Tuesday 10 October 2023

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 7: Ride to Brighton

My Monkey, standing proud at Ditchling Beacon en route to Brighton

When I got my Honda Monkey 125cc in August of last year I had in mind to ride out to my favourite weekend destinations - places that I enjoy going to on my pushbike, but this time with a bit of motorised assistance. As it happens these destinations happen to be favoured by motorbikers too - Rykers Cafe and Newlands Corner in the Surrey Hills, Brighton, and Windsor.

I must admit it has taken me a while to get round to going to these places though. Lack of time has been the main factor, as I realise that I really need to give myself a good half-day to do these things, and I always found myself so busy in the morning that by the time I got around to setting off it would be 3pm, and I didn't really want to be riding along the country roads in the dark.

I did do a trip out to Rykers in August of last year, and then to Newlands Corner at Easter. Both of those trips were combined with me doing a little trail run. I feel it's sacrilege to go all the way to those places without getting out on the beautiful trails.

At the start of the summer I rode out to Windsor too. Still on the theme of wanting to combine my ride with an activity, I took my rollerskates, in a hope that I could find a patch of land where I could roll around a little. In the end I didn't use them and ended up with an achy back after carrying an extra 4kg on my bike for 70 miles for no apparent reason!

The missing card in the set was Brighton. One day in August I got all kitted out and took some gear with me in a hope of doing a swim and possibly some paddleboarding too. It was around 3pm, but I thought that with the long days I could still do most of the return journey by day and that nightfall would come once I hit Croydon. I set off, again with a loaded rucksack and rack on my bike, only to make it as far as South Norwood, two miles away, before I decided to turn back. A road traffic accident meant the area was totally congested and I would likely face a frustrating ride down to the coast. Instead, I turned back, and battled through the London traffic to head to Docklands where a much-needed refreshing swim at the watersports centre beckoned.

At moments I wondered if I would ever get to Brighton with my Monkey. I was beginning to feel silly and wondered if I really could call myself a motorbiker because my rides were mainly just errands around London. Surely, my mini moto deserved more than that?! Then finally, the day came - one Saturday in early September when the weather was set fair - maybe a bit too fair given the 27 degrees Celsius heat - and I had finished my chores by lunchtime, I saw it fit to make the trip down to the seaside.

As this was a first trip outside of the London/South-East area, and I was going to such a far-off place as East Sussex, I decided to stick to the lanes that I knew, and basically followed the route I take when cycling to Brighton on my pushbike.

That involved heading through South Croydon, Merstham, Redhill, then the country lane to Balcombe, past Haywards Heath and over Ditchling Beacon. Even though I am legal to ride on the motorway, the M23 was out of the question.

With a top speed of 56 miles per hour, the Monkey might blow up if I tried to ride at motorway speeds. Furthermore, weighing barely a shade over 100kg the bike would be so flyaway that I would need nerves of steel and very sturdy arms on a gusty day. Preferring a quieter (and safer) life, I stuck to the country lanes.

It was a very hot day. This was ride would require me to take breaks during the 48-mile ride in order to stand in a shady area and rehydrate. Motorbike riding looks such a cool thing to do, and a great way to get around as you breeze down a country road loving life, etc as you see in glossy adverts. But no one tells you about the reality of the hair dryer effect where you have warm air blowing at you, and where your heavy protective jacket and trousers can have you sweating buckets. Rehydration is important, as well as stopping so that you don't overheat.

I did see a few motorbikers just in shorts and T-shirts. At Ardingly village I even saw a couple of women on Harley Davidsons wearing bikinis. Wow. They are braver girls than me, in many ways!

So off I set, along the A23 past Coulsdon along the dual carriageway. Having two lanes was handy for me, as I stayed in the slow lane while those in a rush to get to Gatwick Airport could steam past to reach the M23. Thereafter, the road narrowed to a single carriageway, though those who wanted to move really quickly were on the motorway, so we slower vehicles could enjoy the scenic route along the A23 down through Merstham and Redhill. 

Once past Redhill town centre, and East Surrey Hospital the road began to climb and widened to a dual carriageway. This time the speed limit cranked up to around 50 mph, though at least knew I could be out of the way of faster moving vehicles. 

At Horley I then took the B2036 road through the forest to head for Balcombe. This was a pleasant twisty road that I was familiar with, having taken it on my pushbike. Interestingly, when using pedal power I han't noticed the twists and turns much - probably because I was just focused on grinding my way uphill at slow speed. I hadn't had much opportunity to ride the motorbike around these types of roads, so I savoured the curves, even if I probably didn't have the best technique. In any case I was able to take the corners faster than I would in a car, and that already gave me a lot of satisfaction.

