Sometimes a ride comes along that sounds too good to miss — It was Tom's fault, really: he rode the Easter Arrow on gears, because, he said, he was practising for The Shark. Wossat? A hilly ride. I was intrigued, but I couldn't work out how to sell it at home, until Mrs W mentioned she would be away that weekend and so I had a free pass out, huzzah!
I spent a couple of weeks trying to work out whether to ride fixed-gear or with a full set of gears, settling on gears on the basis that the ride sounded properly hilly and I had no idea whether I was yet fixed-fit enough for it. This turned out to be a good thing! I fettled my dynamo front wheel back onto the red Ribble steel bike and gave it all a good clean, even fitting a new mudflap on the rear mudguard, in respect of my fellow riders.
The Shark is a ride with AAA climbing points — the route aims for each and every hill along the way. The route elevation profile looks like some sort of hideous mistake, like staring into the mouth of a shark:
It's also one of those rides where, like a shark, you have to keep moving forwards or die! (not literally)
A bit harder than I'm used to — and that's an understatement! The climbing was relentless, the descending mostly of the straight-down variety, a brief respite across the Weald. It was difficult to get a rhythm together and so it felt even harder still — staring up Toys Hill knowing it would take about 15-20 minutes of constant, unrelenting effort to get up, and then getting overtaken by someone much fitter The rain added a certain frisson of hard-done-by, but blew through before the Chiddingly control. The "Ivan-e-strone" soup was delicious and well timed in the ride.
The there-and-back section to Seaford was fun, waving at all the oncoming riders, knowing that they have to climb over the South Downs twice yet
I spent a significant chunk of the day on my own, trying to maintain some sort of pace that wasn't embarrassingly slow, but also rode with Ian, inappropriate_bike, and someone else whose name has been lost. The final run through south London, Ian and I were mobbed by the Crest and Kingston Wheelers riders and we had a blast riding back through all the traffic with them
Thanks Ivan, with Justin, Adam and all the other ACH helpers
If you're interested, a fuller account here:
We started from the Cutty Sark underground car park — due to the somewhat damp weather. It was a little surreal gathering in the dry gloom only to head out into the wet gloom.
Ivan, the organiser, a notable member of the inimitable Audax Club Hackney, made a [quiet] speech and then held a moment's silence for [I think] Lars and Richard, two riders we've lost in the past few months. We then headed up the ramp and out into the Greenwich one-way system.
The route starts in Greenwich and heads almost due south through Kent (brings to mind that old Bob Monkhouse joke: “I’m from Kent. I hear them whisper it as I walk past.”) over High Weald AONB into East Sussex, then across Low Weald and the South Downs to Seaford on the south coast, just east of Brighton. And back again. It's a bit hilly!
We set off at a decent pace. I've noticed a number of audaxes within the extended London area are increasingly drawing a crowd of club riders looking for something a bit different. It's possibly the same crowd of club riders each time — and they're welcome, don't get me wrong — but they do tend to add a bit of pace to the early stages of the ride! We tanked along through the quiet-ish streets of south London, me desperate to keep up and make up some valuable time-in-hand, climbing gently until a sudden left turn and we were in the country … shortly followed by probably the second-steepest climb of the day to Cudham, a mere 15% or so. This blew the pack apart and I was duly dropped from the group!
There followed a steep drop off the ridge down to the M25 — a lot of riders were cautiously descending on the brakes, but I could see the lane was clear to the bottom and let rip, but the headwind limited it to a little over 50kph. The air was still a bit wet and the roads were running streams all over the place, so it paid to keep working hard if only to keep warm!
I've been going pretty well on my fixed-gear bike this season, since I bought it in October. I've ridden some pretty hilly rides, too — nearly 2,500m on one of them. I also rode a 400km Easter Arrow on Tom's team, keeping up with the group, even on a couple of big hills near the finish. So I thought I was fit … time to rethink …
The weather was still drizzly and there was plenty of spray kicked up from rear wheels — I don't really get why some riders have a problem with fitting mudguards, but I guess they'd say the exact opposite. We also appeared to have a bit of a headwind.
