Cycling Diaries Part 1: Crystal Palace to Tunbridge Wells.

The first in a series of articles, unpicking the great (and not so great) cycling routes in and around London.

Distance: 82km
Elevation: 1310m
Highlights: Kidds Hill (The Wall) and Toys Hill
Start Point: Crystal Palace Train Station
End Point: Tunbridge Wells Station
Marks out of 10: 8

A good friend of mine said to me recently that he doesn’t do winter cycling – “unless the temperature’s above 15 degrees, I’m not coming.” Sage advice as a group of us cycled from Crystal Palace to Tunbridge Wells on a particularly biting Saturday recently. One of the best things about this ride is the relatively short time it takes to hit “proper” countryside once you leave Crystal Palace station.

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Heading south along the A214 you experience the usual drab, dreary, dingy concrete jungle as you pass through the soulless outer reaches of London. Within 15 minutes though, you pass through West Wickham, start climbing up Laynhams Road and in an instant, suburbia wilts away like a bad dream and rolling fields and wooded lanes begin.

One of the few joys of winter riding is that the hedgerows are bare which gives you a dreamy, misty view south towards the bigger hills that await. The traffic begins to disappear as you turn left down Hesiers Hill and begin the first climb up through Beddlestead Lane. The legs kick in to gear, warmth spreads through your numb fingers and you click down the gears until you reach the top, turn left and hurtle down the B2024.

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Scooting along parallel to the roaring M25 you turn off down Pilgrims Way, duck underneath the motorway and quickly find yourself in Brasted, at the foot of one of the major climbs of the day, Toys Hill. Make no mistake, this is no hair rising climb, but by South East UK standards it gets the body working as it kicks in at a steady 5% for the best part of 3km. On this day the climb was quiet and as our group spread out you begin to hear only your breath, with the warm steam from it rising up through the trees as you race your friends to the top.

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Plummeting down the tougher southern side, your sweat begins to freeze and you start dreaming of coffee as the ride wiggles through increasing attractive villages – Four Elms, Hever, Cowden and Ashurst Wood. The ride undulates its way through muddy, sunken lanes with sudden steep ramps that bring you out to take a quick breath and look across the fields before quickly dropping you back down again.

Dreaming of food, you eventually arrive at Forest Row and find the table nearest to the radiator at Java Jazz Café. On bleak winters days this exotically named pit-stop is exactly what you need after a long cycle, with great coffee and a good selection of food (get the quesadilla, trust me).

By this stage you’ve broken the back on the day and thoughts turn to Kidds Hill (aka The Wall), just outside Colemans Hatch. I really enjoy this climb. It’s only 1.5km and dead straight, but becomes progressively steeper as you reach the upper ramp (over 14%) which gives you no-where to hide. It always hurts, and in hill climbing that’s what you want.

thumbnail_photo 2On dark winter afternoons like this, the densely wooded climb is almost spooky at the bottom and our bike lights flash brightly as you look upwards, light flickering at the opening to the top of the climb seemingly only a short way ahead. You arrive at the summit, dancing away on the pedals at the top of Ashdown Forest with a view to savour across Kent and Sussex.

Once you get your breath back, all that is left is to track your way east for 8 miles along the B2026 and B2110. There are a few truly lumpy sections along here too which, as darkness begins to descend and with traffic building caused spirits to begin to drop.

But before you know it you’re in Tunbridge Wells enjoying the warmth of a train carriage as you try and find something hot to drink. And as you speed back into central London, thoughts move away from numb legs and tingling toes and back to hustle and bustle of city life.

Looking for cycling heaven? Then head to PyrActif…immediately.

There is nothing better to do on a bike than cycle up a mountain. No, not the Surrey Hills on a wet Saturday or the Ashdown Forest on a very wet Sunday. I mean a bright, sunny, 25 degrees kind of day, cycling up something over 1000m. I remember my first Col – Alpe d’Huez on a hot summer’s morning in 2012. The battle of body against machine, the stunning scenery, the knowledge that you are cycling in the shadows of the greats. I loved it.

In the summer of 2017 a group of friends and I stayed with the cycling holiday company, PyrActif, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, roughly 20km north of the famous cycling spa town of Bagneres de Luchon and about an hour’s drive from Toulouse airport. PyrActif is run by Dean Thompson and based in the sleepy hamlet of Bertren in a beautiful, large 19th century farmhouse, offering bespoke cycling holidays with some of the world’s most iconic climbs in easy reach. It offers complete cycling immersion.

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During our week at PyrActif, a typical day started with breakfast, laid out in the long, wooden dining area. Dean, the most modest and warm hearted of hosts, brought out vats of coffee and, in true cycling style, all the breads, cereals, dried fruits and jams you could need for a long stint on the saddle. Talk centred around the climbs and routes that lay ahead and our stomach churned a little with nervous excitement.

