Posted by: Ian | February 5, 2010

The Hell of the Ashdown

If the Blenheim 100 km was an enjoyable Sunday blast and the Exmoor Beast was a hard slog in absurd weather that we pressed through until one of our team broke a bone, then last weekend’s Hell of the Ashdown was a workmanlike 70 miler over seven hills to warn the legs what the rest of the season has in store.

The start was in Biggin Hill, reasonably close to Paula’s parents, where we stayed the night before. Paula and her father, Les, came along to provide support and encouragement, and also to tootle around faintly familiar (to them) lanes in the comfort of the Audi. One nice feature of this sportive was that you could choose your start time: I began around 9:30. It was light then, and cold: not uncomfortably cold when riding, but in the region of zero. In the shadier lanes stretches of ice remained bonded to the road causing most riders to be circumspect.

The first of the hills came and went quickly enough to be ignorable and, riding alone, I struck up conversation with a guy riding in Astana team colours. All of the riders, I noticed, where in decent gear and all, as far as I could see, had expensive carbon (or occasionally titanium) road bikes.  At Blenhiem we did the 100 km route leaving others to cycle the 100 miles, and at the Beast the 100 mile event was cancelled and consolidated with the 100 km, so this was the first time I’d ridden with the cohort who had chosen the longer and harder alternative.  Accordingly, they looked more serious, and faster. Given the low temperature, all riders wore some sort of tights – I had my Rapha full length winter tights on under Rapha fixed shorts. On my commute, it has just about become mild enough again to bring out my 3/4-length bib shorts. Cycling shorts are like a latter-day kilt with a mystery regarding whether anything is worn under them (and whether “chamois creams” are applied) that only the wearers themselves can know.

Ascending the second hill I asked the Astana guy how long it went on for.  “No idea,” he told me, although he had ridden the sportive last year. I regretted not studying the route profile properly beforehand.  Two miles turned out to be the answer.  “That was a long one,” he redundantly told me as we sped down the far side of it.

About ten or fifteen miles in we came to a downhill stretch where cyclists were dismounting to cross an extensive run of ice. I stayed on my bike, walking over the top tube for a bit but getting back on and riding immediately after what I judged the worst of it. I was aware of making progress relative to many others, and at shorter ensuing sections of ice I trusted my forward momentum and nanotech tyres to keep me on line and upright. Proceeding like this, I passed several more cautious parties. I wasn’t sure of the protocol regarding waiting for the Astana guy – he was a nice chap and I would have preferred to have someone to go round with, especially as he was riding at a similar pace. Should I wait? I did not.

Coming to another icy patch I saw more riders walking gingerly across it and rode past one or two of them. I think I had to steer across the road while on the ice to do this and I think that’s what led to the Felt slipping from under me. I banged my hip and my head – actually my helmet – when I hit the road. Sore and a little winded, I sat on the tarmac for a few minutes to make sure I was okay. I was and I set off again, now a little more cautious but not cripplingly so. I had at least covered for the absent Emily in taking the team fall. The ache in my hip was perversely almost useful: it distracted me from more familiar aches, especially one that I’m prone to in my right shoulder. Magazines frequently advise you to ride with relaxed shoulders, as though you can will relaxation upon a taut muscle. Much more helpful, I’m finding, is the suggestion in my Base Building book to ride with bent elbows, which is actionable and leads directly to the shoulders being less tense.

Frozen lakes at the side of the lanes brought a Christmas card beauty to the countryside. It was a part of Kent that I hadn’t visited before, and a pretty one, if not as bucolic as the quaint and quiet villages around Blenheim. I cycled past the church at Hever Castle, noticing a sign advertising the buried presence of Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather. Soon, I crested a hill and turned onto a main road to find Paula and Les waving me on with encouragement; their cheer was very welcome. Before long, I was at the first checkpoint and, immediately after that, the first food station. I hadn’t planned to stop but since I had no goal other than to finish I decided to get off for a few minutes, refill my water bottle and take a banana. As I started off again the Astana guy pulled in. I thought about waiting for him, but I didn’t.

The most notorious hill in the ride is predictably the one with the most colourful name: who knows which way round the arrow of causality points. The Hell of the Ashdown website boasts that “The Wall” is so steep that the Tour of France was routed away from it in 1994. It’s one of those hills that rises up straight in front of you from the bottom so you can see exactly what’s ahead of you. Depending upon your disposition, it might make it more intimidating but it doesn’t make it worse. At the foot of the hill I had to stop to re-position my cadence sensor. As I fiddled with it Astana guy cycled past.  “You okay?” he asked. I told him I was. Understandably, he didn’t sacrifice momentum.

