Sunday 21 April 2024

Cycling my own mini Surrey Hills classic

In the spirit of the Liège Bastogne Liège race I thought I would do my own mini Surrey classic and find my climbing legs by riding up a few of the Surrey Hills. 

My route through the Surrey Hills

At this time of year when there are various classic professional cycle races in France, Belgium, Spain, and currently in Italy - races that feature iconic climbs - I wanted to do my own version of a classic ride in my local area.

With my new Liv Avail Advanced 2 and its low gears I decided to put them, and my legs of course, to the test. So where else would I find a route befitting a classic than in the Surrey Hills. After all, I needed to get in a fair bit of climbing ahead of my little cycle challenge in July.

Coldharbour climb near Walden woods

Well, actually there is a choice of places to get in climbs when you're based in South London. Contrary to popular belief, London has hills. Getting to my home from central London involves going over one of a few steep hills at Crystal Palace - Sydenham Hill, College Road, Dulwich Wood, Gipsy Hill, Central Hill - take your pick. Then you enjoy a big drop down the other side, past Crystal Palace Park. By the same token, when riding towards central London from home I have to take these hills in the opposite direction. That's just my neighbourhood - there are other hilly areas too. London-based cyclists can certainly get their share of hills if they wish. Don't underestimate the climbing powers of a London rider - myself not included!

Farthing Down overlooking Croydon and South London

Feeling in the mood to go further afield, I headed south of Croydon and over Farthing Downs to enter the Surrey Hills. Technically, the range of downland terrain  begins at this expanse of ancient grassland and woodland owned by the Corporation of London, that gives views of the City skyline in the distance. But commonly folks think more about venues in the heart of these chalky downs - Box Hill, Leith Hill and Peaslake. That's where I was headed.

 After passing through the suburban town of Reigate I crested my first named climb of the day, Pebble Hill [2.2km; average gradient 4.5%]. These statistics are misleading as parts of the climb are considerably steeper with a short stretch at almost 20%. I had to keep calm on this road and not waste any energy grimacing or getting stressed. It was a real quad-buster and I just had to focus and not allow myself to wobble as the cars chugged on behind me. I saw many groups of cyclists on the road - all of them were going downhill. I wonder why?

Pebble Hill, near Betchworth, Surrey was a quad-buster 
This was definitely a climb where I needed to rest. While recuperating, I spotted a guy pushing his hybrid bike up the hill, then he flaked out in the grass verge while trying to get his breath back. “Are you okay?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he replied, still heaving. “I just hadn't realised how hard the climb was.” I was glad to know he wasn't having a heart attack. “Yeah, it's certainly a toughie,” I replied. Well I'd gotten the hardest climb out of the way first, so from here on in everything would be a piece of cake. Er, kind of!

A loop through Headley and down Lodgebottom Lane, on what was the former Ballbuster Duathlon course took me to the foot of Box Hill. It wasn't quite time to ride up my favourite hil, as it was a case of saving the best till last.

Next up was Ranmore Common [1.8km; average gradient 4%], what I call a Cinderella climb. It is set in very pleasant woodland on a country lane that has few cars on it, though hardly anyone talks about it. Near the top comes a small sting in the tail on a 15% left-hand bend. The first time I rode up this I had to walk. Nowadays I am used to it, and these days the gears on my bike are low enough to crest it in the saddle.

Ranmore Common, where you can go to church or even a vineyard - take your pick

Depending on your preference you are rewarded at the top with either a trip to  Denbies Vineyard or a stopover at the church.

I then dropped down to Dorking and enjoyed lovely views over the North Downs before taking on the longest climb of the ride, Coldharbour [4.5km; average gradient 4.5%]. This climb is the other side of its steeper counterpart, Leith Hill. Where Leith Hill has you honking out of the saddle, Coldharbour takes you gradually up to the eponymous hamlet where road bikers can meet mountain bikers, hikers, and horse riders at the Plough Inn, or at the picnic site below Leith Hill Tower. Nevertheless it's not entirely plain sailing as mid-way up the climb are a couple of 10% ramps, notably at Boar Hill. However, I couldn't ignore the sight of beautiful coniferous woodland near the top.

The Plough Inn, Coldharbour - bolthole for hikers and bikers 

Coldharbour: Snack point and gateway to Leith Hill Tower

An undulating ride over rough roads meant I needed to pay attention as my bike handling skills were put to the test. Having decent tyres was definitely helpful at this time. Back to Westcott, and then Dorking where I could look forward to my final climb of the ride, Box Hill. A classic bike ride can't end without an iconic climb. At 2km and an average 4.5% gradient with no steep ramp, Box Hill is probably one of the easiest of the Surrey Hills. It is the alpine-style switchbacks winding their way to the top of the chalky escarpment and among the box trees that make it famous. For many it's a big-ring climb that can be done after the other significant challenges along the way, often at attacking pace. Then it does become difficult, and at that point you can justify having an extra slice of cake at the National Trust café.

I took the climb at a steady pace, without trying to get a personal best. That was the most appropriate speed given the energy I had left. After all, I still needed to save a bit in the tank to comfortably get me back to London.

Box Hill Zigzag

As ever there were lots of others pedalling up Box Hill at a variety speeds, with many of them overtaking me. Whatever our ability we all met at the top and enjoyed a snack at this hub in the heart of the Surrey Hills.

Box Hill, National Trust Centre café
After a short break I headed home, feeling satisfied with my mini classic in Surrey, and glad to have gone some way towards finding my climbing legs for the Etape du Tour - and the bike fared well too!

Related posts

Liv Avail: My new wheels for the Etape du Tour

Operation Etape du Tour: Cycling around Parc Serralada Litoral, Barcelona

Operation Etape du Tour: Understanding the challenge

Box Hill Zigzag is my best fitness test

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