Monday, 17 February 2014

My Hell!

The Hell of the Ashdown is a local cyclosportive, run every year by the Catford Cycle Club. It starts in Biggin Hill and heads out up and down 104km of lanes in Kent & East Sussex to the Ashdown Forest & back. It's pretty popular too - always sells out, 1500 riders. They use the same route each year, only altering it for road closures or ice. The only real variable is the weather - this year it was bright & warm & sunny. Last year it was below zero & very cold.

I tried to go to Hell about 4 years ago, but had an elbow injury which didn't lend itself to riding up & down bumpy roads. I decided to give it another go this year, and signed up along with about 15 others from Penge Cycle Club.

Here's the "before" shot...

Last week we went out on a training run which was to cover some of the route, including the last 2 hills, and I struggled - it was very windy and I didn't eat enough. Halfway up Ide Hill I bonked / cracked / lost it, got off the bike, sat on the verge and called home for a rescue. I then pushed the bike up the hill until Andy came back to look for me & helped me get over the top. So I spent most of the build up fretting about the hills - which, as you can see from the profile below, come thick & fast all day long! Click on the pic to see it better!

The Biblical weather of Friday had faded away by Sunday, which was beautifully calm and sunny. Unfortunately ideal conditions! I got a lift to the start, picked the all important timing chip, route card & the mysterious yellow band (apparently it was so you could get food, not that it was ever checked), and met up with some of the others from the club before our scheduled start time of 9.15.

As we were waiting, phone calls were coming in from the marshalls on the course about treacherous conditions with black ice on the first couple of hills - we were allowed to go but advised to proceed with caution.

I had done some parts of the route before, so was prepared for the first shock,  about 2 miles in, of Cudham Test Hill - still, no matter how well prepared you are, a short climb which is 25% at the top (1 in 4 in old money) is still hard, and this was the first time in 3 attempts I'd got to the top and stayed on the bike! My heartrate was through the roof, so it took me a while to recover. I caught up with Winston, who owns the bike shop & unofficial clubhouse, who was on the verge of pulling out as he'd been up all night with sick kids. A bit later he belted past me going down Hogstrough Hill, so I guess he'd recovered!

Hogstrough was the first downhill - it's a narrow lane & is usually very fast, but because of the aforementioned black ice, everyone was going down it full on the brakes. Then there was another patch of black ice as we came into Brasted at the bottom, where we just got off and walked through. I met up with some others from the club, and we paired off with people of a similar level.

Toys Hill was long but straightforward - with a surprising number of people turning back because of the black ice. By this time it was getting on for 10am, so the worst of it had melted away. I was riding with Conrad, and we got off towards the top with some others, but as there was no ice we got back on again after a few minutes and carried on.

Because of the focus on the big local celebrities,  Ide, Toys, Star & "the wall", you could be forgiven for not realising that other hills are also available - and the route did its (un)level best to take us over all of them! Once you had gone down one it was around a corner and up another. There was little respite and hardly any flat bits,such as the road out of Hever, the long drag up Forest Row to the top but we were all in the same boat & the camaraderie was great.

We had a brief stop after 16 miles in Cowden for a banana and debrief, but then it was on to the first control & feed stop at the top of the Ashdown Forest,  where we scoffed cake, jaffa cakes,  drank tea & girded our loins for the infamous Wall. Before we got to the climb there was a wonderful downhill stretch with amazing views across the downs, but then it was round the corner by the pub (I'd had lunch there the last time I tackled the wall - and unsurprisingly failed), down the hill then up!

This is the view on the approach taken on a sunny autumn day, but it was remarkably similar yesterday.

It's not called The Wall for nothing, but if you sit in the lowest gear you have and focus on landmarks rather than the top, it is do-able. At one point I veered off into the forest but no harm was done & I carried on. Then, out of the blue, disaster struck! I was almost at the top when m chain snapped and fell off. Luckily I wasn't standing at the time, so there were no crushed balls to go with the disappointment of not quite making it - even though, with only yards to go, it was in the bag!

