Words Andy Lulham | Photos Daniel Gould
When people talk of the ‘Surrey Hills’ they naturally think of Box Hill, famed for its zig-zags and the nine ascents during the 2012 Olympic men’s road race. Box Hill is easy to get to and relatively easy to climb, but there is a higher, tougher hill no more than 10 miles away.
The prize for highest point in Surrey goes to Leith Hill, but it’s a bit further off the beaten track. There’s no coffee shop or visitor centre at the top, no biker’s cafe or busy, four-lane A-road at the bottom. It’s also a popular route for cyclists and many local sportives use it. What many people do not know, however, is that there are more than eight different ways of climbing it — which would have made for a much more challenging, if not chaotic, route for the Olympic road race.
Local cyclist John Leitch hit upon the idea of basing a sportive around the different routes up Leith Hill but was worried at the cost of putting on an organised day, so he devised the ‘Octopus’; making it more of a reliability trial with a charity — Room To Read — benefitting from donations.
“Rather than spend money on signage, support and first aid it seemed more sensible to appeal to the more adventurous cyclist and try and raise money for a good cause at the same time,” John told us.
John is the kind of wily, wiry cyclist who is distinctly of the ‘old school’ department: steel-framed bike, down tube shifters, and an unflappable modest confidence that hints at effortless climbing in the Alps and Dolomites. Words such as ‘Stelvio’ and ‘Marmotte’ are dropped in to the conversation without a pause to check for widened eyes or nods of approval. From a modest creator comes a modest start: the car park of Dorking’s swimming pool, where we met up with John.
While John wouldn’t be joining me for the whole ride, I had company in the form of Dale, Nick and Simon. I felt a little like the wheezy, tubby kid who had got to pick the sports day line-up. Dale, who travelled up from Southampton, is a diesel of a cyclist and had recently completed a 24-hour Manchester to London ride. Simon, the youngest and lightest of us, had just got his third-cat licence and had cycled over to Dorking from home in Crawley. And Nick, my regular cycling partner, was fresh from frequently disappearing off into the distance on holiday with me in France. So, with little pomp or fanfare, we exited the car park and headed for the hill.
First and second legs
Coldharbour Lane is long and straight and hard enough to be included as one of Simon Warren’s 100 Great Climbs Book 2, and had been thoughtfully micro-dressed, it seems, just for us. The crunching of gears was drowned out by the crunching of tyres on the shifting surface until we reached the village of Coldharbour for the first time that day. It was tantalising to see the pub was firing up an oil drum BBQ and we knew that the smell of firelighters would be replaced with burgers and sausages the next time we came through.
Many of the ascents don’t actually finish until the high point of the hill, and thankfully Nick had parked his car there, stocked with food and drink, essential for the day. It was also thanks to Nick we managed to find the start to the second climb, as he is a notoriously bad navigator and had printed off the course map and obsessively marked all the relevant points on it. I also had a copy of John’s excellent turn-by-turn directions, but relied on them less as the day went on as Nick’s directional confidence went from ‘shonky’ to ‘epic’.
After a juddering and potentially ruinous descent of Hollow Lane, we turned on to the A25 and headed west passing through Sutton Abinger and the Belmont Prep School in Pasture Wood Road.
It was here that disaster struck for Dale, as an effort to climb a short incline resulted in a frightening cacophony of clangs from his rear wheel. Closer inspection revealed that this sudden burst of awesome power had broken a spoke and now it wobbled like the South African batting order in a one-day semi-final. Dale’s day was done and we called up for some support from our photographer, Dan, who could thankfully save him from a wretched walk back to the start in cleated shoes.
The roads had started to fill up with local roadies and mountain bikers, and so began an inordinate amount of nodding, waving and greetings as we hurtled down towards Ockley for the next ascent.
Third and fourth legs
Along the A29 north of Ockley there are two starts and we were to take on Broomehall Lane, a favourite of sportives. The unshaded start is relatively placid until you approach Broomehall itself when it deceptively ramps up and continues in a similar fashion until you get to the shady relief of the last third. Each corner presented a soul-sapping slight incline until the sting in the tail at the church at the north end of Coldharbour, when you have to double back left and get out of the saddle for 20 metres on to the road that traverses the lower part of the summit past Windy Gap. Lots of bunny-hopping is required on the poor road surface between here and the summit slog up to the car park for the third crossover.
The third descent of the day was a hairy one: through Abinger Common, past another tantalising pub, the Abinger Hatch, and down a twisty, high-banked single-track lane. It was at this point our progress was impeded by the sudden appearance of a convoy of vintage MGs on their way to the coast for a rally.
Heaving a collective sigh of relief at the end of Raikes Lane we turned away from the start of the infamous White Down Lane climb — one for another day, that — and a short section east along the A25 to the bottom of the frame-shattering Hollow Lane, back up to the summit car park and an opportunity to take a break and
Fifth and sixth legs
Suitably refreshed, we careered back across Abinger Road and its assault course-like potholes and then past the delicious smelling BBQ now well under way at the Plough Inn. Bearing off left to Logmore Lane it was time for more singletrack bomb-crater dodging all the way down to Westcott and another smooth sortie along the A25, west towards more Wotton and up the day’s fifth climb.
