Up and down on the Downs

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Around 300 riders at the start of the Ditchling Devil 200

If you’ve been keeping up with previous adventures you’ll know that Peter, Julie and I successfully made it to Teddington earlier this month on our DIY 300km ‘Sheffield to London’ Audax. After a short but restorative night’s rest at Peter’s sister’s house we were up early again the following day, back on the bikes and on our way over Richmond Park to Wimbledon Common and the 8am start of the Ditchling Devil 200km audax.

The 205km audax route takes riders through South London and over the North and South Downs the outskirts of Brighton, taking in Ditchling Beacon along the way. From Brighton the route climbs back up over the South Down to Devil’s Dyke before descending into West Sussex and Surrey before climbing over the Surrey Hills and following the Thames into Richmond.

With a £15 entry fee the Ditchling Devil is a little more expensive to enter than your usual audax, which is usually around six to eight quid, but for the additional entry fee the organisers provide food, with the help of local community groups, at three village control stops along the route.

 

Getting over to the start of the audax was enough of a challenge in itself as rather than pedal all the way around the Common we decided to try and take an off-road ‘short-cut’. When I lived in London I used to run with Belgrave Harriers and their club house is based in Wimbledon. Every Saturday morning my club mates and I would run across the common and over to Richmond Park for training, so I knew which direction we needed to head in, but let’s just say that it’s much easier to get up to the windmill in a pair of trainers than it is on 23mm tyres.

After our wibbly-wobbly detour through the woods, we finally emerged at the top of the Common and into the Windmill cark park to be greeted by literally hundreds of cyclists. The three of us were a bit taken aback by the sight of so many riders at the start of an audax as we are accustomed to seeing around 50 or so riders at the starts of most of the events we take part in. There had to be well over 300 cyclists milling about, eating donuts and waiting for the 8am off. We started to get the feeling that the Ditchling Devil 200 might not be quite like your usual run-of-the-mill audax events.

We parked our bikes and took our place in the line to sign on while each stuffing down a donut. We were a little disappointed not to have coffee at the start but I guess providing coffee for this many riders at an outdoor sign-on would’ve been pretty hard work logistically. After picking up my brevet card I took my place in the queue for the ladies toilets. Yes, that’s right, a queue, for the ladies. All female audax cyclists will know that we never have to queue for the ladies toilets, there just aren’t enough of us usually taking part – in fact we usually have to kick the blokes out of our toilets at most events. However, the Ditchling Devil had a lot of women entrants, which of course is great to see, except that they all seemed to be in ahead of me in the toilet queue.

We decided to hang back at the start to avoid the crowds as we sped away from the common down Wimbledon hill and started our journey through the suburbs of south-west London. This audax definitely had the feel of a sportive to it and despite trying to hold back the three of us inevitably got sucked into a few of the big groups of riders on the road as small groups jockeyed for position, getting bunched up at red lights then trying to out-sprint one another on the green signal.

The sheer number of riders led to a few uncomfortable moments at junctions, especially when a lot of cars and buses were also queuing to get through, but as we left the suburbs behind and headed to the hills of the North Downs the bottlenecks soon settled down as the stronger riders pushed on up the first couple of hills and riders started to spread out along the route. The first big pull came at Chipstead and despite riding on tired legs from our 300 the day before, the three of us were climbing pretty well and did our own fair share of overtaking other riders on the hills.

Once we were beyond Reigate the hills settled out into a more gently undulating landscape as we headed toward the first control and feed stop. The control appeared out of nowhere as we were guided into a field at the crest of a country lane where a couple of people with lists of rider numbers applied stickers to rider’s brevet cards. We were advised that the first food stop was a couple of kilometres away in the village of Highbrook and with the promise of egg and bacon sandwiches ahead we were off down the road.

It was pretty easy to spot the food stop as there were so many riders spilling out of the farm garden and into the lane. We had a little chat with the farmer who told us that the whole village come together every year to help feed and water hungry riders who are in search of breakfast. After our egg and bacon roll and a cuppa we thanked him for his hospitality and were back on our way pedalling through the Sussex lanes toward the South Downs which sat on the horizon like a big green wall – a wall we needed to climb up and over before our descent into Brighton.

Ditchling Beacon, the famous climb over the Downs that features in the London to Brighton bike ride is not to be underestimated. At 1.5 km long it might not be in quite the same league as a few of the tougher climbs we have up here in the north but it’s still a formidable 16% at its steepest gradient and averages 9% overall, so on a hot day it’ll certainly make you sweat a bit and get out of breath.