The advantage at these moments was that on the single carriageway when there were faster moving cars coming up close behind me, I could easily lose them on the twists and turns given the Monkey's naturally superior agility to any car when taking a bend.  

On we (my Monkey and I) progressed through Ardingly and Haywards Heath, and onto Wivelsfield, where thhere were lots of folks out enjoying the late summer sunshine in this olde worlde village with its network of tight roads. Sadly, this meant a build-up of traffic, much to the annoyance I imagine, of the locals. The situation was compounded by the fact that an actual London to Brighton Bike Ride was taking place that weekend, and it seemed that many cyclists had decided to do a ride-out, and guess what - they were heading for Ditchling Beacon - exactly where we were all going.

I must admit, I had been feeling nervous about going up this climb that rises to 12%, as I was all too aware of its toughness, given the number of times I have cycled up it. Ditchling Beacon is that sting in the tail on the route as you begin to rejoice that you have covered the bulk of the distance and you look forward to the sea soon coming into view. 

Going up hills like this require good clutch control whether in a car or on a motorcycle. I recall a few occasions when a motorist crawling up the hill stalled their car when caught behind cyclists straining every muscle to get over the steep ramp. The road is too narrow to overtake safely, so motorists are obliged to wait patiently and calmly. Would I end up stalling the Monkey, and panicking as I roll backwards?? That was the sort of nightmare scenario I had lurking in my mind. I needed to focus and believe that I could ride this. It's no worse than edging my way up through the traffic near my home on Anerley Hill at rush hour.

In fact, I realised that things were not that bad for me as a motorbiker. Although the road was too narrow for a car to overtake the cyclists safely, there was space for motorcycles. As long as I kept my eyes peeled for oncoming traffic and had full control of the clutch and the accelerator, while being ready to stop, it was not so difficult to breeze by the traffic jam. Once I was at the front of the queue of cars I eased past the London to Brighton cyclists, and gave them a wide berth given how wobbly some of them were on the road. Before I knew it, I was at the summit where I pulled into the car park to enjoy the beautiful vistas over Sussex, and could even reward myself with an ice cream.

The last part of the ride was a case of straightforward descent through Stanmer and Moulsecoomb, and once in Central Brighton I was lucky enough to bag the last remaining motorcycle space right on the sea front, next to the Seaside Fish and Chip shop where lots of bikers congregate.

I celebrated with a little swim and some chips.

The ride home was a direct route from Brighton seafront to Crystal Palace non-stop. There was no need to stop given that it was after 6pm, and traffic was light on the roads. That was just as well really, as I decided to go for it and progress my riding to the dizzy heights of the A23 dual carriageway from Brighton. This road alternated between two and three lanes, and had the feel of being on a motorway. 

There were no trucks, and traffic was sparse so I didn't feel too uncomfortable. It was all about keeping my eyes peeled all around me, particularly behind as vehicles approached at 70 mph and they needed to switch lane once they noted that I was travelling 20mph slower than them. By and large drivers did switch lane, so that was reassuring. Interestingly one vehicle that had overtaken me, an Audi, was later spotted some miles down the road in the central reservation of the A23 after a collision with another car. 

A few motorbikers went past me on their much more powerful machines. They all gave a wave or a thumbs up as they passed. It's great to feel like you're part of a community.

Soon the A23 became the M23, and I left the very fast road for a moderately fast road - the A23 back through Pease Pottage, just outside Crawley. Traffic was very light by this point, which suited me. It also began to get dark, but that didn't bother me so much as the route went through little villages that hug the Gatwick Airport area, before I hit Redhill - very familiar territory.

When I reached home it was just after 8pm, so my ride home from Brighton had taken me 2 hours. I hadn't noticed the time go by at all. Obviously, a bike with 4 times the engine capacity could probablly have covered the distance in half the time. But I was happy with my ride on the Monkey - in a car it would have taken longer, just because of the sheer traffic, not to mention the stress and expense of parking in Brighton. I was glad to have been able to do a ride to one of my favourite day trip destinations from London. I never felt unsafe or anxious, which bodes well for a continued future in motorbiking.

I just need to find a way of carrying a paddleboard down there with me next time! 

Related posts

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The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 6: Dropping the bike

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 5: Ride to Newlands Corner

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