Another big climb up to Ide Hill, where a bunch of quicker riders had stopped to note down the info question answer, which was easily memorable, and so I passed them, and it's a long downhill from there. I ended up riding with a rider whose name I didn't get when we got mobbed by the club riders again, just as I dropped my chain on Rogues Hill and was spat out the back of the group. Methinks it has been 5000km or more since I got that chain — it's time to replace it
Kent is one of the old seven kingdoms and brimming with historical buildings. When the routesheet said “R just before Tudor house (dated 1593)”, I thought it would be difficult to spot, but not so:
It's always interesting riding in a new part of the country for the first time. I haven't ever ridden my bike in Kent before and so I don't know what preconceptions to have. The route took us down many lanes and minor B-roads, but it did strike me that even these very narrow rights of way were still busy with motor vehicles — a stark difference to the very quiet lanes (if you know where to look) that we're used to in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, but probably also a stark difference in the opposite direction to what the Hackney-ists are used to.
The long, long climb up to Crowborough gave me plenty of time to consider the pace of the riders in front of me: I could almost reach out and touch them on the climbs, but over the top and they'd stretch a lead of a couple of hundred metres before we concertina'ed together again on the next climb. Over and over — not quite the same speed, but always the same pace.
I caught up and rode in with Richard. As often happens, it turns out we've chatted on yacf forum, but using nicknames, so it was a case of putting a face to a name to a screenname. The rain had stopped by now, so I was steadily drying out, although merino wool, for all its keep-warm properties, takes many hours to do so! However, the brisk southerly breeze did dry the roads pretty quickly, making for a much more pleasant ride.
We eventually rolled into the first full control at Chiddingly together — a small village hall full of cyclists, many of whom were sat staring into the distance, looking like they were contemplating the enormity of the undertaking at hand, and possibly having an internal dialogue about how sensible it would be continue, or whether they should just call it a day and find the nearest train home.
A welcome bowl of "Ivan-e-strone" soup, as Justin called it, and a sandwich and I headed back out — controls are fine for picking up some sustenance, but it's all too easy to spend time stopped longer than necessary, which makes the legs stiffen up and reduces the resolve to finish. Grasp the nettle! I had to ditch layers at this point: the run to the control had me sweating buckets inside my waterproof and I could've done without the Buff, but a Wiggle order that didn't arrive in time meant I was in a full 'proof rather than a waterproof gilet, and I am prone to generating a lot of heat when I'm working hard.
Richard headed out with me, but it was clear he had better legs, as he was freewheeling frequently to allow me to keep up, so I sent him off. Shortly after taht we saw what I think was the first group of riders returning from Seaford — the route is out-and-back from just after Chiddingly for 20km each way, meaning you get to wave at all the riders who are ahead of you, or behind you, depending on where you are in the pack! This group were about 35km ahead of us, although perhaps they were just locals on a club ride, because as I write this that sounds like too big a margin to have made up and I'm pretty sure I wasn't that slow!
This part of the route suited me well: the Low Weald is generally flat and much easier to find a rhythm to the ride. The haul up High and Over — the hill between Low Weald and the south coast itself, and part of the South Downs — was a tough old grind, ramping up to 12% near the top, especially tricky with all the old people out to visit the picturesque Alfriston passing slowly on the steep hill. But the blast down the other side was sweet into Seaford and the info question was a good 'un of the stop-and-investigate variety
However, the wind had a bit of an edge and a bit of rain was starting to blow in off the sea, so the beach was all but empty and I turned and quickly rode off.
Halfway and almost half the climbing complete, it was now time to head back, this time with a bit of a tailwind, and reclimb High and Over. From the south side it's a lot more gradual, and at this point I got to see lots of riders coming in the opposite direction — encouraging me into thinking I was somewhere near the sharp end, but the reality was that a fair number of riders had waved at me too when I was climbing the Downs for the first time It was good to see Allen and Tom in the crowd, although I was surprised not to see Nik, as he'd openly stated his plan to ride. The drop down into Alfriston is very steep and I clocked my top speed for the day of 68kph, still 13kph off my PB (which was on the Brompton from The Cat & Fiddle).
In Berwick we got caught for some time at the level crossing — there was nothing we could do about this, and it enabled me to catch up with a few riders already waiting, including Richard. I was surprised that no more joined us, though, given we were there for so long.
Soon, Richard, who I'd caught at the level crossing, headed straight on when we should've turned left and I followed him — my mistake for following someone else. It only took a few seconds to realise what I'd done and it was one of three instances where I passed a turn and realised as I passed it that I'd gone wrong and turned back immediately. D'oh!
