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Hell by name: Hell of the Ashdown sportive review

Joe Robinson
17 Jan 2019

One of the toughest early season sportives south of Watford: we rode the Hell of the Ashdown last February

The 2019 edition of the Hell of the Ashdown is just a month away. Registration is also open for the 2019 edition here.

My cadence can be no higher than 50rpm and my speed has dropped well below 10kmh. I can see a car edging its way down at the ridge of the climb with cyclists dismounting because the combination of the steep gradient, narrow lane and steel obstacle has become too much.

Before I have time to assess how I will avoid the oncoming car the gradient hits 20%. I grit my teeth, push myself back in the saddle and squeeze tightly on the bars.

I try and ride out of the saddle but I can feel my rear wheel losing traction, spinning faster than Malcolm Tucker dealing with a leadership contest.

Luckily, I reach the car at a natural lay-by and paperboy myself around but this doesn't stop me from getting the taste of blood in the back of my throat as I reach far into my reserves. 

I eventually get to the summit of the climb with my Garmin ticking my altitude gain to the 2,000m after just 102km. Never have I gone so hard in February but I guess that's what gives this season starting sportive its name, the Hell of the Ashdown.

A bumpy start

The Hell of the Ashdown has always served the same purpose. Be the hardest early season sportive in the south of England with the aim of forcing its plucky entrants into finding that much needed early season fitness.

Organised by one of the oldest cycling club's in Britain, Catford CC - who will also vehemently argue they host the world's oldest continuous bike race with the late season hill climb - the Hell of Ashdown tackles 107km of Kent and Sussex's most challenging roads, navigating 11 of the area's toughest climbs and taking in 2,100m of leg-sapping elevation in the process.

Part of me was excited when I reached the sportive start at a local school in the Orpington area, a town that conflicts itself between being London and being Kent (it's been in Greater London since 1965 but memories are long).

The weather was unusually balmy for a February morning, so much so that I had left the gloves in the car. Ahead of me was a challenging but fully achievable day that I knew I could conquer. I mean, I'd even done a turbo session in preparation.

However, this naive optimism was quickly quashed.

'Local residents in the Hever area have removed our signage so you may need to consult your phones when you get there,' shouts Catford CC's Mike Morgan over a large megaphone.

'Oh and also, there is a massive pothole right at the start so don't fall down it, ok?'

I've suddenly become all tense about the big day of riding ahead and the fact that I'm the first person who will have to roll out of this sportive and avoid the 'massive pothole' has done my nerves no favours.

The idea of 2,000m of climbing in February is quite absurd. It barely feels like I've finished the leftover turkey from Christmas and I am already dragging myself up some of Kent and East Sussex's toughest climbs, but it's all for the love of cycling, I guess.

Rather cruelly, the climbing starts just 2km after I have got going. Descending down a lonely lane flanked with empty farms, a left and right later, I hit Church Hill.

Immediately ramping up into double figures, the climb is only 200m at most but its enough to get the blood pumping.

The next few kilometres continue uphill south towards the Kentish Downs before we reach the first major descent of the day, Brasted Hill.

This particular lump in the road hosted the first ever National Hill Climb Championships in 1944 and helps me hit 60km/h as I plummet down to the next climb of the day.

With just 8km in the bank, I hit the base of the longest ascent today has to offer, Toy's Hill. At a smidge under 3km, it bears little comparison to the Alps or Pyrenees in difficulty but it does in feel.

Rumbling along at 5% the gradient is always manageable and its winding nature means that you can never see beyond the next 100m of road.

The beginning of the climb is claustrophobic at first as you find yourself surrounded by typical Kentish detached houses with gravel driveways and house names such as 'Rose Cottage' and 'Runnymead'.

Rumbling along I find a comfortable rhythm joining another rider to which I quip 'I hear this is as easy as today gets.'

'Does it? I'm not local, I don't really know the course,' he exhales back at me. At this point, I'm unsure whether I pity or envy his obliviousness to what's ahead.

Warning: Bears in woods

This long ascent helps thin out the field and settle the pace of those around me. A fast descent is followed by 10km of rolling, tree-lined roads in which I pass by Hever Castle, the childhood home of the beheaded Anne Boleyn, in a shot.

The trees either side of me become denser as we speed into Sussex. Such is the nature of the terrain, you never know if you are on a true climb or whether the road is just cruelly rising for it only to drop again a few hundred metres later.

