Monday, 27 April 2009

Downland Spring Sportive

Here is a little article from the eldest rider to take part in the event at 71 our very own Eric Bates took on the 100 mile hilly challenge.
Downland Cycles’ website blurb for its 160 km (100 mile) Spring Sportive spoke endearingly of riding through the quiet lanes of Southeast Kent and the varied scenery of its rolling hills, woodlands, orchards, and flat farmland. It promised us we would ride ‘…over the North Downs, through the flats of Romney Marsh, then [rather alarmingly] up over the tail end of the South Downs …’[my italics]. Mercifully for the three hundred who participated in this challenging and, by my plebeian standards, transcendental undertaking, it turned out that the blurb writer was not aware that the North Downs constitute the chalk hills that stretch northwest and west from Dover/Folkestone to Guildford  Surrey, and that the South Downs comprise a similar range that sweeps west from Eastbourne to Petersfield in Hampshire. Riders of the April 19 ‘one-hundred’ were not expected therefore to scoot off to Eastbourne and back, but only to surmount some of the high hills of the extreme southeast end of the North Downs.
These high hills however were the make-or-break event in the ‘long sportive’ (i.e. the 160-km ride; riders could choose after 74.5 km at Hastingleigh cross road, to shorten the overall ride to 100 km by following the marked route to Stelling Minis and then back to Canterbury) especially since they were to be broached after 120 km of riding, and only twice modestly rehearsed in the preceding journey – at Pluckley and on the climb to Hastingleigh out of Wye.
After the opening suburban ascent northwest out of Canterbury to Blean and Honey Hill, Denstroude and Dargate, the ride lived up to expectation, of cheeky hills, woodlands coming alive with incipient green canopies and bluebell footings, farmland turning yellow with ubiquitous oilseed rape, black-faced ewes in pastures with nestling newborn followers, dazzling white pear blossom splashing from orchards in the Faversham and Brogdale areas, Tudor-timbered buildings begging to be haunted, the rusticity of Grafty Green, Mundy Bois, and Little Chart, and for those with elevated eyes, spectacular views of landscapes whose origins are two million years old.
Strong north-easterly winds however brought sombre clouds and obscuring mists, keeping temperatures well below 10o Celsius north of Wye, detracting from the beauties of the man-made topography, and demanding substantial propulsive effort by riders to maintain body warmth and time objectives. Descending to Smeeth, Aldington, Woodchurch, and Romney Marsh gradually revealed welcome blue skies and sunshine that lifted the spirit and extolled again the virtues of rural bicycle rides.
The idyllic flatland-coasting from Bilsington to Newchurch and then east to West Hythe was a pleasure abruptly ended by the sudden advent of Lympne Hill. The simultaneous crepitation of derailleurs as riders switched to low gears rattled the windows of the few residences at the foot of the hill. With an average gradient of 14% over a 600 metre length, many a muscle on many a leg agonisingly locked in excruciating cramp. Those, young and old, who had to dismount and walk up the hill, found it almost as painful as riding up. But some of us persevered, and by dint of chain ring and cassette, and thigh muscles that burnt and sizzled with the effort, reached the summit at speeds that only just maintained the perpendicularity of our bicycles and our dignity.
A brief respite was gained from the rapid descent into Hythe, only to be followed minutes later by the 7% gradient of Blackhouse Hill, out of that sublime habitation to the airy heights of the Sene Golf Club, ninety metres above the town. And still the work was unfinished, for then came Etching Hill at another ten metres in elevation, and then Lyminge with the deadly 4% drag of Longage Lane to Rhodes Minnis. At that point, the end of the ride seemed attainable. The severe climbs were done, and all that was needed was to keep the pedals turning and the gears shifting, cold fingers permitting, until Lower Hardres and Stone Street led us to the grinding traffic of the Canterbury ring road and the welcoming warmth of the finish at St Stephen’s Road.
One hundred and eighty-seven riders completed the long sportive, eight of whom were in Thornton Road Club colours, and two of whom (Michael Pumphrey and Steven Bunn) finished sixteenth and seventeenth respectively. Anyone who has not ridden a century cannot appreciate its toll on the body or its effect on the mind. With a century completed, one’s body luxuriates in the evanescent ache of fatigue and the pleasure of ended pain. One’s mind is deepened by increased respect for those who find this madness worthwhile, those who measure physical and intellectual strength and resilience by the mere display of stamina in the use of a bicycle. But what a piece of work is a modern bicycle! And what a piece of work is such a man or woman!