Monday 26 August 2013

London to Brighton - Epic and Rainy Journey on a Brompton

Towards the end of Friday night I met up with a few follow Bromptonians who were intrepid enough to brave the elements for a London to Brighton cycle ride that would test us all to the very core. I have done this ride before and loved it and been on lots of memorable long distant rides but little did I or any of us know what the night/early hours of Saturday morning would have waiting for us...

The brave few included David, Anne, Geoff, Guy, Amanda myself (David, Geoff, Guy and myself on our Brompton bikes). Some of us met at Charing Cross making the short journey to Hyde Park where we all met up. We were one of the first of over 70 riders taking part in this ride. Initially I fancied it had been called off due to the possible whether conditions but gradually they came. Before long a sizeable group waited for the off. We were going to meet David and Anne at Charing Cross but David suffered a rear wheel puncture and met us at Hyde Park. Little did we know but this was an omen of what was to come.

The meeting point

My Titanium S-type read for its first run

At the stroke of midnight we departed and there was definitely an atmosphere of mild apprehension of the unknown. As we cycled past tourists and those on a night out, I speculated upon whether they would believe we were going to cycle through the night to Brighton - in THAT weather?

The pace was purposeful but at one where conversation flowed freely. I decided to take my newly updated Titanium Orange Brompton with me. The ride position of the S-type felt as good as I remembered on my S2L but the addition of 6 gears and the shock absorbing qualities of titanium worked together to make the ride sporty, precise and comfortable. I was glad that I made the change to the S-type and it confirmed in my mind that this was the best setup for longer touring. 

For the English (or people living here for long enough) the weather is a near preoccupation. Predicting the weather is a national pastime. With the rise in smart phone ownership all manner of apps compete to tell what it might be like tomorrow, the next day or days in advance. Consequently, there were several weather forecasts for Friday night / Saturday morning. Many advised that rain would come from midnight onwards - some of it very heavy. Luckily the ran didn't put in an appearance until 02:45. Until then I was cycling happily in a Brompton cycling top in humid and muggy conditions. 

Every so often those at the front would wait for slower riders. The Bromptonians were able to hold their own and stayed within the top third or so. One such stopping point was at the base of our first formidable hill. This hill was merely a taste of what was to come and wasn't easy.  I would say that the riding position of S-type helped ascending this hill as it it very easy to shift ones weight forward. It was also the first time since I had injured my knee (probably due to my cleats not being positioned correctly)  that I had gone on an extended ride using clipped in pedals. If you look at the Garmin data recorded by my Edge 510 you will see that the hill I refer to seems to go on and on. There came a point where you thought it was all over only for it to start all over again!

As we approached the Horley Badlands a mist pervaded the air. The beam of my Hope Vision front light was not able to penetrate too far into the distance as water vapour created something akin to light fog. It was also at this point that the rain started to fall. It was light at first but gradually got heavier - nothing too awful but it was persistent and obviously going to prevail for the rest of the ride. 

Virtually everyone stopped and put on all manner of waterproofs. I put on my super light, Pearl Izumi Barrier Lite jacket. This did a good job of keeping me reasonably dry but due to the humid temperatures condensation formed on the inside making me wet. I stopped, put it away and got out my old DHB jacket I had somehow managed to cram in to my saddlebag. I was glad of it as the rain conspired to turn down the thermostat and it got colder. 

As we entered the Horley Badlands, trees lining each side of the path provided some protection from the rain as branches touched each other. Progressing further the metalled path turned into a dirt track. I feared that as it had been raining so steadily, 70+ cyclists might churn up the track to make it resemble the Somme. Luckily my fears were ungrounded and we came through the other side unscathed.

Sanctuary came in the form of a scout hut specifically opened for this group of riders. I opted for a tuna sandwich, wedge of lemon drizzle cake and a cup of coffee which I consumed with enthusiasm. The floor of scout but was hard and shiny and water laden with the foot fall of 70+ riders padding about. I walked to the serving hatch to get my water bottle refilled and the combination of wet, shiny floor, SPD shoes, metal cleats and neoprene overshoes conspired to induce interesting consequences! Unfortunately this meant that trying to walk gingerly 30 metres to the serving hatch, I had a tendency to mince. Luckily the assembled riders were too engrossed I their food, conversation or attempts to dry various items of clothing to be bothered looking at me mincing my way to the serving hatch. Should they have glanced in my direction I wager they would have likened my gait to that of a young Sir John Hurt when playing the role of Quentin Crisp in, 'The Naked Civil Servant!' As I walked back towards the safety of my seat I saw the gaits of several other well know celebrities including John Inman, Louis Spence and even Kenneth Williams! 

