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Box Hill and Surrey climbs: the best of RideLondon

Peter Stuart
2 Aug 2019

We ride the best of RideLondon's Surrey climbs, along with some nearby gems the route skips

It was one of the most dramatic moments of the London 2012 Olympic road race.

American Taylor Phinney attacked on Box Hill, bridging to the break up ahead.

Britain’s David Millar held strong at the front of the peloton, resolute that the home nation could still reel in the lead group and set up Mark Cavendish to win the sprint.

Unfortunately Millar was wrong. After eight laps of the punishing climb the British team couldn’t catch the break and, with no one else prepared to help, they watched their gold medal hopes disappear up the road.

It was a bad day for GB but a great day for Box Hill – secured as a cycling icon for the south of England.

Since then, the Alpine-like switchbacks of Box Hill have served as a magnet for cyclists, and every weekend the road is thick with riders, culminating in RideLondon's enormous sportive that takes in the climb.

It’s the second-most popular Strava segment in the UK (beaten only by a stretch of London’s Richmond Park) and has become almost a cliched symbol of the boom in cycling over the past few years.

Certainly, Surrey seems like the last place to find little-known and lesser-trodden roads, but they are out there, and today Cyclist is venturing into the deep of the Surrey Hills and the North Downs ridge in search of historic climbs and quieter local lanes.

On the ridge 

‘Oliver Reed was a regular of the local pubs here,’ says Dave Farmer, owner of Surrey Hills Cycleworks.

‘He was barred from the White Horse Hotel over there,’ Dave continues while pointing to a pub in the distance. ‘Allegedly he started a small fire.’

Dave owns a bike shop in Leatherhead, and he’s promised to show us his favourite route in the area.

He has kindly agreed to drive the car with our photographer, George, while cycling the route will be myself and Josh, a rowing coach who rides several times a week in Surrey. He has a 52-minute 25-mile time-trial to his name on a borrowed bike, and keeping up with him today is sure to put me through some serious hurt.

Dave has presented us a challenging route – 112km with almost 2,000m of climbing. Josh wastes no time asking if we could stretch to a full 100 miles.

To my relief, Dave laughs off the suggestion. ‘See how you feel after Barhatch and Crocknorth,’ he advises.

The route begins down the back of Holmwood Common towards Newdigate. It’s a pretty and strangely quiet road, peppered with stone churches and thatched cottages.

We’re heading for the hilly ridge south of the North Downs and the hotbed of mountain biking and road riding that is Leith Hill.

It can be climbed in eight different ways, but we’ve chosen today’s ascent for scenic treasures more than pure difficulty.

Our approach starts on Broome Hall Road through open farmland, which today exhibits the earthy browns of freshly ploughed fields.

The road here seems as though it was purpose-built for cycling – smooth, narrow and offering a perpetual view.

It even seems to have a custom-built wooden railing at the roadside to lean on when taking pictures or swigging water.

The road flattens out, and up ahead we can see a dark corridor of trees that indicates we’re entering one of Surrey’s iconic overshadowed sunken lanes.

Dave tells us these roads are the result of soft geology. As most of the hills are formed of chalk, the ground itself is malleable and the roads have sunk over the years.

We climb out of the trees and into the open air again to tackle the ascent up Leith Hill.

We stop for a moment at a crossroads beside Christ Church, which has excellent views over the hillside, before carrying on to the summit.

At the top is a small village, just below the tip of the ridge. A footpath leads to the very top, and were we feeling braver and on wider tyres we would give it a try.

Instead, though, we push on for the open and fast descent off the hill.

It’s the first of six hills on today’s ride, and already my legs are feeling the burn. With a little caution I stick persistently to Josh’s wheel as we push the 60kmh mark.

He sits up, staring at his power meter, while I crouch behind my handlebars to hide from the wind. We’ve got 10km of easy and picturesque riding to enjoy before the sharpest climb of the day – Barhatch.

Hatching a plan

Heading down the narrow lane of Cotton Row it strikes me how empty these roads are compared to the congestion 10 miles north of here.

