Cyclo-Sportive: Ride of the Falling Leaves

DISTANCE 75 miles (120km)

MAIN CLIMB Toys Hill — a sapping drag just before Westerham


So, it’s come to this. After treacherous weather in the North Yorks Moors; the hellish, coastal headwinds and soaring climb of Scotland’s Bealach Na Ba; after the rain-sodden, soul destroying, high moorland passes of the black mountains, and countless other sportives in Wales, England, Italy and godonlyknowswhereland, it’s come to this. The Ride of the Falling Leaves.

I’ve had enough of challenge rides this year. I’ve been doing ‘centuries’ since February and this one is in October. I’m tired in the legs and in the head, I hate my bike and I wouldn’t be anywhere near this event if it wasn’t for a couple of salient points. A) I’ve never done it before and it’s reportedly a classic. And B) it virtually goes past my front door in Croydon. No travelling to get on the line, and if anything goes pear-shaped during the ride I can turn left at any point and be on the sofa within an hour. Luxury.

And judging by the conditions things could get very pear-shaped here. Weeks of drought-inducing dry weather have broken during the previous week and dark, thunderous storms have been passing through the South-East for a few days like miserable funeral cortèges. The route famously traverses some very narrow and steep country lanes, so road conditions are going to be an issue. I don’t care.

I’ve done nine sportives this year and there’s been bad weather at all of them. So I’m past caring. I know the roads, I’m close to home and I intend to ride as fast as I can until the Falling Leaves and the 2007 challenge ride season is behind me and I can look forward to a month on the couch.

Little bit of Roubaix

As the ride starts in Dulwich and is organised by the estimable Paragon CC of that parish, we get to start with a lap of Herne Hill track before heading off. It’s a bit like Paris-Roubaix in reverse. The organisers have done a fantastic job with a web-based registration service, so all we have to do is turn up, pay, saddle up and hit the boards of the velodrome.

There is a fair amount of traffic to be negotiated through Crystal Palace and West Wickham before hitting the lanes, so starting groups are restricted to 25 riders each, with times recorded on departure. In the region of 300 riders have signed up for this and despite a massive storm on the way to the velodrome, most of them seem ready to ride.

I arrive early to get a start in the first group, hoping there are some riders keen to share my intention of a death or glory blast around the course. Early indications are good, as the ride up the opening College Lane climb is brisk and we are going at an inadvisably fast pace through the traffic. We reach the first of a series of short hills through the farmlands, and at this point we roll along several of the roads that incorporate Cycling Weekly’s infamous lunchtime loop, so I’m well at home.

A couple of guys are starting to make early attempts at getting gaps on the hills but I know what’s coming and hold back. Sure enough one of the day’s hardest climbs at Woldingham teases out the pretenders with some route and branch surgery and there is a group no longer. Three of us somehow get away without consciously making a break, and at the top the gap is considerable. We sit up and look at each other.

The conversation goes unspoken, but we all know what each of us is thinking; it’s extremely windy and there are 60 miles of hard riding ahead — do we really think it’s wise to ride a three-up rather than wait for a group? Apparently we do and the hammer goes down before anyone can catch up.

Treacherous descents down the side of the North Downs and across the M25 take us into the flatlands of Kent, where the headwind is vicious. We head south directly into it and drop into the automatic through-and-off routine which suggests that my two protagonists have done a bit of racing. There’s a metronomic two-minute workload on the front because that’s all anyone can manage before the wind takes its toll.

No time to linger

The most southerly point around Lingfield brings respite from the wind with a turn east, and suddenly the speed is way up over 25mph as the tailwind kicks in. The lanes through to Edenbridge and on towards Penshurst provide excellent traffic-free riding before we encounter a series of rolling hills which lead to the big climb of the day, Toys Hill.

Toys is a sapping drag, familiar to me from the reliability trials in this area. Fortunately we get to turn left before the steepest top section but the respite is only brief as the route delivers us to the bottom of Chartwell, another draining climb which takes us over the downs once more to the checkpoint at Westerham.

It’s here that the ride joins the shorter route which Dulwich CC offers the more sensible rider. I’m hoping that after stamping my card I can sit in with a group of decent riders who are still fresh having only done the shorter distance, but there is nobody going at our pace. Leading up to the steepest climb of the day at Brasted is a road completely covered in slippery mud about an inch deep. Staying upright is tricky and the treacherous conditions split us up.

A postcard from Kent

After the climb I charge through the picturesque lanes of Cudham and Downe in pursuit of the rider in front. I catch him by the top of Biggin Hill where traffic forces us to a halt. We are now a pair having dropped the third rider. I look at him, he looks at me and we both look at our watches. Just under three and a quarter hours gone and a sub-four hour gold standard enticingly hanging over us. “Four hours?” are the first words I’ve spoken to him all day. “Three forty-five,” he replies with a wicked grin and launches into the descent of Jackass Lane.

We tear it up through the traffic to the bottom of the final hill and amazingly he attacks up the long drag to Crystal Palace. I am beaten like a rented mule, there is nothing left in my legs and I watch him open the gap, but he mistimes it slightly and gets caught at the lights near the top. Recovered, I lay into him as we descend College Road at speed to the finish at the Dulwich sports club.

Home and wet

Our riding time is 3hrs 47mins, and by the time I’ve stopped shaking, got out of my cleats and walked dribbling to the organisers’ desk, I’m signed off with a time just inside four hours. I sit back content and wait to see how many other riders come in with faster times.

Then it happens.

The threat of rain has held off all day and its been quite mild, but within minutes of me finishing a massive black wall of cloud appeared outside the window as a storm of biblical proportions moves in and parks across the South-East. With riders having started in groups up to an hour after mine, and taking a far more leisurely approach to the ride, there were clearly going to be people riding through the deluge for a couple of hours or more.

Sure enough the next few hours see a steady stream of drowned rats appear in the hall, wringing litres of freezing rainwater out of their Lycra. I must apologise on behalf of the handful of dry, smug riders for laughing but we’ve all been there and seeing so many absolutely soaked riders steaming (literally) to the finish was hilarious.

This is a superb event and it just goes to show what the dedication of a cycling club, a supporting shop (Mosquito Cycles) and a few volunteers can achieve. The Falling Leaves is on a par with some of the best sportives, despite branding itself as a much more humble affair. There was good signage, support cars for the needy, a great course and loads of food and drinks at the end. Excellent. Now where’s the couch — I’ll see you in May.

Route details

Starts from Herne Hill velodrome, then south towards Penge, Beckenham, Downe, Cudham, over the M25 to Westerham, Four Elms and on to Hever at roughly the mid-way point. The route then loops north through Edenbrdge, Limpsfield, over the M25 and the North Downs to Woldingham, then back to Dulwich.

Want to ride it?

DETAILS are few and far between for the 2007 running of the Ride of the Falling Leaves. What we do know is that the event is being run on Sunday, October 7, and that two routes are available: the full 120km loop as outlined here, and a shorter 80km route.

There’s one feed station approximately half way around each route. Entry is £15 on the day, or £12 in advance (to be confirmed).

Keep an eye on and future issues of Cycling Weekly for more information.