Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Paris en vélo! Arrivée réelle

In search of lost time

Perhaps I should have returned to Beauvais, but I preferred a Western approach entry into Paris. If I had wanted to get a glimpse of the England football team at their base in Chantilly, pass the Stade de France at St Denis, or see the start town of the final stage of the Tour de France, Beauvais would been convenient. But I favoured the upmarket route via the Roland Garros tennis stadium, Parc des Princes football ground and the various horse-racing courses around the Bois de Boulogne.

My destination was Vernon, a neighbouring village to Giverny, the home of Claude Monet. Most people arrive at this town as the gateway to Giverny but it is worth exploring Vernon before visiting Monet's house and garden. A bike hire shop right outside the station means that you can do a mini tour of the meandering streets before heading to the Claude Monet village.

There are some beautiful 11th century buildings from the time of the Norman Conquest, and Vernon has its own Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as many medieval buildings, with wood carvings in the architecture. It is a real not-so-hidden gem!

Giverny was lovely, too. Beautiful stone buildings that were converted into art galleries, pretty gardens and tea rooms, and other lived-in cottages. This town was certainly more touristic than Vernon, and that made it slightly difficult to ride my bike through the crowds of folks who had travelled from far and wide. It was a relief to get back onto the open road and ride unimpeded.


Discovering the Vexin and Île-de-France

Today was a lovely day to be out on a bike ride, and as such, there was a real feelgood factor riding through the various quaint villages in the Vexin area. It was just as well that the villages had something worth looking at, for the terrain was a little bit challenging. It wasn't the Alps, but the roads in this area are by no means pan flat!

But what you gain in height you also gain in lovely views - such as a spectacular vista over the River Seine snaking through the forest below while I was cresting a road surrounded by rocky outcrops at La Roche Guyon.

On this sunny Sunday afternoon I rolled through many deserted country lanes. It was possible to stop at the side of the road by the arable fields for a sandwich or a nap, and be completely undisturbed. I didn't do that though, as Paris was tantalisingly close and I was really looking forward to reaching the heart of the city.
Bridge to the Bois de Boulogne with Eiffel Tower poking through

In fact, at this point Paris is frustratingly close. I kept getting views of either the La Défense skyline at Poissy and Le Pecq, or of the Eiffel Tower when in St Cloud, but there were still lots of obstacles to get over first - hills, bridges, woodland, unwanted propositions on the pedestrian bridge to the Bois de Boulogne. And someone even had the cheek to set up a fun-fair on my road through the St Germain-en-Laye forest!

But after passing through the lovely, leafy western Parisian suburbs of St Germain, La Celle St Cloud, St Cloud, and Auteuil, I finally entered the city of Paris via the Porte de la Muette, where I was immediately in Trocadero and greeted by the sight of the Eiffel Tower, resplendent in its home on the Champ de Mars. This is one of my favourite views - notwithstanding the football fan park underneath!

Shortly after that, my route took me to the centre of Paris - the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout - with the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of the chaos of this 12-point star! Lovely.
Finally arrived! Loving being at Etoile

As France were playing a football match that evening the roads were unusually quiet, which meant I had a very straightforward ride through the city centre.

I whizzed around the Etoile junction, endured the bumpiest ride down the cobbles of the Champs Elysées, while still enjoying the thrill of riding down one of the most famous avenues in the world!

This was the climax of my ride, and I really wanted to soak in the moment. The rest of my jaunt was by no means anti-climactic though. I still had Place de la Concorde, the Pyramides of the Louvre Museum, the luxurious shops of rue St Honoré, the Left Bank, and Notre Dame to behold.

Yes, I was in Paris, and I had ridden my bike there. My bike-riding wanderlust around the Parisian region was satiated (at least for now), and I was happy!

My ride into Paris from Vernon according to Strava

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That annoying puncture fairy!

By this time I had reached the end of the disused railway line on Avenue Verte. So when the rain stopped, on resuming my ride, the route took me to the nearby town of Forge les Eaux, from where the theme would be country lanes through bijou villages. Not being one to follow routes to the letter I ditched the Avenue Verte official route and decided to ride my own ride route that was improvised from the French Ordnance Survey maps (IGN series). I didn't get back onto the Avenue Verte until a section near Paris along the river Seine.

