Riding the world’s oldest bike race, by accident

Chalkpit Lane (117), White Lane (16), Toys Hill (20), York’s Hill (15)

Many of the 100 Greatest Climbs have gained that status because they are the venues for club hill-climb races, which take place towards the end of the summer season. Those planning to ride them on a recreational basis would do well to take this into account.

Looking to add a little variety into my training, I spot a cluster of climbs in the Kent Downs and plot a 45km route to take in four of them, criss-crossing the same ridge just west of Sevenoaks.

Putting a metaphorical pin in the map, Oxted looks a good starting point so I park up in the town’s underground station car park. On a weekday I imagine this is rammed with commuters; on a Sunday morning the cavernous space feels like a scene in Mad Max but it’s as good a place to start as any.

Chalkpit Lane comes first, a 1.5km back lane that starts easily enough but with a looming chalk ridge ahead. With a decent warm-up it might be less arduous but I have foregone such niceties and barely ridden 2km before I go under the railway bridge that heralds the start of the climb.

Lactic acid kicks in quickly and by the time I have gone under the M25 bridge I’m  fighting the auto-pause on my Garmin, which switches off at 4kph as it assumes I’ve stopped at a traffic light or am slowing into a junction. It gives a beep as it does so, which serves as a kick in the pants to get me back up to 4.1kph.

Round the big right-hand hairpin and onto the 20% portion, a car driver has no view past me, and there is no space for me to tuck in. He sits patiently behind while I fight the final few hundred meters to the T-junction, gurning and groaning. As he finally manages to overtake, he gives a cheery wave.

This video from 2016 gives a good idea of what York’s Hill is like on a Sunday morning in October

A “Road Closed” sign sits at the entrance to White Lane as I turn the sharp left off the main road down Titsey Hill with the intention of going straight back up again. Perhaps it’s closed because of the broken, loose road surface, I muse as the 13% gradient kicks in straight away. A couple of pheasants are doing the usual routine of trying to escape by going straight-on, and they’re doing a good job of beating me up the incline, through the tunnel of trees, the gutters stuffed with leaf mulch.

As the road opens up, I spot some workmen with a van in the distance but it isn’t until I draw close that I realise they’re building a scaffolding podium on the side of the road. Clearly the Bec Hill Climb is imminent.

“Are you doing the race this afternoon?” asks an official-looking man in a Range Rover as I vacuum air at the summit. I tell him I hadn’t realised there was a race on. “It’s all over social media,” he replies. I check social media later in the day but have as yet been unable to find very much coverage.

Gasping for air at the top of York's Hill with the Catford CC Hill Climb in full swing
Gasping for air at the top of York’s Hill with the Catford CC Hill Climb in full swing

My picturesque route bends south through Crockham Hill towards Four Elms. Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s long-time home, sits further up the valley, while Hever Castle is just to the south.

Toy’s Hill is a 2.5km brute, narrow at first, ramping up towards the hamlet of the same name. I ratchet down through the gears to keep my legs spinning, as more experienced riders edge past on the way up the heavily wooded, sandstone ridge. Into the village, I think I’ve made it, then spot another 300m of main road rearing to the right at 18%, past the National Trust carpark towards the Fox & Hounds pub at the top.

Onto the fourth climb of the day, York’s Hill, where I should know what to expect the moment I pass another “Road Closed” sign. My knowledge of the area is pretty limited, though, and any other route would require a major detour that I really don’t fancy.

As the slope starts to increase I pass a farm gateway, where a cyclist on rollers is frantically warming up. Rounding a corner I come to a halt at a queue of cyclists, numbers on backs, clearly waiting for their start time at what turns out to be the Catford CC Hill Climb, which I later learn is the world’s oldest bike race.

“I’ve picked the wrong day,” I tell the marshal-come-timekeeper at the head of the queue. Thankfully, he’s happy to let me go off behind the next starter, as long as I keep out of the way. “You might have to walk parts of it,” he tells me. Not while I have breath.

Two riders pass by before the steepest part of the climb, which is advertised at 20% about two-thirds of the way into the 650m challenge. As I round the corner, I realise just how many supporters turn up to these events – the road is lined, two and three-deep in places, and each rider is driven on with cries of “Up, up, up, dig, dig, dig!”

“He’s not racing, maybe next year. Up, up, up!”

The road is muddy in places, with loose gravel too, forcing me to weave left and right in search of the cleanest line. I’m cooked but as there’s a crowd it would be rude not to at least try to sprint. I get up on the pedals for the final push then shake my head for the benefit of the timekeeper at the top, to whom it is already obvious.

Rowan  Brackston of the London Dynamo club wins the event in a time of one minute 57.6 seconds. Strava tells me I took 5:16. Later in the day Brackston also makes that podium atop White Lane, finishing third in 1:51.9. My recce earlier in the day is approximately three minutes slower.

Westerham would be a nice place to start a ride like this, I reflect as I pass through on the way back to my Mad Max car park. A sportive has just finished there and the participants are enjoying a beer on the town square, which is surrounded by cafes and coffee shops. I make do with an Oxted Morrisons sandwich before the drive home.

If you have enjoyed reading (or even if you haven’t) please consider making a donation to World Bicycle Relief, a charity that mobilizes people through “The Power of Bicycles”.

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