The reason for the thick woodland surrounding me is because I have now entered the Ashdown Forest, the area of land that lends its name to sportive I am riding.

It's pretty indistinguishable from many other local wooded areas with its only physical note being that the hanging trees trap moisture on to the road surface.

What does set this forest apart is that it probably played a part in all of our childhoods. You probably know it by its fictional name, Hundred Acre Wood. 

AA Milne used the Ashdown Forest as his setting for Winnie-the-Pooh. Within the actual wood, you can find the actual Pooh Corner and an actual river and bridge to play Pooh sticks.

While the nostalgia helps me over the next few lumps and bumps I soon realise what's next on the agenda. Kidd's Hill, or 'The Wall' as it is often referred to, is billed as the toughest hill en route.

In terms of numbers, it doesn't tackle as much vertical gain as Toy's Hill and its average gradient is shallower than Hogtrough Hill yet it poses a challenge that very few climbs in the area can match.

The first few hundred metres of the climb takes you through some blind bends, hiding how steep the gradient truly is. Then with three-quarters of the climb to go, you learn why locals have given Kidd's Hill its nickname. 

The final kilometre of the climb is as straight as an arrow. Ahead of me, I can see bodies littered across the road, grinding their way to the top that seems to simultaneously be in touching distance and a million miles away.

This climb is so tough that when the Tour de France visited this neck of the woods in 1994, it caused outrage in the peloton.

Race organisers suggested the peloton, which included a young Marco Pantani, tackle the climb but such was the backlash it was avoided.

The suffering to reach the peak of this nasty hill is eased when you see the view from the top. Over the other side, the hill drops off suddenly presenting an amber landscape that rolls for miles with a gentle hue that sculps the countryside back north to Kent and beyond.

A quick descent follows as you re-enter the Ashdown Forest. Riding back through Forest Row, I shoot past the TrainSharp store, home to hardman Sean Yates.

The Sussex local grew up on these roads, using them to train in his professional days with Peugeot, 7-Eleven and Motorola. 

In his days with the latter, Yates formed a bond with young American Lance Armstrong who once visited Yates at his Sussex home.

The two would ride around training together in leafy England with Armstrong learning from the experienced Yates.

Riding around the lanes, Big Tex is said to have been struck by the mansion-like houses dotted around the countryside, pointing out the big houses en route stating that he would, one day, own a house like that. True to his word, he does. 

Return to Kent

I can feel the lactic acid building in my legs over the next 30km as I roll over lumpy terrain back into Kent. The speed of those around me begins to slow as we begin a long drag towards the penultimate climb of the day, Hubbard's Hill. 

A climb I have tackled countless time, Hubbard's Hill is unglamorous and uncompromising. The steepest prolonged section at 15% takes you across an exposed motorway bridge which funnels a constant crosswind, and the steepest pitch comes towards the very end.

I battle through the shallower slopes towards the bottom, finding myself soon alone. As I reach the bridge my legs begin to feel dense.

I bob in and out the saddle to alleviate the gradient, quickly catching the coattails of those who have begun the climb before cresting the top after nine minutes of huffing and puffing.

Turning off the climb, I meander through yet more lanes lined with beautiful homes until I descend back down to the base of Toy's Hill, onto the Pilgrim's Way and onto the lower slopes of the final climb of the day to Hogtrough Hill. 

I allow myself one final look at the sweeping farms that patchwork the area together before turning instantly into a wall. 

Hogtrough takes you immediately into the red as the gradient starts in double figures. I can barely muster the energy to turn the pedals as I drag myself further and further towards the summit. 

My speed is close to stationary as a mandatory car attempts to pass me on its way down. I crawl around him, also negotiating the 20% gradient while many others unclip and are forced into walking.

Eventually, I am at the top. The day's climbing is done and my legs are empty. I cruise to the finish, failing to care about my overall time and more minded to let my body recover and consider the food about to devour when I arrive back at the sportive HQ. 

I roll over the line 4 hours 30 minutes after leaving with empty legs and cold hands but to a warm plate of chilli, a hot coffee, and a day's worth of hard training.

Key information:

Date -  Sunday 17th February 2019
Start - Charles Darwin School, Biggin Hill
Finish - Charles Darwin School, Biggin Hill
Distance - 107km
Cost - £35
Website - http://hellgb.co.uk/

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