My first 200km (A Greatest Hits Ride)

I’ve ridden 100km a number of times now; and even ridden 100 miles on a small handful of occasions in the past. However I’d never extended the distance to the mystical 200km (124.27 miles).  As Spring started turning towards the Summer of 2019 I was feeling inspired to put this “right”. 

The blame/credit for this inspiration came in two forms. 

The first form was in the super human shape of Mark Beaumont.  I had been to see him talking about his ‘Around the World in 80 Days‘ cycle challenge and then read his book.  If he could do 80 days riding on average around 240 miles a day, then I’m sure that I could surely manage one day of 125 miles. No?

My second inspiration was my old University friend Jill.  Jill has long been astounding me with her amazing long distance fell running efforts but more recently I had looked on in awe as she rode the C2C route in one day – a truly amazing feat with the hills involved in that ride.

So, suitably inspired, I planned a route. I wanted to ride a circuit that I already knew so that I had an idea of what was ahead of me. I wanted the route to be a circuit rather than linear. I often like riding A to B in order to see a bit more countryside (and yes, to keep the wind at an advantageous angle). However for this adventure I didn’t want to do a long ride and then have to spend a few more hours on a train getting home.  I also wanted a known route so that I could put my head down and turn the peddles without feeling inclined to stop and take lots of pictures every mile or two.

You will notice that there are photos in this blog post. I chose to use this as a ‘Greatest Hits’ post using photos I had taken on previous rides that I’ve (mostly) not used on these pages before.

I settled on a trip that I had undertaken around Kent and Sussex a year or two earlier, but with the addition of a section of old railway line cycle path which would get me to the required distance, without any steep hills.  All planned I set off on a good early Summer’s day in the first week of June.

I had taken a day off work for the trip but I was up earlier than I would have been had I been going to the office. I was saddled up and on my way, heading East out of Hastings before 6am.

I followed my usual route East, heading through Pett village rather than following NCN2 through Fairlight; the road surface down Battery Hill is still too dangerous for the angle of descent.

Pett - Dec 2016
Pett – Dec 2016

Instead I joined NCN2 at Pett Level and followed it’s alternative (and better) route along the coast through the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and then up into Rye itself.

From Rye I headed off the National Cycle Network for a few miles; following the straight line (with defensive dog legs) of the Royal Military Canal for a few easy miles to Appledore.

Military Canal - Jan 2015
Military Canal – Jan 2015

From here I headed slowly up into the green low hills on the edge of the Weald, passing through Woodchurch (it has a church; made of stone) before finding the turning onto NCN18 just before entering the excellently named Shadoxhurst.

From here on the route is onto the Weald proper with the near constant rises and falls one expects from this part of the world. The hills aren’t big here but they are punchy with lots of short sharp climbs.  Whilst these are naturally followed by a similar series of descents, they aren’t of sufficient duration so as to allow any recovery.  With very few sections of relatively flat riding, the Weald acts like a form of very pretty but enforced high impact training.  Just to make sure that the riding is never easy the next thirty miles also saw a gradual rise up further onto the Weald. If it felt like every hill was that little bit higher than the last, they were.

I was planning on mainly sticking on Route 18 for this part of the ride, however a closed road diverted me to High Halden and a few miles cycling on the main A28 road.  Normally at the sight of a Road Closed sign I might try ploughing on regardless in the hope that, whilst blocked for cars, I might be able to get my bike through any obstructions.  With the length of ride I already had planned though, I didn’t fancy the risk of having to make a U-turn and follow my breadcrumbs back.  The A28 wasn’t what I had in mind but I got a decent speed and rhythm going and knew I’d soon be back on the quiet lanes.

As St Michaels I re-joined route 18 towards Benenden where I took my first break at the village stores and coffee shop.  Although I had already covered about 40 miles it was still only just about 9am so I was happy with progress and enjoyed a coffee and pastry.

The next few miles continued with more of the same Wealden riding until broken up upon entering Bedgebury Pinetum.  The woods here still have the same hills as the previous 20 miles; but the change from the open hills to deep woodland makes it feel quite different.  Back out of the other side of the woods I knew there were some more steep climbs up to and around the hilltop town of Goudhurst and then on towards Matfield.  By the village pond here I took another short rest.  I knew that, whilst there were still some hills before then, I would soon be at Tunbridge Wells and the high point on the Weald for this part of the ride.

Passing that high point between Pembury and the Royal Spa town felt like a minor triumph.  I had bigger hills still to climb, but the relentless stretch of Weald was mostly behind me now.  I powered on through Tunbridge Wells and on towards Groombridge.

