HARDEST PART Keep something in the tank for Star Hill, or you?ll never finish
NICEST PART Great views from the top of Ashdown Forest
Reliability trials aren?t what they used to be. Back in prewar years, these eminently popular rides involved setting yourself a chosen time for the distance ? perhaps ?100 in eight? (100 miles in eight hours) or ?50 in four? ? and seeing if you could overcome poor road surfaces, puncture-prone tyres, not-so-reliable equipment and a lack of mobile phones or any other support to make it round as close to your designated time as possible.
These days ? following the example of pro racing ? by the time the reliability season starts in January the average club cyclist has spent weeks weighing out his pasta, working himself into a fervour watching old Tour de France videos, training like a maniac while claiming to have been doing ?oh, not a lot really?, and hitting the sack at nine o?clock every night so he can rise at six for the third agonising turbo session of the week.
All while fantasising about where he?ll make his move in that first crucial reliability of the season. The ?reliability? part is old hat now, in an age where the missus (or hubby) can be called on the mobile to turn out in the car to perform a roadside pick-up. Instead, for many the reliability is becoming the first serious ?appointment? of the season.
With the boom in cyclo-sportives, the line between non-competitive and competitive rides is becoming ever-more blurred. On the back of this boom, South London club Catford CC?s annual reliability has been rebranded with the Classics-style moniker ?the Hell of the Ashdown?. Despite its lack of cobbles, the name was sure to have riders imagining themselves streaking through the Carrefour de l?Arbre as they decimated the field in Paris-Roubaix, or leaving a select break for dead as they stomped up the Mur de Grammont in the Tour of Flanders.
And sure enough, riders came in their droves, forming a field that Catford CC president and chief organiser Rik Vandieren (a Belgian himself, so he knows how these things should be done) described as the biggest in living memory at 210. Not bad for what started as a dull, but mild January day.
Despite the fact that there were plenty who were eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of their off-season training, there were also plenty who were not, and in any case it was a very friendly event. A fiver to enter and it all goes to a multiple sclerosis charity ? you can?t say fairer than that ? plus bargain tea and cake served by smiling folk who are just pleased to see a gathering of happy cyclists, even if they are encrusted with snot and sweat (the cyclists, not the tea ladies).
In a further nod towards the sportive scene this year?s Catford reliability provided generous and clear signage (plus a route map). It?s a move that might have the purists spitting cotton duck feathers, but not having to root around one-handed every couple of miles for a route sheet that rapidly turns into soggy confetti means you can get on with enjoying the ride and is to be applauded.
The full 100km route itself is a gem and worthy of its title (there?s a less hilly 61km route should you wish). Just like a North European Classic it begins fairly gently, heading south from Knockholt near Sevenoaks in Kent and down into Sussex, slowly building and intensifying as it swings east across the Ashdown Forest ? Sean Yates?s own country ? before reaching a challenging crescendo with four big hills and countless lumps in the closing miles.
The coup de grace is the long, steep ascent of Star Hill, which takes you back up onto the North Downs to finish and where, if you still have all your faculties, you can admire the impressive views of Kent.
On the day we were set off in groups 10 minutes apart, having been allocated starting times according to when we signed on. Having spent 15 minutes queuing in the gents for the inevitable single cubicle, I found myself in one of the later groups, off at 9.20am. No problem. After a short briefing from the organiser, who was at pains to stress that it was definitely not a race (at which we all coughed and tightened our shoe straps), we were off. After the big descent of Star Hill we traced the Pilgrims Way west for several miles before turning south for Sussex.
For a while it was pretty flat but the pace was brisk, with two or three guys obviously on form. Not least two members of the Cobra cycling team, resplendent in yellow and green jerseys designed around the Indian lager?s label. The squad is actually sponsored by Cobra, they said, and claimed it was more about beer and curry than serious cycling for them. But the way they took our group by the horns and ground out an unflinching big-ring rhythm into the nagging cross-headwind suggested that they were definitely among the pasta-weighing, video-watching training deniers.
Turners Hill is the first ?proper? hill of the day, with a checkpoint placed thoughtfully at the top in order that everyone gets an excuse for a breather and the stragglers can catch up. Things became more urgent as we headed for Ashdown Forest, crossing the Bluebell steam railway before climbing steadily up onto the tops where we were treated to superb views across Sussex, by now bathed in sunshine.
Pressing on through Hartfield (home of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet ? and the Poohsticks bridge) we approached the hilly finale, beginning at Groombridge. The presence of snapper Phil O?Connor at the top didn?t help my cause, as it appeared that half of our group wanted to be pictured leading over the crest, and we were suddenly lined out at pace (me at the back of course, pulling all kinds of agonised faces).
Next up was the double (but mercifully short) whammy at Penshurst, before a short blat across to the penultimate treat of the day, Ide Hill (long, draggy, rampy, not much to recommend it really).
By this time I was pretty knackered but my body was resisting the tempting urge to blow completely, which would have at least given me the excuse to lie down. I am forever indebted to my old mate Paul Martin of the Easterley Road Club who gave me a rear wheel to hang on to and paced me steadily up the climb.
All that remained was a big descent and then a scoot across to the foot of the North Downs to face Star Hill. As Paul disappeared up the road, I was reduced to counting pedal strokes as I slowly ground round my 39-25 bottom gear, cursing my lack of compact chainset. But the thought of those jolly tea ladies kept me going, and suffice to say that when I arrived back at Knockholt village hall two miles later, they didn?t disappoint.
(100km) Descend Star Hill from Knockholt, west along Pilgrims Way to Tandridge, south to Lingfield. Then SW to Turner?s Hill before SE to Wych Cross in the Ashdown Forest. Then Hartfield, Groombridge, Penshurst, Four Elms, Ide Hill, Sundridge, Star Hill, Knockholt.
Want to ride it?
NEXT year?s event hasn?t been officially announced, but it is traditionally held on the last Sunday in January. That would put 2008?s event on Jan 27. To enter, simply arrive at the village hall (it has been either Knockholt or its sister village Halsted in recent years) and sign on. Entry was £5 this year. www.catfordcc.co.uk.