UPDATE February 2012
— For a Ditchling Beacon map and gradient information, please see here:
223. Cycling on Surrey and Sussex hills – from White Down to Ditchling Beacon;
— And for return routes back to Guildford, see here:
245. London to Brighton, and back;
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And rising too, slowly but relentlessly behind this pretty village, lies the reason that we’re here.
The most famous climb in all of southern England.
The mean city streets of London seem such a long time ago. The start in Clapham lies almost fifty miles behind us, and barely a handful more remain ahead. The countryside is peaceful. Very peaceful.
The chatter and banter of those early miles has faded now. With a myriad and more of cyclists on the road, along the classic route to Brighton – you can hear them, all the way.
Not just the whirr of spokes, the squeal of frantic brakes, or the grinding, mashing sound of crunching gears. There’s a richer, more lyrical sound to listen to, louder and more urgent still than the rhythm of the riders’ breathing.
Much more than that. Because I’ll swear that on these Sussex roads you can hear the spirit of the peloton. And it’s true that the mood of the pack sings almost audibly along the roadside – the unspoken thoughts and anticipation of this mobile stream some twentyseven thousand strong, pedalling joyfully across a green and pleasant land.
And now it’s fallen strangely silent. The pace has slackened, noticeably, for a mile or two behind. I listen hard, but it’s something else I hear now – the deafening sound of silent tension which hangs heavy in the air.
Ditchling Beacon is in sight. The green monster, and it’s waiting for us just ahead.
I gird my mental loins for a moment, and try to think.
There was no marathon in the plan this spring – injury put paid to that. But all winter long, this ride has lain in front of me.
It’s not a race today – with waves of starters spread out over four hours, that’s something this could never be. Long minutes ticked by at all those South London traffic lights. We had to walk one section, up a narrow chalky lane to Chipstead, because there was simply no way round all those other riders on the road.
And so our time, our speed – they don’t matter.
But all the same, today’s the day.
Every Saturday since December, I’ve toiled an hour or two along my Surrey lanes. During all those months, I’ve panted my way up some of the steepest hillclimbs in the North Downs, done battle with the traffic, and tested both my mountain bike and my road bike too, into near destruction. The bike mechanic in our local shop now knows me well – with all my repairs paying for his fancy holidays this year, I think he should.
And all for this – southern England’s most famous climb.
The Tour de France returns to England next month. And on its last visit, in July 1994, it passed through here on its way from Dover to Brighton, staging one of its traditional ceremonies not far from our route today.
The whole race cavalcade, the caravan, stopped briefly in Forest Row to honour English rider Sean Yates, allowing him to enter his home village in front and pedal on alone to embrace his wife and son.
Yates claimed that day as the proudest of his life, until a brilliant time trial in Portsmouth next day earned him the unexpected and timeless prize of a yellow jersey of his own to wear out of Cherbourg when they landed back in France.
This climb has seen not just Yates, but Tour legends Indurain, Pantani, Riis, Svorada and Virenque, too.
And now it’s my turn. I speak solemnly to my training partner as we leave the village. ‘Don’t wait for me,’ I say. ‘I’ll find you at the top.’ He tells me he’s not confident. I don’t believe it – he’s slaughtered me on every single climb, all year. I force myself to forget that, just for a moment, as I point my front wheel into a gap on the right of the road and concentrate on the task in hand.
The field slows again, as we all strive to find the bottom cog. I gaze forwards as the road eases gently upwards through the trees, but then it’s lost to view around sharp bends. I’m running blind – unsure of what lies waiting up ahead.
‘Pace yourself. This one’s big, remember …’, pants a gruff brute beside me to his following group. Proper cyclists, these, with all the latest kit and shiny bikes. They slowly disappear, leaving me with some good advice to ponder. He’s right – there’s no sense in rushing. I’ve waited months for this
Others beside me have stopped to push, chatting raggedly as they wander up the climb. The walkers are spreading out across the roadspace. There’s still a gap to pass, but only just.
