“Do you fancy doing the Hell?”
For a few years now I’ve heard tales of monstrous beasts waiting to lure their prey into the deep valleys of Kent and Sussex. When the unsuspecting humans reach apparent safety in the icy gills of the Ashdown forest the devilish giants rear up in their faces mockingly. Tired legs struggle to provide the strength needed to overcome these leviathans of sandstone, clay and chalk. But our wiry heroes make use of the merest band of tarmac to trick their foes into submission and conquer “The Hell of Ashdown”.
I felt slightly tricked myself after agreeing to sit in for someone else, but Ashdown and the hills to the north are where I do most of my winter training so I didn’t really have any excuses! The Hell of Ashdown, as you may or may not know, is the traditional start to the Cycle Sportive calendar in the UK and usually shares its date with the first of the Belgian classics. It’s not the Hell of the North, but it certainly isn’t too tame either, especially as it comes so early on in the year.
The ride starts with you as one of 1’500 allotted riders receiving a start time – the time starts when you cross the timing mat along with about 40 other riders setting off every couple of minutes for two hours! I started with a couple of mates from TribecaSport at eight thirty and our group headed off down the road like a peloton does on a proper road race. I had my reservations at the time, but in hindsight the amount of riders on the narrow lanes that left Biggin Hill was absolutely nuts. This was highlighted by Paul “testing” his new rear brake that I’d fitted last week. “It’s better than it was before”, he assured me after he came skidding sideways into my peripheral vision with the rear wheel fully locked up! There were all sorts of levels of rider all thrown into the same melting pot, but somehow we all trickled through the tight twisty roads before blasting down to Brasted.
I’d never ridden Toys hill before (but more of that later) so I was excited to be covering some new ground. Our other friend, Adrian, was happy pacing himself after a break of two months from the bike, so Paul and I headed up the road. I was surprised at how many riders we were passing and indeed how many riders there were in total, but as long as we were going forward I was happy so I didn’t pay too much attention. The other thing I noticed was how silent the bunch was – Roadies rely upon a series of arm movements and pointing to let everyone know what’s going on, but that all felt quite alien to me as everyone is used to yelling directions at each other in the mountain bike world. You quickly pick it up though and I guess it all sprouts from the fact that road racing consists of lots of different nationalities all trusting and working with one another to avoid the danger as much as possible. Whatever the reason the descent down the steep side of Toys Hill was bomber!
We then climbed up past Hever and Cowden and along one of my favourite stretches of road in the country before we began the ascent onto Ashdown. Here I was surprised to find myself on another stretch of road that I was unfamiliar with, but we soon emerged high up on the western flank of the forest and I regained my bearings. By this point we were over a third of the way and Pauls back was starting to grumble, but I waited for him because I knew he was going to murder the long descent to Colemans Hatch. This paid off well as Paul, I and another rider arrived at the beginning of Kidds Hill, affectionately known as “The Wall”, fairly fresh. I love Kidds Hill and it’s where I come to do my interval training, so I know when and more importantly when not to attack it. Four riders breezed past me on the lower slopes, but I bided my time and once the kilometre and a half of 1-in-4 gradient had won it’s argument with them I breezed back past.
Paul enjoyed it less so, but once again he was working like a machine all the way down to Groombridge. Most people had started their ride at Biggin Hill at 8:30 onwards – I’d started mine at Groombridge at 6:30. Technically I’d done about 85km at this point and was ready to wash the bike and put my feet up, but as we blew past the lane that leads to my house Paul was keeping a watchful eye on me to make sure that he wasn’t going to lose his carrot for the remaining hills! So up “the Col de Grombridge” I headed for the second time that morning.
It was a lot warmer now and the stunning February sun really cheered people over the beautiful countryside that leads back to Chiddingstone and Sevenoaks Weald. We breezed up the slopes of the North Downs and set our sights on Ide Hill. This was the second checkpoint and by this point I needed some food. Paul filled up a bottle and then looked at me, clearly wanting to push on so we jumped back on and I shot off down my usual route toward Bough Beech reservoir. After a couple of unmarked junctions Paul asked why we’d come this way, whilst everyone else had turned off right to Sundridge – “F£$K”! By this point we were both fairly tired so climbing the steep side of Toys Hill to get back to where we were supposed to be wasn’t Pauls idea of fun – I quietly cursed my navigation error and not much was said for the next ten kilometres!
But back on track and the only hill that was left on the route was Starhill road. Everyone seemed to be dreading it but to be honest it was a fairly tame opponent after the climbing we’d already done. The last section was pleasantly rolling and taking into account our detour we’d set a fairly respectable time. As riders all around packed up their things after 106km in the saddle I still had a fair way to go – all the way back round to Groombridge! But I waved the offer of a lift seen as the weather was so good and enjoyed a gentler pace back home via Hosey Hill and Chartwell before climbing over my local hill for the third time.
186km in the saddle is the longest ride I’ve done in a while, but it was really nice to get some decent miles under my wheels. The organisation from Catford CC was great and with a day like we had, who the devil could complain?