Monday, 2 June 2014

2009 - Cutty to Castle

Buoyed by the success of Coast to Coast I felt invincible and utterly capable, so as 2009 ticked away I set us a southern challenge and treated myself to a bike.  This was a rigid Black Hawk and set me back a princely £100.  In many aspects of life we are told not to blame our tools for our failings, but in cycling, up to a certain price point, there is validity in the correlation between kit and ability.  The bike won me over by being chrome…  and that is where I had stopped when considering the purchase.  I did not consider that it weighed as much as a small continent or that the components were from the dark ages.  The chain received a free upgrade on the same day of purchase because the original snapped less than a mile from the shop and even this failed to flag any issues with my purchase.   

The challenge I put together to test the merits of the new bike was to pedal from the Cutty Sark in London to Hastings Castle (Stopping overnight in East Grinstead), from Hastings castle to Bramber Castle and from there to Farnham Castle.

To us there was no way this was going to be difficult.  First off, we could not imagine how the South could complete with Cumbria and assured ourselves the route would be mainly flat.  This also meant that our daily mileage could be increased to 50 miles a day and all in it was going to be about the riding in company rather than any real challenge.

Mark was not physically fit for the challenge when it finally came around.  His knees betrayed him and his doctors persuaded him to forgo anything physical.  This did not exclude him from the ride as we were able to enlist him as a support car, reducing the challenge further still.  It really was turning out fine, with great weather predicted, no need to haul tents and four splendid days of cycling with friends on easy roads.

Mark collected me from my new house in Farnham on a Thursday morning in August, with Baz riding shotgun and Dan in the back.  Baz and Dan had their rides from the Coast to Coast on the roof of Mark's Mazda and my Black Hawk was lifted into the boot.  With only three able bodied men in the group it was a good job my bike was not going up top.  I also threw my tent and kit bag in the boot and climbed in beside Dan for the drive to the Cutty Sark.

It was already creeping up to 10am when we disembarked from the car and partook in a Starbucks before setting off.  I had maps of the routes and opened up the first which was the Sustrans Down and Weald route 21.  This would take us from London to our stop in East Grinstead and was mostly off-road.  Meanwhile, Mark had taken a drive and was pitched up near Godstone, overlooking a sailing club and enjoying the view of girls in bikinis.

As we cruised along the Waterlink Way out through South London to Beckenham our spirits lifted and I phoned through to Mark to let him know we would be finishing early.  He was overjoyed when I stated we would likely reach Redhill by lunchtime and we could meet in the Garland pub (my old local) for a pint of Lewes Tom Paine.

2pm came and we were not yet in Redhill.  Mark had left the bikini girls and was waiting at the Garland, but unable to have a drink due to driving limits.  He asked for an new ETA, which I gave him as 3pm, unaware that we were now entering the Downs proper as we crossed the border into Surrey.

3pm came and went.  Baz suffered from having to wait at the top of climbs, or amused himself by trying to get snapped by speed cameras on descents while he waited, managing to do the race down the hill and cycle back up before we even reached the top.  Dan suffered as he pedalled up these climbs and I generally walked behind pushing my lead horse beside me.  4pm came and went and 5pm drifted by too, but at last the signposts spoke of Redhill.  Unfortunately the "hill" was present in more than just the name and my face bloomed red with effort to complete the name as I tried to climb it.

6pm ticked by as we hurtled downhill after a gut busting climb from Bletchingly Road to High Street, past the Nuffield Health Centre.  We rolled onto the forecourt of the Garland and never have I been so pleased to see a pint of Tom Paine waiting for me.

As we supped we discussed the failing light.  Our route was supposed to take us from Redhill to East Grinstead where we had a camp site booked.  Sore legs and logic saw to it that this part of the route would forsake pride and be completed by car.

Day 2 – East Grinstead to Hastings  

Ashdown Farm was a wonderful camp site, with chickens and cockerels roaming around and a purpose dug fire pit on our plot.  We set the tents up using the car headlamps to aid us in the dark and drank beer by the fire, realising how much we had underestimated the Surrey Downs.

The next morning after packing up we had breakfast in the farmhouse and discussed plans again.  Our route from East Grinstead took us on country lanes for about 10-15 miles until we picked up the traffic free Worth Way and Forest way.  These were both disused railways and promised a well-earned break from the hills encountered the day before.  Then in an attempt to reach our destination in the daylight we skipped the country lane section and had Mark drop us off at the start of the Worth Way.

3 minutes after drop off we called Mark back to almost where he had left us to drop off the tools to fix a puncture.  He drove by slowly with the music slamming out of his car, wound down his window and pretended to put "a cap in our ass" before speeding off laughing.  On his second drive-by he actually stopped and the puncture was fixed, so we were able to drop down from the village onto the cycleway.

