3 May 2015
And so our big day had dawned – drab, dripping, aquatic. For once the beeb had got it spot on water, water and more water.
At 6 o’clock all around the borough and further afield too, riders were poking their noses out from their bedclothes and being greeted by that king of cycling dislikes – RAIN. But with typical British stoicism, perhaps accompanied by a Gallic shrug the discomforts of the day ahead were shelved and riders got on with the task at hand – to get themselves to Hayes Lane for the 8 am start of the ride to the coast: 55 gruelling miles across the North and South Downs. To include that beast of all beasts the Devils Dyke.
At Hayes with calm almost surreal efficiency Adam watched his master plan take shape and blossom into the beautiful thing – Bigfoot to the Seaside. The time for bravado was past, today would test the mettle of all who dared and there were many up for the test of tests.
Geoff and I had been entrusted with leading the 10 mile per hour riders. There were 28 riders, so with me and Geoff included a total of 30 in this group alone. Most of the riders had been with us on one or more of the training rides and so were fully aware of their abilities and limitations. I knew all were capable of the ride some would find it a greater challenge and some would have personal challenges perhaps private to themselves.
It was clear that our riders would have to be split into two groups, Geoff leading one and me the other. For me this was a challenge too. This was to be my first time leading the actual B2B ride all the way to the coast. Would I find the way I thought to myself? What if I got lost? I glanced over to Geoff’s bike with his electric gizmo mounted proudly on the frame, quietly ticking away the seconds, gently bleeping as it updated its GPS info, poised to steer them unerringly to the finish line. In my pocket I felt my already crumpled and sodden cue card, printed off from my PC and thought “this is going to be tough”. There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief from those riders who were assigned to Geoff’s group. At this point it is right to set aside my own misgivings and to think of Gary D who suffered horrid injuries recently and who is now recuperating after a complex operation and lengthy stay in hospital. Get well soon Gary, we all miss you and me never more so than today.
As soon as the 12 mph group had launched we crossed the road in readiness. Geoff went first and I turned to face my group still clutching my disintegrating route card in my pocket and mustering my most confident voice I gave the pre-ride briefing:- steady start, speed of the slowest riders, stopping at junctions, mid ride gaps to enable vehicle passes, drink plenty, pace ourselves, blah blah. It sounded a bit hollow to me.
So having given Geoff a good 5 minutes we too mounted up and eased our way onto the road and into the rain. We were off! Once again Joe ‘volunteered’ to be our Lantern Rouge, and for this I am exceedingly grateful. I knew at least one part of the ride would look professional and be managed with skill and efficiency.
The first part of the route we had covered on the training rides and was very familiar to us all. I needed no reference to the cue card. Nash, Layhams, Skidhill, Ledgers; names well known to us all, we began to eat up the miles. Apart from the odd stop for a drink to keep up the hydration we kept a sensible pace and the team did well in spite of deteriorating conditions. Riders were now discovering what water-resistant on a garment actually means (I would suggest that in many instances it means no more than “will not disintegrate in a washing machine!”) Conversations were starting up and down the line, which is always a good sign on a bike ride. We passed through wooded areas awash with clouds of misty bluebells, English bluebells I was reliably informed rather than the foreign ones from Spain. Apparently you can tell the difference by the way the flowers present, the Spanish ones are erect whilst the English ones droop. Hmmm! Sounds a bit familiar.
At Ledgers Road we were caught by one of the youth groups; full of fizz and venom, and accompanied by grimacing parents barely able to match the pace set by their young off-spring.
The Grounds of Woldingham School are a treat. At Bletchingly we suffered the first of our two punctures today. I heard that one group suffered a dozen so I think we count ourselves very fortunate to have got off so lightly. Once more the ever reliable Joe shouldered the burden of responsibility by waiting and helping with the repair whilst I led the remainder on to the Bell for some well-earned refreshments. Here we encountered a large organised on road cycle race. I imagine they were doing 10 mile circuits, they passed us three times between Bletchingly and the Bell where we swung away from their route! Some speed, but were they enjoying the views as we were.
At the Bell we got the first impressions that the rain was easing, not that it was to make much difference we were all soaked to the skin anyway. Supplies had run a little short by the time we arrived but we were able to grab a banana and some a slice of cake. Unfortunately there was no tea this year.
It was about 11 o’clock when we remounted and set off for the next challenge – Turners Hill. It’s not so much steep but just a long slog. Riders dug deep into energy reserves and we toiled on ever upwards. We stopped occasionally for a drink and for me to check the route. This was the bit of the route I wasn’t very confident about and I really didn’t want to lead my riders off course and find we had to toil back up a hill we had just descended by mistake, but somehow we held it together, which is more than can be said for the printed route card.
