Sunday 8 October 2023

Box Hill Zig Zag is my best fitness test

As a London-based cyclist, Box Hill features firmly among my list of places to go for a bike ride. 

It's not actually that local to me, given that the quickest route there can take almost two hours and there are various other country lanes and hills I could ride on nearer to my home. But the ride out to this famous hill, crested multiple times during the London 2012 Olympics is worthwhile.

Box Hill is significant in my cycling life and is such a massive magnet for cyclists from across the London area that it would be sacrilege to not include it on the list. 

I really like this climb, as does everyone else I know. There is something about that turning off Old London Road near Rykas Café onto the Zigzag that gives me that same feeling you get when you finally see a familiar face among a crowd of strangers - the old faithful friend.

Set within chalky terrain in the heart of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Box Hill towers above the suburban town of Dorking and has a vast country parkland and woodland area where people can admire the views of the landscape below, as they walk or cycling on the trails, or while enjoying a picnic. This is a hotbed of activity on any sunny day, particularly at the weekends.  

In general, when I ride in this area, Box Hill is my final official climb before I head homewards. It's the sweetspot after my previous efforts on the more demanding hills in the area - or maybe the yoga equivalent of shavasana, after tackling the more challenging balancing and twisting poses. 

It is while rolling along this stretch of road on the side of the chalk escarpment, lined with ancient woodland that I can gauge where my fitness is. How my legs feel when climbing Box Hill gives me an idea of whether I am feeling on form or not, or whether I have overdone things during the ride, notably on the earlier Surrey hills that day. It's like an analogue live version of Myfitnesspal.

The friend may be initially slightly demanding at first, as I begin to tackle the opening turns in the road and I feel my legs having to work slightly more than when they were previously coasting along the Dorking by-pass cycle path. But once the Zig Zag car park comes into view I know that I will soon have ticked off the first hairpin, and the gradient will ease off. 

It is usually during this early phase of the climb that many cyclists overtake me as they tackle the hill with enthusiasm and gusto, while I tend to spin an easy gear, gently easing myself into the climb to establish a comfortable rhythm for my legs as well as my lungs. 

Box Hill profile from Old London Road to Box Hill village

Box Hill gradient map

Today, as I rode along I noted that it took me more time to find that comfortable rhythm. My legs felt heavy and my breathing was more laboured than usual. 

On the first bend I spotted the unusual sight of a makeshift cardboard signboard. You wouldn't normally see something so rough and ready-looking in this elegant location. I wondered if it was a political slogan, as people have taken to doing of late, or maybe a sign of encouragement drawn by a child for their middle-aged parent in Lycra. 

As I reached the sign, I noticed two young men, one of them lean and mean, perched against his bike. His more stocky accomplice was holding the cardboard bearing a scruffy inscription in block capitals, "Race me up Box Hill and win £50"! That made me smile. "Maybe not today", I said, while sauntering past. Another rider overtook me at the same time and also laughed. I must admit, if I had been on form I would definitely have taken on the challenge. Winning £50 will pay for a couple of scones at the tea shop at the end of the climb! 

Sadly, by this hairpin, in which the gradient was beginning to ease off, my legs still felt too tired to make the most of the respite as my legs just ground along without finding any increase on my crawling pace. 

Normally I get a second wind along this stretch, but it became apparent that the dial in my energy tank was in the red. My earlier efforts taking the uphill route from Epsom through the Ashtead and Headley, the Ranmore Common climb, as well as Coldharbour were taking their toll on me. I had to accept that I am not as fit as I could be. 

At that point I rolled along and gave myself permission to stop and rest or even walk at the next hairpin, by the Pinehurst care home - maybe someone would take pity on me and offer me some sustenance!

Somehow, on reaching the hairpin a voice inside told me to carry on pedalling, even if my quads hurt. It didn't feel quite right to stop, and I feared that I wouldn't be able to get going again, so I just continued on through towards Donkey Green, passing the Box and Juniper trees with their autumn ochre leaves set against the bright sunshine on this unseasonably warm day.

The final long stretch where the landscape opened out was just a case of hanging on and surviving all the way to the National Trust car park. I focused on maintaining a regular, albeit laboured breathing pattern and believing that I wasn't far from the finish line. I wasn't. The Box Hill climb is around 1.4 miles (2.4 km) up to the National Trust Cafe, with a 120m height gain. 

At this point I only had half a mile (800m) left to pedal, though it felt interminable. Many riders passed me. On seeing me straining along, some greeted me or offered words of encouragement - "Keep going.." "Nearly there..." On the final turn at the car park my grimace began to soften into a smile.

Finally I reached the main refreshment and picnic area, where I rolled straight down to the bike rack. As I dismounted from my bike my leg almost cramped up, though I managed to shake it off as I quickly racked my bike and sank into the adjacent bench.

For around five minutes, everything zoned out in front of me, as I regained normal breathing and recuperated before summoning the energy to queue up for a coffee, sausage roll and almond flapjack - after eating a starter of my packed ham sandwich and banana. There was ice cream on sale too, but I didn't quite have the energy to join that significantly longer queue.

That had been my slowest ride ever up Box Hill. I had basically ridden up the hill on fumes. In the jargon, I had bonked, hit the wall, got the hunger knock. Call it what you will, I had run out of energy. On reflection, that made sense because I hadn't had an evening meal the previous day, and my breakfast was only very light - not great preparation for an 80km bike ride. Schoolboy error!

Once fed and watered, I was able to tackle the rest of the ride home, my energy levels replenished and feeling motivated.

Box Hill is one of my favourite climbs. I can't say how many times I've ridden it in my life - it must be into the hundreds. I know it like the back of my hand, so it makes for a perfect barometer of my fitness and form. It's fair to say my battery was flat. The beauty of the Hill though, is that there are some delicious ways to recharge your legs - once you reach the top.


Anonymous said...

You may already know this by now, the £50 sign was Cameron Jeffers - see

2Wheel Chick said...

I hadn't realised it at the time, but now I get it. Thanks for letting me know.:)