I don’t usually like to talk about all the charity work I do. That’s because I rarely do any, save for giving the odd tenner to mates who are doing a bit of fundraising.
The London To Brighton Bike Ride was something different, though. Not only because it’s one of the more iconic routes in the south-east, and not because I could raise a bit of dosh for my chosen cause, We Are Family. I’d wanted to do London-Brighton for a long time because it pulled at my taut heartstrings. It had a sentimental allure.
Twenty years ago, I remember our Dad rode London-Brighton, along with our Mum, Sister and our Brother-in-law. I can still recall how awe-struck I was when he recounted Ditchling Beacon and just how tough he found it; when he talked about the bonhomie between the riders, and about the wonderful support they received at the finish.
‘Big John’ might have struggled up Ditchling because he did it on an old-school mountain bike so heavy it was probably forged in Mount Doom along with the One Ring. Even so, his achievement – and our family’s – made this a must-do event in my mind.
Having cycled down to Brighton from London a good few times, I knew the distance – 90km – wouldn’t be an issue, nor the climbing. Tough and unpleasant as Ditchling Beacon undoubtedly is, it’s no Mortirolo – our new standard-bearer as the most stupendously hard climb we’ve done.
This was a ride I planned to enjoy. I wasn’t looking to steal any Strava KOMs and didn’t want to draw ‘pistols at dawn’ with anyone who had the temerity to pass me or shirked their turn on the front. I just wanted to savour the moment for a change. Or that was the theory at least.
It was an added bonus that the start line was a stone’s throw from my doorstep, on Clapham Common. No schlep across the country, no stressing or nightmares that I’d forgotten my helmet/shoes/jersey/bike on a European adventure, no expensive hotels that I’d have to surreptitiously raid my kid’s piggy bank to pay for.
The ‘fun ride’ aspect was confirmed when I did my usual pre-sportive assessment/judgmental critique of the field. Loads of riders in charity jerseys and I counted more tutus than shaved legs. There was laughter and jokes in the air rather than a nervous hush. It probably helped that it was a rolling start from 6.30am-9am, so riders could relax with a coffee beforehand instead of anxiously fidgeting around in pens.
The first few kilometres through Balham, Tooting, Mitcham and Carshalton and out towards Chipstead was a very genteel affair. No one was jostling for position and no one seemed to be forming groups. Everyone seemed to be content to go at their own pace, which was fine by me.
Or rather it was “fine by me” until we reached the first climb of the day in Chipstead, Hazelwood Lane. I’d been yo-yoing with a bunch of four riders in red and yellow jerseys (I couldn’t read the charity or club name, so dubbed them the ‘Hula Hoops’).
The competitive fires had clearly not been extinguished completely, as I couldn’t resist engaging them in battle. There was no verbal declaration of war but the Hula Hoops and I all knew it was game on.
It was only after I’d hunted them down one by one and crested the climb that I realised I was feeling deflated, not elated. There’s a time and a place for acting like a tool – and London-Brighton is neither. As my American wife all too often says, I was being “such a jerk”. Time to wind my neck in and quit the one-up-man-ship as we wound our way through the countryside and on toward ‘The Big One’, Ditchling Beacon.
Having ridden up it a couple of times, I knew Ditchling is not a climb to be taken lightly. 1.5km long and at an average of about 9%, it’s no joke.
Pretty much everyone I saw seemed to be walking – and there’s no shame in that. The first time I did Ditchling, I toppled over. But, with the road closed to cars for the event – a nice touch – I didn’t have to be barking out, “On your right”, or having to weave past people. There were also some bellows of encouragement from – without going too Game of Thrones on you – the ‘Walkers’.
The cheers were much needed because Ditchling is deceptive in that you think you’re close to the top, that the summit is just round the next turn, but then it goes on and on, slowly breaking your will. A Chinese burn of a climb.
The one thing I’d say for first-timers to keep at the back of their minds on Ditchling is that it’s worth keeping turning those pedals square because once you eventually reach the top, apart from an exquisite view over the Sussex countryside, it’s all downhill from there. Life’s a Brighton beach.
After collecting my medal and circling round to go to meet my best supporters, my wife and daughter, for a picture in front of Brighton Pier for We Are Family, I saw something that will always be etched in my memory.
A woman was in floods of tears, locked in an embrace with her partner. On the Tannoy, it was announced that she suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and had been riding her first-ever event for an MS charity.
That’s when it really hit home and I started to well up. London-Brighton isn’t about selfishly stressing about Strava, or about getting one over a faux enemy on a climb. It’s about doing something good for people less fortunate than yourself, about a woman with MS overcoming all her difficulties to do something incredible.
My Dad may well have been proud of me; he’d have been positively beaming for that woman.
Please continue to support Andrew and WAF by donating here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andrewelliott1