The Hell of the Ashdown Sportive 2011

Hell of the Ashdown Sportive 2011

The Hell of the Ashdown is a cycle Sportive organised by Catford Cycle Club that takes 1200 riders through Kent and Sussex taking in seven challenging climbs. Whilst being the traditional 100k distance it takes in over 1,310 meters (4,300ft) of climbing, the added sting in the tail being the time of year – February so you never know what the weather will do.

I had unfinished business with the Hell of the Ashdown, going back a few years. The last time I attempted it I was forced to abandon at 40 miles in a blizzard and faced the indignity of a ride back to race HQ in the “bonk bus” oh the humiliation…

I was going to nail this little fecker some day…

Ashdown snow

Anyway fast forward a year or so – I was riding the Raven trail at Brechfa in South Wales and took a pretty severe tumble resulting in a broken foot, in not just one but three places. Those of you that have studied anatomy will know that the foot is made up of lots of little bones – well mine was made up of lots of little extra bones, when I shook it, it rattled! Well not quite that bad but you get the picture, but I did go up two shoe sizes on one foot, which makes buying shoes interesting.

Anyway, back to the Hell of the Ashdown – it was while recuperating from the foot of many parts injury that my mind drifted to challenges to motivate my recovery. After the injury I could not ride, or walk too well for that matter, I kind of gimped around the house for a month or two using a diet of pies and biscuits to keep my strength and spirits up.

I looked at my expanding girth and gimpy foot and signed up for that little Hell of the Ashdown fecker…

I was going to beat it this time, gimpy foot or not.

Christmas came and went and I triumphantly punched through the 13 stone barrier, I was officially the heaviest I had ever been, what a proud moment for us all and I had not ridden a bike for 3 months, still Hell of the Ashdown was two months away, no problem.

January – training started, boy what a shock – it was wet, it was cold, I was fat and slow and the hills looked much bigger than I remember them. Initially I could not get out of the saddle as my foot was still recovering so the hills had to be ground out while sitting down. It was not fun.

Still each week it got a little easier and the miles started to rack up. The guys from my cycling club were a great support and patiently trained with me and gradually got both the speed and the mileage up.

I looked at my diet and switched to a high protein, low-carb regime and surprisingly liked it, dropping over half a stone in the run up to the race.

Fast forward a little to the day of the ride, 27th February 2011, we set off in the van of cycling events and mirth at 0630 to the start at Biggin Hill Kent, bleary eyed and full of banter, six guys were back to face the Hell of the Ashdown once more.

Van bags

The course itself is unremarkable distance wise, we regular did 100k in training, just a longish Sunday ride for us, the difference is the hills – where we live on the Kent Coast it is pretty flat, we do get a lot of Westerly wind which helps build up strength and endurance but there is no substitute for climbing up stonking great hills. Hell of the Ashdown has seven stonking great hills; Cudham Test Hill, Toys Hill, Hollow Lane, The Wall (Kidds Hill), Col de Groombridge, Bayleys Hill and the sting in the tail Star Hill.

Our start time was a little after eight, we did the preliminary signing on and fixed race numbers and transponders to the bikes and prepared to set off, the weather was good, bright and sunny although 4 degrees winter temperature.

Start

Over the start line and away into the Kentish countryside to the first climb – Cudham Test Hill. I can only say the person who laid  out the course knew what they were doing, to put such a savage gradient one mile into the course is there for only one thing – to intimidate and test your psychological strength. you think, if this is the first one what are the other six like? Star Hill and The Wall are legend in these parts with many an old cyclist happy to tell tales of dragons plus fire and brimstone lurking along the climbs.

Anyway with the first one out of the way we settled into the ride with two of the quicker members disappearing into the distance leaving two pairs within twenty minutes of each other.

At this point I would like to take you back to my previous attempt at the Hell of the Ashdown, remember I mentioned snow? And a blizzard? Did I mention the punctures? In forty miles I had seven punctures. Seven! That is one every 5.7 miles in sub zero temperatures, now that is not funny, punctures and mechanical failures were definitely not wanted.

The miles began to spin by, the pace was steady, but we were moving, there was no snow in sight and no punctures, I began to settle in and enjoy myself, hey the sun was even warm, there were snowdrops out, daffodils were poking their little heads up, this was nice.

This is me on a nice, easy, fast descent

The next climb arrived- Toys Hill, it was OK, quite steady and long but my kind of hill, I got into a rhythm and knocked that one down, onwards to the next climb Hollow Lane, again not too bad I was beginning to think this was easy, onwards to “The Wall”

Now the Wall is one of those hills, you know the type that go straight up and you think, ouch, but that does not look too long, nice and straight, let’s just get on with it. That is until you get to what you thought was the top and it turns and then goes up again. A long way. And then kicks up again towards the summit. Well The Wall is one of those hills. On steroids.