Lower Breache Road, a little further on, feels as though we’ve entered an episode of Midsomer Murders, as a limestone cottage opposite a lily-covered pond seems simply too bucolic to be real.

I’m snapped back to reality when we find ourselves at the foot of the Barhatch climb, with 3km to go before the summit.

It winds away in front of us on a gradually narrowing track before disappearing into another Surrey canopy.

Josh and I begin the first ramp out of the saddle with a strong rhythm, but as the road ahead comes into view both of us elect to sit down and search for the comfort of our largest cassette sprocket.

Hitting 20% on its steepest slope, Barhatch is punishing. Each ramp creates a false crest, only to reveal a steeper ramp above.

Keeping any rhythm takes all the energy I have, and squeezing over the final crest I feel as though my lungs may burst.

Meanwhile, Josh is sticking to his power numbers, seemingly only breathing heavily by choice so as to not make a mockery of my exhaustion.

We turn onto Brook Lane, where a tall tree overhangs the road completely with a passage cut artistically through it, before the road curves below a railway bridge that carries the North Downs Line.

It’s almost like a picture frame capturing the fields and cottages behind it.

We stop for food in the village of Shere. There is no shortage of options, and we eventually decide on a full pub lunch at the Gomshall Mill Inn.

The day isn’t even half done yet and we have 62km and more than a vertical kilometre of climbing ahead of us.

In deepest Surrey

After lunch we set off for Peaslake, through Hurt Wood, along narrow sheltered roads. The climb up Holmbury Hill is a chore with full stomachs, but is a comparative breeze after Barhatch.

Peaslake leads on to Coombe Lane, one of the more forgiving climbs of the day, but still a 1.4km drag at an average of 7%.

Then a short descent leads us all too quickly to another queen climb of the Surrey Hills, Crocknorth Road.

It begins deceptively, with a wooden fence that guides us up a 5% incline, tempting us to get it over with quickly with a blast of energy, but lying in wait are a pair of back-to-back 15% ramps that stab at our legs.

Coming off the ramp at the end of Crocknorth Road, we descend swiftly through Ranmore Common onto the North Downs Way.

On our right is Denbies Wine Estate, one of the largest wine producers in the UK. It boasts a stunning footpath climb through its vineyards and up to Ranmore Common, which isn’t strictly open
to cyclists, but the estate is very welcoming of well-behaved riders and even hosts a hill climb event once a year, with the innovative format of a one-on-one duel to decide the winner.

We won’t be tackling it today, but instead head down Ranmore Common Road, a technical descent including a steep hairpin that emerges suddenly from the hedgerows.

With 85km done, our arrival at Westhumble tells us that we have only one significant climb left on the itinerary.

Boxing day

Box Hill’s main access road is the Zig Zag road, which is Surrey’s answer to an Alpine climb. Its smooth tarmac, winding switchbacks and open hilly views feel altogether un-British, but this is a site of considerable history.

The twisting road that leads to Box Hill’s summit was constructed with the early intention of serving a grand housing estate that the one-time owner, Thomas Hope, had intended to build.

In the early 20th century, though, the land was bought by Leopold Salomons and given to the public in 1914.

This road, then, serves no other purpose than to allow access to the hilltop, and the Salomons memorial at the central viewpoint of the hill pays tribute to that gift.

For cyclists, Box Hill is perfect for threshhold training. At a gradient of around 5% all the way, it’s shallow enough to keep a consistent cadence but hard enough to provide a challenge for anyone looking to get up it quickly.

I rode my fastest time on it four years ago, in around 5mins 40secs – a speed that at the time was good enough to put me on Strava’s first page of finishers.

These days I’m more than a minute and several hundred places off the fastest time.

After a little discussion, Josh and I decide to give it an all-out blast as it’s a warm day and the wind direction is in our favour.

So with heads down we head off at full intensity around the three major corners that played host to London’s historic Olympic race, crouching low on the shallow gradient of the longest straight along

the ridge. We reach the top only to realise that we didn’t even break six minutes, leaving our legs – and our spirits – feeling shredded.