However, just outside the town I felt the rear of my bike wobbling strangely as  while riding down a hill. I came to a sudden stop, only to discover I had a flat rear tyre. As there was a supermarket nearby this made it convenient to change the inner tube in a clean dry area. Before leaving the town I decided to pick up more inner tubes and top up the air in my tyres at a bike shop.
Avenue Verte Guide book

The Avenue Verte guide book said there was a bike shop in Forge les Eaux, though unhelpfully didn't state where it was, so there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and asking directions from the cycle tourists I saw. However, none of them knew where the bike shop was, as they were tourists like me! Then a local person gave me some directions to what looked like a lawn mower shop! In actual fact this shop did a bit of everything - lawnmowers and other gardening machinery, motorbikes, and push bikes.

I really admired how the guy could one minute be talking about the best way to trim your hedge, and the next minute talking about Campagnolo group sets and gears. A lot of his customers were locals that he knew, so when he served me he treated the occasion like it was a bit of a novelty event and was quite impressed to know what I was up to.

Other customers joined the conversation about the best way to go, and "ooh isn't that an impressive young lady, etc....I said that the delays to my journey meant that I was not sure I would get to Paris by bike that day and would probably have to get on a train at Gisors. "Oh," said the shop manager. "You've gotta be positive and go for it. It gets dark at half ten tonight so you should be fine!" Er, I'd been hoping to be tucking into a nice meal at 8pm!

After a nice chat and him bidding me "bon courage" I left the shop, the afternoon sunshine motivating me to hit the road with gusto. But then, psst! I got a puncture on my front tyre - a few yards from the shop. So once again, I was changing the inner tube and back in the shop topping up the air and restocking inner tubes.

They guy probably thought I was one of those girlies who doesn't know anything about bike mechanics. "Are you sure you have properly checked inside your rims?" he asked. "But it's the front tyre this time," I replied. He looked mystified. As I paid him for three more inner tubes he joked, "Maybe you should buy a crate of these. We can even do you a loyalty scheme!" Ha ha!

Argueil village square

Recommencing my route, I pedalled in earnest in the sunshine, while still enjoying the rolling hills and rustic architecture of the Bray area of Normandy. There were a few nice villages I passed along the way, notably Argueil and Fry.

But as it turned out, our man from the bike shop did have the last laugh, as I got two more punctures on my front wheel during the course of the ride. In fact, he was right. I hadn't fully checked everything, and had failed to find a tiny piece of perspex lodged in the front tyre - probably picked up during the heavy rain. My bad!

Tyred out

Once the offending piece was eliminated everything was fine, except that by this time it was 6pm, and I was nowhere near Gisors, the place I had earmarked as my bail-out point to get on a train if need be. The nearest town was Gournay-en-Bray so I headed there, in a hope of finding a train to Paris. The couple I'd met at breakfast that day was due to end their ride at Gournay this afternoon, and I had told them I would be in Paris this evening. Wouldn't it have been embarrassing to spot them now, showered, rested and enjoying an early evening aperitif in the village square after their leisurely day of cycling. I swiftly left the square to find the train station.

On my arrival at "la gare SNCF", my heart sank when I asked a local girl on the platform what time the next train would be. "No idea," she replied, "But I think normally there's one train a day at 6am." Surely she was kidding me! Yes, her information was not correct. According to the SNCF website there wasn't one train a day from Gournay, but two a day, and the last one left at 5.00pm! Eek!

So it looked like I'd be stuck in this godforsaken village tonight, paying for a second lot of accommodation in addition to my booked room in Paris. My last chance option would be to try and get the last train from Beauvais to Paris at 8.45pm, with a change at Creil. As it was now 7.15pm and the town was 20 miles away, getting the train would be touch and go. Normally, this target would be doable, but today I was on a heavy bike with panniers, the terrain could be hilly, I didn't know where the station would be in this substantially bigger town, I didn't know if the 20 miles were to the centre of Beauvais or to the edge of the town, and I would need to queue up to buy a ticket. I tried to keep calm.

