The Shard stands tall, towering high above London Bridge, rising, as it does day-by-day, towards its soon-to-be-completed finishing height of 1,017ft. The glass facade looks magnificent glinting in the sun but this is not prime cycling country. Far from it.
I, however, live less than ten minutes away by bike; a location great for riding into the office, across the river in Farringdon, and enjoying everything London has to offer, but less than ideal for escaping the city on two wheels.
Not all of London and its surrounding suburbs look as fresh as The Shard, and it takes a considerable ride to change the backdrop from drab, grey concrete and congested roads to the autumnal blanket of colour and quiet lanes of Kent.
It’s a journey I make regularly to go cycling, but on a day as glorious as the Saturday just past – crisp and not a cloud in the sky – it’s wasted energy; a waste of time. Instead, I rode to London Bridge and jumped on the train to Sevenoaks on the North Downs ridge. More than an hour’s wasted riding exchanged for 20 minutes on the train.
Day’s as fine as Saturday are rare and they should be seized with both hands. I used the opportunity to plot a route taking in, for those of you familiar with the area, the villages east of Sevenoaks before turning west and tackling Yorks Hill, Hosey Hill and Toy’s Hill, with a printed map tucked between the bottom of my shorts and top of my knee warmers as a quick reference.
Despite doing most of my cycling in north Kent, Yorks Hill is a climb I’ve avoided. It’s developed a fearsome reputation thanks to being the home of the Catford CC Hill Climb Classic, first run in 1887 and now the oldest continuing bike race in the world.
I’ve avoided it because it’s tucked away, running adjacent to Ide Hill, and because, to be frank, the stats tell you there should be more enjoyable routes up the ridge. Yorks Hill is only short, at 770yards, but two stretches of 25 per cent end any hopes of an easy ascent.
The singletrack road snakes between steep-sided embankments which, during the Catford, are lined by hundreds of fans urging competitors on to the finish. Now, less than a week after the latest running of the hill climb, the only sign of the most recent edition is a single line chalked across the road to mark the start. Still, it provided me with the momentum to tackle the hill.
Yes, it’s steep, but select the right gear and control your effort and it’s manageable for a rider of average fitness. It’s still an excellent challenge, however, and the gladed environment – congested trees, damp mud, scattered leaves and damp moss – make for an isolated ascent, riding as if surrounded by rainforest, where sunlight can only peak through rare gaps in the canopy.
Of course, if you race the climb, rather than conserving energy as part of a longer ride, it’s a beastly effort, where traction can be limited, and air hard to come despite desperate, deprived lungs. Two lines across the road mark the finish, next to a car park, where each rider who completes the climb slumps to catch their breath.
The reward for me was a quick descent to Sundridge before a short ride along the A25 and up Hosey Hill, possibly the easiest route up the south side of the ridge. The problem, however, with taking new, untried roads is that you’re venturing into the unknown and the descent of Hosey Common Lane was riddled with large potholes and covered in gravel and wet leaves. More suitable for a cyclo-cross machine or mountain bike.
It was here that I took a wrong turn, heading left instead of right and climbing once again. I knew I was going in the wrong direction but I was intrigued by the Tarmac unwinding in front of me, and I was rewarded by a glorious view of Kent from a lookout on Puddledock Lane. I took a moment to enjoy the scene below me; large swathes of countryside presented in one panoramic landscape. Three mountain bikers from the Oxted MTB club soon emerged up the lane I had just ridden and stopped for a chat, inviting me for a knobbly-tyred ride some time. I pointed them towards RCUK so, if you’re reading, hello!
But it was time to head on so I turned onto the final section of Toy’s Hill before heading back towards Sevenoaks, ducking and diving between the lanes that criss-cross this part of the world, arriving at the station where I saw a rider on the platform heading back to London who must have had the same idea as me. Then, all was left was to reflect on one of the best rides of the year, with every minute of it spent in the country, not city.
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