Icy Hell of the Ashdown - Road Cycling UK

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Icy Hell of the Ashdown


Merry Christmas from all at RCUK! Over the 12 days of Christmas, we’ll be reposting an existing article from this year – one from each month. Here Richard contemplates the effect of the British winter on early-season cyclosportives. 

So, the UK’s premier winter sportive went ahead despite the presence of ice on some of the back roads used for the route. And?

The Hell of the Ashdown was introduced by the venerable Catford Cycling Club several years back as a replacement for its reliability ride of fond memory, the new ride finding itself labelled a cyclosportive and attracting some 10 times the number of entries enjoyed by its predecessor.

Taking place at the end of January this year, the event is as susceptible to the vagaries of the British winter as was the reliability trial. A spell of very cold weather affected the UK over the weekend and left many roads blighted by patches of ice.

I rode from home to Westerham in Kent on the Saturday and decided to leave my Sunday ride until later in the day, when the ice might reasonably be expected to have melted or at least softened. Not having entered the Hell of the Ashdown or anything else, I was under no obligation to go out earlier.

In the event, I encountered plenty of icy patches on the back roads of east Surrey and took due care when riding over them, getting home tired after 2 1/2 hours on fixed wheel but glad I had made the effort.

Turns out that many participants in the Hell were glad they rode. No doubt the several who fell and broke bones were not, but such is the way of injury. Fact is, the organisers took the right decision in running the event; hundreds of cyclists had an enjoyable day out and, while there was a risk attached to taking part in the ride, it was known, quantifiable and largely avoidable.

By way of comparison, I rode an edition of the Catford reliability trial about 10 years ago in conditions so cold that the ice was inches deep on the A25 through Brasted. I fell off on ice within 50m of leaving the event HQ at Halstead village hall. When my group reached the foot of the descent from Tandridge, more than half turned round and went home; the lane was a sheet of ice from ditch to ditch for the next two miles.

Once past this stretch, the route proved entirely ice-free even on the top of the Ashdown Forest, leaving those of us who pressed on free to gloat once we got back to the finish. Thing is, there was never any question of cancelling a reliability trial; they generally get to run even in snow unless it is actually blocking roads and, for many devotees, frankly the harder the conditions the better. Why should a cyclosportive be any different – unless sportive riders are a different, softer breed?

I would take issue with one assertion on the Hell’s homepage: “We had advised the use of winter tyres. Slick tyres with no tread are not very effective on ice.” Spikes are good on ice;  “winter” tyres aren’t. Not even knobblies provide trustworthy grip on sheet ice. But never mind; riding slowly is often better than trying to walk across it.


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