A Whitehorse over Ditchling Beacon and a Punnet of Strawberries

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I knew it was going to be tough. To stop for a well earned and much needed cappuccino at the Henley Tearooms, or continue over Remmenham Hill and damn the consequences? The coffee won the debate and I parked up, watched the River life glide past, basking in the sunshine… the sunshine that wasn’t supposed to be there. Threatening clouds and some fine misty rain when I left home meant that I was overdressed and overheating, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.

Wearily I remounted my gleaming silver machine and threaded my way round Henley to the foothills of Remmenham Hill. I’m pretty confident I can make it despite having just the one gear – that direct drive is so efficient! It’s slow, legs are more tired than I thought they would be – I’m slowing, muscles burning…

… the rider next to me was from the Norwood Paragon (or No Good Paragon as they were nicknamed). We’d fallen in with half a dozen or so of them as we left Brighton on the A23. It was about 11am, we were already on the way back. We chatted amicably enough, but the pressure on the pedals increased imperceptibly, the speed gradually increasing as our grins concealed the grimace as lactic acid began to burn our muscles.

The chat dried up, the rhythm became hypnotic and it was like being on the Wednesday evening “chain gang” where much the same folk from much the same clubs would get together for an informal training session, meeting outside Geoffrey Butlers, burning up the A23, through Purley, Coulsdon…

We’d been in the vanguard of the famed London to Brighton cycle ride. Actually we just treated it as a training run – we rode the course but way in front of the casual cyclists raising funds on their rusting, creaking, squeaking steeds, groaning and straining at the yearly exercise as cobwebs are literally blown away; tyres coming alive after their yearly blow up. To ride with such folk was beneath us, no matter how worthy their cause.

But there was a practical reason too. Many of these folk have no idea how to ride in a group; week in week out we’d be there, massed start road racing, on the public highway or at Crystal Palace or Brands Hatch or track racing at Herne Hill, centimetres, at time millimetres, separating us from the pain of road burn, or worse. We trusted each other, we knew what we were doing. To be brought down by some numpty on their annual pilgrimage, damaging bike and possibly us; resulting in loss of miles and racing; the risk was too great.

So we ended up in Brighton at 10. We’d all but sprinted there, through Turners Hill that later in the day would become picnic-central. Dashed up Ditchling Beacon. The very name strikes fear into the heart of the Heart charity riders. A tough nut to crack, no constant gradient, no constant rhythm. A strange, stepped steepness, one false top after another, the pinnacle of the challenge. Later in the day it would become a brightly coloured river of people pushing bikes as they succumb to the temptation to walk, using the 24inch gear (two feet, get it?).

I was on my White Horse fixed wheel track bike. From recollection a 66inch gear, legs a blur as I flew down hill, never as fast at descending as a road bike with gears twice the size at the top end. But nimble enough, and efficient enough, to zing along, generally keeping pace with the multi-geared brethren; low enough gear to get up Ditchling like a true thoroughbred; rising to the challenge, getting all my power down onto the tarmac; out of the saddle on the steep rises, back in the saddle on the false tops.

No cash, no grub, no drink, no Starbucks, no nothing between us, save the salty tang of the pebble-strewn beach. So we simply turn around and head for home, leaving the seaside ghost town to the invasion that will happen 2 hours or more later. And we’re mixing it with the Paragon, on the never-ending climb back over the South Downs.

I blow up before we reach Pease Pottage. The worst place really; psychologically the worst place as I hadn’t got over the rump of the South Downs; had I done so it would have been more or less downhill all the way. But I couldn’t sustain the rate of pedaling, the lactic acid build up was too great, and I pulled over into the public weighbridge lay-by and ignominiously keeled over, unable to get my cleated foot out of the toe-strapped pedal.

But I didn’t care.

I lay there, in the dust, in the sun, in some bleak empty space. A shadow fell across my face. A voice said “Do you want some strawberries?”

Bizarre. Too bizarre to ignore. I opened my eyes and a young man was there, looking down at me with some concern. Through dry, cracked lips and parched mouth I said I didn’t have any cash, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and I gratefully devoured fresh, watery, sweet fruit. I will resist a Proustian description of those nectar-giving rubies, those jewels of fruits. Suffice to say that the liquid and sugar refreshed me sufficiently to remount my trusty steel and alloy white horse and wend my weary way homeward bound…

… which is exactly what I’m doing as I climb Remmenham Hill, that multi-crowned dome. I stagger over the final lump at Hurley, past the Red Lyon, that mountainous molehill, that nipple; no, that goosebump which ordinarily wouldn’t be noticed but in my enfeebled state represents a major challenge. Oh for a strawberry seller now!

Back through Pinkney’s Green and thus home. The luxury of a soft chair, a long cool drink, and British Super Bikes on TV. Bliss.