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Watch: South Downs UK ride, in association with Orro

In-depth
13 Sep 2017
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It’s always the climbs that define a ride. Those moments spent puffing uphill, muscles ablaze with lactic acid, are the bits we talk about in the cafe afterwards. When we plan a ride, it’s often built around the climbs in the area, even to the point that we will take a detour just to go up a hill and come straight back down again to rejoin the route.

The out-and-back climb is a peculiar aspect of cycling. All that suffering and effort, just to get nowhere, must seem perverse to those who don’t follow our sport.

But among those of us who ride, no one ever asks the question, ‘What’s the point?’

The South Downs are only an hour from central London by train and this vast chalk escarpment and its surrounding area offers a rich tapestry of landscapes to explore by bike.

With exquisite leafy lanes and magnificent coastal views this 127km Sussex jaunt packs in more than 1,600m of ascent in numerous bite-sized chunks, and, you’ve guessed it, a few tough out-and-backs.

Come to think of it, I may have failed to mention that to Heidi, who’s riding with me today.

Video in association with Orro

We’re in the village of Ditchling, a kilometre or so from what is arguably the best known of the South Downs’ climbs, Ditchling Beacon.

This landmark 248m summit, officially the third highest point on the South Downs (Butser Hill at 270m is the highest), has been made famous, or indeed infamous, by the annual London to Brighton charity ride.

Each year tens of thousands of riders tackle the 1.4km climb near the end of the historic 87km route that runs due south from the capital to the coast.

The Tour de France has even been over Ditchling Beacon. It must have seemed a mere molehill for the likes of Indurain and Pantani when they crossed it on their way to Stage 6’s seafront finale in Brighton in 1994.

That was some time before Strava, but a visit by the 2014 Tour of Britain has given those chasing KoMs some work to do.

Despite more than 40,000 people having thrown down their best efforts, Lars Petter Nordhaug (ex-Team Sky, now with Pro Continental team Aqua Blue Sport) heads the leaderboard with a time of 3min 57sec, two seconds ahead of Michal Kwiatkowski (a former Road Race World Champion).

So, good luck chasing those times.

While it’s tempting to have a crack at the Beacon with fresh legs first thing, we set off in the opposite direction, quite deliberately saving that little gem for later.

Besides, the breakfast menu at the White Horse Inn, where we stayed last night, proved too tempting and I’m now feeling a little weighed down by my full English, so I’m more than happy to gently coerce my legs to life as we mosey through quiet lanes awash with vibrant greens.

The sun is already piercing through the canopy above, and with not so much as an armwarmer in sight, we make our way southeast for our first meeting with the imposing ridge of the Downs. It’s a mellow and pleasantly traffic-free beginning to the day.

Honesty is the best policy

Shortly after the pretty village of Glynde, with its quaint cottages and neat privet hedgerows, and with 23km ticked off, the harmony is momentarily interrupted as we cross the major arterial A27 for the first of three times today.

It’s a necessary evil if we want to get to those out-and-backs, the first of which, Firle Beacon, confronts us now, taking us up to one of the high points of the South Downs at 217m.

I’m contemplating whether now is a good time to bring up the imminent U-turn we’ll need to make once we reach the top of this 1.3km ascent.

Too late. The 10% gradient has halted any chance of conversation. I glance across at Heidi and she seems to be smiling, so that’s a good sign. Or maybe that’s a grimace?

At the summit it’s obvious I’ve brought us up a road to nowhere, but thankfully there’s a superb, far-reaching view to help diffuse the situation.

I wait to see if is Heidi is going to question the need for us to have slogged all the way up here, but she is a true cyclist. No explanations are needed.

We about-turn, clip back in and begin to descend. There’s little chance to appreciate the views for a second time, as the swooping, fast descent swallows up the height we’d worked so hard to gain in what seems like no time at all.

We’re still buzzing from the thrill of how rapidly we were able to drop as we stand at the edge of the A27, awaiting a gap in the traffic to make our dash for the other side once more.

Bopeep Bostal (pronounced borstal – from the ancient Sussex dialect meaning ‘a steep road or path up a hill’) is our next endeavour.