At the top of the hill I came across Paula again, running alongside the road encouraging the riders, especially me. Les waved me on too. Then I was in and out of the second and final checkpoint and soon onto a long downhill. The shaking on the downhills could be almost as draining as the energy expenditure needed to cycle uphill but it was refreshing to see the distance covered increase so quickly and so easily: “free miles” I repeated to myself.

A low point for me was losing a contact lens at around the 47 mile point. It came out of my eye and I found it on the inner lens of my sunglasses. I tried to revive it and put it back in but it dried out and lost all plasticity. I called Paula to see if she could bring me a new one at the next stop – I had foreseen the possibility and packed spares. She was out of signal so I called Zoe as I cycled on, asking her to ask her mother to check her voicemail, not knowing whether she would get through, or when. Over the next several miles I adjusted to uneven vision, slowing since fatigue made it hard to cope with a small disadvantage. Wondering when I might next run into my support crew, I met Astana guy again and chatted to him for a while before riding off at the next long hill. There were encouraging messages for one or two of the riders chalked onto the road, Tour de France style. I hoped for the sake of their pride that none of the riders so named was amongst those walking their bike up the hill. At the top the winding lane met a larger road and presently I was at the second feeding station, where Paula and Les waved me in and gave me a new contact lens. I chowed down a small Mule bar and put in the lens. Astana guy caught up again and left straight away without stopping.

The last section had the advantage of being the last section. I was getting tired by now and envied the many riders who cycled in teams of four or five or six, taking it in turn to lead out and then having the advantage of following a companion’s pace with lower wind resistance. The final hill, Star Hill I believe, was the most gruelling. I experienced a novel ache at the top of each leg around the front of my hips.  As I was passing a sad figure who had given up and was pushing his bike a cyclist on a Bianchi went past me. Grimacing he said, “I’ve just had enough of this now.”

When it flattened out I could see there were only a few miles left so I chewed down the bars and gels that I hadn’t already lost or eaten to give me energy for the last stretch. With three or four miles to go I was pretty sure there were no more hills so I cranked the pace right up and felt the exhilaration of the flat, smooth roads. Near the end, I caught sight of the Astana guy ahead up a small hill. We’d started together and I thought it would be nice to finish together too so I stepped out of the saddle to get a final spurt of momentum. Instead, I got cramping in the back of my thigh. It was too near the end to imperil my finish but it did trouble me to find that this could happen: how will I cope if I cramp 70 miles into one of the upcoming 100 mile rides?

Crossing the finish line I caught up with the Astana guy as he was getting off his bike and congratulated him. Even though we hadn’t spent much of the race together it had been nice to chat when we had and it was comforting to know that there was someone who had completed the course in a similar time, evidently finding it about as hard as I had. My Garmin recorded the distance as 67.5 miles, fractionally longer than the Blenheim 100 km. However, whereas that took us just over 3.5 hours the same time this week would have made me a clear winner. My Garmin, which pauses when the bike stops, recorded a time of 5:04:28 and my official race time was 5:14:33. This was faster than the average and put me in the top half of the 514 finishers, which I’m very pleased with. Inexplicably, only three of the 219 cyclists who finished ahead of me have obvious girl names: why so few female cyclists? My certificate was already printed out with the time stamped on it when I returned my timing chip at the end. The Garmin, which reads lower than my Polar, recorded an expenditure of 3,179 calories. Here’s the profile map the Garmin derived:

I read today on the Hell of the Ashdown website that “everyone found the course tough and particularly harrowing because of the ice”. I found it tough because I haven’t done enough training miles this year. Before the Cornwall Tor, and especially before the Tour of Wessex, I’ve got to get many more long rides into my legs.



  1. […] weekend last year I began my sportive season with The Hell of the Ashdown. This year the Hell of the Ashdown has been timetabled a month later to avoid the treacherous ice […]

  2. […] for me. I’ve done over 5,000 miles, including the ascent up Haleakala (and the ride down), the Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the Blenheim, the Beast of Exmoor, the Tour of Britain […]

  3. […] relatively thin on the ground. To put it in context, there is almost twice as much ascent as on the Hell of the Ashdown. What’s really hard about this ride, though, is that on the way up you never get a chance to […]

  4. […] The current issue of Cycling Weekly has a letter from a reader complaining about the recent Hell of the Ashdown sportive for, inter alia, the “poor selection of roads with icy patches”. Really, the clue is in […]

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