Clearly, although I am no athlete, I like cycling. I hope soon to restart my cycling video channel – Old School Cycling – which was one of the original motivations for this blog. I’m no athlete and I don’t have a fancy bicycle but I really enjoy a long distance ride on my own. I’m also fond of riding around with a small bunch of pals. For me, the idea of riding in a throng many thousands strong is an appalling prospect. That’s why I’ve never joined the official London to Brighton bicycle ride. Except once and that was an accident. I was riding across town from West to East, when I suddenly realised that the bottom of the Ditchling Road, by The Level, was a fast flowing tightly packed river of riders which I had to cross. This obstacle obliged me to join it in order to work my way across to the other side. When I made it across its width, I turned my handlebars to peel off to the left and a complete stranger grabbed my arm, saying, “Don’t give up now, mate, you’ve only half a mile to go. It’s worth finishing now!” As he said these words he tried to pull me back into the throng. He damn nearly pulled me off my bike. Correcting my balance, I swung back into him and we narrowly avoided skittling his riding companions.
Paul Bonett of Bonett’s Estate Agents took part in the first ride which took place on May Day 1976. He said:
“We went up to London and stayed in a squat in Kentish Town the night before. The ride started from Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with 60 riders.
We crossed the Thames at Westminster, headed east down to and along the Old Kent Road, on to Biggin Hill and Crowborough, before finally splitting into two groups: a few mad ones like me, going via Underhill Lane and Ditchling Beacon, the others along to Lewes and the old Lewes Road, and on to the seafront at the Palace Pier. It took us most of the day!! It was about 95 miles in total, a bit too far, but a great day. 37 finished, I remember. All the Brighton riders did because we had to get home!! Most of those who stopped, did so before we got far down the Old Kent Road – they were the wise ones!
The following year, it went from the same spot but took the more direct route similar to today, including the Beacon of course, and was about 64 miles and 100 riders. Year 3 which I also did, had about 1,000 riders then it leapt up. I did not do it again until 1989 when it had the numbers it has today and went from Clapham Common.”
From its earliest days, the route cruelly obliged the participants to climb the North side of Ditchling Beacon. Most of the 27,000 riders who took part this year have never cycled anything like the 54 miles of the route in one go. By the time they reach Ditchling Beacon, they are in a bad way. Saddle soreness is the least of their problems. The road up to the Beacon began its life as a horse and cart track, which winds very steeply up to a high point on the downland. Previously, there were sections of it which levelled off or almost levelled off. These short sections were originally placed there to allow horses to rest up from pulling their heavy carts. They were a godsend for cyclists. They also made the road dangerous (especially in winter) for those motorists who live to drive up and down it too fast. Frankly, that seems to be almost all drivers. Instead of introducing traffic calming measures, the opposite approach was taken. The nearly level sections (which quickly iced up in the winter, to be fair), were removed. Consequently, the climb is significantly harder for the cyclist.
After climbing Ditchling Beacon, the cyclists are definitely on the final leg into Brighton. In the old days they rode downhill to the junction with Coldean Lane, crossed over it and then downhill again and only had one very brief and rather easy uphill section to get to the top of Hollingbury Hill. From there it was downhill the entire way to the finish line. I’ve done that ride many times and it is a complete joy, even after a short local ride. For the weary travellers with 50 miles behind them and, in many cases, their underwear meshed into their red raw upper inner thighs, this descent to the finishing line must have been a truly glorious reward. No wonder that someone hurtling along at the bottom of the Ditchling Road would try to prevent another rider from peeling away. With no traffic in the way, it is (just) possible to travel from the top of Hollingbury Hill to the finish line on the sea front without pedalling! That’s about three and a half miles.
A few years ago, that part of the final route was abandoned. I’ve never heard a convincing explanation as to why this decision was made. The current route sees the cyclists turn left at the top of Coldean Lane and lose almost all of their height above sea level very quickly by descending to the Lewes Road. If you’re not sure which junction I’m talking about, here’s someone’s helpful GPS tracking video showing them missing the right turn back onto the Ditchling Road (at 8:35) and instead flying down Coldean Lane.
This means that (a) they have to pedal all the way to the finish line; (b) they lose the stunning panoramic views as they ride past Hollingbury; and (c) they block up an arterial road which much local traffic depends on. In yesterday’s event, the local traffic network ground to a halt in many places (according to a local taxi driver who took me to Lewes in the evening yesterday).
Although it’s not for me, the ride is an excellent event. It raises money and awareness for the British Heart Foundation. It gets thousands of people out on the roads on bicycles. The whole thing is positive in every way. Here’s my simple plea to the organisers – can we have the old route back please? The riders deserve that glorious long downhill reward!