I just had to don my brightest garish-coloured high vis-jacket, light myself and my bike up like a Christmas tree and time trial my way down the fast national trunk road direct to Beauvais. No time to admire the scenery!

It was a fast road, but thankfully there weren't many vehicles and no lorries. Folks were probably feasting with friends or watching Euro2016. I had to just keep my nose to the handlebars and ride like a woman possessed!

Let the train take the strain

Someone must have been watching over me, as the road was smooth and fast, there was only one significant hill along the way, and I didn't get any punctures. It was really handy too, that the train station was on the edge of the town at the end I entered it.

The finish line came just after 8.30pm! Breathless and sweating I asked for a ticket to Paris. The woman in the ticket office looked at me alarmed and said, "You've gotta run now. The train's about to leave, I don't have time to sell you a ticket or else you'll miss it! Just run!" So I dashed across the concourse and jumped onto the train with my bike just as the announcer said the customary "attention à la fermeture automatique des portes."

It turned out that the 8.36pm was the last direct train to Paris and the SNCF  employee very kindly hadn't wanted me to miss it. The only problem now was I didn't have a ticket, there was no guard on the train from whom to buy one, so there would be a bit of explaining to do at the ticket barriers at Gare du Nord!

As it happened, by the time I reached central Paris at 10pm it looked like the staff had knocked off for the evening and there were no barriers so it was all fine.

Sous le ciel de Paris

I was just happy to be in Paris - a place that I still hold dear even though it was more than 20 years ago when I lived there.

Out of the station, I hit the Boulevard Magenta, Place de la République and Boulevard Voltaire, which all looked atmospheric in the twilight. The Bataclan concert hall was on my route. Sadly, it was still boarded up and all the flowers had gone. There were just scribbled messages of solidarity on the wall.

Once at my hotel, the proprietor welcomed me, relieved that I had made it there in one piece!
Bastille by night

The bike shop owner in Forge-les-Eaux had said I had until 10.30 to make it to Paris before night fell. I managed it - I just won't tell him I took the train!

Showered and rested I thought it was too late to go out and enjoy a meal, but in fact the night was just getting going! I enjoyed a well-earned pizza and beer along the rue de la Roquette, took a midnight stroll around Bastille and the Marais, then returned to my hotel to plan the other half of my ride that I had not completed that day! I would catch an early train from Gare St Lazare to Normandy the next day, and then ride back into Paris. It had to be done!

My day's riding according to Strava

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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Paris en vélo! C'est parti!

It's time I went to Paris

It's been ages since I took my bike to Paris. I’ve ridden on a bike share Vélib the last few times I’ve there but nothing beats that feeling of arriving in this beautiful city fresh from London on your own two wheels.
Port of Dieppe

So a couple of weeks ago I booked my ferry ticket from Newhaven to Dieppe, lodgings at the coastal town, and a hotel room in the trendy 11th arrondissement of Paris. That would hopefully motivate me to keep pedalling.

I have good memories of this part of Paris from the time when I lived there, and I never tire of going to the different zones in the area – Bastille, rue de la Roquette, rue de Charonne, Chemin Vert, Richard Lenoir, Voltaire, and in particular the old local wine bar, Le Baron Rouge at Ledru Rollin.

Keeping these places in my mind would get me through the long ride across northern France - not that riding across Normandy would be such hardship!

This was my fourth London-Paris bike-ride, and it was also my fourth different route. There are so many roads in northern France that you really do have 57 varieties to choose from when getting to the City of Light.  

I was going to ride along part of the Avenue Verte - a waymarked route from London to Paris along disused railway lines and quiet roads.

Setting off

When taking the Avenue Verte route the official start is from Marble Arch, but given that I live in South London and I didn't fancy doing Crystal Palace to Newhaven in torrential rain my ride didn't start until Newhaven when I rode from the train station to the harbour – all of one mile!

My Avenue Verte section would therefore start on the other side of the English Channel.
Start of Avenue Verte at Arque la Bataille

On the ferry it was easy to spot the other cyclists. They were the ones walking around in shorts, no shoes (as cycling shoes are difficult to walk in), sporting a bad case of helmet hair and looking very bedraggled after their sodden ride from central London.

