Cyclo-therapy: 'Those with winter tyres or a reckless streak sprinted across the ice, leaving the rest of us to slip and slide'

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And so it starts again. After a winter of relative inactivity, during which my road bike has spent weeks sitting in the dark, I lined up last month at the start of the first big ride of the year.

In 2009, the Hell of the Ashdown lived up to its billing as riders, already feeling the effects of idleness and mid-winter excess (I was in bed), battled through wind and driving snow.

The sun, at least, was shining this time round as hundreds of cyclists, many of them straining the seams of their tights, gathered at a school in Biggin Hill in Kent. But it was even colder, the mercury having fallen overnight way below the forecast of minus- one degree. By Sunday morning, it was too late for the organisers to divert the 110km (68-mile) route from the most treacherous country roads.

Fields saturated after heavy rain had caused water to course across narrow lanes, where it had frozen in great lakes of ice. Those with winter tyres, or a reckless streak, sprinted across the ice, leaving the rest of us to slip and slide at a snail's pace, using one foot for support, or at the worst spots, both feet to walk. Progress was painful at times and the frequent ice breaks sapped our rhythm.

But "Hell" doesn't refer to the wintry conditions so much as the series of climbs that rear up with thigh-bothering frequency. Things got hard with the two-mile grind up Toys Hill, but the biggest test came later. It's claimed the hill they call "The Wall" was considered so hard that the Tour de France gave it a miss when the race came to these parts in 1994. Whether or not that's true, it's a tough climb up Kidds Hill to the Ashdown Forest, home to Winnie the Pooh and a lot of wheezing cyclists.

I was surprised to feel pretty strong with 20 miles to go but after a puncture I ran out of steam. The lonely climb back over the North Downs at Star Hill was miserable. Toes as frozen as the roads, I limped back to Biggin Hill after five and a quarter hours. It was enough to make you want to take a break from the big rides, but there were glimmers amid the gloom, when the sun glinted through hedgerows and the fresh country air tickled my face, when I remembered why we do it – and why it's time to cut down on cake.

s.usborne@independent.co.uk

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