King of the Downs 2010
Excuses first: I accidentally rode 40 miles the day before, got too little sleep and didn’t have a proper breakfast. Other than that, preparation was perfect. This was my first ride on a hot and sunny day and I was joined by three friends planning to ride the first loop of this Evans-organised sportive in the Surrey Hills, North Downs and Ashford Forest. Dougy was all in black – the Milk Tray Man – Bob came dressed as Mark Cavendish, and Harn looked ready for a day at the beach. I was hoping to make it all the way round the course, billed as the toughest in Evans’ ‘Ride It!’ series of events, which would be my first mass-participation ride on the hottest day of the year so far; 113 miles with 9,000ft of climbing.
Registration and Rollout
There were around 1,500 cyclists signed up and registration seemed fairly well organised with basecamp at the Evans store near Gatwick airport. I had got a little bit lost on the way from the train station so didn’t have time for porridge, just enough to grab a timing chip and stroll over the blue mat which activated the device then roll out in a group of around 20 people. The route was plugged into my Garmin Edge 705 which bleeped irritatingly at every bend in the road rather than at every junction. It was fairly redundant as we were given paper maps, were following other riders and the route had pink arrows all over the place anyway, but the bleeps were occasionally handy when giving advance warning of sharp turns on descents.
The Western Loop
Bob, currently training for a triathlon, set off at a suicidal cracking 40km pace and it wasn’t long before we hit the first of the day’s 10 marquee climbs, Leith Hill; 451ft of climbing in 2.1 miles with some properly steep sections to open the legs up. I laid an early claim to the polka dots with Bob a close second (he was going for the green jersey anyway), Dougy third and Harn getting used to his new pedals in fourth.
We saw some signs saying Coldharbour, and for a moment Bob thought he was back on his training run up Denmark Hill, but the stunning countryside couldn’t have been further from Camberwell. Next up was Pitch Hill, a slightly steeper average gradient but more consistent than Leith Hill; 559ft of climbing in 2.1 miles, not too difficult now the legs were warmed up and a nice descent through Winterfold Wood by way of reward. Bob was pushing the pace along the flats, stretching us out, and we all regrouped at the first drinks stop.
There was a mechanic on hand who sorted out my bike so I could use the bottom gear (it was used a lot), some fantastic cake, lots of bananas, energy bars and SIS energy drinks. I took some ridicule for having too much stuff in my pocket pouches, but everyone had a go on my factor 50 suncream regardless.
Soon after the stop we hit Combe Bottom, a gentle 422ft of climbing in 2 miles, followed by some fairly technical descending along tractor trails. By this stage a lot of the riding was still under the cover of forest, rendering the factor 50 a bit unnecessary and making the potholes tricky to spot, but the late-blooming Bluebells under the trees made for some pleasant scenery.
By now the pink triangle signifying the start of a climb was a familiar sight, but Ranmore Common didn’t hold much fear at 271ft of climbing in 1.5 miles. Soon after that we started out on the final climb of the Western Loop, Box Hill. It was the most ‘French’ of the day’s climbs, boasting a couple of hairpins and maintaining a steady gradient. Good preparation for this year’s Etape would be re-running this first half of the sportive and adding a few reps up Box Hill for that Tourmalet feeling. I just about had time to whip out my camera at the top and snap the rest of the group coming up, less for the sake of the photos, more for the proof that I was first. Dougy was next to the top, Harn finding his rhythm in third and Bob paying for his early pace but not far behind. Amazing view from the top, spoiled by some cyclists in the way…
We still had around 15 miles to go before returning to the event centre which was fairly arduous with some energy-sapping false flats and bright sunshine for the shadesless Harn to endure. Bob set the pace on this stretch with me trying to hold his wheel and the other two not far behind. I would have been quite happy to bank the day at this point, Harn and Bob making the wise decision to stick with their original plan and head off for lunch, but with the Ventoux sportive two weeks away I felt compelled to continue.
The Eastern Loop
Dougy had handed his timing chip over but joined me for the first part of the second half on his way back home, and displayed the benefits of not going to British Miltary Fitness sessions the day before a big bike ride by setting a good pace up Tulleys Farm, a gentle 252ft of climbing in 1.8 miles. We then said our goodbyes, so alone and with a long way to go I latched onto a passing group who dragged me along past the Weir Wood Reservoir and then up the Weir Wood hill, a slightly tougher 342ft of climbing in 1.3 miles. I knew there was a long way to go and the infamous ‘Wall’ was coming up, so settled in behind a couple of guys going at a modest pace and tried to conserve some of my dwindling energy. The eighth climb of the day gets its name from the straight slab of tarmac which rears up in front of you, apparently vertical and without end.
