Hills and Mills audax

Ride report published 18 January 2011
By Andrew Cornwell

Blowing away the Christmas holiday cobwebs can be tough for the cyclist: after all, the weather outside may well be frightful in January. And so it proved on my first Audax outing of 2011 - although it was the wind not the cold that was the difficulty.

The Hills and Mills event, now in its fourth year, runs over a 104 km (65 mile) course north from Hailsham, which lies close to Eastbourne in Sussex.

Packing in 1850 metres of climbing, it is also designed to be about as hilly as one can get over a 100 km distance in the south of England.

Adding to the early season challenge, this was my first Audax for three months, and only my third proper ride on open roads since the winter break.

Supreme catering

About 40 entrants headed off from Hailsham, and I quickly settled into a group of around 15 with a number of riders from the Lewes Wanderers and Worthing Excelsior clubs. However once we started to hit rough-surfaced lanes it was hard to keep together, and by the first checkpoint high on a ridge by the Brightling obelisk at 18 km, the group had already splintered.

Still in contact with some of these riders on the following descent then climb up to Burwash Weald,  I then slipped down the field after just missing a turning - I had been relaxing just a little too much on a smoother section of road with the wind behind me. After a 2 km detour and ten minutes lost, I was back on track to cross the river Rother to reach the first control in the pretty village of Mayfield.

Dave Hudson, alias 'El Supremo', had set up his legendary outdoor catering operation in the car park and his excellent stollen was very welcome after 32 km (pictured below).

Riders at the Mayfield control point on the Hills and Mills 104 km Audax, 15 January 2011. Credit: Andrew Cornwell

Now the ride continued north for a 48 km middle loop through the Weald and Ashdown Forest. With lashings of mud on the road, plenty of standing water from two days of heavy rain, and a few fallen tree branches to avoid, concentration was needed. Add to that the expected potholes and sharp, twisting descents that characterise the area, there was little time to enjoy the views.

To make matters worse, a stiff crosswind produced some interesting wobbles on the descents - and even on the climbs. Emerging from the woods at the top of Kidd's Hill, I was blown sideways so suddenly that my feet scraped the high grass verge. At least the temperatures were pretty mild for January.

Hitting the wall

At the quaint village of Hartfield, once home to author AA Milne, we had entered Ashdown Forest and 'Winnie the Pooh' country. The Pooh Corner shop stood among the white weatherboarded houses in the village, and a few minutes further on, I spotted a father leading his son towards the path signed to Poohsticks Bridge. At the bottom of Chuck Hatch Lane our 60 km checkpoint awaited by the ford (picture below).

A cyclist at the checkpoint by the ford in Ashdown Forest, Hills and Mills Audax, 15 January 2011. Credit: Andrew Cornwell

Now it was time to turn left for the most-hyped climb of the day, the 1.5 km long Kidd's Hill, known to local riders as The Wall and used on a number of sportive events. While it was certainly a decent effort to get up, I was left a little sceptical about the claim that the Tour de France organisers had rejected this hill as being too tough when the race passed by in 1994.

Once on the top of the forest it was certainly breezy, but with good roads the pace picked up after the turn away from the wind towards Crowborough, which was skirted to the south through the golf club grounds. After a brief respite down to Jarvis Brook it was time for a new series of lumps and bumps back to Mayfield and the second feed stop at 80 km.

With just 24 km to go I should have been speeding to the finish, but the headwind, and repeated climbing and descending, coupled with lack of miles in the legs were all taking their toll. The drag up Street End Hill to Broad Oak felt endless.

Filthy finish

Making the final turn towards Hailsham with 10 km to go, I was relieved to be on flatter territory at least. Then, with just 8 clicks remaining, I was infuriated to pick up a flat on what was probably the smoothest and newest road surface of the day. Reaching the finish at Hailsham's leisure centre came none to soon. Bike and rider were both filthy from surface crud and periodic drenchings by passing vehicles.

Although tough, this ride runs through pretty country: well-heeled villages with Sussex hang tiling and white boarding, oast houses, watermills and follies. Plenty of horse riders were out on the quiet if rutted lanes. It was only a pity that grey weather and seasonal road conditions took the edge off the location. While I'd enjoyed the day out, and it was good early test of fitness, I was left with a feeling that this would be a really superb event if run in May or June.

Thanks to the organiser Andy Seviour and his volunteer helpers, and to caterer Dave Hudson.


Date: 15 January 2011
Distance: 104 km (65 miles)
Climbing: 1850 metres (1.75 Audax climbing points available)
Time allowances: Minimum 4 hrs 9 min, maximum 7 hrs 26 mins (14-25 kph speeds)
Start/finish: Hailsham, East Sussex
Organiser: Andy Seviour under Audax UK regulations.
Entry fee: £10