We were a merry bunch! I was just glad to be on a ferry with other cyclists. The last time I took a ferry as a cyclist I was sandwiched between a load of Spanish lorry drivers looking at me like they hadn't seen a woman for 10 years! This Friday evening crossing was a definite improvement!

Once off the ferry we made our way through the late-night sleepy streets of Dieppe en masse. Although we were separate groups travelling independently, by some coincidence we had all booked to stay at the same hotel. How uncanny!

Breakfast was surprisingly hearty by French standards. They had definitely catered for folks who would be riding their bikes all day!

On y va!

Riding to Paris can be done at different paces, and the different groups of cyclists were doing just that. Some, myself included, were doing the ride in one day, while one couple from Brixton was making it a laid-back sightseeing trip that would take five days.

I didn’t hang around in Dieppe much, as I needed to be in my booked hotel in Paris that night, so off I popped with the proprietor wishing me a good, and hopefully dry ride. He probably knew the forecast was for a rainy day!

Very soon I reached the town of Arques-la-Bataille – an apt name, for I arrived right when a parade was taking place with folks dressed up to do a medieval battle re-enactment. Thanks for the welcome party guys!

Shortly afterwards the route led me to the Avenue Verte, a path reclaimed from a disused railway line in the woods. It was a real delight to be away from traffic and in my own little world. It was good to be under tree cover as well, in case of rain.

Given the length and traffic-free nature of Avenue Verte this is a popular route with cyclists, particularly those from the UK. So on this Saturday morning I was non-stop greeting other riders as I ambled along.
Café stop at Neufchatel en Bray former station

Avenue Verte has lots of stopping points with either cafes in disused railway buildings or exit points which lead to the centre of a village. I particularly welcomed toilets along the way, which were gleaming clean and had a good supply of toilet roll. Those little things count for a lot when you are cycle touring!

Particular stopping points of interest are Mesnières-en-Bray, Neufchatel-en-Bray, Neuville-Ferrières, and Beubec-la-Rosière – all pretty places, some with their own little chateau.

Unfortunately at lunchtime the sky turned dark and the rain came down in torrents. Someone must have been watching over me as this happened just when the Avenue Verte crossed a tunnel where I could shelter. 

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Thursday, 7 July 2016

Fast, furious and risqué! Red Hook crits come to London

This Saturday we will be treated to the mass spectacle of one of the craziest criterium races I have seen - the Red Hook Criterium! Imagine a town circuit race on tight corners with participants riding fixed wheel bikes and no brakes.

Circuit races can be tough enough, but riding this on fixed wheel bikes adds that extra element of excitement and exhilaration - I imagine! I haven't dared to try it!

The event is part of the Red Hook Criterium Championship Series which consists of four rounds held around the world. The first round was held in Brooklyn, New York. London is the second round, while the final two rounds will be held in Barcelona and Milan.

I saw the race in Milan a couple of years ago when I was working there. It looked fairly scary and a bit wild, with folks shouting at each other to get out of the way.

There were only a couple of crashes, none of them being serious. Having said that, sometimes there can be carnage as was seen at the previous round in Brooklyn this year.

As Red Hook is coming to my home town I will go along to Greenwich Peninsula this Saturday afternoon and check it out. A couple of racers I know are doing it, though the star rider in the women's race will be none other than Dani King - Olympic team pursuit track cycling champion. Sadly she was not selected for the Rio Olympics so we will get to enjoy her company here in London. The Wiggle High5 rider said to be "thrilled to be taking part and can't wait to be involved in what will be a spectacular showcase for women's cycling."

I look forward to seeing how she gets on, and I'm sure her excellent track cycling and crit racing pedigree will make her a strong contender on Saturday at the fixed wheel criterium extravaganza.

Here's to a great spectacle with everyone finishing in one piece!

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Monday, 27 June 2016

A few of our favourite places to cycle

Decathlon recently approached me and a few other cycling bloggers to find out our favourite cycling routes.