The early gradient on Sheepscote Lane lulled us into a false calm, only to be cruelly shattered by the steepest slope of the day, made all the more worse for the fact I was finding it hard to climb out of the saddle due to a rib injury. Swaying from side to side, dangerously close to the gutter, the worst was conquered and we appeared once more on the car park road and zoomed through, back down towards Ockley, passing the splendid walled farm selling free-range eggs and jams.
Back along Stane Street (A29) and past the start of Broomehall, we pressed on to Henhurst Lane and the blessed relief of a glass smooth, recently resurfaced road. Thankfully not as tough as Sheepscote, but challenging nonetheless, we trundled to the top. My energy was sapped by the appearance of three hitch-hiking flies, sucking blood from my right calf. I wasn’t aware of any doping control so I flicked them off before they could take a B-sample. The last climbs beckoned.
Seventh and eighth legs
The penultimate climb included revisiting the road that did for Dale several hours before, and a blast along the road west of Holmbury St Mary to the bottom of Abinger Common. After fours hours, this felt like (and probably was) the longest climb of the day, made worse by being at the hottest part of the afternoon. The patched tarmac was bubbling and popping under our tyres and the indifferent breeze was no longer refreshing but stifling.
A final stop at the car park to take on more fluids and suck on some energy gels, and we were off on the final climb of the day.
Out of all of the climbs featured on the Octopus, this is the one we’ll all recall with least fondness. After traversing Pasture Wood Road and blasting once more south of Holmbury St Mary, we turned into Tanhurst Lane and were met with a road surface that could be charitably described as ‘testing’. Like Frodo and Sam being guided through the Dead Marshes by Gollum, there seemed to be one route only up the pitted and potholed road, which under normal circumstances would have been challenging in itself.
After nearly 56 miles and seven hills (plus all of the mini-climbs) it was a wonder we stayed upright as the gradient ramped and the pedals turned slower and slower. Improving, in the loosest sense of the word, the further up we went, we were rewarded with a respite of a couple of hundred metres of flatness past Tanhurst House before a final effort up to the car park and the relief associated with pressing ‘Save Ride’ on our bikes’ computers. Dotty jumper of the day went to Simon, ‘dossard rouge’ for most combative to Nick and ‘lantern rouge’ to me. Despite crossing the line together, it was with a helpful and much needed push from the team.
So what lessons did I learn?
If you’re going to do a 58-mile climbing challenge you need several things: plentiful supplies of food and water; it not to be 25 degrees in the shade; not to have a broken rib. Other than that it was a doddle.
Seriously, this is a major test for the legs and the stamina — not quite up to the Fred Whitton in the Lake District, but I imagine it comes some way close to preparing you for a serious hilly sportive. There is little break from the climbs; as soon as you finish one you’re on to another, and another, and another. While 6,000 feet of climbing doesn’t sound like much compared to some of the hillier events you can do, its compact nature means you’re never too far from the top. And if you don’t fancy completing the whole ride you can get in your car at the top any time.
Pubs and grub
The Plough Inn, Coldharbour, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6HD 01306 711793,
The Abinger Hatch, Abinger Lane, Abinger Common, North Dorking, Surrey RH5 6HZ 01306 730737,
The Wotton Hatch, Guildford Road, Wotton, Dorking RH5 6QQ 01306 887694, www.wottonhatch.co.uk
Head For The Hills, 43-44 West Street, Dorking, Surrey RH4 1BU 01306 885007 www.head-for-the-hills.co.uk
A more detailed road book is available on the leithhilloctopus.org
From Dorking Halls, L and cycle through Dorking town centre, following signs for the A25. At Vincent Ln bear L and take Cordharbour Ln all the way to the top, through Coldharbour and take the R fork into Abinger Rd. At the end, turn right and carry on up Leith Hill Rd past the top car park, which is the summit you’ll pass another seven times. Carry on down Hollow Lane and L on to the A25.
Carry on along the A25 until Abinger Hammer and then L into Felday R. Climb up through Sutton Abinger and Holmbury St Mary, then turn L into Pasture Wood Rd. At the end, turn right back onto Leith Hill Rd, past the car park and down to Ockley Rd and turn L. Follow this road down to the A29 (Stane Street) at Ockley and turn L. Turn L again into Broomhall Rd and when at the top, sharp L and L again into Abinger Rd. As before to the end and turn R, past the car park and then down the other side but taking a L fork at Abinger Common onto Abinger Ln. At the bottom of this descent, turn R into Raikes Ln and then R again on to the A25. R once more and up Hollow Ln, over the top and down Leith Hill Rd but taking a left back onto Abinger Rd, back down Coldharbour Ln. Bear L onto Logmore Ln, and keeping L at the bottom, turn L onto the A25 once more.
Turn L at Wootton on to Sheephouse Ln then L at the junction back onto Leith Hill Rd, past the car park and down all the way to Ockley Rd, L onto Stane St, past Broomhall Rd and L onto Henhurst Cross Ln. Follow this all the way to the top (it changes to Anstie Ln) and turn L, back through Coldharbour Village, right onto Abinger Rd and right on to Leith Hill Rd. Up and over past the car park and L onto Paddockhurst Rd, turn L at the end onto Holmbury Rd, L at the bottom onto Ockley Rd, then L again up Leith Hill Rd. Up and over the top, past the car park and then L again into Paddockhurst Rd, L into Holmbury Rd and L into Tanhurst Rd. At the top of Tanhurst Rd, turn L onto Leith Hill Rd and, at last, INTO the car park.