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White Chalk Hills UCX – my first off road ride….

Last year I saw the first White Chalk Hills UCX announced and then happen but I was away and couldn’t go. I thought the course looked and sounded incredibly tough but I knew enough about the people behind it and some of the folks who showed up on the day to also know that it would be a great adventure.

When this year’s event was announced, I made a mental note – largely as I don’t own a ‘cross bike (yet) but also as I’d never ridden off road. It was on my maybe list. I then had an email from David from Stoemper Bikes who was going to be over during the Christmas break saying did I fancy having a crack at cyclocross race with him? At that point my counter offer seemed obvious – I wrote back and said, rather than the ‘cross race, why don’t we do the White Chalk Hills UCX? I sent him the link & he agreed immediately. Entries were arranged and we were all set. Apart from I didn’t have a bike to ride.

I asked a bunch of my bike company contacts if they had a bike I could borrow for the event and the good people at Kinesis – said yes, no problems but we only have a 54cm than your regular 57cm. David had said to me previously he thought I should size down on a ‘cross bike for great control. A longer stem, flipped over and a high seatpost height and I had a white Kinesis Pro 6 ready to go. I had MTB pedals but no shoes. David offered to bring some but forgot, so a last minute panic and thanks to Norm a fellow rider on the event – I had a loaner pair, which was greatly appreciated.

For “training” I tinkered with my position on the Kinesis and rode around my block once. A couple more tweaks riding up and down my street, so no off-road training at all. I was all set obviously.

It’s been a wet Christmas here (for anyone reading outside the UK), lots of rain, so it was definitely going to be muddy. After days of rain, December the 28th had a sunshine symbol on my weather app and no rain forecast until late in the afternoon.

70kms off-road with 1600m climbing beginning at around 0830 from Eastbourne – of course I’d be finished by mid-afternoon I thought. We’ll come back to that.

I met David in Eastbourne around 8am having got up at 0615 in the Christmas holidays! (I hate mornings). David seemed to be rebuilding his bike when I found him, so I rode down to the start at the Tri Store to see if I could find Norm and the loaner shoes and to sign in etc. Norm was there with the shoes that fitted perfectly. The shoes were also beautifully clean.

For the first time in my life I had a “race” number – so I pinned that on, had a bit of a chit chat and was pleased to see again guys like Mark Tearle, the organiser, Gavin Peacock, Jo Burt and to meet Jim Clarkson amongst others.

David's singlespeed Stoemper Ronny - getting some admiration before the off

David’s singlespeed Stoemper Ronny – getting some admiration before the off

I had decided before the event that I’d use my GoPro and my iPhone to record some film and pictures. I have a nice new K-Edge GoPro handlebar mount and I had two batteries, so I switched on my Gopro as we began.

Around 0830 we rolled out in a group of about 20 riders. We headed out of Eastbourne on the road in the direction of Beachy Head. After less than 5 minutes we left the road, turned onto a trail and started climbing.

It was a bit slippy and right away the group began to spread out. After almost no warm up it didn’t feel like a short climb but fortunately the pace wasn’t full on. I soon learnt that most people were happy to climb at a modest pace because it was slippery and because there was a veritable truck load of climbing ahead. I was already learning about wheelspin which seemed very easy to come by if you stood up on your pedals (my normal climbing style).  I was glad I geared down the Kinesis a touch but wished I’d been able to gear down further even at this point of the ride.IMG_20131228_223136

Once we got up a bit higher we came out of the trees and rode across open grass landscape and started to get a view over the English Channel. It was pretty cool. It was very gray though, with lots of low cloud and the ground was slippery. We popped back onto the road and rode to Birling gap where we moved back onto a path and climbed again.

After about 20minutes I had the first puncture of the day and as I put a road tube into a 32mm tyre, with one more road tube in my pocket – I wondered if this might be the start of a very difficult day.

Me fixing the first puncture of the day - the only one for me luckily

Me fixing the first puncture of the day – the only one for me luckily

Within another 10 minutes, I’d crashed twice. Firstly on a wet greasy, chalky descent, where I’d had the poor form to also take down Norm, who had kindly lent me his spare shoes. I’m sure he was regretting the loan at that point  in time. Less than 10 minutes later, I crashed again this time riding through trees over sludgy, leaf covered ground. I lost balance going over a tree root and hit the ground harder than the first time but it was a softer landing into the mud. I’d fallen on the same shoulder and hip, which was now a bit achey.

