Cyclo Sportive: Hell of the Ashdown

This year we have a new phrase to add to the dictionary. An ‘extreme weather event’ is the new word for ‘unofficial bank holiday due to snow flurries’. It applies to most of the general population, though not, apparently, to sportive riders, who either don’t listen to weather forecasts, or take a perverse enjoyment from riding in arctic conditions

It would not be over-exaggerating to describe the Hell of the Ashdown, held on the first weekend in February, as an ‘extreme sportive event’. As the 2009 calendar opener it has always played Russian roulette with the weather and despite its location in the normally leafy and sheltered lanes of Kent, nothing could prevent the icy blast that threatened at any moment to turn catastrophically nasty.

In the end Hell got lucky, as it did not snow really seriously until the next day, Monday. But still, Sunday was freezing cold, with sub zero windchill and extended spells of horizontal snow blizzards from mid-morning on. Luckily, the snow did not settle or freeze on the roads, but it was a close run thing.

Starting in Biggin Hill, Kent, and heading south in a 110-kilometre loop (there was a shorter 50-kilometre option) via the Ashdown Forest, this year’s new route was changed at the last moment to avoid lanes running with water and in danger of icing over as temperatures plummeted.

Of the 999 entrants (the ride sold out within 10 days of going online last year), a few hundred failed to start but organiser Bryan Stout of the Catford CC reported no problems on the day: “We had no accidents that I know of and I am getting thank you emails by the minute. “I can’t praise the marshals enough, we had about 40 and they did really well to stick out there in freezing conditions for five hours.”

The only incident of note happened later in the day when the organisers’ van slid off the road in a blizzard while looking for a rider stranded by a puncture. The rider had been rescued by a motoristearlier but you get the idea — Hell came close to freezing over on 1 February.

hell of the ashdown 2009, cyclo sportive

The organiser – Bryan Stout
“We’ve run this event since 1951, it was a reliability trial until three years ago, and it’s only been cancelled once due to heavy snow in the ‘60s. The numbers have gone up from about 500 in 2007 to 999 this year and to keep the congestion down we set the riders off in groups of eight at one minute intervals. That way we could get through 1,000 riders in two hours without creating big bunches. Proceeds are going half to the British Heart Foundation and half to promote cycling in south-east London.”

Sportive sound bites

Ed Simpson
“That was really good, a cracking course. There was a bit of ice here and there but we just scooted over it. We’ve been lucky because we set off early, the sun was shining in Edenbridge but on Star Hill near the finish it was snowing.”

Ben Weeks
“The second half of the ride got really cold when it started snowing and the temperature dropped. It was snowing for the last 45 minutes of my ride. There was ice on Baileys Hill, which I rode before they re-routed it.”

Jane Cast
“That was challenging but quite fun. I fell off last week so I was quite tentative on the road today. I like the challenge of the hills and those gel thingies with caffeine are fantastic! We had a few Kent Velo Girls out today — we started the club last summer and are based in Sevenoaks.”

Matt Miles
“There was a blizzard up Star Hill — it reminded me of my skiing holiday last week. Star was the hardest because it came at the end — there were a lot of riders splatted on the road up there. It’s an incredibly well run event, a credit to the sport.”

>>>Cycling Weekly’s 2009 British cyclo sportive calender

hell of the ashdown 2009, cyclo sportive

Riders brave the elements in Kent

My Cyclo-SportiveLionel Birnie
Part of the problem with travelling 50 miles round the M25 to take part in an event is the time lapse between breakfast and the start of the ride. Porridge was eaten at 7.30am, my start time was not until 9.55am.

Every instinct told me to eat again before the start, even if it was just half a banana, but a louder voice in my head spoke so much sense. ‘Don’t worry,’ it said, ‘you’ll be alright’. I mean, how can you argue with reason like that?

An hour into the ride my colleague Ed and I were flying along towards the back of a group that was setting a brisk pace. A glance at the Garmin told me we’d averaged 18 miles per hour, a statistic that satisfied and terrified me. If we kept that up, we’d finish the 63-mile ride in well under four hours. Then Ed turned to me and said: “This is a good group. We should stay with it.”

On cue, my stomach growled, and I felt the strength ebb out of my legs. I was still chewing a piece of energy bar when Hollow Hill hit us. I went backwards and, despite chasing over the top and for a good 15 minutes more in hope than expectation that I’d see Ed and the group again, that was it.
Losing contact blew any chance of a sub four-hour ride.

The next hour or so was a real battle. Kidds Hill, the so-called ‘wall’, took us up to a very exposed summit that was my lowest point.

The blizzard blew in and I spent a long spell riding by myself, watching riders pass me and trying to stay with them, before having to sit up. A hot cup of coffee made by a very friendly, sympathetic lady at the second check point at Ide Hill, was enough to revitalise me.

Towards the end, I recovered, to the extent that Star Hill, the final climb, was actually quite enjoyable. I finished in a time of four hours 24 minutes, 27 minutes after Ed, and with a sense that I’ve done rides twice the length that have been half as hard.

hell of the ashdown 2009, cyclo sportive