Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Another Day In Hell

A 6 a.m. start on a Sunday really just seems par for the course of a cyclist and indeed there is something nomadically wonderful about being up at the crack of dawn - enjoying a time of day when there is a often a still to the air and the city seems at peace. Equally, there's something about waking up in the middle of the night (almost) and slipping into lycra that screams "YOU'RE NOT NORMAL". On balance, it's probably worth it for the smug sense of worth that eeking out a few more precious hours of weekend brings, even if people do look at you funny as you try to recall the last time you had a lie-in.

This particular Sunday morning start was due to the 2012 Hell of the Ashdown ride - for many the start of the sportive 'season' (if such a thing exists). I have ridden this event for the past three years, and each time it has been memorable (even fun, on some occasions). At 110km it's not challenging in length, but it certainly packs in the hills - according to one report, the Catford CC planning team aimed to cover every lump, bump and hill in the area. In addition, being mid-February, the past few years has seen Hell freezing over, with snow, ice, rain and strong winds battering the course. On my first run at the event, Rich and I were duking it out towards the finish when I decided that I would stick it the 11-sprocket and go for a solo breakaway. At this point the snow was coming down, making the roads especially slippery and visibility close to nil. As I came past Rich, an uphill left-hander appeared out of nowhere, leaving me with little option but to lock on the brakes and hang on for dear life. I ended up swinging out the back wheel before heading down the hill in completely the wrong gear and with my heart rate hitting the 200s - to my credit I managed to stay upright, although the last few miles were taken at a bit more of a sedentary pace...

After an enormous bowl of porridge and persuading Selene to get out of bed, we loaded up the car and set off on a quiet 45 minute drive to Biggin Hill. Remarkably - given her previous record - Selene managed to stay awake until approximately Lewisham, where she departed to inspect the back of her eyelids leaving me alone with the steering wheel and some banging tunes on XFM.

The hard route took it's toll
After parking up, we unpacked the bikes, registered and met the rest of the "Regent's Park Wheelers" - minus Gus who had managed somehow to find a traffic jam at 7am on a Sunday morning. A bit more faffing and then we were lined up at the start and set off with a large-ish group. Having ridden the route before, I knew about the 25% 'Test hill' that the organisers had chosen to throw in within a few miles of the start. Still, the sounds of people shipping their chains in surprise at the gradient presented a certain smug satisfaction, as we rode on in the group. Unfortunately it was just after the top of the hill that I realised my front mech wasn't playing ball and without manually moving the chain, I had no way of moving between chainrings - not ideal for a constantly undulating ride. Resigned to a day in the big ring, I told my legs to bring their 'A' game and proceeded to spend the next 40 minutes with Clive (who had kindly stopped with me to help with the mechanical) chasing down the group we had started with. Catching and passing large numbers of riders was a lot of fun, even if it was abundantly clear that there were a lot of terrible descenders. Our 2-up time-trial was a success and we latched back on to the main bunch; the fast pace had made its presence felt in my legs, but nothing unmanageable at this stage. More worrying was that in the first hour I had only had a few sips from my bidon...the price of which I was to pay later on.

Clive gets his game face on

Gus 'the latecomer' McWhinney

Paul clearly prefers his profile view

Rich 'Forward Russia' Wood

Rob on his solo breakaway/sulk
Within the first 10 miles we covered Toys Hill (# 20), although admittedly this was from the opposite approach described in Simon Warren’s book. It definitely wasn’t the beast that I was expecting, although the descent was a little hairy, so at a later stage I might make a detour to take it in from South to North instead. Unfortunately, though, my gears did make the decision to shift down into the little ring meaning that I was spinning like a bastard to keep up the pace. At one point, egged on by my companions, I pushed the cadence down a hill and managed to get up to 171rpm – probably not a pretty sight, but nowhere near as impressive as pro-cyclist Greg Henderson who tweeted back in January about hitting 231rpm!

A quick stop at the first feed station brought much welcome Malt Loaf and jaffa cakes, along with welcome mechanical assistance from one of the volunteers. The guy didn’t speak much English, but whoever you were thank you very much in succeeding where my roadside mechanical skills had abandoned me! At the stop was a common sight amongst most sportive crowds: huge amounts of bike bling. One particular chap (aptly called ‘Rich Gearing’) had flown himself out to Australia for a fitting on his custom-made carbon Baum, complete with electronic gear shifters and Lightweight wheels (c. £2-3k for a set). Needless to say, after leaving the pit-stop, we didn’t see him again as he couldn’t climb for toffee.

Next up on the climb list was ‘The Wall’ (otherwise known as Kidds Hill – #19 on the list). This is a climb that keeps on giving, with an ever increasing gradient as you travel through the Ashdown Forest up the dead-straight road (seeing exactly what awaits you further ahead) before emerging out into the daylight and great views over the North Downs. Unfortunately out of the feed-stop we had managed to pick pace with a couple of guys in full Pro-Tour team kit (Radioshack and Sky – with the latter riding a matching decalled-up Dogma) who for some reason didn’t like to be passed. Often we’d come past, only for this pair of plonkers to indignantly sulk past – unluckily for them they couldn’t handle our pace on the climbs so this happened quite often…

Selene managing a smile up Star Hill

Leadng team Sky and Radioshack
At around 50 miles into the ride, we had been waiting and waiting for the second feed-stop, so I had drained my bottles and eaten the food I had with me – in essence I was dying on my arse and in need of a sugar kick! Too much excess over the past month (and a bit), and not enough time on the bike I think. As the organizers had taken the main Groombridge road out of the route, arguably the toughest hill of the day was the last one on the ride: Star Hill. Another hill that is very up-front with exactly what you’re going to get, you can see this beast looming in the distance as you approach.

After Star, it was just a matter of cruising through to the finish. It seemed by this point that all of the idiot drivers had woken up – deciding that they really must get from A to B without slowing down. Fortunately everybody stayed out of trouble and avoided any ‘altercations’ – not the case further up the course where it seems that someone deliberately left out part of a cow carcass causing one cyclist to come a cropper, which is probably one of the more bizarre sportive trauma reports.

Selene crossing the finish line

Post-finish, Pre-bacon
Crossing the finish line we picked up some bumper packs of High 5, and went to the canteen to refuel – bacon butties all round, sat on the tiny chairs that filled the primary school facility. Once again, the Hell had been a great ride with fantastic organization, marshalling and parcours

Quite a haul of plastic-fantastic goodies

Photos courtesy of


  1. Great write-up again, sorry I missed it. Hoping to feature again sooner rather than later!

  2. Great post Nathan, thank you; hope to see you and Selene in hell again next year! I narrowly missed being doored by a white van en route and Gus narrowly missed being side-swiped by a woman driving out of her property a little too enthusiastically; so good luck all round .....