It’s hard work, but I keep it going as best I can, wobbling as I slow to pass mountain bikers, their legs pumping furiously as they flounder amongst ratios much lower than my own.
‘Refreshments – 800 m’ reads a sign on my right – that must be the top. I try to imagine that far, but I can only focus on the tarmac ahead. Just a few metres of it are in my view. A mass of pushing bikes, the drooping helmets beside them telling their tale of a brave battle, fought and lost.
My wheels keep turning. It’s a longer gear than I might have chosen, but I’m moving freely, all the same. I look to my left, where the trees are falling away in the sunshine now, with long grass and a big blue cloudy sky slowly opening up above. To my right – a steep slope rising ever upwards. There lies the heart of the green monster, still beating.
A minute passes. Maybe two. Silence. Uncertainty. Doubt.
Three hundred metres left. Two more cyclists dismount, right in front of me, and for a moment I almost stop. As I pick it up again, there’s a glimpse of clear road ahead and a strange, unfounded optimism rising somewhere. But still I’m waiting for it – the killer incline which I’m sure must lie ahead. Too many times this winter, I’ve pushed too early, and paid the price before the top. I struggle to control that urge to floor it, far too soon.
The road snakes to the right this time. My eyes are stinging as sweat falls from my brow, and I lurch dangerously for a moment to swipe my wrist across my face. I stare down instead, willing the drops to drain another way, but it doesn’t work, so I look upwards into the tiny breeze instead.
The road turns and turns. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but the gradient has eased, just a little. Tired legs can still fail, though, and not one walker is remounting here. I keep going.
And then, suddenly, we round a bend, and the hillside stretches far and flat and level in front of me, the road a narrow strip of grey threaded through five thousand people milling all around. Tradition says I should grab a newspaper from a specatator, and stuff it down my shirt as insulation for a fast descent ahead. But there are no spectators, nor newspapers either, just other riders.
I glance behind me – and the road is empty. My training partner didn’t pass me, so where is he ? I ride on a minute or two to find a space to stack my bike, and then I wander slowly back to the col. He arrives a minute later, panting as he pushes his sad machine up the final stretch.
From atop the ridge, the Sussex countryside falls far away into the distance, looking northwards over all the ground we’ve covered. Fifty miles behind, and only five more left to Brighton.
Six months I’ve trained, for this. But it’s much more time than that. Nearly twentyfive years ago I watched my first cycle race – and it wasn’t Le Tour, but transmissions from the Vuelta, the Tour of Spain, which gripped me, unexpectedly, in the midst of fieldwork through a long and chilly spring.
Wet Sunday afternoons watching the contra-reloj from Cuenca in the Bar Rol John in Salas de los Infantes, and frozen nights under black Castillian skies as I wandered to dinner, wondering if Pedro Delgado had been caught at last today.
Atop this hill, it’s not Armstrong, or Fignon, LeMond, Virenque or even Indurain I think of now. It’s another lone British rider, Robert Millar, climbing calmly and relentlessly on twisting mountain roads through April Spanish rain.
And before I know it, that memory fades into a brilliant, scorching afternoon a few years later, high atop the Pyrenees in a famous Tour de France stage where Millar’s climbing gifts finally reached their peak.
There are five miles more down to Brighton. Good roads, all downhill. A classic sprinters’ finish along fast and flat Madeira Drive. But this is not the Tour, so the traffic’s terrible, and it takes an hour. It doesn’t matter.
Because this ride, this route, and to me, at least, the whole of cycling – it’s all about the climb. And this ascent of Ditchling Beacon – it’s the only classic climb I’ve ever done. The green monster of southern England it may be, but it’s far smaller than fifty others you’ll find on the Tour de France.
Ditchling Beacon – in cycling terms, it’s just a pimple, really. But it was my hill, this year, and for once I made it to the top.
223. Cycling on Surrey and Sussex hills – from White Down to Ditchling Beacon
104. Puke, lies and finishing tape: Brighton 10 km
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles
59. Running in Crawley
131. Brighton Rock