Eastbourne of Eden

March 19, 2015

I have often said that the thing I like most about road cycling as opposed to any other form of sport is that your ride starts and ends at your own front door. After travelling to South Wales for the first leg of my attempted Dodecaudax, I was happy to make my house the start point for the second part. The advantages were: not having to get up at 5 a.m., having a luggage-free bike, and having pre-ride breakfast in my own kitchen after feeding my own cat.

I set off at a leisurely 7:30 in the morning, riding straight into the bright early sunshine of a clear day. The low sun was a defining feature of the early miles, actually making visibility extremely difficult at times and making me glad of another defining feature: lack of traffic. South-East England has a dense population of cars and they usually make their presence felt if you’re riding around here, but on a Sunday morning they take a while to get started. A light frost on gardens and rooftops soon melted away in the sun, and the roads were dry and clear of danger. I rolled out Eastwards from Croydon at a steady rhythm, trying not to let my enjoyment of the morning bring on any unnecessary fast riding that I would regret later.

Still, I made good time over the first leg of the journey, roughly defined as taking me as far as Tunbridge Wells. A great advantage of a ride on home turf is that it’s easier to navigate: I had made cue cards for the route with indications of junctions and road numbers, but the first twenty kilometres as well as the last twenty-five were so familiar that no directions were called for. So I rode on non-stop out along the A21, turning South at Knockholt and running down through Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, reaching Tunbridge Wells just as the Sunday morning traffic started to get into its stride. Here the lack of any noticeable signposts caused me a minor wrong turning, but after some riding back and forth and cursing I managed to find a public map that directed me to where I needed to go. I should point out that I didn’t have a map of any description with me for this ride. I’m still looking for one that covers the entire area I hope to be riding in, yet is sufficiently detailed to be useful. So I decided to write my cue sheets meticulously and rely on those, together with my familiarity with the area. This was a partial success. I made the route using internet mapping software, which does have an unpleasant tendency to disregard things I consider significant, like the difference between major and minor roads and, indeed, between roads and paths.

Anyway, after finding my route out of Tunbridge Wells I continued South through the area that would prove to be the scenic highlight of the ride, the Sussex Downs. Rolling hills, forest, some nice back roads well-chosen by the mapping software, warm if slightly hazy sunshine were the elements of this highly enjoyable stretch of the journey. It was all going well until I reached Hailsham and needed to find my way in to Polegate. Approaching the coast, the roads become a little bit convoluted and the software had come up with what looked like an ingenious method of keeping me off noisy and intimidating dual carriageways. What wasn’t immediately obvious to me, however, was that this involved the use of the “Cuckoo Trail” which is a designated cycle track. Now, as everyone knows, there is a correct way for people out on a Sunday-morning walk with the dog, the kids, or preferably both, to behave on cycle paths. Everyone also knows that the correct thing to do is to spread out across the path in order to take up as much room as possible, and then to walk along really slowly without dedicating the slightest bit of attention to the possibility that anyone else may wish to use the path. The result from my point of view was that two miles of cycle path were some of the longest of the whole trip, because of the quickly worn-off novelty of slowing down to walking pace, shouting a friendly “hello” and then waiting patiently for startled walkers to get out of your way.

Emerging gratefully back onto traffic-inhabited tarmac, I began to approach the coast and the turning point of my ride at Eastbourne. Like any self-respecting Londoner feeling the need for a change of air and an escape from the city, I had selected the South Coast as my destination. Brighton is the resort of choice, but a straight run there and back doesn’t provide enough kilometres for the discerning randonneur, and besides, I thought it might be nice to see more of Sussex. Hence finding myself faced with the usual difficulty of passing through a coastal town: you have to descend almost to sea-level only to climb back again. I made the eventual right turn and headed up out of town to the cliffs. Roadsigns indicated an average gradient of 12%, which continued over what felt like a good distance. Still anxious not to burn any excess energy, I spun the pedals gently up the climb while going at no more than a fast walking pace, grateful for a light bike and a good range of gears. About halfway up, unexpectedly, the sight of the Eastbourne YHA Hostel triggered a memory long unthought-of. I vaguely recall a weary trudge up this very hill, in the past life known as early adolescence, on an after-school club summer trip. The road runs on over the cliffs, past Beachy Head, swooping down quick, sharp descents and back up the other side of tiny valleys. The sight of the sea is inspirational to city dwellers, and its effect on me is not attenuated by the experience of the many years I spent living on another coast, six hundred miles North and facing a different direction. The undulations in the road, as well as the scenery, the sense of achievement at having got here by my own effort and approaching the halfway point of the road, brought on the kind of euphoria that makes an early start and long ride truly worthwhile. You have to keep remembering how far you’ve gone and how far there is to go, however, and legs don’t pedal themselves. Arriving in Newhaven at gone two o’clock in the afternoon, I decdided that lunch was long overdue. I stopped at a supermarket and bought some sandwiches, then put my coat on to eat them on a bench overlooking the harbour. The sun had gone in by this point and what I would describe as a stiff sea breeze was blowing. Although no longer warm, it wasn’t yet particularly unpleasant.

Soon after leaving Newhaven, however, that changed dramatically. Heading over the cliffs on the last stage towards Brighton, the wind got up suddenly, bringing with it heavy rain and occasional hail. While no fan of riding in wet conditions, I mind them a lot less than I do really high winds. It became difficult to keep moving forward, and necessary to lean hard on the wind in order to avoid being blown into the traffic or, with sudden gusts, the kerb. Soaking began with the feet, which were soon saturated, although the rest of me remained mercifully dry for the present. When planning the ride I’d hoped for a triumphant arrival into Brighton along Marine Drive in spring sunshine, but in reality there was more relief than enjoyment. Glad to make another right turn and head inland and homewards, I counted several times the blessing that I would, now and for the rest of the ride, have the wind behind me. Leaving Brighton, that coastal town thing kicks in again and you begin climbing steeply almost straight away, with little respite until you reach the summit of Ditchling Beacon, a dizzying 248m above sea level. It’s not the fact of having climbed to nearly ten times that altitude on a bicycle that makes climbing easy, though, and when you start at sea level you know you’re climbing. Sometimes being wet and a little cold gives me impetus, however, and I was riding well and mentally ticking off the kilometres to home.

The descent of Ditchling Beacon was something else, though. Fading light and with literal rivers of water running down the road are not the ideal conditions to take on its long, narrow, decreasing-radius corners. A car following close behind did not enhance my enjoyment. At least, having reached the bottom, I knew that I the last major obstacle in the terrain was past, and that all I had to do was endure the rain and make the most of the tailwind for the final run home. By this time, the continuing torrential rain had soaked through all the nominally waterproof clothing I had on, and I was several times tempted to stop in at inviting-looking pubs or cafés and warm up. I held out as far as the King’s Arms at Horley. Here I established continuity with my previous 200km ride, in which I also ended up making a pub stop. In this case, a hot chocolate accompanied by a brandy seemed an appropriate refreshment, and I dawdled over it, hoping forlornly that my socks and gloves might dry out a little. Fearful of the shivers that come from a start from cold in wet clothing, I put the hammer down as much as my tired legs would allow for the final straight and flattish run in along the A23 and home through Croydon. I made it back shortly after 7: 30. I had completed 200km, plus a few extra trying to find the Cuckoo Trail, in little more than 12 hours, or well inside regulation distance. My dodecaudax is therefore on, with only a further eleven rides of a similar nature to be completed.


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