The stats back up the perceived difficulty, 406ft of climbing in 0.9 miles giving it the steepest average gradient of any climb in the day although it didn’t seem to have the steepest section, as I was to find out later… Unfortunately one of my pacemen got a puncture so I slogged up alone and caught the back wheel of another group. I think this effort to show Mark Cavendish how to do a two-finger salute was my celebration at the top. What came next was easily the hardest section of the day pyschologically. I was approaching my distance record and had never gone this far with so many vertical metres in the legs, on such a hot day. More than that, every group ride starts out fun and you take it all as it comes, appreciating the scenery and most of all the banter, milestones taking care of themselves. But once you can’t stomach another banana, power bar or gel sachet and still have a long way to go, you start looking for some way to count down until the end. The King of the Downs was broken down into 10 climbs, so counting them off was the obvious way to go but I hadn’t checked my map so didn’t know what was in store. I vaguely knew that Yorks Hill was next, and that it is a difficult hill, but I hadn’t realised it was over 20 miles away and there were three unmarked strength-sapping climbs en route making it impossible to find a rhythm – when was climb number 9 going to arrive?
So far I firmly prefer the swollen, indifferent undulations of France over the perky little hills of England; they seem so pleased to see me but the feeling is not mutual. Then again perhaps I should reserve judgement until I’ve wrestled with the Ventoux and Tourmalet. I was so tired when I started Yorks Hill that I didn’t realise it had started, but this became obvious soon enough; it is 394ft of climbing in 1.1 miles and feels like it gets steeper and steeper. At one point the rider in front of me slowed almost to a standstill so I nipped through a very narrow gap on the right, only to hear the expensive crunch of carbon as he wobbled off his bike and caused a small pileup of around four bikes behind me. This, however, was not the time to go back and help so I pushed on past the walkers and the official photographer, but something in my counter-intuitive nature didn’t respond well to the guy sitting down who said ‘keep going!’ so – for shame – I had to get off the bike and join the walkers, not realising there were only around 15 metres to the final feed station. I got there around an hour before the 4pm cutoff and found I was not the first to arrive; all that remained was water and bananas, almost a surprise to find the water tanks were not propped up on bricks. I tried to stretch my legs but they kept going into spasm, so just lay down under a tree for a while and thought how nice it would be to have a 40-day unsupported wander in the Atacama Desert.
With around 25 miles and one major climb remaining, I didn’t think I felt all that bad as I clambered back onto the bike, but the person who ironically snorted “you look ready for this!” didn’t help matters. His appraisal of my state was more accurate than mine, and after setting off alone I soon found myself in serious trouble, aimlessly trying to turn a very low gear on a flat stretch and not really knowing what was going on.
Two guys came past me at a reasonable pace and I realised I needed to get on their wheels. I hung on for deal life, unable to utter a word, as they dragged me along towards Titsey Hill, site of the Bec CC Hill Climb and up there with the steepest gradients of the day; 386ft of climbing in 0.8 miles. It felt tough and most people seemed to be walking, but I stuck with the first of my two pacemakers after I think the other had some gear trouble. To complete my set of lame celebrations, I pulled out a Tim Henmanesque fist pump for the camera as we approached the top – I’m sure I should have looked more tired than this…
All that remained, then, was to make it through the remaining 15 flat miles hanging on like a mute limpet (is there any other kind?) to the group in front. I wouldn’t say I’m terrible on the flat but I’m no Sean Yates and definitely prefer the hills in general. The final section of any hilly ride is always a personal challenge and this was no exception, especially when our bunch started going past other riders and picking up momentum. I saw the ’10km to go’ sign and continued to hold on with gritted teeth, but after another 5km – so close to the finish – I started hallucinating and knew I had to get off the bike or risk a serious accident. I found someone’s front garden and lay down until my head stopped spinning, watching all the riders I had overtaken streaming past. So this is what that other ‘wall’ feels like. Probably a good thing I got to experience this before the big French challenges coming up, but not something I’m particularly keen to go through again. The last stretch of a ride normally involves the biggest roads with the most traffic, ideally avoided when going through a self-induced delirium. I finally reached the event centre and strode across the blue mat, accepting my paltry goody bag and asking if it had any good drugs in it, much to their amusement. They seemed to think I was joking. Unfortunately the timing chip didn’t seem to work so it’s a good job I had my Garmin to prove I made the distance (which does not include the Gatwick Express…):
This was around 25 miles further than I had ridden before, around 2,000ft more climbing, and I hadn’t gone so far the time I climbed the most (that was when we did the Col de Vence). A big step up without any further knee complaints, and perhaps no surprise I utterly bonked towards the end. I’m sure it will stand me in good stead for the Ventoux in a fortnight, and I’ll be using some of the route again in preparation for the Etape. Here is a link to a page with scans of the official maps in case anyone wants to take it on, just contact me if you want the full resolution versions. Overall it was a well organised event, although they were running out of supplies by the end and should have made more cake. Apparently if you eat 26 bananas you hit your potassium poison threshold and instantly drop dead; I was probably just a few bites short last Sunday. The goody bag was a disappointment, not so much as a lollipop but plenty of Evans propaganda, and it would have been nice if my timing chip had worked. However these are minor gripes and I’ll be looking out for similar events to take on in the near future; it was a great way to discover new routes and catch up with the boys.