That's me out of the saddle and climbing

I ground up it, seriously thinking about getting off and walking, as I was about to get off, I saw a photographer poised to take official photographs. I could not walk past him, the humiliation of having my walk of shame on film would be too much. I stood up, and “gurned” my way past the cameraman, he said “well done” as I went past, I though “cruel bastard you knew what you were doing”, still he got me up the climb. Over the timing mat to a fantastic view across the Ashdown Forest and a five minute breather.

Timing mat

View from the top

Of course what goes up must come down and we enjoyed a thrilling 40mph descent on sweeping lanes. I say thrilling because some ass hat in a Jaguar could not bear to behind a bunch of cyclists for more than two seconds whilst on his way to get his Sunday paper and plunged his way through the pack overtaking whenever he could. I say Jag it was one of those Fords that had been rebadged and repackaged to resemble a Jaguar, which probably explains the ass hats behavior as he burned with company car park inferiority as his pay grade didn’t run to a “proper ” Jag. grrrrr.

That swept us onto the Col de Groombridge, the scene of the previous year’s blizzard and bailing into the bonk bus, we were in uncharted territory now, my optimism soared as well as the gradient as we slogged out of the sleepy village of Groombridge and went up and up, again not a bad climb, suited me as I like those long steady rhythmic climbs rather than the savage short ones. With Groombridge crested it was onto Baileys Hill.

Bailey’s Hill, now that was a surprise. The legendary hills round these parts are Toys Hill, Star Hill and Ide Hill, as I said earlier, old cyclists go misty eyed at the mention of any of these hills and local residents exclaim ” you ride up there?” together with that expressions reserved for simpletons, old people and children. Bailey’s I would have associated with that creamy sweet drink that you have at Christmas and then stays in the cupboard for the rest of the year, nothing to fear there.

But.

Baileys Hill, you could pick out from a mile away with pretty little fluorescent dots weaving their way up the side of it, lots of them, all moving very slowly. It was the type of hill that you look at and inwardly groan, still this was the penultimate hill, we were well on the way.

Upwards, gently at first, get into the rhythm, not too bad, get out the saddle for a bit of a break, hey pass a few people, feeling good. Baileys Hill goes up then does the long switchback climb across the face of the hill, so you can see cyclists above you, I am not sure this is good or bad for motivation as you can see how far you have to go, so I picked the wheel of a guy in front and matched his pace, watching the chain going through the derailleur, trying not to look up. Around the turns and the last bit kicks up as so many hills do, one more session out of the saddle and some shoulder swinging and me and my wagging seat post were over the crest.

This is my "if you point that camera at me again I will rip your face off" look grrrrrr

Dave, my riding partner, was some way behind so I decided to push on to work out some of the lactic in my legs and had a fast run to the feeding station where I met up with Ian and Bazza, two others in our party.

Now I like a busy feeding station, not for the feeding, you should be topping up as you go, no I like the chat and banter with other cyclists as they tell their tales of rides and hills, the club colours, Dulwich Paragon, London Phoenix, London Tri, i cyclist, VC Elan and numerous other Velo Clubs from round the area, great atmosphere, especially as we were only 9 miles out.

9 miles out but with the infamous sting in the tale – Star Hill in our way and cold streaming rain starting to fall. Star Hill- not a particularly hard hill, long but steady but with 50 miles in your legs it really is a sting in the tail. Star Hill comes on you suddenly, there is a road sign saying Star Hill Lane that is the first clue of what awaits you as the gradient slowly picks up. This gradually increases in severity but never to the point where your legs scream no more. I spotted the official photographer so figured he would be at the most painful bit as he wants the sweaty, straining pain wracked picture that he knows will sell. Once past him I figured I had it nailed. It went on and up but the gradient did not steepen or kick up, just nice and steady I even managed to overtake a few, hey some people were walking, this feels good. One of the cyclists at the feed station had said compared to Bailey’s Hill this was a fairly easy climb, although tired legs would make it doubly hard, but he said “if you can do Bailey’s you can do this” so I felt pretty confident.

Cresting the top of Star Hill in the streaming rain I confess I gave the air a little punch of triumph and a quiet yesssss! To myself.

I think my face tells the story of what Star Hill is like

Two miles to go…

Two miles of up, down and more climbing and pouring February rain. On the ride in I met a guy out for a Sunday ride, not in our race, and he pulled alongside me. Now this is one of the things I love about cycling the camaraderie and random chats you have with strangers whilst riding along. I don’t know his name, he was riding a rather fetching Bianchi, but he was telling me that he used to ride this ride when it was known as the Catford Reliability Trial and told me tales of old as we rode in, he showed me a little loop that cut off the main road bit and we made our goodbyes. I rode the final bit with another bunch who were having some fun on the final run in, swooping along in a mini peloton and finally crossed the line in 6hrs 23minutes and 36 seconds. A bit out of my target time of 6 hrs, but very happy to have got round.

And no punctures!! Time to plan and train for next year…

Finish web

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