Up ahead I could see another Penge rider with his bike on his shoulder, and when I got to the top it turned out to be Andy whose rear gear mech had snapped off. His race was over, and mine would have been too, had there not been a friendly guy who stopped to help,  who had the right sized link to replace my broken one. Andy had a chain tool and duly replaced my link, so on I went.

The next bit was a long descent to Groombridge - punctuated with a couple of sneaky climbs. Halfway down I looked back to see where my buddy Conrad was, and as I turned back I somehow managed to ride off the road and fall off into the muddy grass. No harm done,  and onwards to Groombridge.

As we came up the Nouvelle Col de Groombridge back into Kent,  Conrad started to struggle with cramp. My front mech also got stuck, so I had to stop at the bottom of the next hill and drop it to the lower cog by hand. I got to the top and found that I was on my own, then a few minutes later someone came past and told me my friend had sent a message that I should leave him and go on. I couldn't do that - do unto others as you hope they would do unto you and all that, especially as we were only 2/3 of the way home, and there was plenty to go. He caught up and on we rode, past the Bough Beech reservoir to Ide Hill.

Last week I'd had a complete meltdown on Ide Hill and given up - a combination of exhaustion, lack of energy,  shame... I just wanted to get past where I'd cracked the previous week, but couldn't remember where it was, so I kept going. There was also a chap in front of me who was in more trouble than me, so I sat on his wheel, yelling at him when he started to veer across into oncoming traffic. We made it to the top unscathed, and went into the village hall for a well deserved cup of tea, some cake, and a quick call home for a progress update.They also fixed my gears.

After a good rest we carried on - now only 13 miles away, with one brutal hill to come. The light was beginning to fade as the evening drew in, but it was still beautifully sunny. There was a fast bumpy downhill section, then a flattish bit alongside the M25 before turning left and heading up Star Hill. It's another long climb, one I've done once before and not managed. Again I focussed on the small targets  - a bus stop, a funny shaped hedge,  a red sign, a "slow" warning painted on the road - not that I could have gone much slower.  By breaking it down into chunks I made it to the top and allowed myself a Henmanesque fist pump. The worst was now over.

Poor Conrad had been struck by cramp again, but he made it too and we made our way through the ever darkening lanes towards Biggin Hill and the finish. We didn't go the most direct route, annoyingly, but with Conrad now calling out how far we had to go every half a mile we made good progress and were suddenly at the finish. They were just packing away the finish line, but we crossed it together to be met by Andy, who had been waiting for us.

What a great feeling that was - I'd been to Hell & back & lived to tell the tale. I hadn't walked up any hills. I'd toughed it out and had a certificate to prove it! Who cares about the time (7.20 since you ask), it's not about the time, it's about finishing,  and somehow,  despite my doubts, my back had held out, my knees hadn't given way and I had made it. WE had made it,  as I couldn't swear I would have been as determined to plough on if I'd been alone and not wanting to desert my comrade in arms, Conrad.

We went inside, collected our certificates with the irrelevant times on them, then had a well deserved hot chocolate & fried eggs on toast. Winston had been rescued on the course following a fall (he's ok), so all of Penge CC were accounted for. The Gabster arrived with the kids and it was home for a long soak in the bath, this lovely picture they'd done for me to welcome me home, followed by the inevitable 4 hour nap on the sofa.

It was a great day out - a long one, but the weather was great, the company was great, the solidarity on the road was fantastic, the marshalling was friendly & efficient,  the route was very challenging but not impossible - even though I had thought it would be beyond me. I decided, once I knew that I was going to make it, that I could cross it off my list now and never do it again, but as I write, with my tired legs and painful left hand, I find myself looking forward to doing it again next year - I always said cycling was a masochistic pursuit!

You can sign up to do it yourself sometime in November at