Groombridge - Nov 2016
Groombridge – Nov 2016

Here I would now add the ‘there and back again’ extra 20 miles that I needed to make this route add up to 200km.  I had expected these few miles to be some of the easiest of the day but somehow they were some of the toughest.  Maybe that was partly mental; when you expect the riding to be smooth anything else is unexpected and therefore feels much tougher.  Maybe it was simply that, although the downhills on the Weald stretch didn’t really give a chance for recovery, they did offer brief free-wheeling respite.  Here on the old railway track it was pedalling all the way.  In order to make the distance I needed to follow the railway path until its end on the edge of East Grinstead.  The final miles to that town also include quite a steady climb. 

Before then however, at Forest Row and about 75 miles into the ride it was almost over.  An unexpected turning from the old railway path onto a short stretch of road saw me bundle over a speed bump which shocked the bike and instantly cramped up my right thigh.  I had to emergency stop, unclip and dismount as the lactic pain shot up my leg.  I was forced into an emergency break with a lot of slow walking; thigh rubbing, drinking water, and eating some crisis Malt Loaf!  Fortunately it did the trick.  I gingerly got back into the saddle and eased myself back towards East Grinstead.  The legs were soon feeling better and I was back underway, but I knew I had to keep better hydrated.

Forest Way - Nov 2016
Forest Way – Nov 2016

After doubling back where at the point where the old railway path becomes the main ‘Beeching Way’ road through East Grinstead I headed back to Forest Row and pulled into the River View CafĂ© where I stopped for another coffee and a panini (and to refill both water bottles).  Properly refreshed it was back to Groombridge and time to get back to some hills.

I was now (and indeed had been since the double back at East Grinstead) following the route of the Avenue Verte (London to Paris) route which I had cycled along in my first proper cycle tour a few years previously.  That meant that I had two big hills ahead of me.  On that ride both of those climbs had got the better of me and I had not been able to get up them without briefly stopping (in the first case) and even having to walk a little  (on the second hill).

The first hill, the Northern approach into Rotherfield, I had completed on a couple of subsequent rides without a problem and once again I made my way up to the village without needing to take a breather.

I then let the miles (and the smaller hills) to and through Mayfield ease along knowing that I had the toughest single climb of the day to come.  Whilst I had conquered Rotherfield hill before, I had never yet managed to cycle up Newick Lane into Heathfield without stopping.  I made sure to give myself the best chance this time.  At the foot of the hill I pulled over and gave myself five minutes to relax, take on an energy gel and plenty of water, and psyche myself up.  This technique had worked for me in the past; notably when climbing the biggest hill I have still ever ridden to date – Hartside on the Coast to Coast route.  Hopefully it would work again.  It did.  I won’t say the riding was easy, but relaxed and mentally prepared I was soon up the initial steep lower slopes which had always been the section that had beaten me before.  From there on I flowed on up the rest of the hill and near the summit, on the edge of Heathfield, I clocked up 100 miles for the day.  I celebrated by coasting down into the town centre and pulling up outside Costa for another coffee and a bun.

With 100 miles clocked up, and all of the big hills (bar the final push back up to my house) behind me I could begin to feel like I was on the home straight; even though there were still 25 or so miles in front of me.

From Heathfield the cycle route (I had been on NCN21 since East Grinstead) joins another former railway line on the beautiful Cuckoo Trail.  From the hill top at Heathfield the cycling South is an easy drop from the top of the Weald to almost sea level over a distance of 10 miles; all in beautiful wooded scenery. I have ridden this way a number of times now but the Cuckoo Trail is never not lovely.

Cuckoo Trail - Oct 2018
Cuckoo Trail – Oct 2018

Leaving NCN21 after Hailsham I headed onto Rickney Marsh.  Here I began to struggle.  I still had 15 miles to go and now I was on the flat all the way back to Hastings.  There is no difficult riding here; but on tired legs there is no break in the pedalling.  Also I was now hitting a big psychological wall.  I know this part of the route blindfold – its a regular cycle commute.  With nothing here to look at with fresh eyes I just wanted to be home.  There was still an hour of riding to go.

The closer to home it got the worse the feeling became.  The legs were empty and the head was already at home and in the bath.  The worst came at Galley Hill; the low cliff top that marks the Eastern end of Bexhill and from where I can look across and (almost) see my house – only, and yet still, 5 miles away.

I stopped on the cliff here for some time and made a call to my other half to pep myself up and to take my thoughts elsewhere.  5 more miles.  That was all.  And now having taken that final break I pushed on; along Hastings prom and up the West Hill. Climb up. Almost.  For the first time in over a year I was unable to make it up the hill to my home without stopping and walking for a short section.  I just had nothing left in my legs.  I wasn’t going to beat myself up though.  I still made it. My house is just off the top of the hill but you have to go to the top and glide back down. 

Hastings Prom - March 2015
Hastings Prom – March 2015

125.95 miles.  202.69 km.  I had broken the 200km barrier.  I knew now that I could do it.  I also knew that I wouldn’t feel the need to do it again for some time to come!