I found it hard to choose because I am always in awe of the landscape in the different places I go to. In the end I plumped for the Madonna del Ghisallo climb in Italy.

I have written about it on my blog previously, and you can get a summary of the ride description on the Decathlon website.

best cycling routes

The great thing is there are other interesting routes mentioned by the other bloggers. I am familiar with the South London route described by the London Cyclist blogger, and the route around Harrogate recommended by North Yorkshire Cycling blog.

The one that sounds really interesting though, is around Giant's Causeway (recommended by Cycling Northern Ireland). I have not had the chance to ride in Northern Ireland yet, but I have heard good things about the scenery there. That is one to put on my bucket list.

Here is a link to the article.

It would be interesting to hear what cycling routes you and your friends like to ride. Feel free to post your ideas in the comments.

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Thursday, 16 June 2016

Can-do girls - Gutsy cycle commuting in Dublin!

I recently put together an article on Total Women's Cycling website about commuting, in which different women around the world talked about their experience of cycle commuting in their city.

Beth in action at the Cyclo cross championships
Beth McCluskey, a university technical officer and Irish national cyclo cross champion based in Dublin had a lot to say about her rides around Ireland's capital. I must say I was impressed at her perseverance and tenacity to continue cycling around, particularly as it is only recently that cycle infrastructure in Dublin has improved. 

Statistics suggest that women are put off commuting partly because of the various hazards on the road. So I have a lot of respect for her to have continued despite the incidents she encountered. Chapeau!

The good news is that Dublin, like London has seen a significant increase in cycling in the city, and motorists are now more aware of cyclists - making it a less daunting place to cycle. 

'My commute is quite long - 30km each way. I start in a small town called Greystones in County Wicklow and cycle into St Stephens Green in Dublin city centre. It generally takes 60-70 mins depending on the wind direction. The last 30 minutes of the inward commute are along a bike lane on a very busy dual carriageway, and I have at least one near-death experience every day. 

I’ve had several accidents, all of which have happened while I was in the bike lane.  I have been cycling this route all year round for 15 years so I know every pothole on the road and every dangerous junction along the way. It wouldn’t be a commute I would recommend for a novice cyclist.

Most of the accidents I’ve had while commuting have been at junctions where the cycle path goes straight on at a left hand turn junction. Cars turning left assume they have the right of way and will turn left and expect the cyclist who has the right of way to stop. 

I expect this at every junction and I am hyper vigilant for cars who are indicating left, I will generally move as close to the right of the lane as possible and use my hand to signal that I’m going straight, if that fails and the car starts to turn I will slow down and if I can’t stop I’ll try to turn left with the car. I always try to stay in control and not to panic. If you panic and slam on the brakes you could go head first over the bike so I always try to stay in control of the situation. This has taken many years to master!

The other near miss I have is the “girl on a bike” syndrome as I like to call it, and it’s particularly bad if I wear a pink jacket. This happens when a motorist at a junction, a garage or a house is crossing the bike lane to get onto or off the road. They see a “girl on a bike” and assume I’m not travelling very fast as I’m just a “girl on a bike” so they shoot out across the lane right in front of me.  

Well, I’m travelling at 25-30km an hour so even if they see me 100m away, by the time they decide to move I can end up right on top of them in an instant! So I always have to be on the lookout for drivers like that, and try to make eye contact whenever possible to make sure they see me.

Dealing with traffic hazards
The ‘punishment pass’ is another regular thing I encounter on my commute, whereby a driver will deliberately pass too fast and close to “teach that cyclist a lesson”. This can be quite scary for a novice, but I’m used to it by now. 

My tactic for dealing with that is to always allow myself a buffer space to move into if a car comes too close, so I never cycle really close to the edge of the kerb. I always take a position which gives me some “get out of danger” space between myself and the kerb if I need to take evasive action.

As I draw nearer to the city the pedestrians pose more of a danger than the cars. Drivers in Dublin city have become quite observant and mindful of cyclists in the last few years, but pedestrians plugged into music and looking at their phones, texting, talking, taking selfies etc. are a real danger to themselves and to cyclists as they wander out onto the road without paying attention. 

