I have to confess that after the Southend CM earlier in the evening, in which I was quite cold for a while, I had doubts about going on the Night Ride. However, it was one of those situations in which I just know I would have kicked myself afterwards so I readied myself and, with my lovely wife cheerfully telling me “You know you’re mad, don’t you?”, I headed for the late night BP shop and then the train.
Before I lfet the forecast had been good, but a damp ride seemed to be in prospect as between Liverpool Street and Hyde Park Corner the rain fell. However, I had started so I was going to bloody well finish even if it killed me…
One by one other riders began to turn up and eventually we were ready. Someone had a “clipless moment” before we had even begun, but then we were off. The rain had stopped and the moon, now a couple of days past full, was trying to put in an appearance.
It has been at least 20 years since I rode from London to Brighton, and after a while I began to remember some of the landmarks, even in the dark. Clapham Common, Balham (“Gateway to the South”), Mitcham, Morden and then a rather solemn moment for me which I kept to myself: Coulsden was the home of Jessie Gilbert who played chess against my daughter quite frequently when they were young, and who died so tragically a week or two ago.
Then we were out in the country, the ill-mannered motorists were nearly all in bed, and we were riding along at a fair old rate. Almost before we knew it we were clamouring at Tourist Tony’s door and that excellent fellow let us in to get at the superb spread he had put in front of us. Pasta, pizza, cake, fruit, a cup of tea..
That was almost my undoing. After leaving Tony I definitely felt the load was heavier as my digestive system and my legs argued with one another about whose turn it was for the oxygen. Most of the ride I was near the back, but when two of our number chose to return via Gatwick, that definitely made me the back marker. As we approached Turner’s Hill, I remembered that it was not called “Hill” for nothing, and it was quite a struggle to make the top.
At most other stops I had tried to set off as soon after Simon as I could so at least I was in the group for as long as possible before some gradient or other pulled me back. This time I didn’t manage it and everyone was away. I did my best but it was not enough and the group was soon out of sight. I felt sure that I was still going the right way, but the longer I went without seeing another cyclist the more the doubts began to grow. There was no point in going back and I knew that Simon, who had been whizzing back and forth so much in shepherding his flock that he must have ridden at least 15 miles further than the rest of us, would not let me escape, so I kept my pace down below my normal turgid rate so that if I had gone astray I would soon be found again.
Of course, these were all demons brought on by fatigue and a wild imagination just before dawn, and before I knew it there was a reassuring red light in the distance again and someone was trying to mend a chain amid the usual helpful gaggle of onlookers, no doubt much to the delight of the residents of five o’clock Lindfield.
From now on I sort of knew the way. The name Slugwash Lane appeared out of nowhere in the depths of my memory and within minutes we were there. Simon, who by now had left the guiding of the main group to 661-Pete, a Burgess Hill man, warned me of a vicious right-hander and straight away I remembered a small child hurtling out of a trailer in one of the 1980s rides, his flight being broken by mercifully soft leaf mould and vegetation. There was the bend, tighter than I had remembered it, and I had to brake fairly quickly to keep control.
From here, the Beacon came into view. It’s an impressive hill, and is quite forbidding to an Essex Man like myself. There was what turned out to be a traditional gathering near some spectacularly derelict greenhouses, where a generous soul had joined the ride for a few minutes just to give us some fresh coffee. How welcome that was!
There was a fair bit of conversation and banter, but there was an underlying sense of foreboding as everyone was aware of the presence of The Hill, the defining moment of the ride. Then suddenly, without warning, a rider set off at speed and as soon as he did so, others followed. Within seconds, there was hardly anyone left so there was nothing for it but to go.
Initially the gradient is quite gentle. You can tell you are climbing but there is still a gear, or maybe two, to spare. Then, after the crossroads, the real work begins. I had decided in advance that my days of conquering this hill ended some time in the 1980s but I would keep going at a very gently pace, pretty much as slowly as I could without actually toppling off, until the inevitable happened and my legs just wouldn’t respond any more.
The first bend arrived, and I was still going. “Keep going to the next bend” said a voice, so the legs kept churning. Suddenly it became a good deal steeper. “Dance on the pedals!” urged the voice (was it Phil Liggett’s?) so I stood up in the saddle for a few seconds and reached a more forgiving piece of road. Another bend in the road, at a point at which it looked as though a huge bite had been taken from the hill but greenery was doing its best to fill it in again. Once again the legs responded to the challenge.
I was going incredibly slowly, no more than walking pace, but suddenly I saw sunshine ahead. Ditchling Beacon has a couple of false summits but I knew that once you are clear of the trees you have almost made it. I also realised that everything was so much easier than Turner’s Hill had been an hour or two earlier. But I didn’t allow myself to think about the overall goal, just the immediate task. I’ve lost plenty of games of chess due to over-confidence, thinking it was “in the bag” and relaxing. I wasn’t going to allow the prize of climbing The Beacon to escape my grasp, so I just kept the legs turning at the same pedestrian manner when the rest of the riders came into view. “Forget them, you silly bugger!” shouted the voice, so I did, even when a few of my riding companions rushed out, paparazzi style, to record for posterity the fact that Santa Claus was about to don the polka-dot jersey.
The Man with the Coffee appeared again and handed me a most welcome cup. Once I had finished it, it was time for a few photos of that very special place, and then the descent into Brighton. This was fairly uneventful, apart of course for the speed, but again Simon and a couple of others kept me company until the remainder of the ride came into view on the promenade. A couple of brave souls went into the sea, and Phil Norman and I joined them. It was not too cold, at least, not compared to my Scottish experience of a couple of weeks previously, but even so, I had a train to catch so after a quick change of clothes a couple of us headed off to the station.
This was a brilliant ride. It was a considerable challenge, and I think tested me pretty much to my limits. I am most grateful to Simon, for showing such forebearance but doing a terrific job as Ride Leader, and also the two or three others who made sure that I, the slowest rider in the group, had company all the way in. And of course Tourist Tony. What kind of saint opens up his house at 3 o’clock in the morning to a couple of dozen people, some of whom he has never met before, so that he can ply them with really tasty and welcome fare?