By Jez Davison
Highlights: Kidds Hill (The Wall) and Toys Hill
Start Point: Crystal Palace Train Station
End Point: Tunbridge Wells Station
Marks out of 10: 8
A good friend of mine said to me recently that he doesn’t do winter cycling – “unless the temperature’s above 15 degrees, I’m not coming.” Sage advice as a group of us cycled from Crystal Palace to Tunbridge Wells on a particularly biting Saturday recently. One of the best things about this ride is the relatively short time it takes to hit “proper” countryside once you leave Crystal Palace station.
Heading south along the A214 you experience the usual drab, dreary, dingy concrete jungle as you pass through the soulless outer reaches of London. Within 15 minutes though, you pass through West Wickham, start climbing up Laynhams Road and in an instant, suburbia wilts away like a bad dream and rolling fields and wooded lanes begin.
One of the few joys of winter riding is that the hedgerows are bare which gives you a dreamy, misty view south towards the bigger hills that await. The traffic begins to disappear as you turn left down Hesiers Hill and begin the first climb up through Beddlestead Lane. The legs kick in to gear, warmth spreads through your numb fingers and you click down the gears until you reach the top, turn left and hurtle down the B2024.
Scooting along parallel to the roaring M25 you turn off down Pilgrims Way, duck underneath the motorway and quickly find yourself in Brasted, at the foot of one of the major climbs of the day, Toys Hill. Make no mistake, this is no hair rising climb, but by South East UK standards it gets the body working as it kicks in at a steady 5% for the best part of 3km. On this day the climb was quiet and as our group spread out you begin to hear only your breath, with the warm steam from it rising up through the trees as you race your friends to the top.
Plummeting down the tougher southern side, your sweat begins to freeze and you start dreaming of coffee as the ride wiggles through increasing attractive villages – Four Elms, Hever, Cowden and Ashurst Wood. The ride undulates its way through muddy, sunken lanes with sudden steep ramps that bring you out to take a quick breath and look across the fields before quickly dropping you back down again.
Dreaming of food, you eventually arrive at Forest Row and find the table nearest to the radiator at Java Jazz Café. On bleak winters days this exotically named pit-stop is exactly what you need after a long cycle, with great coffee and a good selection of food (get the quesadilla, trust me).
By this stage you’ve broken the back on the day and thoughts turn to Kidds Hill (aka The Wall), just outside Colemans Hatch. I really enjoy this climb. It’s only 1.5km and dead straight, but becomes progressively steeper as you reach the upper ramp (over 14%) which gives you no-where to hide. It always hurts, and in hill climbing that’s what you want.
On dark winter afternoons like this, the densely wooded climb is almost spooky at the bottom and our bike lights flash brightly as you look upwards, light flickering at the opening to the top of the climb seemingly only a short way ahead. You arrive at the summit, dancing away on the pedals at the top of Ashdown Forest with a view to savour across Kent and Sussex.
Once you get your breath back, all that is left is to track your way east for 8 miles along the B2026 and B2110. There are a few truly lumpy sections along here too which, as darkness begins to descend and with traffic building caused spirits to begin to drop.
But before you know it you’re in Tunbridge Wells. If you have time pop into the Velo House - great food, beer, wine and coffee with a bike shop upstairs. Then it's a downhill freewheel to the station and the warmth of a train carriage. As you speed back into central London, thoughts move away from numb legs and tingling toes and back to hustle and bustle of city life.
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Jez Davison is a freelance sports journalist whose blog Sporting Matters documents his escapades as he recovers from a ruptured achilles, alongside articles on current sporting maters.