This story was originally published in December 2008
It’s still dark outside. It might be wet or windy. It is definitely cold. Your bed is warm. For any normal person, there is no decision to be made, just a flicker of consciousness before turning over, pulling up the covers and sinking back into luxurious slumber. But you are no normal person. You are a cyclist. Whereas for normal people a Sunday morning in winter is a good reason to make like a mammal that hibernates, you are stealing from your cosy nest. Stealthily, so as not to disturb the normal people you live with.
Cyclists are covert operatives, undercover athletes. Our plans are semi-secret; our rendezvous with other riders in the pale dawn are in obscure locations, unfrequented byways. We keep such odd hours that we are near-nocturnal. Riding out through the suburbs before daybreak, we are as likely to encounter a fox in the road as a car. The fox regards you with bold curiosity, recognising you perhaps as some kind of renegade relative, a slightly deranged distant cousin.
The cold creeps up on you. At first, it hits you only in the face, like an application of witch-hazel, tautening your skin with its sudden astringency. The rest of you, body and limbs and extremities, are so bundled up and wrapped in layers of form-fitting fabric, that it becomes almost impossible to summon up the sensation of cycling in summer: what it feels like to ride in shorts and short-sleeved jersey demands a conceptual leap beyond what the mind is capable of on a dark winter’s day.
There is no real moment of dawn, just a gradual adjustment of brightness and contrast. In summer, there is a distinct shift from night to light, from monochrome to colour; but in winter, in the country, everything is dun, a restrained palette that runs the gamut from khaki to brown: as though nature itself is in camouflage, hunkered down in its bunker waiting for this cold war to thaw.
But for you, rider, one compensation of the seasonal dearth is that your views are unobscured. In high summer, these high-hedged lanes are almost claustrophobic. But now, you can see every contour of the hill you’re climbing. When you reach the top, there is no foliage on the trees to hide the sight of the next ridge across the valley. Only a clammy morning mist softens the vista.
The outlook I’m thinking of is the one that greets you after churning up the long escarpment of the North Downs, from West Wickham and Keston, through Downe and Cudham, to the vague bluff called Hogtrough Hill. I tick off the names on a mental list like milestones on my training ride, but they have acquired a kind of music for me, an old familiar tune. You realise now that day has truly arrived, as the landscape unfolds in front of you, suddenly full of interest and detail. Tucked into the fold of the valley runs the M25, a distant hum, and beyond, the old A25. There down below is the village of Brasted; up the other side lies Brasted Chart, the heath that leads to Toys Hill.
My favourite loop takes in the ascent of Toys. From the easier, north side, it’s testing but not tormenting. On a fair summer’s day, with some racing in your legs, it can be done in the big ring. Just. But, like the idea of a warm day, such a proposition seems impossible today. Cold muscles ache with effort. My breath fogs in front of me. There is respite at the summit, but the view that comes as a reward for the work is all too brief, as the road plunges hard down the hill. The twisting descent racks your nerves with its pitted surface and off-camber curves.
Then left, heading easterly, parallel to the ridge of the Weald, and on for a couple of miles, before the road turns left again, and points towards Ide Hill. The lower slopes I always find dispiriting. Somehow, the visual reference does not reveal the contours and clue you in to the gradient: all you know is that you are going slower and slower, and humiliatingly grabbing at smaller gears. Eventually, the gradient eases, or I find my rhythm – I’m never sure which – and it begins to feel better. In a minute or two, you sight the village hall, sited not in the village but on the lookout over Boarhill. The climb levels off long enough to soft-pedal and survey the panorama to your right, with the Bough Beech Reservoir glistening down below, seeming little bigger than a garden pond.
Then the climb kicks up once more, past Hanging Bank and towards Goathurst Common. The fork to the right would take me to the top of Yorks Hill, scene for more than a century of the Catford CC’s hill climb – billed as the oldest cycle race in the world. But here’s where I make my turn for home, take the left and let the road carry me down to the A25, and back towards the steep southern scarp of the North Downs.
By now, I pass dozens of cyclists, singly, in pairs, in club run groups – modern pilgrims following the old route to Canterbury. A certain complacency at being on my way back in when others are still on their way out gives me the heart to heave my way up one of the short but brutal climbs – Sundridge or Star Hill. After that, it’s a simple matter of counting off the clicks back into the suburbs, over the final obstacle of Crystal Palace. Every pedal stroke brings closer the prospect of warming my hands on a mug of coffee, savouring a guilt-free pastry, and enjoying the glow on my windchilled face.
But it’s the inner smile that keeps you coming back to the ritual of the early Sunday ride: the sense of ownership – your hills, your road – shared with other cyclists, yet somehow always secret; the spiritual nourishment of the brief excursion from city to country; and the physical satisfaction of legs that, when you climb the stairs, you know have tasted work without being shredded.
All this belongs to you because you are not a normal person. You are a cyclist.