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Looking east from Ditchling Beacon

Today our ascent was further complicated by  a steady stream of Sunday drivers all out for a day in the sunshine. The climb’s not quite wide enough for two-way traffic and bikes and some drivers were taking quite a few risks overtaking cyclists without giving them much room. Around half way up the traffic ground to a halt in both directions as a bloke on a bike had to pull up suddenly due to severe cramp. A concerned driver in a Range Rover parked up and jumped out to check that he was ok, which was very good of her, but her vehicle was blocking the road in both directions, causing trouble for drivers and cyclists alike.

After a few starts and stops – never a good thing on a 10% gradient – we managed to weave around the static traffic and make it to the top where we took in the fantastic 360 degree view across the Downs to the Sussex coastline and sea beyond. From here the road descended into the busy outskirts of Brighton before climbing back up a few sharp little climbs, one at least 20%, to the top of the ridge and on to Devil’s Dyke where we were rewarded with another fantastic view and an info control.

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The view across the Downs from Devil’s Dyke

After a quick breather and photo stop we were soon descending back down into the lanes of the Weald. Drivers taking part in the London to Brighton Classic Car Run were passing us going the other way and we got to see fine examples of classic vintage motors as we pedalled our way west for a much-needed lunch stop at Upper Beeding. Every now and again mini pelotons of club cyclists would speed past us and it was hard to resist the temptation to speed up and jump on the back but with 300km in our legs from the previous day I don’t think we’d have held on for long.

Lunch was being provided for us in the event organiser’s home. The whole house and garden had been turned into a giant feed station with lots of volunteers preparing and serving industrial-sized quantities of pasta, chilli, bread and rice pudding and riders were scattered everywhere inside and outside the house. The afternoon heat had picked up considerably and I sheltered in the lounge to get out of the sun after lunch while Peter and Julie stayed in the garden. We hung around a little longer than we ought – Peter even thought he might’ve nodded off for a while!

Much of the next section of the ride was on fast main roads and we had a few scary encounters with close passing traffic. These encounters seemed to increase once we crossed over into Surrey, with much swearing and hand gestures – mainly from me! Riding through Surrey was a real trip down memory lane for me as I lived in the village of Alfold for a while when I first started working in London in the 1990’s and once I’d moved into the the city I’d often return to this part of the world for training rides. The villages haven’t changed much but the drivers have definitely got more impatient.

Our final food stop was in the village of Chiddingfold at the cricket club. Once again we were supported by a host of volunteers handing out cups of tea and coffee and a fantastic selection of homemade cakes and biscuits – just what we needed to get us through the last 40 km over the Surrey hills as the three of had started to flag a bit by now. Many of the other groups of riders were also taking their time at this food stop, maybe in anticipation of the few remaining hills ahead.

Julie and I had been keeping a sharp eye on Peter for most of the ride as he can be prone to missing turns and pedalling off in the wrong direction. He’s also managed to cultivate faffing into an art form, leaving gloves and water bottles in his wake at controls. This feed stop was no exception as we handed his gloves to him again. We were starting to wonder how he would manage without us when he rides LEL this summer!

I knew that even though we only had 40 km left to ride we still had the last of the big climbs ahead – Combe Lane at Shere. It starts off relatively tame but banks up to 18% by the swtichback at the top and on our tired legs it was really tough going to drag ourselves over the summit. After Combe Lane it was all plain sailing back over the M3 and M25 into the outskirts of London and we managed to cover the flatter terrain pretty quickly by working together taking turns on the front. I managed to get all the way to Kingston before blowing up after a fairly long stint on the front and had to limp home on the back being pulled along by Julie and Peter along the Thames to Richmond and the finish at the Rose of York pub.

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The Thames at Richmond

We clocked in at the pub just a little after 7 pm, pleased with our efforts considering that we’d now clocked up over 500 kms of riding in two days.  We all agreed that it wasn’t really like any audax we’d done before but we’d really enjoyed it. The organisers really do deserve a big ‘thank you’ for the amount of organisation that went in to providing food and assistance for the huge number of riders taking part – an absolute bargain for the 15 quid entry fee. Cafe stops on audaxes can often result in quite an expensive day out but I’d only spent 75 pence all day!

If you live in the south and haven’t moved up to a longer distance audax yet then this 200 would be a great one to start with. It’s a long way to come for an audax if you live in the north but it’s definitely one to make an effort for, experience some of the best bits of the North and South Downs and make a weekend of it… just make sure you’re prepared for that toilet queue, ladies.

 

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