The Ditchling Devil

View from the summit of Ditchling Beacon looking north. Credit: Simon Carey


9 August 2011


There are many versions of the classic London to Brighton run, ranging from the annual mass charity ride to more recent overnight Friday rides. But (as far as I’m aware) until now no organised event has offered the option to ride back to the capital.

Step forward audax organiser Paul Stewart, of the Willesden club, to fill this gap in the market. The Ditchling Devil, his 203 km (127 mile) event, was staged for the first time on Sunday 24 July. About 65 riders rolled up for the start on Wimbledon Common, a good turnout considering this had been a late addition to the Audax UK calendar.

After a surprisingly speedy run down to the start from north London – enjoying a deserted West End and empty Mall – I was ready to leave for the coast at 07.50, towards the end of the rolling one-hour start period. I set off in a group of six – or to be more precise, a tandem leading out and five wheelsucking solos. Backed by a small tailwind we made rapid progress on quiet rolling roads through the Surrey hills, only splintering as we approached the first control point at Ardingly, 52 km into the ride.

The last time I had stopped in this layby had been on the 2005 London to Brighton BHF ride, a scene of carnage with hundreds queuing for food, water and toilets, tarmac melting in the heat, and overstretched novice riders receiving first aid. This morning was a whole lot calmer: a couple of dozen audax regulars and some London club riders enjoying a leisurely feedstop and chat.

To the Beacon

On leaving the control the South Downs ridge soon loomed ahead as we entered the shady lanes between Haywards Heath and Streat. Then it was onto Ditchling Beacon, one of the two major climbs from which this event takes its name. I’ve always found this to be an overhyped ascent, and indeed the most difficult aspect of the climb was the unpleasant smell of vehicle fumes and burning rubber as Sunday motorists competed for space with numerous cyclists out for a spin. However the views off the top are often spectacular, and today the fine clear weather opened up views as far as the North Downs and Seven Sisters.

A slight crosswind on the descent gave more time to enjoy the scenery, before the plunge down through the suburbs of Brighton.

Respite was brief as the climb back up the Downs began almost immediately. Warned about the steepness of Tongdean Lane, I summoned all gears into action for a brutal if short stretch. Once beyond the houses the climb up continued up Devil’s Dyke, something of a grind into the wind but mainly a moderate gradient. The reward was more fine views, this time along the coast to Shoreham and Worthing.

After a scenic if flint-ridden section under the Downs, the lunch stop at 102 km was in the pretty village of Upper Breeding, where the catering was generous. The afternoon section then rolled on across West Sussex to a tea interval in the sports pavillion at Chiddingfold, just over the Surrey border. Home-made scones went down very well.

Olympic course

The remaining challenge was now the North Downs: Coombe Lane (at Shere) is not a long climb, nor particularly steep overall, but the last left hand bend kicks up viciously to a double figure gradient and the whole hill demands respect, especially after 165 km. Once up, the long descent towards East Horsley and Cobham was a delight. Yellow signs advertising an August rehearsal race and the excellent surface conditions were a reminder that these sections will be on the Olympic road race course next summer.

Now came the final run in – fast and furious via the A307 to Esher and Hampton Court. The continuous stream of traffic rather took the edge off the last hour’s riding and it was a relief to enter Richmond Park for the final 6 km on the circuit road, to reach the finish at the Roehampton Gate cafe.

Given the 2700 metres of climbing on a continually rolling course, and the number of stops to enjoy both the well-stocked controls and the viewpoints, I was happy to be round in about 10 hours. Hopefully this excellent day out will become a regular fixture in the calendar.



24 July 2011
Distance: 203 km (127 miles)
Climbing: 2700 metres
Time allowances: Minimum 6 hrs 46 mins, maximum 13 hrs 32 mins (15-30 kph speeds)
Start: Wimbledon Common
Finish: Richmond Park
Organiser: Paul Stewart / Willesden CC, under Audax UK regulations.
Entry fee: £11

View from Devil's Dyke looking north. Credit: Graham Pritchard

The view north from Devil's Dyke, the second major climb of the day (photo: Graham Pritchard).