London to Brighton is a classic route - be it for vintage cars, massed groups of occasional cyclists or hordes of mods and rockers all set for gently beating each other and trying to get off with Lesley Ash in an alleyway.
David (from last year's Pyrenees trip) and I had been bouncing ride ideas around for a while. The original plan for the end of April was to ride the South Downs Way - a 100 mile off-road route that goes from Winchester to Eastbourne. However, much of this is chalk based and is renowned for being slightly nasty in the wet - and considering we've had weeks of rain we needed another plan.
A road ride beckoned. As David lives in that London, going down to Brighton for chips on the seafront was a grand idea. Plans were agreed, addresses revealed and last Friday I drove off from home.
The first 80% of my drive was uneventful. I scoffed at the predicted arrival time on my SatNav - an hour and a half to do 67 miles? I'd completed 55 of them in the first hour, leaving only 12 miles and half an hour to drive it. Silly SatNav.
Off the motorway, onto the streets of London. Instant queue, stop-start traffic. Crazy bus drivers, crazier van drivers. Drive for ten yards, stop for a minute. Look out for the cyclists. They were making much better progress than I was, even the one-handed riding shoppers on cheap supermarket specials.
Silly me. That last 12 miles took an hour, and driving in London made me lose faith in humanity.
What are all these people doing? London needs to be a giant park and cycle scheme - turn some of those abandoned warehouses into multi-story car parks, provide changing rooms and charge anyone who absolutely has to drive beyond the motorways £50 to go further. Add in a few tube, train, tram and monorail links and the streets would be cleaner, safer and much faster moving too.
I digress. Eventually I arrived, and after initial handshakes and greetings we decided to go out for some food. Talk was of upcoming trips (Dolomites, Haute Route), sportives, training, bikes and more training. Oh, and the weather. The forecast was... acceptable. Overcast, chilly, but with the wind from the North we'd get blown down to Brighton (there's a joke in there if you look hard enough). I've have preferred warm and sunny but at least it was going to be dry.
Saturday morning. Wet. Not heavy rain, but plenty of moisture in the air, light showers and enough water on the ground to make things interesting. Ah well, time to pretend we were in a Belgian classic race.
After a good breakfast and some moderate faffing ("I've lost my keys" "What, those keys on the table?") we departed. Thankfully we were out before 9am so there wasn't much need to battle with the traffic. 15km of urban weaving led us to roads where I started to feel at home - narrow, muddy and potholed. It must be a product of my experience but I'm much happier with close encounters with cars on these roads than the equivalent in an urban setting. I guess I know I can just dive into a roadside hedge if needed.
Considering it was a miserable day there were plenty of other cyclists out. Fluorescent flappy rain jackets were common - have these people not heard of skin tight gilets? I'd rather be damp from the rain than steaming in my own sweat inside a "breathable" shell. Still, fantastic to see people out.
The route was rolling, with several moderate climbs - nothing too steep or cheeky to begin with yet more than I was expecting. After 55km we suddenly looped backwards and I discovered that David had planned three extra climbs around Toys Hill. At this point I decided that I wasn't going to try keeping up with him and slowly he drifted ahead before waiting for a few seconds at the top.
Every five hour ride in the rain needs a coffee stop, and ours was in Brasted. A pleasant independent deli/cake/coffee/cafe completely undeserving of two dripping wet and filthy cyclists dropping by to warm up and refill water bottles. I wondered why people were giving us curious looks until I saw myself in the bathroom mirror - my face was coated in grit splatters, making me look like a Paris - Roubaix escapee.
The second chunk of the ride had more climbs, a slight-lack-of-food-wobble and some stunning countryside. Trust me, if the weather had been better and I'd had been bothered to take some pictures this blog post would have been much more interesting.
After 115km we came to Ditchling Beacon. My "Top 100 Climbs" book (that covers the UK) describes this as the hill that makes more cyclists walk than any other - mainly because it comes at the end of the mass London - Brighton charity cycle ride that has 30,000 or so riders taking part. I squirted down a caffeine gel as we approached the bottom but although it's a bit cheeky (a 10% average over 1.2km) it was easier than expected. David once again drifted into the distance but made the schoolboy error of dismounting at the top. I obviously carried straight on over, forcing him to chase back on to my wheel.
The tailwind really helped now - an easy 40kph on the pedally descent towards Brighton - plus seeing the sea meant that we were nearly there. A quick run through town (including setting off a speed camera - oops) and we were on the seafront.
The pay-off for 125km, 1700m of climbing and 5 hours of riding? Pie and chips.
That's real recovery food.