How do you react to one of your best friends asking you to take part in the London to Brighton ride? Do you frown with apprehension or cheer with full blown excitement? For me, it was a bit of both when my good friend James asked me last week. I love cycling- more for the rush as you fly along country lanes and roads than the abundance of lycra- but until recently I was very much a casual cycler, more concerned with enjoying the views than the amount of distance covered and maintaining speed.
Now, the London to Brighton bike ride is a fantastic cause, but it is certainly not a “casual cycle;” only the most arrogant and ignorant of beings would stroll up to the starting line without any prior preparation. James is much more of a serious cyclist than me (his collection of lycra proves this), but how could I let him down? More than anything, signing up would give me the perfect excuse for working on my riding technique and overall fitness, so I agreed.
Two of the redeeming features of East Grinstead (for bike lovers in any case) are the cycle routes that lead out to the west and east of the town. Both mostly follow an old railway line from Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells, which has now been revitalised as a peaceful wildlife corridor. The previous existence of the railway line means the trail is mostly flat with little change in gradient, making it perfect for hikers, horse riders and cyclists. The route ends at Three Bridges, but then continues north as part of route 21 on the National Cycle Network.
Waking up on Wednesday morning to glorious weather, I decided today was the day to go beyond the usual route and see what I found. The journey west was remarkably smooth, with numerous families and dog walkers out enjoying the weather. Cyclists always make for interesting encounters; they smile in acknowledgement of your shared passion when they pass, but they’re also quite solitary for the most part. Even in groups, they often tail each other with barely a word spoken, focusing more on technique and speed.
I was quite happy in my own world as well, taking in the lush scenery and enjoying a few podcasts on my iPod. Before I knew it, I was at Three Bridges and the Worth Way was finished- now it was time to venture into the unknown, keeping an eye out for directions while impatient drivers looked for the right moment to overtake.
Once I began heading into Crawley’s suburbs, the journey took a very different tone. Not that it was unpleasant, but the dense greenery of the Worth Way vanished altogether. Bleak, monotonous buildings that go for purpose above character dwarfed every corner, and as I got closer to Gatwick Airport I encountered vast technology parks, where the only inviting attribute was the smell of bacon frying from the occasional burger van
Before my ride I had been enamoured with the idea of finding somewhere to sit and watch the planes, like a cyclist version of Elton John (I could certainly give him a run for his money with the lycra). But as the landscape became more rigid, I decided to focus on moving along as quickly as possible; at least the scenery encouraged me to up my speed! The only difficulty I had was keeping track of where I was going, and I found myself lost on two occasions; I can’t imagine what the suave, desk bound office dwellers thought of me circling one of the technology parks in my luminous cycling jacket, looking like a rave on wheels.
Suddenly I emerged from Gatwick’s south terminal into Riverside Garden Park, a welcome flash of nature after the urban onslaught. Unsurprisingly, nothing greeted me as I dismounted and looked over the lake; there was only a robin on one of the benches, and even he buggered off as I moved closer. I did spy a rabbit hidden in the undergrowth, and I felt a tinge of sadness as he navigated the brambles and found his way blocked by Styrofoam boxes and crisp packets. The problem with nature is that is always so easy to ruin it.
After resting a while, my mind turned to lunch and I decided to head back. That’s always the hardest part of the journey, when you have to start making your way home. I always find that’s the hardest part of the journey, when you have a long way ahead of you with rarely anything new to see and you’re well on your way to being knackered. Even so, as I left the technology parks behind me and got back onto the Worth Way, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have such an amazing cycling route on my doorstep, secluded from traffic and idyllic for the most part.
The ride was meant to improve my fitness and set me up for an afternoon of work. Instead, I gorged on treats and felt knackered for the rest of the day, as you would expect from having ridden twenty-six miles. Not exactly peak performance but hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere. London to Brighton is still eleven weeks away…