMG_20140517_123425I turn into a dark tunnel of trees, a narrow lane that cuts across to Mayfield. After a mile of so of dropping and twisting through woodland I sharply round a tight corner and I’m climbing again, between hedges and fields out of the woods. Popping out on to the main road I’m soon in the medieval village of Mayfield sitting atop the High Weald. From here I plummet into the weald on sunken lanes only to have to clamber back out again. Then I have to do it all over again only this time climbing higher. Then I’m freewheeling down again. I’ve ridden across the whole of East Sussex. The six martlets on village signs are replaced by a single white horse, the White Horse Rampant of Kent.

IMG_20140517_123553A gentle flowing downhill section lasts a good few miles and I find myself on a flat grasslands nestling between the High Weald and the North Downs. I know I’ve still got one more hill to go but for now though I relish the level landscape and the ease with which I can push the pedals around. Turning onto Hunton Hill it’s like the bostal climbs near home; twisting, short, hard. I click through the gears, get out of the saddle, breath heavily. Over the top I push the chain back onto the big ring for a long, long winding downhill section into Maidstone sitting in the valley of the Medway. Sat in the park with family I hungrily munch on a pork pie. And then another.

A few hours later I clip back in to follow the sun back towards the Sussex coast. After fighting traffic around the one way system I’m glad to be back on the road over Hunton Hill. After an initial steep couple of hundred metres it turns into a long shallow big ring climb. Across the top I drop fast back to the flat lands on my way to the High Weald and county border. The smell of barbecues and bonfires drift across my path every now and then, sunbeams made visible in smoke. It’s warm and still and humid. I’ve emptied a bidon before I’ve hit the border again. I stop at a village shop and fill the empty bidon with a cold bottle of coke. It’s flat and warm within a couple of miles.

IMG_20140517_210810As I cross the border back into Sussex I sense riders behind me. Glancing over my shoulder I see a couple of riders. I recognise Lewes Wanderer jerseys as they pass me. The response to “You’ve been a long way today” is that they started out in Norfolk that morning. That’s five counties and a ferry ride away!* They are thumping out a hard rhythm in a big gear. They dangle ahead of me for a couple of miles slowly extending the gap between us. Then they are gone.

Back at the highest point of the day I miss a turning. By the time I realise I have sped down a steep hill. I look at the map** and back up the hill. I decide not to turn around. If I continue to Bells Yew Green and Frant I can pick up at the main road back to Mayfield. Everyone must be in their gardens drinking beer and burning sausages over coal because the A267 is empty, barely any traffic. Unlike the steep rise and fall of badly surfaced lanes I should be on the road is smooth and gently undulates along a ridge across the High Weald. Despite adding a good few miles to the route home I can push a big gear for the next few miles. Kent spreads out to my left and the dark hills of the weald to my right. I feel the mild heat of the evening sun on my legs.

IMG_20140517_211513Out of Mayfield I pick up the right route again picking up a shaded lane. Hedge tops and tips of branches catch early evening sunshine as birdsong accompanies the whirr of chain on block. Rejoining the Blackboys road I click down a couple of gogs and tuck in for the long swoop down from the weald. I crest a little lump out of Halland and I can see the silhouette of hills I know so well ahead of me. I’m nearly home. The Broyle undulates gently downwards to Ringmer where I pull in to a petrol station for a bag of Jelly Babies.  I check my phone, I’ve ridden 103 miles. There are about 13 left to go. My legs feel good for another 20 miles but I can feel the parcours of the day in my lower back and arms. I need to replace my cheap aluminum frame with something more forgiving.

IMG_20140517_195616The sun drops behind the downs as I leave Lewes. Pink and orange light leaks over the hills. Nearly home. Just the last little rise to get to Falmer then it’s flat all the way back into Brighton. I’ve not quite timed it right to get home before sundown. The city is bathed in the blue grey hue of dusk. At the lights at Elm Grove I  rummage in my bag and clip my lights in for the last mile or so home. On the sea front the hot smell of salt & vinegar on chips hits me. I’ve decided what’s for dinner.

IMG_20140518_082533*I discover later that they were training for the National 24hr timetrial.
**I always carry a map. A proper paper OS map. Just in case.

The long way round

the long way roundShutting the front door whilst the nearly full moon still hangs over the city to the east I head west. The sun is yet to break cover. Where the sky meets the sea is pink and orange, a hint of what is imminent. I’ve got just under three hours before I need to be at my desk.

Spinning along the cycle path over the cliffs to warm up my legs the sky lightens. I drop to the undercliff path to avoid an ascent over a cliff but I’m soon back up top when the path runs out. Over a headland, around the one-way system, over the swing bridge. Passing the tide mills the sun’s rays blind me and warm me in equal measure. The sea is close to my right hand side and another headland ahead but no way over. Not on this bike anyway. I turn inland, into the houses.

I rejoin the main coast road and as I roll over the brow of the hill the Cuckmere Meander is liquid gold flowing out to sea. Descending to the bridge I realise it’s still water, no early morning alchemy. Over the bridge I turn up the valley. The flood plain is in the shadow of the downs on my right, the hillsides opposite bounce sunbeams back into my eyes. The reeds are leaning towards me in the wind. My back wheel skids and skips a little on the rough surface when I get out of the saddle as the roads weaves and undulates.

At Chapel Hill rays of golden light glance off gentle curves, the depths of the coombes cast dark blue-purple. Over the top of the hill and it’s that view again. In the shadow of Windover Hill I let me eye wander around the downland and weald for a moment. The whole of Sussex is merely a green strip between shadow and morning light. Down at the Long Man a middle-aged gent appears from the hedgerow clutching 3 rabbits. We exchange cheery hellos, but whether a farmer or a poacher I have no idea.

Down on the flat the wind makes it feel uphill. The lanes don’t meander and curve here, they zig and zag around right angled corners. I’m on the drops and my head is down, trying to push through the wind. My legs are burning, but it’s not the cold now, it’s exertion. As Mount Cabon and the Glyndebourne wind turbine gradually get closer I know I’m nearing my destination.

I sit at my desk and turn my computer on, a dull ache echoes through my legs under the desk. I look at the blue sky and hills outside the window.