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Hell of The Ashdown REVIEW

by Jonathan Cook

A lung busting early season Sportive to take you, as the name suggests, to Hell and back. With an assortment of brutal climbs, no less than eight, this challenging route is the ultimate benchmark to gauge early season fitness.

Bough Beech Reservoir in the distance


Entry fee: £25 (No entry on the day)
Distances: 50 or 106 kilometers
Start/Finish: Charles Darwin School, Biggin Hill
Participants: 1500
Timed: Yes 
Feedstops: Half Sportive 1, Full Sportive 2 both including toilet facilities
Signs: Black arrows on orange/yellow background
Road: A good mixture of quiet lanes and main roads although bumpy in places

Promoted in support of the 'Save the Herne Hill Velodrome' Trust, the organisers, Catford Cycling Club has a long and historic affiliation with cycling dating back over 115 years. They bill the event as 'heading in the direction of the Ashdown Forest, going up about every major hill we can find'. For such a friendly and sociable bunch of cyclists the savage nature of the route is a real surprise.

The Hell of the Ashdown (HoTA) builds on the previous weeks Kentish Killer following similar terrain and for me marks the start of the Sportive season. For 2012 there was the addition of a new climb heading up to Mark's Beech and with 300 additional rider places from the previous year the event still routinely sold out in less than 24 hours back in November. Firmly cementing this as one of the must do Sportive's in any riders calendar.

Riders depart at two-minute intervals

With a record entry of 1500 riders expected to do either a 50km or 106km route, departing in small groups at 2-minute intervals between 8 and 10:30am, I was paranoid about securing a car-parking spot and therefore left home at the indecent hour of 5.30am. Lured into a false sense by the previous days mild weather, I was rather shocked to find the car frozen when I left and spent the journey panicking about how many layers to wear and whether it would warm up.

In reality I was about the 5th car to arrive at the event HQ, Charles Darwin School atop Biggin Hill, which I also later learnt, has an airport and is the gateway to London for executive jets, not that I own one.

Military precision as timing chips are dispatched to participants

I had just over an hour to kill before my pre allocated start time at 8.20am.  I collected my rider's pack, which consisted of a race number including attached transponder, feed-stop wristband and route card, which I hoped I wouldn't be calling upon. Aroused by the aromas wafting from the school café I reluctantly managed to resist the temptation of a pre-ride bacon butty, with the full English looking as equally appetizing. I settled on a cup of coffee in the warm surroundings as HQ started to fill up. 

The temptation of bacon butties nearly proved too much

The event has a very friendly feel with riders congregating in the bike park area before they are called forward to the start line. Perhaps due to the time of year and a sunny day in prospect everyone seemed particularly enthusiastic about the ride as if this was the first big outing for many and a chance to test the legs after months hibernating indoors on turbo trainers.

Shortly after 8am I crossed the start line and after a chilly descent less than one mile into the route hit the short sharp Cudham Test Hill, which at 25% certainly got the blood, arms and legs pumping. 

Through Brasted and on to Toys Hill, a steady 2 mile climb taking you to the highest point of the North Downs. Caution should be taken on the descent as it is very steep and bumpy in places and I found it difficult to see as the sun pierced the surrounding trees. Well and truly warmed up and riding at a fairly brisk pace the miles began to tick by as I spoke to one local rider who explained to me that we were actually riding what was formerly known as the Catford Reliability Trial.

Tea, Coffee and cake expertly distributed

The first feed stop and checkpoint at Ashhurstwood was a welcome relief as despite the glorious sunshine I was still finding it a bit chilly. Cups of tea were expertly handed out and an array of fruitcake and biscuits were on offer not to mention plenty of High 5 Energy drink.

Kidds Hill aka The Wall at the half-way point of the route is a true beauty of a climb, rising through ancient woodland onto the top of Ashdown Forest, also home of Pooh bear, I half expected to see him brandishing a trident through the trees as I puffed my way to the top.

On cresting the final steep section you are rewarded with a fantastic view over the forest. A further few hundred metres brings you to a forked switchback and onto the route the Tour de France took in 1994 (albeit the other way) followed by a glorious fast descent through sweeping lanes.

With the end in sight the next 30km pass over undulating country lanes taking in the other notable climbs of the Nouvelle Col de Groombridge and Bayley's hill, which is particularly steep towards the top but offers lovely views back across Kent. It was enjoyable chatting to other riders about which events they had planned and how some of the hills had been a real shock to the system this early in the season.

Fuelling up at the last feed station

Arriving at the final feed stop and checkpoint at the bottom of Ide Hill again we were treated to a assortment of cakes, Nature Valley granola bars and High 5 Energy products. Riders chatted with the feed station overlooking Bough Beech Reservoir in the distant afternoon sun.

I couldn't relax after setting off for the final push as I knew what lie in wait, a real sting in the tail just nine miles from the end Star Hill rises gently before a sharp left turn and increase in gradient, pretending it isn't hurting as you pass the official photographer for the last time. It is then just a short hop back to the finish line at HQ.

Riders make their way up the final climb Star Hill

After picking up my riders certificate and High 5 Energy goodie box heaven finally arrived 20 minutes later in the form of a massage. With all the proceeds going towards the 'Save the Herne Hill Velodrome' Trust it had to be done.

Heaven or Hell?

Expertly marshaled at every turn, many thanks to the club volunteers who were impeccably friendly and helpful as they waved riders across all the major junctions.  To those volunteers who tireless filled water bottles and handed out cups of tea and fruitcake I can't thank you enough.

This is a tough route not for the faint hearted with over 1,310 meters (4,300ft) of climbing. Having ridden the event two years in row it is now firmly set in my diary as the year's first event and one I will look forward to with apprehension for years to come. Judging by the popularity of this Sportive this is a view shared by many other riders.

Rate the event here.

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