It’s late now, and the sun is casting shadows over the hillside. It’s also fairly deserted. Most cyclists who ride in this area will have ticked off Box Hill by midday, queued for coffee and then slinked off home.

We have one of Britain’s most popular cycling roads to ourselves, and it really is stunning in the low evening light.

‘That’s the Box Hill Fort down there,’ Dave tells us as we regroup at the top.

He’s pointing at a path a few metres from the Box Hill Cafe that I’ve never thought to go down, even though I’ve visited this climb numerous times.

‘A famous military major from the 18th century called Peter Labilliere was buried upside down right over there,’ he adds.

‘He said the whole world seemed topsy-turvy so he wanted to be buried that way.’

The Box Hill Cafe is usually heaving with cyclists, and at its busiest times you might wait 20 minutes for a coffee.

That’s not an issue for us today, mainly because the cafe has been closed for the past three hours.

From here, we round the corner to take in the views over the Surrey Hills and the North Downs from the Salomons memorial that Box Hill is famed for.

The vista to the south stretches seemingly forever into the distance, over green fields and thick patches of woodland, and again it seems impossible that we are only a few kilometres from the M25 motorway that circles the capital.

With the light fading, we drop off the back of Box Hill and start the final leg of our route, meandering via minor roads through the Surrey countryside, back to our start point in Dorking.

‘It’s a real shame we couldn’t fit in Whitedown,’ Dave tells us regretfully. ‘We missed Critten Lane too, and you didn’t get to climb up Radnor Road.

‘Then there’s the whole other side of Leith Hill, and as you get further south it gets really interesting.’

I have a feeling Dave could go on for some time. It reminds me that Surrey isn’t just a cycling hotspot because it’s close to London – you could ride these roads for years and
there would still be plenty to be discovered.

Escape from the Big Smoke

Follow Cyclist's route around the Surrey Hills outside London


To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/62surrey. Following the GPX file is the best bet, as it is too long-winded to describe the full route here, thanks to its many tiny side roads and subtle turnings.

In brief, from Dorking, ride down through Newdigate to Leith Hill, tracking back toward Ewhurst.

From there climb Barhatch and then loop back through Holmbury Hill Road to Peaslake and up onto Ranmore via Coombe Lane and Crocknorth.

From Ranmore continue to Box Hill via the Zig Zag road, then head towards Headley and return to Dorking via Walton On The Hill and Strood Green.

 

The rider's ride

Ritte Ace, £2,199 frameset only, silverfish.com

Ritte is a brand that won’t try to bamboozle you with technical language and outrageous performance claims.

Instead it aims to make its mark by looking good – and its stunning paint schemes are evidence of that. That they ride well is an excellent bonus.

I rode the Ace for a few months and there’s no doubt it won the battle of aesthetics – consistently drawing a crowd at any given coffee stop.

In terms of ride quality, the Ace sits at the more aggressive end of the spectrum. It responds admirably to power inputs but can feel quite jarring when it hits holes in the road.

I was very happy to be rolling on Easton’s wide-rimmed tubeless-ready EC90 wheels. They felt fast yet comfortable with 25mm tyres, and I’m sure they’d have made a step up in both comfort and speed with tubeless tyres.

Perhaps the crowning piece of the build, though, was the custom-painted Easton carbon EC90 stem. It boasts ample stiffness, but more importantly it’s the perfect match for the Ace’s chunky streamlined tubes.

 

How we got there

Travel

The best starting point for this ride is Dorking town centre, which is well serviced by rail connections from London and the South East.

We travelled from London Waterloo with South West trains, which took 50 minutes and costs £12.

Thanks

Many thanks to Dave Farmer of Surrey Hills CycleWorks for organising our route and driving our photographer over the course of the day.

Surrey Hills CycleWorks is an independent bike shop in Dorking offering all manner of mountain and road bike kit as well as high-level bike fit services.

Dave also organises group rides out of the shop and welcomes riders for a coffee break when riding in Surrey.

Visit surreyhillscycleworks.co.uk for details.

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