Well, it arrived – the day I’d been anticipating since my last sportive of 2012 in November. This year’s morning in Hell was upon me.
Most of the week I had been looking out of the window, contemplating the snow flurries and the severe weather warnings, and telling myself the same cyclist lies. The half-truths you tell yourself when you know it’s going to be miserable but you so want to get out there that you reign back on the hyperbole in favour of moderation – it’s going to be ‘fresh’ instead of ‘freezing’, ‘challenging’ instead of ‘hazardous’.
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Just as having wonky teeth and a funny surname builds character when you’re at school, so too does getting up at 6am on a sub-zero winter’s morning to spend six hours cycling a profile that looks like a polygraph of a Lance Armstrong interview.
The journey did nothing to quash our grim purpose. A nice warm car on an early morning drive from one London airport town to another (albeit Lilliputian in contrast) had us rolling up to sign in at Hell HQ 40 minutes shy of our start time – long enough to decamp and change into our gear but not enough to let the icy fingers of late February creep under the thermals.
I had more layers than an onion, yet there was still a nagging doubt it wasn’t enough. As we headed out of the start gate, my worst fears were confirmed. Searing pain, like an ice-cream headache, to the bottom of Cudham Test Hill. Then legs that were barely awake having to stomp up a 25 per cent short-sharp shock topped with the need for a frozen, gaping, rictus grin to the photographer perched at the summit.
As with every hill, there’s always a down side and with the heart now pumping faster than a humming bird’s wings, and extremities warming up, it was time to feel and fend off the wind chill down to Brasted and begin the first trundle of the day towards Toys.
This pattern was repeated ad nauseaum – up and down in a relentless roller-coaster that justified this sportive’s terrifying name and reputation. Even the ‘flat’ sections – by which I mean the sections that don’t qualify as named hills – sap the strength and the nerves, especially in Arctic conditions. Descents were fraught with perils – every wet patch on the road an ice rink, every puddle a potential pot-hole.
And yet, the people out with me were smiling. Banter was glorious. Cyclists paused at the top of climbs to chat and wait for slower comrades, those doing roadside repairs waved away the offers of assistance as if knowing that stopping unnecessarily wasted vital calories. The feed stations (of excellent quality) were so well stocked, nay stacked, with goodies and hot drinks it seemed foolhardy to leave – yet everyone of the 900 riders out to take on the Hell passed through with regimented determination.
My hands were so cold that I thought I’d left my gloves behind at one point. But despite the biting wind, the occasionally grainy snow and the bitter, bitter conditions it was a fabulous time to be out. The Ashdown Forest, gloriously naked with frozen sculptures hanging over roadside puddle splashes, was a wonder.
Finally, it was back at Hell HQ for my freewheel over the line, a hot sausage roll and a change of jersey. I have never been so cold on a bike, never so determined to sell my bike and grow fat(ter), yet by the time I’d got home, showered and eaten a hearty roast (basking in the glow of my wife’s disappointment that I’d come back alive and thus ineligible for that life insurance claim) I was looking forward to the next cycling challenge.
After all, it couldn’t get tougher than 100km of hills and cryogenics. If I could do the Hell of the Ashdown the day hell froze over, then anything else should be a doddle.