Friday, 5 February 2010

Matthew's Ashdown Report

By popular definition Hell is a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. Often depicted as being endless, Hell is considered by most religions as either being fiery or as being cold and gloomy.

I now know that Hell is a 67 mile Sportive that starts, not in the afterlife, but somewhere near Biggin Hill in Kent. My newly formed definition of Hell falls firmly into the cold and gloomy category, and whilst not exactly endless, the suffering and punishment associated with the traditional definition of Hell were available in abundance as six damned Thornton riders braved sub-zero temperatures and ice to tackle the 2010 Hell of the Ashdown.

I had been concerned about this Sportive for a number of weeks. I stupidly substituted a comprehensive training scheme for a January no-alcohol regime and instantly regretted this 'plan' as the miles started to build. Things started reasonably well, but I soon started to lose contention with the other Thornton riders. Lack of fitness was a key problem, but I was also having serious 'safety issues', as I explained to the other riders when I caught them up.

My excuse was watertight! On the first icy morning in December my daily commute was rudely interrupted by a patch of black ice near Wye. This was the first time I'd fallen off my roadie. Whilst I didn't come to any major harm the shock of falling off really affected my confidence.

Fast forward to Jan 31st. At the end of the coldest January in 20 years the chance of the weather being unseasonably warm was non-existent and Thornton RC was faced with sub-zero temperatures and ominous warnings of extensive patches of ice, especially at the bottom of the frequent, steep descents. To get to the point I completely lost my confidence on the downhill sections. Whilst I was (almost) managing to maintain contact on the flat sections and minor climbs, I repeatedly fell off the back of the Thornton train as a result of my overly-cautious descents. I was reassured when Danny proposed a 'team' approach to the Ashdown Sportive, but it was abundantly clear that I was slowing the peloton down considerably.

A few minutes before the first feed stop (Hartfield, 27 miles) a rider next to me was caught out by a patch of ice and fell heavily. At this point my sense of humour was starting to fail and fatigue was kicking in. I needed a plan!

In my first sportive (Circuit of Kent 2008) I was maintaining a pleasing average speed and good progress was being made as I tagged along behind a bunch of more experienced riders. At the first feed stop Steve I paused for some refreshments. This is where it went wrong. My legs were like lead when we re-started and the remainder of the ride was far less satisfactory.

With this in mind I made a snap decision not to stop at Hartfield, to continue onwards to The Wall and to try and preserve the small amount of momentum and warmth I'd generated so far. The confused looks from Kevin and Bob said it all. Morris had lost the plot! A kindly "...have you got some food..." from Bob rang in my ears as I slowly but steadily plodded my way towards Kidds Hill.

The relatively benign lead up to The Wall created a false sense of security. Reality kicked in suddenly as I hit the gradient. This long, energy-sapping ascent really tested my legs and lungs. However, after what seemed an eternity, the brow of the hill came in to view and I was spurred on by some onlookers (who obviously took pity on me whilst waiting for their loved one to wobble into view).

The top of Kidds Hill in the Ashdown Forest marked (roughly) the halfway point. After a quick comfort break, in a conveniently placed copse of trees behind the check point, I hopped back on just in time to see the other Thornton riders rolling confidently into the car park. I set off again but was soon caught by Bob, Danny, Jim, Steve and Kevin and was once again nosing cautiously down the long descent of Black Hill.

At this stage I was in damage limitation mode. Thankfully Kevin was gracious enough to wait for me, and even though it was obvious that he had plenty left to give he nursed me through the second half of the ride.

The conditions did not ease at all and the route was a confounding mix of relatively dry, wide 'B' roads and narrow, tree covered lanes with potholes, grit, standing water and significant ice patches.

I started clock watching at 80km. This was another big mistake, primarily because the route markers, which regularly advertised a '100km' route, failed to deliver a finish line as the computer ticked over to 100km. I saw stars on Star Hill, and with the roar of the M25 fading in the background Kev's distant rear wheel led me through a bewildering maze of soggy, icy lanes, past Charles Darwin's house (where the 'On the Origin of Species' was written), and to the finish on Jail Lane.

After five hours and 18 minutes and 2,000m of climbing this was by far the hardest ride I'd ever attempted. Immediately post-sportive, that strange sensation of 'achievement' washed over me and I took some pride in the fact that I doggedly plugged away, even when conditions were appalling and my morale was at rock bottom.

Overall I think I secretly enjoyed this sportive, but it was bloody hard work and at times quite dangerous. It is a good route, but the icy conditions prevented any 'real' sense of satisfaction. Thanks go to all the Thornton riders who patiently waited for me, and especially to Kevin who would have finished far sooner if he hadn't waited for me. Cheers mate.

Matthew Morris