I’ve focused a lot on some of the negatives around cycling, those times where mental ill-health gets in the way. I, and several of my friends, have talked about anxiety surrounding racing, our abilities, our motivation levels, the worth of taking part at all. Those of you who have been to a Bikes and Brains evening will know I find some of the overly motivational images about cycling rather irritating. ‘You can never be unhappy whilst riding a bike!’ Actually, yes, you fecking can.
Recently, however, going out on the bike *did* make everything better. More than better, to the point of not really wanting it to end. (Does anyone else feel torn between their sense of loss and their future-fear? I’m presuming it isn’t just me…). Anyway, given that it’s World Bike Day I thought I’d offer up something rather more positive. A day when riding makes ALL the difference.
Last Bank Holiday weekend it was my birthday and I’d lined up lots of things to do, places to go, people to meet up with – it was great. The high point of the weekend was definitely the ride from Crystal Palace to Eastbourne with my friends Kat and Shibby. I’d identified a route, large sections of which I’d ridden before – though that didn’t stop me worrying about the potential traffic on the busier sections. I work very visually and aside from looking at the map I checked out one or two areas on Streetview to get a visual on some of the junctions I wasn’t familiar with. There were some stops plans but with a certain flexibility to them, depending on how we were feeling, how the time was going, and so on. I finally managed to tear myself away from the map and stop fannying about with the route.
We set off about 9.30 and rolled down the hill from Crystal Palace (South East London). It was promising to be a warm day but there was mist around and the sky was off-white rather than blue. The first gradual pull up to the ridge out of London took about 45 mins and helped to get the legs warmed up. Once I reach the top of that ridge I always feel a sense of release. There’s something about being at that elevation, well out of the city (though being able to look back upon it) which I find very freeing.
The sun has appeared by the time we took the fast downhill (local SE Ldn cyclists will be familiar with Titsey Hill!) which took us towards Limpsfield and quieter lanes. The temperature was beginning to rise and there was a brief stop for wardrobe adjustment before heading towards Edenbridge, Hartfield, and the Ashdown Forest. I grew up in Sussex but I hadn’t discovered the delights of doing miles back then, it was just thrashing around the local BMX track with my mate. Cycling has given me a whole different appreciation of the landscape in which I spent my formative years, and it heightens my awareness to those familiar(ish) surroundings.
The climb up to the Ashdown is a bit of a slog, and we were all starting to feel in need of snacks. There were a few other cyclists toiling up the grind but the road was pretty quiet in terms of motor traffic. I found myself getting a bit stressed on one of the busier sections before Hartfield and wondered whether Kat and Shibby were finding it as unsettling as I. I wished that I hadn’t plotted in some of the B-roads. Still, I silently reasoned with myself, there wasn’t a huge choice of alternative routes. I did find myself getting a little weighed down by the responsibility I placed on myself for leading. I’m still getting used to the fact that sometimes I need to calm the fuck down a bit and not agonise over the details in my head so much. Easier said than done though.
We pulled in to Kings Standing Car Park and walked across the gravel to a copse. Kat stretched. I touched my toes and yelped, having twanged something in the back of my leg a few days earlier. Shibby produced a picnic from a Tardis-esque Carradice. We plonked ourselves down on a bench, swinging our legs and taking in the greenery, and the warm breeze. Also taking in, most importantly, the sandwiches.
Our water bottles were due for a re-fill so once sustenance was consumed headed back to the road. I looked briefly at the ice cream van. We rolled off the Ashdown and into Maresfield. We pulled in to a pub I’d stopped at once before and sat in the baking sun admiring our bikes and necking a fizzy drink. The barwoman kindly topped up our water. A little section of busier road before heading off into quiet lanes where we could ride alongside each other and chat again. These lanes carried us to Glynde where the Englishness was so over the top we nearly choked on bunting. There was even a cricket match on the green with players in their whites, rubbing their balls on their legs.
This idyll got abruptly interrupted by the A27 but fortunately we reached the turn for Charleston Farmhouse pretty quickly. Initial planning hadn’t allowed for the Charleston Literary Festival but this added to the buzz. There was even cycle-parking by the VIP car park! We did a circuit of the walled garden where festival-goers were sitting and sketching and reading before we headed for the tea marquee. Tea Marquee. Drinking tea, eating a scone, under an apple tree, at Charleston. Oh my god shut up.
Then it was off back down the A27 a few yards and into Middle Farm which holds the National Collection of Cider and Perry. Yes, it does. When it comes to being able to taste perry, cider, fruit liquors, mead, and the like… Middle Farm has l’embarras de richesses. We were rather restrained by all accounts but did exit the building with liquid enough to accompany the evening repast.
Then the last ten miles or so to Eastbourne. The first few followed the Cuckmere Valley – we climbed a little onto the southern side by Litlington and were rewarded with blissful views across the landscape, a slight heat haze, the river lazily making its way towards the sea a little further south.
There was a possibility of wild swimming in the meanders at Seven Sisters Country Park but with Eastbourne only six miles away it seemed a bit daft to stop. From Exceat it’s pretty much all up. Well, some downs too but three significant climbs on the A-road, the last being a real grind – Type 2 fun, as Kat said. The headwind added to the effort one called upon tired legs to exert but the skies were still blue and the sea only then a roll down into the town.
“I can’t wait to get my shoes off!”
Eastbourne is known-turf for Shibby so he took over the leading on the last section and got us to through the Old Town and to the sea front. We inveigled a passerby to take a shot of all three of us before heading on eastwards along the front to a suitable swimming spot. We dragged our bikes across the pebbles, changed and had a somewhat bracing but very refreshing dip in choppy waters. We dragged ourselves out of the water and did that walk you might expect people to do back up over a pebbly beach.
“I can’t wait to get my shoes back on!”
Dry(ish) and dressed we hauled the bikes over the beach. More effort this time, tiredness and hunger starting to factor in. As I lifted my leg over the top tube there was an unmistakable groan. We had the invitation of Shibby’s parents to stop off at their place while they were away. Shibby fixed superb G&T’s and left to prepare some fab food whilst Kat and I went into minor paroxysms of bliss on a padded swing seat with drinks in hand. My word, that felt good after being on a saddle all day!
We ate in the garden and sampled the cider before Shibby led Kat and me back to the station for our train. Cue lots of tired and happy chat about the day.
This was the first warm, sunny, all-day ride I’ve done with friends in some time – then I remembered how bloody long the winter seemed to go on for. My ride to Brighton with Jules (who spoke at the Manchester Bikes and Brains event) a few weeks before was fab but the weather hadn’t quite yet turned and we cooled down quite quickly when we stopped. This ride was the first which promised warm temperatures all day. It was one of those which seemed to go on forever – getting back to London that evening it felt as though I’d been away for days.
I’ve been trying to think of all the elements that contribute to an amazing day like this but I think it’s much more than I’ve identified. I was quietly delighted at how my initial worries slipped away as the miles went on. There was great company, hot and sunny weather, beautiful landscape, the random few spots of rain from a lone cloud in an otherwise blue sky, wonderfully quiet roads, being conscious of much birdsong, evenly-matched riding, journey punctuated by visits, not having to wear a multitude of layers, a coastal finish and swim, the simple pleasure of food, the healthy tiredness afterwards. The awareness of all this makes the day, being able to appreciate it and being part of the landscape for a few hours. I do like a solo ride and sometimes that’s what I need. On this occasion, perhaps more than anything else, it was the shared experience of it all, and being content in the knowledge that others have enjoyed it with you and you with them.
My thanks to Kat and Shibby for their excellent company and being part of one of those rides that enriches mind, body, and soul.