The return across the Low Weald with a tailwind was very pleasant, waving at oncoming riders who must be an hour or more behind, right up until the climbing started again in earnest to Heathfield and then down and up again to the free control at Mayfield. For the final couple of kilometres to the control I could hear a bunch of riders behind me within earshot and I pushed to see if I could stay ahead to the control — the gradient eased slightly and my flatlander legs gave just a bit more and I was able to gain enough ground for the final climb up to the high street.
A sandwich and a bottle of Yazoo milkshake was all I had, plus some Jelly Babies for the saddlebag just in case I bonked later (they're still unopened, although I'm pretty sure I did bonk, several times). I chatted with other riders around me, including Gadget who turned up just as I was preparing to leave.
A quick loo stop and then up the hill to Crowborough … again … it felt like an utter drag at this point in the ride, 150km in just 55km to go, just hill after hill! Fortunately there's a soft stretch thru Hever past the Castle (although you can't see it), before the climbing starts again. BIG time!
I turned right onto Toys Hill Road just as another rider — Ian — caught up with me. I know Ian from Cambridge and Essex rides. It took me a while to realise he was riding singlespeed — not quite fixed, but still pretty impressive. He pointed out that he had walked up a number of climbs, which was a "whew!" moment for me
We started to climb Toys Hill — Ian striding away on the lower slopes and leaving me in his dust … until he had to dismount and then began a 17-minute comedic slow-speed chase up the hill, me pedalling — slowly — and Ian walking up on SPD-SL cleats. It was almost tragic, as we were passed by a number of lighter, quicker riders
Fortunately we got a bit of a rest at the top with an info control at the pub — an opportunity to get off the bike, take a breather and refill bidons. Literally seconds after we stopped, another large group of riders arrived — the club riders from this morning! While they stood around getting berated by the publican for blocking the entrance to the car park, I rolled off down the hill, a lovely downhill, and chased down Ian, who'd left 30 seconds earlier … actually, I just freewheeled down the hill after him …
And then to the final climb of the day — Hogtrough Hill — a 150m climb back up onto the ridge around south London and also the steepest climb of the day. We picked up Gadget and rode together to Pilgrim's Lane where the real climbing starts. Ian, on singlespeed, broke out the 24-inch gear immediately, Gadget also claiming knee pain (I know what that feels like), leaving me to race them up the hill in my bottomest-most gear — 34x27 (33 gear inches) — barely any higher than their 2-feet … I've had to tack up hills before on fixed, but this was possibly the first time I've had to do it on a geared bike (excepting the Brompton). We crested the hill barely metres apart
I am ashamed to admit that plenty of club riders passed us up the hill! I did, however, make it to the top, which meant I'd managed to climb everything on the route, one of my measurements of "success", only some minor dips to go now to the end.
From the high point after climbing Hogtrough, it's basically downhill all the way to the finish, just a few minor hups. Ian and I freewheeled to the bottom of Downe hill and climbed up to Downe, where we rejoined London's road network and began navigating towards Greenwich.
I do enjoy riding through city traffic, when it's moving — you need to be spatially aware at all times, but it's a different kind of riding, and can be as much fun as swooping along abandoned country lanes. In Bromley we got caught by a large group of club riders — Crest and Kingston Wheelers — and we rode the rest of the way in with them. This was great fun, with a gentle downhill, a tailwind, and the energy of group riding — very quick
The final 10% drop into Greenwich is lined with speed bumps, but a gentle lift of the front wheel and they were navigable without slowing to the bottom. A quick right then straight ahead into the one-way to bear right and we were at the finish, the Old Brewery at the Old Royal Naval College.
I rode the event in 10h40m — 9h37m moving — at an average speed of 21.6kph. 208km, 3200m of climbing, Strava here Considering that over six hours were spent climbing, that's not too bad a time for me, a mere flatlander I spent a chunk of the day riding with a few riders, but also a fair chunk on my own, trying to find a rhythm and hiding out of sight of others while grovelling shamelessly up some of the later hills. Still, that's April's RRTY ride out of the way
A great first event from Ivan — thanks to him and all his ACH helpers. A proper challenge for both flatlanders and uplanders, particularly flatlanders! I have a reference, a line in the sand, now, so next time will be a chance to tweak my strategy, spend a little less energy in the early climbs and hopefully go for longer before bonking and finishing with more time in hand — not that 3.5hrs isn't enough, but I like to improve my times by riding and controlling more efficiently year-on-year.
A cracking ride