After thanking the people who had again got up at an ungodly hour to serve us some lovely refreshments we set off. The rain was now slightly heavier and every so often a group of riders could be seen at the side of the road, tending a puncture. Punctures! Luckily I did not suffer any at all but it was as if they were everywhere. By the end of the ride there were 15 or 16, a record I was informed. More on punctures later. 

If you look at the ride data you will see that in addition to the hills there were also some lengthy downhill sections. I took the stance that going down hills in the dark while raining was done best at a safe pace. I therefore took descents very carefully. In deciding to do this I was able to spot and avoid some huge potholes. 

As I cycled along I saw some riders at the side of the road, obviously tending a puncture. It was only when I recognised Anne stopping that I too Pulled over. David had suffered a quite spectacular puncture. He reported a sudden deflation from a tyre explosion. He said that there were also sparks flying and the image in my mind was that of Ghost Rider. David had the wheel and tyre off in reord time. Upon initial inspection we could not detect any damage. Later Anne spotted a nasty tear in the inner tube. With the tube replaced the tyre was inflated with via CO2 bottle. It was then I spotted a slight bulge in the wall of the tyre. Unfortunately there was a nasty gash in the tyre wall. Various suggestions were banded around but a plastic water bottle was cut to size and inserted as a temporary measure. That done we all proceeded. In case you are wondering what my part in all this was, I positioned my front light in David's general direction and watched him give a master class on rear wheel puncture repairs.

Yes it was as bad as it looks and this is with the tyre boot fitted

After David's puncture incident we started to spread out as the dreaded Ditchling Beacon still had to be tackled. On this ride there were times when you were on your own for several miles. In the distance I could just about make out the rear lights of riders way ahead. Using them as a carrot I would try to reel them in and eventually overtake. It certainly provided a distraction from the constant rain. There was a stretch of at least five miles where I was on my own. All was quiet apart from hearing my Brompton cutting through the rain and it pitter pattering on my jacket. During this time the Beacon was very much in my thoughts. The last time I managed to get 3/4 up before throwing in the towel. Could I do it this time? Would the rain have the final word? As I cycled along I fancied I could hear the rain make the sound of gentle laughter.

At the final stop point I followed a small group of four who knew their way to the Beacon. After not too long we reached the bottom of the Beacon - the official start point. We all got ourselves ready. I took an energy gel as I had not had anything since the scout hut and was under the delusion that it might help. I also took my last swig of water and in the same manner I saw other riders do the last time I attempted the Beacon, I threw the rest away. A few of the group I followed to this point made their way up. Guy rolled up and began his own preparations. Geoff rode past without stopping and said that if he did he wouldn't be able to get going again. As ready as I felt I could be, I too started off. 

The road leading up is quite steep even at the start and clipping in to my pedals took concentration and immediate effort to get going. I tried to keep a steady rhythm as I pedalled and in my head I counted as spun the pedals. There were two points on the ascent where it was so steep I knew that if I remained in my saddle I would surely grind to a halt. I therefore got out of the saddle and cycled. Last time I didn't have clipped in pedals and now with them I felt more confident that my feet wouldn't slip off the pedals. 

The S-type riding position helped me ascend the steep gradients. Shifting my weight forward was easy even while seated. I passed one of the riders I had followed to the Beacon and a good distance passed halfway I passed Geoff who had succumbed to walking. The ascent is a little over a mile but it seemed never ending. After each winding turn I thought surely this must be it but my hopes were dashed as I saw more twists and turns and road to climb. After what seemed an eternity I reached the top. I had done it. I had conquered the Beacon without a foot becoming unclipped...without a foot touching the floor. I have to confess to feeling rather proud of myself. Is that wrong? I was doubly proud as my left knee although feeling okay still wasn't 100% after the Whitstable ride. 

At the top the stunning views were null and void as mist and fog obscured any chance of a scenic photograph. I waited for my colleagues and soon Geoff, Guy, Amanda, Anne and David also made it to the top. David really does need special mention. After mending his puncture and tyre wall tear he had apparently suffered further problems. Someone let him have a 'tyre boot.' I had not heard of this before but it is a strong rubber patch that can be used as a temporary repair to holes/small tears in tyres. David made it up to the Beacon without stopping on a rear wheel that was not inflated to the correct pressure, a bulge in the tyre wall and the worry at the back of his mind that it might deflate at any time. 