This has become even more prevalent in the last two years I’ve found, as we get increasingly addicted to technology. People feel the need to be “connected”, but in fact they then become completely disconnected from the immediate environment. It’s a real problem!

Although I cycle quite fast I still ride defensively, I think every vehicle on the road has the potential to injure or kill me, so I never let my mind wander, I never wear earphones or let myself get distracted. I always wear a helmet and am well lit up in poor light.

I don’t get involved in commuter-racing as tempting as that might be on occasion. It’s a very dangerous thing to do as it distracts your attention from the dangers around you.

The cycling infrastructure in Dublin is not great. Driver attitudes are changing but there are still some who hate cyclists and think they have no right to be on the road.

Coca Cola Zero Dublin bikes have been hugely successful
Having said all that commuting by bike is a great way to travel. The Dublin bike-sharing scheme is brilliant. It has been the most successful scheme in Europe and there are plans to expand it. 
Bike-sharing has been great for city cycling as well as improving driver behaviour as there are now so many more cyclists sharing the roads with cars, taxis, buses.

My cycle commute forms part of my training. I can cycle 30km in the morning, then take a longer route to get home making a good 80-90km which is a good day’s biking.'

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Ride from London to London-by-sea (aka Brighton!) off-road

Here we go to Brighton!

Every year on a Sunday in mid-June thousands of people make the famous pilgrimage by bike from London to Brighton as part of a charity fundraising event. It's a great day out, and a chance for almost 30,000 riders of various abilities to challenge themselves on the 60-mile route from Clapham Common to Brighton seafront along country lanes and over the steep climb at Ditchling Beacon.

Many club riders, as part of a wider training plan to ride cyclosportives challenge themselves to riding to Brighton and back in a day.

So, the route to Brighton is a well travelled, and somewhat crowded road!

For those who want to ride off-road there is a way too. It doesn't start right in the heart of London, but rest assured you won't be cheated out of your 60 miles! It is also traffic-free, and very scenic.

Head for the Downs Link...

In search of getting in some beach action over the Spring Bank Holiday I set out on my gravel bike on the off-road route to Brighton. I cheated a little by not starting in London, but instead took the train to Shalford, just outside Guildford and started my ride there. Within a mile of leaving the station I was on the Downs Link, a disused railway line that runs down to the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea.

The route is generally well signposted, and goes through woodland, and many pretty villages where you can stop and go to a country pub or tea shop along the way.

As well as that, there are picnic sites and benches for a little breather. One particularly nice place to stop is the disused railway station at West Grinstead where there are picnic benches and tables, plus an information centre set inside a disused train.

Just like Bramley-and-Wonersh station earlier, West Grinstead also has the old platform, station house and signal box on show.

Further along, a cycle cafe at Partridge Green, Stan's Bike Shack is a great meeting point for off-road rider and roadie. It seems like every biker in Sussex turns up at this hang-out and swaps tales of their rides down to the coast so far.

For those on the Downs Link it is mainly a tale of pretty flowers, beautiful views, woodland birds and no steep climbs (apart from a short sharp shock at Rudgwick).

Some, particularly those out on family rides (of which there are many) may find this route a dream as it is scenic and has no technical challenges. Whereas those who have turned up on full suspension mountain bikes may find they are a little overequipped for this route which lacks any steep climbs, descents or technical single track to get into. Starting the Downs Link at St Martha's Hill, with it's steep climb and a tricky descent through sand may address the issue of a lack of anything testing.

...then into the hills

After that, it's a case of hang on until Bramber, three-quarters of the way along the Downs Link. At this point the Downs Link crosses the South Downs Way, and there, a world of technical challenges opens up!

Keen to throw in a bit of something technical, I decided to treat myself to a bit of South Downs Way. It would have been rude not to include some of this beautiful chalky ridge into my ride, even if I was just on my rigid gravel bike.

Beforehand, I stopped off to get some sustenance at Bramber, a very pretty village with picturesque castle ruins and olde worlde cottages.

Soon afterwards, I was at the foot of the first serious climb onto the South Downs, grinding my way up to Trudleigh Hill along with a few guys on mountain bikes who started the climb at the same time as me.