We set off at a good pace and we held it too, cruising along what really was a beautiful and not at all challenging cycle path.  We passed through tunnels created by the canopy, passing dog walkers and like-minded riders, encouraged by the miles that seemed to be slipping away behind us.  We moved along so effortlessly that we were able to chat and for some reason a news article one of us had seen moved the subject onto our disgust of child abuse.  This subject set a flame inside Dan who had not long become a dad and was the only one of us currently with children.  This flame then became a fury and his legs transformed into maniac pistons.  He was off like a rocket, driven mad by whatever he had imagined and it took Baz and me every ounce of energy to catch him up.  

The "Rage Burst" did the trick at calming Dan down and we continued on the cycleway talking on different subjects, but then a beast I was not expecting to show started to make a noise.  I was not completely surprised as I carried the relevant drugs with me just in case, but the warnings of the first cluster headache of the season started to get clearer and clearer.  Idle chat as had been the staple for the day started to become a chore for me as my eye experienced the boring pain, my head became heavier and my jaw tighter.  Miles started to feel very long and the unchanging cycleway started to become monotonous. 

On the outskirts of Hastings we came out of the cycleway and climbed a shallow ramp to the road, with tall grass meadows to one side and tarmac to the other.  As I climbed so too did the pain in my eye and by the time I reached the path beside the road I was already entering my personal hell and swallowing my opiates.

I knew I was taking the drugs too late to halt the rise of the cluster.  A short ride through searing pain took us to a Halfords car park and I dropped the Black Hawk down and embraced the pain, marching in bare feet and clutching my face, oblivious to the others or the Halfords customers passing who thought I was having a stroke.  Mark soon met us and the car was loaded while I clenched, paced and writhed in agony.  The attack and the drugs sent me into a fragile state and fatigue washed over me as the attack subsided almost an hour later.  Again the day ended with a car ride to our camp site.

Day 3 – Hastings to Shoreham

We had camped at Shearborne Holiday Park which was everything that our farm from the night before wasn’t.  Campfires were the art of the devil and natural darkness was banished by jaundiced lights on leggy poles at every fifty yards.  Breakfast, rather than in a cozy cottage, was in a bar that stank of the binge drinking from the night before.  I would normally have been one of those drinkers but my Cluster attack and the challenge itself had robbed the option from our group.

In the morning we set off down a steep hill in the rain and my cheap brakes reminded me of my mortality.  Very quickly, a little too quickly, we reached the coast and turned into a fierce headwind, heading for our next stop at Shoreham.  I was weakened by the Cluster attack and aware that another was due without warning.  I was however comforted by the thought of a 48 mile flat ride along the coast to our next stop.

The wind was soon accompanied by showers but we made good time, despite the headwind, and stopped for coffee with Mark at Eastbourne.  The rain died off soon after we restarted, but the error of my ways (and revelation on my appalling geography knowledge) began to take payment.

Eastbourne is the start of the South Downs Way and the first climb is not to be sniffed at.  Well known, Beachy Head will test the finest legs, but mine were far from fine and the headwind had reached hurricane strength gusts that simply stopped us all in our tracks when it blew.  Baz was first to the top, Dan after him and me last.  The descent should have given some reprieve, but the wind was strong enough to even deny us the ability to roll and we found ourselves pedalling down.  We were now also competing for space alongside traffic.  When one driver actually went out of his way to block Baz from passing, nearly knocking him off his bike, our enthusiasm started to plummet.

We were a trio of broken men as we rolled into Brighton to share a beer with Mark at a pub near the foot of the pier.  We each opted for a Dark Belgium and maybe it was the effect of the morning or just a reluctance to return to the headwind that encouraged us to order a second.

We had 7.3 miles to go before reaching The Red Lion Inn at Shoreham.  We cycled 5 of them and travelled in the car to the end, which was firmly becoming a theme of the challenge.

Day 4 – Shoreham to Farnham 

Sadly, this part if the day with regards to cycling is all for Baz to tell.  Our night away from camping, staying in a relatively adequate Inn, led to indulgence in food and drink on a grand scale.  Despite being harangued by a couple of local girls and nearly being married off against his will, Baz was back on the road riding solo.  This had been agreed the night before after another cluster had taken the last of my optimism and enthusiasm. Dan's Mark's and my day instead started with a full English breakfast and  a quick visit to Bramber Castle before driving home.

We Met Baz back at mine, coming into Farnham after him as his pace was no longer hindered by me or Dan.  The reward for his efforts was to have his toe sliced open when my wife dropped a vase on his foot.

All was well though.  The Black Hawk went on ebay and was not missed.  In fact it sold for £40 more than I had paid for it and Surrey and Sussex now had my respect.  I had been thoroughly defeated by lack of fitness, poor planning and a rubbish bike; not to mention cluster headaches and a little too much fondness for real ale.  At this point in my cycling career I was again thinking about fishing.  Hell, I was low enough to even consider golf.

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