We cycled out from Masion Garrigou each day along a quiet road in the base of the valley, wide fields on either side, with the heat of the day starting to rise as we craned our necks upwards to look up at the mountain passes.

My favourite Col of the week and the one that best sums up the Pyrenees is the Port de Bales – a wonderfully grim and remote 19km climb with numerous sections topping over 11%. The northern base of the climb (Mauleon Barousse) is about 15 minutes ride from PyrActif and before you reach the start you find yourself cycling through sleepy villages with the Tour bunting still on display across the streets with flashes of yellow, green and red polka dots. There is a remoteness to the Pyrenees that is difficult to find in the Alps. Everything is more rugged, more down to earth, more humble. This was epitomised by us, with our carbon bikes, Garmins and isotonic drinks being overtaken by a middle-aged man on an old steel framed bike on the lower reaches of the Bales. His calves were like hunks of chiselled mahogany as he slowly cycled away from us after a friendly greeting with our envious faces following his path upwards.

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The climb winds its way up a narrow track, only made passable by Tour organisers in 2006 in their quest to find new climbs to challenge the riders. You find yourself snaking along up the gully with waterfalls spilling down, seeking stretches of merciful shade as the gradient and the summer heat take their toll. Eventually, a few kilometres from the top, the climb opens out to a wide, beautiful, bleak vista of farmland with the rattle of cow bells on the breeze. I don’t think a single car passed us on the way up and trust me, we took our time. Tour fans will remember Alberto Contador controversially riding away from Andy Schleck on this section in the 2010 edition when Schleck suffered an ill-timed mechanical. The climb tops out at 1755m and we spend a few minutes breathlessly taking in the view and scoffing down whatever was left in our back pockets before the bob-sleigh ride down the southern side of the Col, your teeth starting to chatter from cooling sweat as we plummet down into the spa town of Bagneres de Luchon – a sleepy, friendly place with a plentiful supply of great cafes to have lunch and weigh up the merits of taking on another Col before heading home.

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We finished each day exhausted back at the farmhouse, drinking beers in the back garden and sharing stories of the day before Dean cooked the kind of hearty three course dinner that you spend the final stages of the day’s cycle dreaming about. This was accompanied by a few bottles of local wine as we eventually crawled into our own bed to repeat the whole life affirming experience the next day.

 

A frustrating week for cycling.

The announcement last week that Team Sky’s Chris Froome failed a drugs test during the 2017 Vuelta has sparked a pretty angry backlash: The German cycling powerhouse, Tony Martin, described it as, “a double standard being applied,” and that he’s “totally angry” about it too. Another person totally angry is Cath Wiggins, wife of 2012 TDF Champion Bradley Wiggins, who described the current Team Sky leader as a “slithering reptile”. She later apologised and said she, “certainly didn’t mean to fan any flames.” No, no of course not…

09-09-2017 Vuelta A Espana; Tappa 20 Corvera De Asturias - Alto De L'angliru; 2017, Team Sky; Froome, Christopher; Poels, Wouter; Alto De L'angliru;
09-09-2017 Vuelta A Espana; Tappa 20 Corvera De Asturias – Alto De L’angliru; 2017, Team Sky; Froome, Christopher; Poels, Wouter; Alto De L’angliru;

Froome failed the test due to having twice the legal limit of salbutamol (a drug used to treat asthma) in his system. Salbutamol is permitted in cycling as long as it remains within certain doses. It doesn’t require a TUE and it is also clear that there is a great deal of doubt over whether it provides any sporting advantage. The point being you don’t over use this stuff if you’re looking for an illegal advantage as it isn’t performance enhancing and also when Froome did his drugs tests he would have had to declare he was using salbutamol so if he was deliberately overusing would know that he is going to get caught. As such, Tony Martin seems to be getting his bib shorts in a twist over claims of “double standards” – Froome will have to answer for this and if he doesn’t do so successfully then he will be suspended.

The key question though is why the UCI and Team Sky waited this long to announce the failed test. Did they forget? Did they simply have a lot on? Why not announce it when they found out in September? By leaving it until now exposes them and Team Sky to all kinds of understandable criticism which is undeniably bad for cycling’s reputation. Froome is the Golden Boy of world cycling, the Skywalker to the Armstrong Sith Lord of the 2000s. His speech after the 2013 TDF that “this is yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” was a message the cycling world needed to here. The ambiguity of this situation has eroded a lot of the trust that had started to grow back in professional cyclists, their teams and the those that govern the sport since that speech and that is the real sadness and frustration.

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