Liz & Colin’s London – Brighton – A horrendous day on a bike

Women V Cancer Bike ride.

A long-held ambition to ride London to Brighton led to my signing up for the Women V Cancer charity ride which took place on the 1st October 2021. 

For the first time men were also able to ride to celebrate the 10 years of the women V cancer rides, I signed up Colin! 

After a noisy night in the local travel lodge we rode in the dark to the start of the ride in a car park at the back of the Crystal Palace Sports Stadium. 

Dawn broke as we fixed on lights and left our bags at the bag drop. We purchased a hot drink and a breakfast sarnie each and with the knowledge of a large and active weather front racing from the south west we set off half an hour earlier than planned. 

The ride out through Penge and Beckenham retraced my family roots, cycling past my grandparents’ house on Elmers End Road. The route undulated with a few cheeky hills taking us through West Wickham and up a steadier climb to Biggin Hill. It was here we caught up with friends Jacqui and Daisy, we took a few pictures and rode on, keeping the pace going to get ahead of the weather. The wind picked up ominously. 

The first feed station was Tatsfield where we grabbed Jaffa cakes and crisps, used the facilities and took a few photos. Cycling together and at my pace of about 12 mph we caught and overtook many riders. Heads turned as locals saw Colin in a pink tutu then realised that he was a bloke with a matching pink moustache and beard! Many commented ‘love the tutu’ to Colin and then saw the beard which created mirth and exclamation. 

 The route undulated through the weald land and flattened off as we cycled along the Croydon Road, through tiny villages and past autumnal farmland. 

The wind picked up again and the tress threw off yellowing leaves as we rode. We were pleased to arrive at the lunch stop at East Grinstead by 10.30am where we were supplied with hot drinks and a sandwich. As we left the stop the rain came on quickly, building to torrential levels. The hills seemed to become steeper and the downhills faster, with potholed roads and rain splattered glasses I had to keep stopping to wipe eyes and glasses. In the end my vision was so obscured I stuffed my glasses in my jacket pocket and rode without – I could see better although it was all a bit indistinct!

The route skirted around the major towns and it all became a bit of a rainy blur. Just before Burgess hill was the final feed station – we took the pragmatic approach and headed on as we just wanted to reach the finish and get out of the weather. We had the chance to chat to a few other riders who were amused at Colin’s attire and enjoyed hearing of his supposed drag queen name ‘Droopy Tutu’.

 The wind increased even further and was verging on gale force as we cycled south. The windblown rain stung our faces. We had given up all attempts to stay dry and hills were sought just to be able to warm up a bit. Descents became an opportunity to fully experience the exposure of windchill. 

We knew there was still the big one to do – Ditchling Beacon. We rode through Ditchling and as we turned the corner a wall of land towered over us. This was it the climb before the end. I chatted with another rider who was finding it tough, ‘How long will it take?’ she asked in a weary voice. I had no idea but assured her about 20 minutes. It actually took me 16, I thought she might tuck in behind me but I lost her after the first few turns. Colin left me behind and I found myself on my own as rivers of rainwater sloshed down the hill, cycling near the road edge was impossible due to the depth of the rain spilling out of the gutters. There were moments of madness as cars squeezed by and then silence; I found myself alone zigzagging up the cat 4 climb. Narrow and twisty, a number of false summits gave hope, eventually the true summit was reached. The wind and rain were fearsome, I was nearly blown off my bike and felt physically sick as I reached the path crossing with the South Downs Way. There was no shelter and the southerly storm blasted us as we crammed in an energy bar. 

There was nothing for it but to get off the hill as quickly as possible. Before the descent into Brighton, we battled across the summit plateaux, riding with anticipation of every gust of wind which threatened to throw us across the road and under the wheels of oncoming cars. Finally, the houses of Brighton emerged from the mist. After crossing a busy main road we found ourselves back on urban streets mixing with frustrated car drivers queuing for petrol and diesel. 

Without a hill to warm up on Colin and I both began to feel the chill of wet clothing. After a final push to the end we found ourselves on the seafront. The sea whipped up into angry white foam and crashing waves, the rain and sea mixed to create a stinging curtain of water. Buffeted and blown we turned towards Hove and the finish line.

  The reception crew had faced a testing day but managed to give each rider a medal. Sadly, the rest of the facilities were somewhat lacking as there was nowhere to change and very little shelter. I put my dry clothes over my wet ones as stripping off in the open was not an option. Colin managed to hide away in the back of the bike lorry and change into his dry set. I could feel my body temperature drop as we waited for nearly 2 hours for the coach to get back to London. I battled to feel warm under removal blankets in the back of the lorry and teetered on the edge of hypothermia. We did get a hot drink although about half of the coffee was blown out of the cup by the wind! 

The coach was airconditioned and I was no warmer when we got back to Crystal Palace. The 2-mile ride back to the car was some of the most desperate cycling I have done. I was still very wet and cycling was painfully cold. It was only once I was in the back of the car in dry clothes that the ordeal was over. 

It was one of the toughest rides I have ever done, the other one was also in Sussex in similar conditions. If I am ever invited to cycle anywhere near the South Downs again, I think I’ll decline!

We raised over £1000 for Women V Cancer. The motivation to reach the finish was knowing that our discomfort was short lived in contrast to those who have experienced the effects of cancer. Liz Butler

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