Having finally got the 'London' in the 'London to Brighton Bike Ride' out of the way, it was time to settle down into the 'to Brighton' bit. Overall there was a strong sense of camaraderie around my fellow cyclists, although there was also an understandable undercurrent of frustration. I could tell that everyone else on the bike ride had expected to ride their bikes, not queue for an hour by traffic lights. Many cyclists, hoping to make up lost time, began being reckless, cycling on the wrong side of the road and living dangerously in futile efforts to make up lost time. Although I understood their frustration, I could not condone their way of expressing it, as that sort of behaviour gives all cyclists a bad name. The whole point of an official bike ride of this nature is that it is a ride, not a race. The instant you adopt a race mentality you have lost – the aim is to get to the end having enjoyed yourself, the prize is for finishing, not for being speedy. Any hope for a fast finish had already gone out the window.
The truth was that, although I had expected to begin the day bunched up, only for the group to separate out as the day went on, with faster cyclists ahead and slower cyclists behind, as each individual adopted their own cycling pace, the truth was that this did not happen on the day. There were too many cyclists, and I was never really able to cycle at my normal cycling pace and instead was forced to cycle slower than normal. But I was cycling at a reasonable speed, which is better than staying still.
At around 11:30am I passed Woodmansterne Village Hall without stopping. This was the first official checkpoint, also known as a T&P1 Stop, of 16 along the route, and located about 10 miles into the ride. Soon after I came to the first hill. Sadly at this hill all progress once again stopped; the road was full of stationary cyclists. This was the start of a pattern that would repeat on each and every hill I would come to, except the very exceptional final one. With every hill, as the number of cyclists was so high, many of whom are inexperienced and unable to cycle up steep slopes, many of the cyclists on the day dismounted to walk their bikes up to the top. This is only natural and I'm sure that every cyclist has walked their bikes up a hill at one time or other, even Olympic gold-winning cyclists like Danni King or Bradley Wiggins (although they may have been aged 5 last time they did so).
Yet sadly the stopped cyclists had spread all across the road from one side to another, forcing every cyclist that approached the hill to stop, dismount and walk. What was needed was more organisation, with people wishing to walk up the hill kept on the left while those wishing to cycle able to do so on the right, a method which would keep things moving rather than result in a slow crawl to the top.
Ten minutes later I passed the second stop point, Chipstead Rugby Club, at around the 15 miles point. It had just gone 12 noon, nammet time. My original intention had been to be at least 25 miles before my first stop, but I needed the loo and was hungry, so decided to stop. I was also encouraged by a big sign promising sausage and bacon sandwiches, but when I arrived they'd run out. I had no choice but to eat my cheese, pickle and watercress sandwich I'd brought with me. As for the toilets, both the toilet trailers were closed off, leaving only 5 portaloos in service, with a big queue. This definitely put people off, as men and women kept disappearing into the bushes surrounding the area, ensuring that the vegetation was well watered. It took a while but I made it to the front. The other thing that sticks in my mind about the stop was the way that the ice-cream vans were lined up next to the ambulances. After about a 20-minute stop I was off.
From the Fanny Farm to the Curious Pig in the Parlour
It wasn't long before I passed by the next checkpoint stop, amusingly called Fanny's Farm, and the first steep downhill of the day. This was very enjoyable, although there were a number of reckless cyclists trying to see how fast they could go, weaving in and out of traffic on both sides of the road unpredictably. My approach in such extreme crowds was to keep a reasonable space around me as much as possible, to try to keep to a straight line and not weave, to ensure that other cyclists would be able to predict my movements and keep the chances of a collision to an absolute minimum. On this and other steep downhills, the roadside was lined with bales, so that should any cyclist lose control, they would at least have something soft to crash into.
The road passed beneath the M25, the world's largest ring-shaped car park2. Shortly after another checkpoint, Nutfield Marsh, and the 20 mile point was passed, and another hill where no-one could move for 15 minutes. Yet with the M25 and London behind us, the ride began to feel more rural, with the checkpoints passed by reassuringly having country names, such as 'Nutfield Marsh' and country pubs like 'The Dog & Duck'.
There also began to be more people cheering us on, including whole Scout3 troops. Many children offered drinks, waved flags or banners marked with encouraging slogans, or even 'Go on, Dad!', or held their hands out for high fives. Only one or two chucked water over passing cyclists' heads.
Soon I reached the next checkpoint, where I stopped for a quick toilet break. This stop was named after the pub, 'the Curious Pig in the Parlour', and a sign was outside proudly boasting that it marked the 27 mile halfway point. Despite the name, which I felt practically guaranteed the ability to produce a sausage and bacon sandwich and the smell of a barbecue, this stop too was out of bacon. Still, it had taken far less time to cycle the last 25 miles than it had to cycle the first 2 and a half. After a quick toilet break I was off once more.
The next ten miles were on the whole, fairly fun cycling. I soon passed the next stop, Crawley Down, but was soon after forced to dismount as we approached Tuners Hill. This was another hill in which the road ahead was blocked from hedgerow to hedgerow to stopped cyclists, and it took several minutes to slowly walk up to the top. The higher up the hill, the narrower the road got and the slower any form of progress got. Near the top the road widened, and there was a sign proudly advertising the local pub and a beer festival, as well as an official stopping off point, but after barely moving for so long, it was time to get back on the bike. I soon cycled the very last section of hill and was back on the move again. And having ascended, the next few miles were on the whole downhill. After about five miles I passed the Ardingly Showground, followed by Wakehurst Place, a National Trust property. Soon after I began to see places I recognised as we approached the village of Lindfield.
