Wet, Wet, Wet
Sands Challenge #1: London to Brighton, Saturday, 13th April 2013
On a very cold, wet and windy day in April 2013, I set out on the first of three ‘Sands’ Challenge’ - a 58-mile cycle ride from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to Brighton Pier. What should have been a pleasant ride was anything but.
Cycling the iconic London to Brighton route is often many people's first long distance cycling event, yet I still hadn't ridden it, despite having done a number of sportives. So, this was going to be the first of my challenges. It also served as a good 'warm up' for the Somerset Gran Fondo in May.
Most London to Brighton rides start in Clapham, but Will (my co-rider for the day) and I opted for starting at St. Paul's Cathedral in the heart of the City of London, mainly because, well it's London to Brighton, not Clapham to Brighton! The weather started off as perfect cycling weather, but there was always the promise of rain. You could feel it in the air, it was just a case of how long it would hold off.
The first 15 miles through Vauxhall, Tooting and Mitcham were fairly boring and constantly interrupted by traffic lights, cars and pedestrians. As we climbed the long, steady incline up through Carshalton and Chipstead, we were starting to feel it in the legs. Looking back at the elevation map, we could see why it was so energy sapping. We also saw a group of 7 or 8 who looked like they were embarking on the same trip, and sure enough we saw them at quite a few points.
We opted for the old skool navigation method of a printed map, which my wife Jen had kindly prepared for us, which became vital at so many points in the trip because we were primarily on B roads (we needed the iPhone a few times to get a sense of direction.)
As we neared the M25 crossing, we realised that we had missed a small turning that would have saved us 2 or 3 miles. We had noticed a turning that was signposted ‘Fanny’s Farm’ and had we not been laughing at the sign like school boys sniggering in class we might have realised we were supposed to take that road.
At 25 miles into the journey, we met Jen for a well-earned cup of tea and cherry muffin at Hunger's End cafe in Merstham. Nice enough cafe, although slightly weird when a lady popped her head in whilst walking her dog.... and her cat! The owner must have known her and popped over to say hello, hugged the cat and nearly shut its head in the door without realising. The cat had a look of ‘why the hell am I on a lead and being taken out for a walk’ about him.
After reluctantly getting ready to set off again, the next agreed meeting point was Ardingly. The rain had started (and never stopped) so it was on with the waterproofs and away we went. The next 15 or so miles were ok, but a bit dull, especially on such a grizzly day as we cycled on B roads that ran parallel to the M23. We needed a rest at the top of Turner's Hill, about four miles outside Ardingly to take a breather and by this point the rain was really thrashing down.
As we arrived in Ardingly, we could see Jen waiting with the camera, we saw a car drive through a big puddle and totally cover two local ‘yoovs’, followed by a police car who did the same, although nowhere near as bad. This sparked an incessant chav-rant whereby the tracksuit-clad youth threw his fold-up scooter into someone’s garden and proceeded to curse at the police car. A welcome bit of drama to pick up our sodden spirits.
Jen had found us a ‘lycra-friendly’ pub, but they weren’t serving food, so we went to the Oak Inn which had a log fire waiting for us. It couldn’t have been more perfect or welcome. We peeled off our waterlogged gloves and placed them around the fire in an attempt to try and speed-dry them.
A round of cappuccinos and tea later, and some refuelling foot at the car and we were ready for the final leg – the ride to Ditchling Beacon (aka The Green Monster).
We felt much more energised for the third leg than we did for the middle section, and picked up some really good pace along the country roads, although the rain had become so heavy that there was a lot of flooding on sections of the road and it was becoming difficult to see.
We took a wrong turn shortly after Hayward’s Heath as we went bombing down this newly-laid road only to find it shut off half way down with Heras fencing. A local chap could see that we were lost and when we told him we were looking for the Beacon, he said; ‘turn around, go down the lane, take a left, then follow your nose.’ Worst directions I’ve ever been given, but he was right and it got us back on track.
After a few miles of riding into a fairly strong headwind, rain hitting us straight in the eyes, we could see it in the distance, lining the horizon like Mount Doom waiting for Frodo and Samwise. It was like a giant green wall in front of us. The decision we made next may or may not have been a good one. A sign to the right said; ‘Brighton’. A sign to the left said; ‘Ditchling Beacon’. So we naturally opted for ‘Ditchling Beacon’, which I don’t think pleased the young lad who had recently tagged on to Will’s wheel. He’d lost his group said he was ‘just following us’ because he didn’t know the way. Sorry mate.
We had feared this part of the journey all day, and by this point we were soaked through, tired and battling against a head wind. And now the ascent started. Into ‘granny gear’ and up we went. Visibility wasn’t great the whole way up and every time you crept around a corner there was another ascent to climb. I lost count of the times I checked to see if I was definitely in first gear, praying there was another to jump into. It seemed to go on for ages, but then finally, there was no more hill in front of us. We’d both done it and without stopping. Now, when you climb a hill such as this, your reward is usually the descent down the hill, coupled with high speeds to help you recover. Not on this day. The headwind coming straight off the English Channel meant we had to pedal downhill most of the way into Brighton.
As we cycled through Brighton towards our end point of Brighton Pier, we started to feel the cold really set in. Then we saw the flashing lights of the iconic pier, and Jen braving the elements to welcome us in. We’d done it!
A few hasty photos at the end, then it was off to the car to warm up, get changed and get some food. I was shaking so much my teeth were chattering uncontrollably.
Harry Ramsden’s was our choice for celebratory fish and chips and a well earned cup of tea.
Thank you to everyone for your support throughout the day on Facebook and Twitter, it kept us going. And a big special thank you to my co-rider Will Lord for keeping me company during the ride – it would have been a lonely ride without you. And thanks must go to Jen for driving our support vehicle, taking photos and meeting us at the end. I think we would have been extremely cold if it hadn’t been for you meeting us at the end with warm clothes and hugs.