There we all were, honking our way up the trail which was dry, rutted, full of stones and bumps, and with an unspeakable gradient! One guy in front of me dismounted for a breather. As he was in my way, I had to do the same - but frankly, it was a welcome breather! I waited for him to get his breath back and restart the climb, so we both climbed up together - except that he ended up dismounting again, a few yards later. This time I wasn't going to stop, and so continued on, huffing and panting so loudly it made him jump when he turned around and saw me. Thankfully, he ducked out of the way to let me pass through, as I didn't have the breath to say "on your right".

I really had to wrestle my bike into a straight line and keep up the momentum on this relentlessly steep path, which at times made my back wheel spin. With my nose on the handlebars, I was determined to keep going and not put my foot to the ground until the summit.

The mountain biker's friend, who was further ahead, was also determined to keep going as he twiddled his way up the climb with his low mountain bike gears - also panting and huffing. I caught him, and hung onto his wheel, hoping he wouldn't bail out and cause me to stop.

Luckily he carried on to the summit, and the road went from excruciatingly tough to manageably steep, allowing us both to heave a big sigh as we got the worst part of the climb out of the way. Then I waved goodbye to him as he stopped to wait for his friends.

I felt thankful that this guy had kept me going on this challenge, and felt quietly impressed with myself that I had managed it on my gravel bike. When I had initially seen these mountain bikers at the water point at the foot of the Trudleigh climb they greeted me, though looked at me almost quizzically on my gravel bike as if to say "Are you sure you want to ride the South Downs Way on that? The Downs Link is back the other way, you know!" So it was ironic that I managed to outride these fully kitted up mountain biker blokes with gears a lot lower than mine.

Having successfully crested Trudleigh Hill on my gravel bike I felt emboldened about riding other climbs along the South Downs Way - as long as they didn't come too rapidly in succession! So I got through Edburton Hill and onwards to Devil's Dyke, which were slightly easier hills to do.

The vast majority of riders out on the South Downs Way were on mountain bikes, though I did see three or four people on cyclo cross bikes and we acknowledged each other like we were special kindred hardy spirits in a world of wussy full sussers!

I must say the vistas across the South Downs were beautiful, and it's always lovely to be up on the peacefulness of the hills while having a view of the sea way over in the distance.

Long way down

My trip across the South Downs was limited in the end, as I was keen to get down to the seaside and soak in some Sunday afternoon sunshine. I therefore turned off the South Downs Way after the Fulking climb and dropped down to Southwick via the Sussex Border Path, another rather scenic trail.

The hardest part of riding the South Downs Way on a rigid bike is all the bumps, particularly when going downhill. It's better to go down with minimal braking, as the bike floats along the tops of the bumps. However, too much speed would cause me to lose control and either crash, or I would hit a hole and cause the bike to break a spoke. So I had to brake a little bit - the problem then is even fractionally too much braking would mean a massive lot of jolting and a "headbanging" experience!

Sea at last!

Once on the seafront I had a big smile on my face as I got tantalisingly close to Brighton, rejoining the riders who had just come off the Downs Link. We rode along National Cycle Network route 2 via Shoreham Harbour to reach Brighton Pier, feeling pleased with our respective rides, and finally knowing that we had made it to that place in the sun.

It was great to be at my favourite weekend hang-out, Brighton. It has such a trendy feel about it just like the cool parts of London, except that you have this lovely coastline to go with it and there is laid-back relaxed atmosphere. In fact, a lot of people who work in London actually live in Brighton. I know, because I see them whenever I catch the packed Thameslink train into work! And then there are folks like me who live in London and like to go to Brighton at every spare moment. I look forward to meeting a genuine Brighton person who lives and works in Brighton!

An off-road bike-ride down to the coast is highly recommended. You can make it as easy or as tough as you like. The Downs Link would earn you a plate of chips, adding in one climb of the South Downs Way earns you fish and chips, but getting as far as Plumpton, especially on a cyclo cross/gravel bike definitely deserves the Full Monty! I hope to do that next time.

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