When I was in the Sixth Form at Sandown High School, one of my friends was Natalie, and we've stayed close friends. She now marries on the Lindfield/Haywards Heath border along with her husband, Will, who was a Games Journalist and now making games themselves, including Alien Isolation4. In fact, I spent New Year's Day in Lindfield, celebrating their son's first birthday, and soon cycled through the charming Sussex village, passing the pub where he had his party followed by the church where they got married, the pub where they had the reception and soon arrived at Lindfield Common, which is where they had a few photographs. Today it was being used as a checkpoint, so I stopped, parked my bike up against a convenient tree for the final stop-off of the day and investigated the barbecue tent. Guess what? No bacon, not a sausage. So I had an ice-cream instead, filled my camelbak with water and went back to the bike, where I noticed that the tree I'd parked my bike against was, in fact, Lindfield's Millennium Oak. I hadn't seen that before as someone else's bike had obscured the sign. It's a good tree. If you're ever in Lindfield and in need of a tree to admire, I heartily recommend it.
Beating the Beacon
After Lindfield Common the road headed through Haywards' Heath, location of a fine miniature railway, and passed the 40-mile mark. But in order to get to Brighton, the route had yet to ascend the South Downs. Leaving Hayward's Heath, I began to approach the South Downs and the most infamous part of the journey; Ditchling Beacon. Ditchling Beacon is the hill that divides the southern side of Sussex from the north, and I believe is the highest hill in Sussex. It loomed ahead like a giant green wall, fencing off the sky.
The stop points were coming thick and fast now, with barely an inch between them; Wivelsfield, Ditchling Common, Ditchling Nurseries, Ditchling Village – all seeming to say that the Beacon was coming, and the condemned on the road deserve a hearty last meal5.
Soon I reached the Beacon's bottom, with the wall of the hill lurking over me, casting a shadow over the land all around. For this one hill, cyclists ascending on foot were keeping left, ensuring that only those fellows foolhardy enough to try to cycle to the top had room on the right. As this was the first hill I'd had a chance to actually cycle up that day, I was determined that I would be one of the lucky/foolhardy few to cycle to the top. Soon I was sounding like a steamroller, wooshing and wheezing, forcing the breath to exhale from my lungs while the pistons of my legs rotated the wheels, but my progress was sure and steadfast and though it seemed to take an eternity, I reached the top having cycled all the way. From there it was a simple, relaxing descent for 8 miles into the city of Brighton.
Brighton and Back
The road to Brighton was fairly uneventful, downhill, fairly clear and quite smooth. Sadly, as soon as the outskirts of Brighton's city centre were reached, again cyclists were packaged and packed together in a narrow, confined space, roped off from the moving traffic into former bus lanes, awaiting their turn for traffic lights to change. Although not as bad as London, the last mile took far, far longer than that distance would normally. Eventually it was my turn to move, and finally I was able to approach the bike ride's finish line close to the pier. The welcome to Brighton was phenomenal, with a crowd of cheering people and everyone being presented with a medal as they crossed the line.
But I was at Brighton, the end of the bike ride and the point where I could relax. Except not quite. Sadly, Southern Railway had announced that they would not allow any bicycles to be carried on any train from Brighton on the day of the London to Brighton Bike Ride, possibly in retaliation that since the evil era of Dr Beeching, so many former railway lines have turned into cycle routes. How would I get home?
I wasn't initially in a hurry to head home, after all, this was the first time I'd been in Brighton since the 1980s. Last time I'd been to Brighton, back in the 1980s, there'd been two piers in the town, but now Brighton was a city and only had one. I suppose that's progress. So I thought I'd head to Volk's Electric Railway and have a ride. Sadly, it seemed to be on strike in sympathy, as it had a giant sign outside saying it was closed on the day of the bike ride. Oh well, I might be back in Brighton in another 30 years, maybe it'll be open then?
After quickly noticing that the beach at Brighton was still inferior to that on my hometown of Sandown6, I left the city centre to head along National Cycle Route 23 a couple of miles to Hove. The organisers had arranged coach transportation from Hove back to Clapham Common, and had provided lorries for the bikes to put in the back of. Each of us were asked to wrap our bikes in bubble wrap, while we were taken to the coach. If there is a knack to bubble wrapping a bicycle, I've certainly not got it. So instead of being able to catch a train along the coast, the way home consisted of a 2-hour journey north up to London and Clapham Common, a short bike ride back along the Londony streets to Clapham Junction, a 45-minute wait there for a train heading back to the South Coast.
So to conclude, though I enjoyed the bike ride, I have come to the conclusion that there are two minor problems with the ride; namely London and, to a lesser extent, Brighton. But although both 'London' and 'Brighton' in the London to Brighton Bike Ride were disappointing, I really enjoyed the 'to'.
And besides, I got a medal, though. And if there's one thing that watching Wreck It Ralph a dozen times has taught me, it's that if you win a medal, you automatically get to live in a Penthouse. So any day now I'll get a new flat. Any day...