So the first half hour was eventful to say the least. We’d been rained and hailed on as well and had taken shelter behind a farm building for a couple of minutes. I was definitely feeling like a roadie out of his natural environment.

The bike was great already, the Pro 6, definitely felt like a bike that was a great design for exactly what we were doing and I loved having disc brakes off road.

We seemed to be stopping regularly to re-group or to go through gates or for punctures. There didn’t seem to be a lot of talking and by now we were all conscious of just how much climbing over wet, slippery, bumpy, rutting ground lay ahead of us.

I was struggling a bit with my tyres, which I think was largely due to inexperience off-road. I found the grip levels low and I was descending very nervously. Jo Burt rode up alongside me at one point and said to make sure I braked on my drops for much more control – something I don’t do on the road either to be honest. I gradually switched myself over and he was right, it made for much better braking.

Others kindly gave me tips as well. David talked to me about the tyres and how I needed to accept  that they wouldn’t grip as much as you want or that they seem to be but that they would work more than you think and to learn by the seat of your pants. He also recommended that I descend at higher speed when I could as he said the bike would shrug it off, which it did. Although I still found it a bit nerve wracking.

Groups of riders ebbed and flowed due to punctures and terrain. One early group who’d carried on when I punctured had now disappeared for good and I wouldn’t see them again all day. We settled into a hard and challenging routine of difficult, slippery and relentless climbing, followed by short plateaus and nervous (for me) descents.

A rare but welcome flat bit

A rare but welcome flat bit

The climbing just kept coming. It was punishing and most of us were already feeling it after only 20kms or so. It was going to be a long day, much longer than I’d guessed. Spirits and camaraderie, not to mention banter were excellent though, as I’d imagined they would be.

We hardly saw a road, let alone rode on one for much of the time. I was completely out of my natural habitat and beginning to feel good about it, leaving aside the toughness of the route.

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David attacking yet another climb on his single speed!

The climbs started taking their toll on me fairly early. I’m actually a pretty decent climber on road and I like my climbing but muddy off road climbs are a different and challenging beast. They seemed to roll into one after another and it was already starting to feel like looking down a tunnel  as my peripheral vision seemed to be diminishing.

By the time we got to the pub in Firle, I had hardly got off my bike and I started to feel really quite nauseous, which is very unusual. David kindly got us some food and drink and even after that I felt no better. Actually worse. I was a bit worried about the 30-40km of relentless climbing to go but I was enjoying the banter of everyone at the stop. We ate outside and cooled down, I ended up shivering and nauseous. That was definitely my lowest ebb of the ride. I had been ill just before Christmas and I was thinking I might have made a mistake taking on such a challenging ride so soon after being unwell.

At the much needed pub stop

At the much needed pub stop

We got back on our bikes and wonderfully I felt better almost straight away. Getting moving and the legs turning seemed to settle my stomach almost immediately but it was probably also the food starting to help.

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Gavin looking like it’s all just a walk in the park

So it was the next scene in our brutal but beautiful adventure. Heading back off road onto muddy and rough tracks. Some of the climbs were either too steep or too slippery to climb on our bikes so we walked up, pushing or shouldering our bikes. Jo Burt seemed to almost always be able to ride up every climb, which I found very impressive. Uncharitably, I’d like to think it was just he had better tyres but I know that’s nonsense, he’s just very good on a ‘cross bike and showed his class.

I’ve never walked a bike as much as I did on this day but it was fine – most of us were doing and it I had no choice each time I ran out of traction or legs.

Amazingly I felt better and better on the second half. After descending to a fairly dark place on the first half I found my second wind of sorts. I felt I started to ride and climb better on the Pro 6 too. I was really enjoying the bike. It was comfortable, sure footed, it felt composed and is if it was taking it all in its stride, which it was.

We still stopped to regroup regularly (after climbs as we were getting more spread out now). There were more punctures including to a tubular David was riding on his singlespeed Stoemper Ronny (http://girodilento.com/stoemper-ronny-quick-look/)

A bit of banter at a puncture stop

A bit of banter at a puncture stop

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David on a very rare flat bit

You know how I mentioned I was taking video etc of the ride? Well by this time it was out of the window. I felt so tired, I couldn’t be bother getting my iPhone out of my pocket. I put the second battery into the GoPro and switched on, but I only found the energy to take one my bit of phone footage and one still photo. I wasn’t wasting any energy taking photos when there were more hills to climb.

