Long before I moved to Sussex, Ditchling Beacon had a special place in my cycling memory vaults. It was “the hill they shall not ride” from the British Heart Foundation’s annual London to Brighton jaunt, which I rode several years on the trot after moving to the capital in the late 1980s.
Coming form Norfolk, where some car park ramps are categorised climbs, I’d not seen anything like the Beacon while on two wheels. And in all the L2Bs I did I can never recall getting past the first corner without having to get off and push all the rest of the way up, which used to feel like scaling Kilimanjaro…
Of course it didn’t help that in those days I rode a heavy old Trek mountain bike with knobbly tyres and truly ghastly twist grip gear changing; nor that our L2B ‘training’ mostly consisted of pootling along the Grand Union Canal towpath before finding a pub to settle into for the afternoon.
But still, the idea that anyone outside of a professional cyclist could just ride up that Sussex behemoth without stopping was completely beyond me. In fact, I only ever saw one person giving it a go during all my L2Bs. A lady rider on a mountain bike using a ludicrously low gear combination that forced her to spin the pedals at around 120rpm just to move a fraction quicker than my uphill walking pace. I saw her fairly near the bottom and I’m convinced to this day she would have blown a gasket long before reaching the top.
Now, almost two decades later, I time myself on my runs up the Beacon, trying to better my 6mins 35secs personal best time. That’s still a pretty leisurely pace in the great scheme of things, but then again it’s only four years ago that I needed two rest stops just to get from the bottom to the top of Highgate West Hill, which could be twice as long and still fit neatly inside the Beacon’s span, while also being nowhere near as steep.
I remember being admonished by a grey-haired old boy sitting bestride an ancient steel racer as I gave up the ghost while still a third of the way from the top of the north London molehill in the very early days of my cycling comeback. Words to the effect of “you should be getting up here; young lad like you”. Yes. Yes I know that. Thanks for pointing it out Pops.
It wasn’t long, though, before I could huff and puff my way up the Hill without a stop. Then I introduced ever larger numbers of repetitions of the climb. Then I mixed in the shorter but steeper Swain’s Lane to give a bit of variety. And pedalling up and down those two hills basically ended up being the core of my training, even for events such as La Marmotte. Such is the dearth of opportunities for decent training runs in the traffic-clogged roads of north London.
The contrast with my new home could scarcely be more marked. OK, many Sussex drivers could do with a refresher course in road manners, and this winter I’ve invariably returned from long rides doing an impression of that famous Fran Cotton photo (see left), but compared with Highgate it’s a cyclist’s paradise here. The mere fact that for today’s quick training jaunt I had a choice of Ditchling Beacon or the almost-as-testing and arguably prettier Devil’s Dyke says it all.
With the upcoming Puncheur Sportive finishing atop the Beacon I thought that would be the better choice. Equalled my PB too! And it was lovely stopping at the top after the steadier second climb, to admire the view of my new home county. I’m a very happy and contented boy just now.