On a fine day there are lovely views over West Sussex from the top of Turners Hill. Today was not a fine day so we satisfied ourselves with a refreshing swig from our water-bottles and kept going. We next passed Worth Abbey and Worth School, one of our riders reminisced the days of his youth when he recalled coming to play rugby at the school. The grounds looked impeccable. This section gave me some cause for concern. I have ridden to Brighton many times but have no recollection of passing this school or the abbey before and it is not the sort of place you forget. I engineered a quick stop and checked, we appeared to be on track so goodness knows what has happened on previous outings, either I have passed through with mind in neutral or we have followed a different route.
And so to the Victory Inn at Staplefield for more bananas and cake, for tea and for a rest. This is the 35 mile point so arrival here is a real boost to flagging spirits. Panagua Bikes had their Dr Bike mechanic in attendance. Whilst not wall to wall sunshine the skies were distinctly clearer and the sun poked through occasionally. We stayed for about half an hour, we chatted to riders from other groups and heard about their adventures. It was here we learned how some of the other groups had suffered the misfortune of multiple punctures. No matter how relaxing and enjoyable this well-earned break was, I think we were all aware of what was ahead and so were keen to get restarted before tired muscles tightened up.
Just after 2 o’clock under real warmth from a bright sun we pushed on. About 100 yards on from the pub there is another morale booster in the form of a Sustrans fingerboard sign which reads ‘Brighton 17 miles’ what it does not mention is that those 17 miles are punctuated with the ghastly road over the Devils Dyke. And after a further 300 yards we suffered our second puncture. We made the repair as quickly as we could but this was an unhelpful delay at a point of the ride where we were eager to press forward. On restarting we discovered that the wind had either increased or swung round and we were now pedalling into a strong headwind.
When checking the route on the days preceding the ride I had plotted a course which would miss the Devils Dyke should I choose to use it. For two reasons I was not entirely confident of the alternative. Firstly and most obviously it was a route on paper, unchecked by anyone so I had no idea of suitability for bicycles, the other reason is that I use part of the route on the ride with the veteran cars that I generally lead in November. The route goes up Clayton Hill, which is steep, nasty, narrow and busy with traffic. This is fine when the traffic speeds are being limited by the old cars but today I imagined that traffic would be fast and aggressive. It was for these reasons I had decided not to try my alternative but just to stick to Adam’s official route.
However on arrival at Warninglid to the South of Staplefield, as we crossed over the A23 on the road bridge, I could clearly see below me a newly laid cycle track running alongside the main road. Rounding the corner the existence of this new track was reinforced by Sustrans signage pointing towards the path and declaring ‘Brighton 13 miles’. So now here was the choice; take my tired riders over the Dyke on the known, tried and tested route or risk taking them along an untried route which might just peter out, on which we might get lost, which was a total unknown. I waivered, but not for long, I knew that further south there was a cycle path alongside the A23 and guessing this would just link up with that path I abandoned the official route and we descended the slip road to the new cycle path.
The path was wide, flat and level. Yes there were some hills and some were quite steep. Occasionally the path led us onto other existing roads before deviating back to the path again, but the signage was both good and consistent. As we progressed both the Devils Dyke and Ditchling Beacon loomed large on the skyline, but we were on that narrow corridor which passes between these two monsters.
The bright conditions deteriorated and I was fearful for more rain but in the end it held off. At last we reached the tight saddle between the two monoliths. With some satisfaction I was able to point out the steepness of the hills we had managed to avoid. And so began the long descent into Brighton. Sure enough we soon rejoined the track I am familiar with from the veteran car rides, so now I was confident that we were on safe territory.
The final ride into Brighton along the cycle paths avoiding the City Centre one-way systems was a bit confusing and seemed to just fizzle out, but we eventually rolled onto the seafront and located the finish point where we were greeted by wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, families, pets and Adam. There is a spirit of gladiatorial camaraderie amongst participants in such a challenge, and never more so than today. We celebrated with tea, some of the more adventurous riders had a coffee, indeed I saw one or two indulging in coffee and chips. The spirit of conquest is strong in us all.
I want to pay a particular tribute to all my riders for a real heroic effort. Some found it more challenging than others but for all of us this was a serious piece of cycling, and completion of such a journey is no small achievement. I especially thank Joe at the rear of the ride keeping it all together, you had a hard ride and I would have never managed it without you.
Finally I would urge you all to keep up your fitness so that you can come and do it all again next year!
Total time: 9 hours
Riding time: 6¾ hours
Distance: 56.5 miles
Average speed: 9.3