It’s a similar out-and-back climb to Firle Beacon, only slightly shorter and steeper. This time I decide to come clean and tell Heidi before we get there. I just don’t mention the gradient.

The swooping, fast descent swallows up the height we’d worked so hard to gain in what seems like no time at all

The early part of the climb is at a reasonable 4-6%, which means to achieve its 11% average it will have to get steep later on. Sure enough, roughly halfway up the road pitches skywards.

The interwoven branches of overhanging trees create a shadowy tunnel as our chains clunk through some hurried shifts, searching for lower gears.

The gradient briefly touches a savage 30% rounding a hairpin bend, which has both Heidi and I swinging over the front ends of our bikes to maintain momentum.

There’s some momentary respite but it’s short-lived, with a further stretch between 14-18% lying in wait before the summit.

Just as with Firle Beacon, Bopeep Bostal ends at a gravel car park. A dog walker and a group of hikers sipping drinks on the grass verge look at us quizzically.

Slumped over our bikes, gasping and clawing away the sweat that’s stinging our eyes, I know exactly what they’re thinking.

We’re eager to keep moving, but allow ourselves some time to take in the panorama. In front of us we can just make out the coast on the distant horizon; behind we can see for miles across the area known as the Weald.

To our left and right is the South Downs Way that stretches 161km from to Eastbourne to Winchester.

Gravel delight

We descend about halfway and turn onto Old Coach Road, an ancient medieval trail linking Lewes to Alfriston. It’s gravel, but easily passable on our standard 25mm road tyres.

The surface is well compacted and relatively smooth. At times we ride right through the middle of fields, trundling downhill most of the way for 3km. Then things get a little trickier.

The last part of the lane is somewhat overgrown and there are a few muddy holes to negotiate, too. I look back, having carefully picked my own way around some of the hazards, to check Heidi is OK.

She’s adeptly bunny hopping her bike over some tree roots to find a more suitable line on the grass and I can tell from her face that she’s having as much fun as I am.

As we roll into Alfriston, a quintessential East Sussex village with narrow streets and rows of picture-postcard stone cottages, we’re in agreement – that was an absolute blast.

Then I see a sign for cream teas. Never one to pass up an opportunity like this, I take the decision that we deserve refreshments.

Soon we’re sitting in the garden of the Badgers Tea House, sipping coffee and devouring far more calories than we’ve burned.

The sun feels hot on my skin, my legs are tingling from the stinging nettles on that final part of the Old Coach Road and I couldn’t be happier.

For the second time today my gluttony has given me a uncomfortably laden belly, so we keep the pace gentle as we head out of Alfriston and cross the Cuckmere River.

At East Dean we turn towards Birling Gap, and I’m excited about this next portion of the ride. Under a bright blue sky, with the meadows and surrounding fields flooded with colour, we’re blessed to see this coastal stretch at its best.

The climb to Beachy Head is 4.1km, but with an average gradient of just 3%, it’s more steady state than spiteful spike. About halfway up, the road gets precariously close to the cliff edge, affording us glimpses of the white chalk faces dropping sheer to the rocks below.

Under a bright blue sky, with the meadows and surrounding fields flooded with colour, we’re blessed to see this coastal stretch at its best

I can’t resist a closer look and tiptoe closer to the edge, but Heidi sensibly keeps her distance.

On our right is the Grade II listed Belle Tout lighthouse, long since decommissioned and now a posh B&B, which made headline news in 1999 when it was moved back 17 metres, in one piece, in a monumental feat of engineering, to save it from falling into the sea.

The final portion of the climb takes us through a series of snaking bends that almost constitute hairpins, giving it a dash of Alpine charm. Soon after it spits us out onto the top of the exposed headland.

Stooped trees are evidence this landscape is frequently battered by strong gusts whipping off the sea. We’re grateful, then, for today there’s barely a breath of wind.

Leaving the rugged coastline behind, the bulk of the climbing is now done with, but in the back of our minds is still that final assault on Ditchling to conclude the day, albeit still a little over 50km away.

It doesn’t feel like we’re saving anything back though, as we hunker tightly in our drops and push way harder than we really need to on the road to Jevington.

