Archive REVIEW: The Hell of the Ashdown

by Adam Tranter

Words and Images: Mark Tearle

On the penultimate day of February 2011, 1200 riders gathered at the Charles Darwin School, Biggin Hill, Kent; that is after battling for a car space along the residential streets around the school and changing in prep for the ride in front of the startled inhabitants. 

Ok, so I may be exaggerating about the startled inhabitants, though I dare say none of them were too pleased about the disruption of that many cars descending on what looked like an otherwise sleepy residential estate. 

This event certainly is popular.  Put back to a later date in the calendar this year due to the snows and disruption of January 2010, it sold out in super quick time leaving many disappointed.

I had been dreading this ride a little bit and many questions circled about my addled brain: Had I put enough winter miles in as preparation?  Did I feel good?  What would the weather be like?  As it turns out, on the day when I opened the curtains in the morning the weather was set fair, I felt great and I reckon I had done just enough to get me round.

So, step one accomplished i.e. find a parking space, get the bike out of the car, (proudly) don the Cyclosport Jersey and head over to the school to register.  Step two was painless enough; registration was fairly quick with plenty of help and out to step three; to the start line and get out on to the lanes.

I was given a start time of 09:50 but I have to be honest I sneaked off with a group at about 09:30.  Out of the gates half the group were the Speedy Gonzales crew (you know like that mouse that goes really fast) and the other half were Sunday afternoon coffee run types with me somewhere in between.  I was dropped on the first hill by the Speedy Gonzales Crew - it was a beastly 25% ascent. 

The first 20km was a decent leg warmer heading south over the M25 towards Edenbridge and the first major climb, Toys Hill.  The route takes you via Hever Castle, where there was a short diversion due to a road closure, this had been well publicised in advance and the diversion was well marked on course.

On via Edenbridge and then South again into Sussex, the first feed stop was in Hartfield.  It was a busy stop, lots of riders milling about.  There was a distinct lack of any sustenance except for boxes full of rather green bananas.  There was hot tea and coffee on offer though, not of great quality but more than appreciated as the temperature had started to drop a little.

I like to loiter a bit at the feed stations, you get a chance to soak up the mood of the other riders, who at this point all seemed content enough; there was lots of chatter about the difficult initial section of the course but there were mostly smiles.

Hartfield is a hop, skip and a jump from Coleman's hatch and the start of the famous Kidds Hill, AKA "The Wall"...I stopped at the bottom, opposite the Ford to get a few shots of riders about to embark on the journey up and then I started my ascent.  It's a nice climb up under the tunnel of trees - straight, no nonsense with that glimmer of light between the trees at the top - your target.

Kidds Hill is certainly a challenge but keep calm and composed and stay seated for as long as possible and you'll get there.  Out in to the light again and you find yourself at the very top of Ashdown Forest - stunning vistas all around. 

The route carries you along at this altitude for a while, takes a left and then flows nicely down to Groombridge.  At Groombridge the course takes you on what the "Hell" organisers have dubbed "Nouvelle Col de Groombridge" - a stiff mile long climb that runs parallel to the main Groombridge Hill Road.

I caught up with my friend Simon somewhere here.  I had briefly chatted with him at the Hartfield feed stop.  Simon was riding with his friend Ben, and we continued on route together.

The route is now on the homeward bound, heading north skirting the Bough Beech Reservoir heading towards York's Hill.  The route doesn't take the York's Hill path but continues north and then up Bayles Hill, which is on the same escarpment as York's Hill, but is decidedly less steep -  nevertheless a nice testing climb on tired legs. 

On the descent after Ide Hill was the next feed station, expertly manned by Alf Cappuccino (pictured below).  Alf entertained those who cared to listen with Tommy Cooper jokes and general banter,  mainly harmless flirtation with the ladies.  He had all the charm and the repartee - when I grow up I want to be him!  Again, the sustenance on offer was poor, they had run out of energy bars but again tea and coffee was available, toilets and beautiful views back across Kent. And of course there was Alfie.

Passing over the M25 again the next challenge was soon upon us... By this time the weather had taken a shocking turn for the worst, wind had picked up slightly and what felt like sleet began to fall.  Star Hill was next.  Pushing against the wind Simon and I both put our feet down harder on the pedals, it was an unspoken agreement between us it seems to just get this hill done and get out of the rain and sleet.  On down to Knockholt and finally, at last on to the home straight, it was a relief to be back at HQ. 

Having been exposed to the weather a little it was a matter of a quick hand shake with Simon, hand back the timing transponder, pick up the certificate and then scoot back to the car and get the heating on! 

Over all this was a very good event.  The route and the route marking couldn't be faulted and the marshalling along the course was excellent, in fact I have never been to an event where all of the major junctions were manned.  To those volunteers who stood out on the course all day I salute you.  Parking was a bit of an issue and the feed stations were a little disappointing but not so that the day was ruined. 

Sadly, I didn't meet the Devil en route, I was ready to tackle him with Max Romeo singing "I Chase the Devil" in my head all day long (my soundtrack for the day); I didn't even spot any sheep up in Ashdown Forest!  I come away from this event having had an early season test of my fitness and an excellent experience around the lanes of Kent and Sussex.  Special thanks to Alfie, who made me splutter with laughter.

Event results are available here - please leave a member rating if you were there, or comment under this piece, we'd love to hear from you.

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2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Great ride but could have done without being sent of course 3 miles from home. Ended up back at the start of Toys Hill and had to climb another beast (Westerham Hill) to get back on course. Overall this excursion cost me a sub 4 hour time which would have been nice.

Feed stops a little poor when you consider the quality and choice you get at the Chiltern Hundred for the same money but otherwise excellent and a worthwhile day out.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

I thought this was an excellent event, OK food wasn't great but that isn't particularly important to me anyway.
My grumble (at the time) was the unintended detour 3 miles from home due to a 'missing sign' which severely messed up my time and involved an extra nasty hill to get back on course when I was already tired. A few people got caught out by this but the organisers remedied it expediently and put a marshall in place to ensure later riders weren't diverted. It still hurt my tired legs though! But so what if it messed up my time? I know why my time is what it is, it is not a competition against other riders, it is a personal challenge so you just factor the extra miles into the result!
So overall, one of the best sportives I've come across.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

A good hard ride, thank God I carried my own food bars, on a lovely route. it wasn't Hell until the temperature dropped markedly en route to Star Hill and the finish, my fingertips went numb fortunately no power braking was required on Berrys Lane despite some traffic. It's really a ride for a dedicated winter trainer if you want a sub 5hr time.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

I thought it was a great event again. the parking...................well yep that is a problem and I guess the only option would be to use the airport parking and for people to ride the short distance to the start.

route is excellent even including the short sharp climb some 10minutes after the start. the reviewer forgot to mention that everyone was given a route crib sheet and there was a download available too, so naviagating was never an issue.

didn't have the same problems re food and I set off at roughly the same time. bad luck I guess. excellent marshalling and quick turnaround at the finish. will definitely do it next year.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

Agree with previous comments - a terrific route - coffee and tea v.welcome at feed stations, but not green bananas and inexpensive power bars !

I started as early as possible and it paid dividends as I finished before the poor weather arrived.

Like others I got caught out by missing sign at the end, perhaps there should always be someone standing on this turn to make sure riders don't descend Hogtrough Hill again.

However many thanks to marshalls and everyone providing support on the course and HQ - it is really appreciated.