The view from the top of Ditchling Beacon - I made it!!

With all of us at the top of the Beacon we made our to Brighton. For the last few miles it was almost free wheeling as sea gulls cried overhead and the sea air filled our lungs. As we reached the Madeira Cafe on the seafront, a few cyclists who got there before us, tucking into their breakfasts have us a few cheers. We grabbed a table and left no time in ordering our own. 

After breakfast we set off. David, Anne, Geoff and I had booked ourselves on the 11:19 train to London Victoria. It was our intention to take a few pictures of us in Brighton but of course the weather made this impossible. We therefore retired to a number of coffee establishmens in order to kill a couple of hours. Arriving at the train station in good time we boarded our train, got some good seats, from which we could keep an eye on our bikes and sat back and relaxed. As we were next to the toilet and as I had drunk a cup of coffee and a pot of tea in the two hours before getting on the train, I felt this would be a good idea. 

The rather lovely roof at Brighton Station

Opening the electricially controlled door with the push of a button it made a whooshing sound and opened. I stepped inside and pushed the close button. It whooshed shut. It was all very science fiction.  (I have not used a toilet on a train so I am easily pleased). I was later told that as I had not pressed the 'lock' button someone could have come and opened the door while I was inside! Luckily no one did. 

Saying goodbye to David and Anne who got off at the station before Victoria, Geoff and I made it to Victoria. As we stepped outside the heavens opened and we took shelter in a doorway. Getting fed up waiting and wet from a nights cycling anyway we set off. Inside Hyde Park Geoff and I said our goodbyes. I cycled to Maida Vale where I had left my car and set off for home. 

As I type this in the comfort of my own home I have a few thoughts about this ride. Firstly the neoprene overshoes although keeping my feet dryer than they would have been without them had two problems. My feet still got wet and the stitching on the soles had started to come away. Rubbish really that they didn't last the 10 hours I wore them. They were returned to the shop for a full refund. I suppose what I am trying to say is that for the length of time we were cycling, I doubt if any cycling top or over trousers would keep you totally dry. Fitness wise I was happy with how the ride went. I didn't put a foot down on any of the hills and was able to keep a respectable pace. My knee seems okay and the rest of me is equally good. I feel I am getting to a level of fitness where a 60+ mile ride is more than comfortable but I can still improve. 

I could have looked at the weather forecast and thought twice about riding all night in the rain and not gone. That would have been a big mistake!! This was a wonderful adventure and for me the weather conditions only added to this. It was perhaps the most challenging ride I have been on. I loved the sense of achievement of cycling in wet weather and of course getting up Ditchling Beacon. From the ride data I found that my average moving speed was more or less the same as the last time I did London to Brighton in much better weather conditions. (In fact it was slightly faster). 

These longer rides are very enjoyable and as I have written before quite addictive. Although short social rides are fun, it is perhaps true to say that I prefer longer rides with a descent pace to them. Luckily for me there are a few of these planned for the future - some like this ride and some Brompton owners only. I look forward to them greatly. 

It was great riding with so many people from all walks of life and with all manner of bicycles and of course my thanks go to Simon who yet again organised a truly superb ride. It was also great fun to ride with my fellow Bromptonians and I am sure will will be going on lots more adventures in the not too distant. 

So, you out there, if you like the sound of all this get a bike (preferably a Brompton of course) a few friends or family members and head out for your own adventure. It doesn't have to be 60 miles but I am sure by the time you get home and finish you'll want more. 

Rainy London to Brighton map and ride data


  1. In response to your last paragraph, I do like "the sound of all this"! It's overly adventuresome for someone of my skill level (low), but inspiring none the less. As a result, I have vowed to take a mini adventure of my own soon, in spite of (or perhaps, "because of") current rainy weather conditions in the northwestern United States. Thank you for the inspiration, encouragement, and for sharing your accomplishment.


    1. That is great to hear. Mini adventures are great and I am sure your skill level can only improve. Let me know how you get on.

  2. Wow that sounds like a pretty punishing ride! I bet you were glad you had a 6 speed Brompton for that steep climb.

  3. A very interesting read and an exciting adventure - there is something special about doing the ride at night. I am working up to ride my P type Brompton from Toronto to Niagara Falls within the next couple of months - and then after the obligatory beer at Niagara I will get the train back ; )

    1. Many thanks Carlton. Your journey sounds wonderful. If you go let me know how you get on and send a photo - especially of the Falls.


Thank you for leaving a comment.