Ironically when we got back on the roads at Alfriston, they were flooded for a bit. Some of us managed to jump up on to a footpath to avoid the worst. Then we turned onto the South Downs way again to head back towards Eastbourne.

Not long after that David’s punctured tub gave up the ghost and he abandoned, walking off the hill with his bike over his shoulder, which provided the photo opportunity of the day/event.

David abandons and walks off the hill

David abandons and walks off the hill

Another fine photo of David's abandon by Norm

Another fine photo of David’s abandon by Norm

The rest of us kept climbing once again and at another puncture stop, the heavens opened again – really opened. It pelted down and hailed too.

It was a long day by now and a very tiring one. There started to be talk over cutting the route a bit short as the light was beginning to fail on us as well. As we stood sheltering from the pelting rain I was all for it. I was cold, wet, covered in mud and very tired.

Sheltering from the biggest deluge of the day

Sheltering from the biggest deluge of the day

I was ready to get back to Eastbourne now. I was however really glad I was there and was glad to be covered in mud, tired and wet – maybe just not cold.

Jo and his mate John said they were going to press on back. We said farewell to them and we all rode on. I found that I was riding well enough that they weren’t disappearing from me and I’d moved a bit ahead of the group I had been in. It must have been the thought of getting to the end!

Not long afterwards, Jo stopped with a puncture. I called out to see if he was ok and he said just to keep riding. At this point in the day, I didn’t need to be told twice, so I pressed on. I caught up to John briefly and told him Jo had stopped with a puncture. He said he was heading on. I did too.

When I did find my way back to the car in Eastbourne, I saw David was back at his car too. David had walked off the hill we left him on, straight into a pub. He’d ordered a taxi and a pint and watched the rain that was soaking us from inside his pub.

I had made another beginners mistake of not bringing a change of clothes apart from my down jacket. I put that on and put Norm’s now completely filthy shoes into a bag. David and I walked down to the Belgian Café to meet the others, who were mostly already there. Mark held a short prize giving. David won “Most Futile” for his abandon. Mark won “Best Crash”, which happened right behind me on the second half and was a good one.

We’d done it. My first off road ride – cut short to “only” 65km and over 1700m of climbing. I was very, very tired. It was harder than riding Flanders. I’m very glad I did it though. I could hardly eat my fries in the café or drink a well-earned Belgian beer. What a way to bust your off road cherry!

It was really, really hard but lots of fun and terrific company. Would I do something like this again? Absolutely. Was I sore and tired for a few days afterwards? Absolutely – mostly sore from crashing. Was I still impressed by the Kinesis Pro 6? Absolutely, it was fantastic. Did I have fun even given the brutality of the route? Yes, in a masochistic sort of a way.

On top of another bloody hill!

On top of another bloody hill!

Am I converted to be an off-road guy? Not completely but I have bought some shoes of my own to go with my off-road pedals and I’ve been wasting loads of time pricing up bits to build a Pro 6 of my own online as a beginners ‘cross bike (which I don’t have the cash for in all truth).

Jim who I gave a lift home and who lives near me is already talking about an off road ride next week or the week after and I’m in. I’m looking forward to that already. Mark says he might come as well and that would be great too.

The White Chalk Hills UCX was the hardest thing I did on a bike in 2013 and it was a bloody good event. Well done to Mark, Sam, Lois and everyone who did their part in making it happen. Thanks to David for suggesting we do a ride like this. I’m so glad we did.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Norm and Gavin for letting me share some of their pictures as I was too tired to take my own.

I am working on a video but as an editing beginner it might take a little while for me to get it done. I’ll post it here when it’s ready.

Some links to other accounts of the day from:

Gavin: http://themanfromicon.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/rapha-festive-500-part-3/ & http://nowherefast.cc/vainglorious-futile-the-white-chalk-hills-ultracross/

Mark: http://velomorpha.com/2013/12/30/flicking-the-vs-at-the-mediocracy/

Jim: http://jimdesign.co.uk/jim-design-blog/whitechalk-hills-ucx-ramblereport/

Here’s some more info on the terrific Kinesis Pro 6: http://www.kinesisbikes.co.uk/bikes/crosslight/pro6