It’s just that kind of road, mostly downhill but with a rollercoaster feel that entices us to attack.

We’re holding speeds above 45kmh for prolonged stretches. At this rate we’ll be back at the White Horse and supping a cold one in next to no time.

Dot to dot

Just as we’d started out this morning, the latter portion of the route is through narrow lanes, between high hedgerows.

Still delightfully devoid of traffic, and with temperatures pleasantly nestled in the mid-20s despite it now being early evening, our route plot a higgledy-piggledy course.

Villages such as Chalvington, Ripe, Laughton, Ringmer and Cooksbridge come and go, creating a giant game of dot-to-dot that takes us to the foot of Ditchling Beacon, just beyond Westmeston.

My legs are beginning to feel the pinch as we make the left turn to start our final, long anticipated ascent of the day. I saw Heidi rummage in her pockets for a gel about 10km ago, and I’m now wishing I’d done the same.

I know when I feel the backs of my knees start to sweat that I’m getting dangerously close to my physical limit (strange but true), and I’m getting that distinct sensation as the Beacon beckons.

The saving grace is the way the climb goes up in stages. When the incline ramps steeply, and my tiring muscles scream at me to end their punishment now by simply making a U-turn and letting them rest on the descent to the pub, I try to focus on the brief reprieve that will then allow me to get them back under control.

I repeat this process for the five or so minutes it takes me to finally crest the summit.

Lars Petter Nordhaug can rest easy. I may not have taken his Strava time, but then when he climbed Ditchling Beacon, he couldn’t look forward to a gentle roll back down to the pub and a tall glass of cold beer.

In my view, that makes me the winner.

Round the Downs

Follow Cyclist’s route – with plenty of out-and-backs

Click here to download the route.

It’s an involved route, but in short you head north from Ditchling to Ditchling Common, then southeast to Lewes. Take the A26 north, onto the B2192, then south to West Firle.

Climb and descend Firle Beacon, then loop back to Selmeston. Take Bopeep Lane to Bopeep Bostal. Halfway down turn right onto the gravel to Alfriston.

Head to the A259 and turn left to East Dean, then right to Beachy Head. Loop back to East Dean then at Friston turn right.

After Polegate, head to Bay Tree Lane and west to Arlington Resevoir. Head to Cooksbridge then take the B2116 to join Ditchling Road.

Turn left to ascend Ditchling Beacon, and descend back to Ditchling.

The rider's ride

Orro Signature Gold STC Di2 Disc, £3,999, i-ride.co.uk

UK bike brand Orro is based in the heart of the South Downs, so it seemed most appropriate to be setting out for this ride on its top-of-the-range Signature Gold STC Disc.

Its frame is constructed from UK-sourced carbon fibre, supplied by Sigmatex in Runcorn, Cheshire, and comes in at a very respectable 985g (claimed, size medium, painted).

The frame is noticably stiff, with its solidity tested repeatedly on the many short sharp inclines on this ride, where each time it delivered a snappy, responsive ride feel.

3T’s Discus Pro wheels too delivered a polished performance that struck a good balance of stiffness and weight. 

With 25mm tyres inflated to a cushy 85psi the Signature Gold STC took the sting out of the roads with an agreeable ride feel for a full day in the saddle, as well as proving more than capable on gravel.

Disc brakes ensured predictable, dependable stopping performance too, so there was little to fault with this well considered bike.

How we did it

Travel Getting to Ditchling from London is just a short hop on the Victoria to Brighton line and trains are frequent. The closest station is Burgess Hill, and it’s either a flat 5km ride or a short taxi journey to Ditchling from there.

Accommodation We stayed at the White Horse Inn, Ditchling, a traditional pub offering a warm welcome to cyclists and serving hearty evening meals with an equally satiating breakfast menu to fuel our day in the saddle. Rooms cost from £85 for bed and breakfast. Go to whitehorseditchling.com for details and bookings.

Thanks We are most grateful to Adam Glew and Richard Cartland from Sussex-based cycling distributor i-ride for their help with planning and logistics, plus driving the support vehicle and doing a lot of the general donkey work involved with this trip. Thanks also to Heidi Gould for joining me and being great company for the day.