At the start line of the Surrey Hills Bike & BBQ I say to the starter (before he manually scans my race QR code), that “I’ve brought a lemon to a knife fight.” He doesn’t get it. Maybe he’s not a Wombats fan, but I’m on my Mason Bokeh gravel bike at a mountain bike event. Having taken an early train from Waterloo to Guildford, myself and +RichardM arrive at the HQ moments before a mass of MTB riders funnel through the start gate, including another ICC rider, +AlexSzomboti. Most appear to be starting bang on 9am, so they are clearly very, very keen. Everyone seems to be on a mountain bike, aside from me, Richard and Alex. Hence my referencing the Wombats. I feel like I’m going to get sliced, either by those who are more suitably equipped and have proper skills or by the course, which promises to be reasonably challenging or should I say gnarly.
I got lured in to entering by (1) the thought of taking on a more technical riding challenge, (2) seeing a truly beautiful part of the country and, of course, (3) the after-ride BBQ (specifically the chilli). It’s only 30 miles, I reflect, how bad can it get? The first two miles are on tarmac and lull you into a false sense of security. Then you hit a rough-as-feck cobbled farm track that would give Paris-Roubaix a run for its money, whilst passing a genteel game of village cricket. It begins… the next mile throws a great quantity of sand and consequently exposed tree roots at you, whilst you manoeuvre on single track. Oh-oh, 30 miles of this?
Well, not 30 miles of sand, but we did return to the sandy trails in the last couple of miles. Along the way there were some tough sectors of various kinds and some more mellow ones. One part with “baby head stones” sticks in the mind. They were hard enough going up, but harder going down. Talking about descending, there were a few V-shaped channels (not sure you can call them trails) we went down. I was super cautious on these, but the MTB folk screamed down with their fancy suspension and fancy bike-handling skills, riding high up the banks of the V on the bends. I got suckered into trying this and almost spilt, then got sensible and slowed down, then got caught in two minds about how to proceed and came off. Lucky for me, I was going very slowly at the time and it was more of a gentle unseating than anything spectacular.
The Surrey Hills Bike & BBQ is organised by Trail Break and they did a great job of marking out the route with arrowed signs and ribbons tied to shrubbery, both in matching orange. These were so frequent you felt really reassured you were literally on the right path and I hardly had to look at the GPS on my bars. Trail Break runs a variety of off-road events that range from MTB to gravel. Their South Downs 100 on 2 July looks awesome, as does the Ridgeway 100 on 11 September. Both of these are more of an emphasis on gravel rather than MTB, but, as with this ride, the MTB rides are just fine on a gravel bike.
I’d go a little further and say there were many sections where being on a gravel bike was better than a mountain bike. Most climbs (on or off-road), I was able to move past MTB riders and on every single bit of tarmac I screamed by the MTBs up, down or flat. However, on the tarmac many roadies climbed past me at pace. This was especially so on Combe Lane. If you don’t know it, this is a really great climb that features in the 100 Great Climbs books. It’s about 0.9 miles long and towards the top it there’s a blind left-hander that reveals a 18% section. Nice. The route, although only 30 miles, is close to the so-called golden ratio (1,000ft of elevation gain per 10 miles), so there are plenty of other rises to test your climbing legs.
There was a healthy field of 176 and, aside from the three ICC riders (all of us on gravel bikes), I only saw one other entrant on a gravel bike. There should/could be a lot more, as this ride is a lot of fun on a gravel bike - plus there’s a BBQ at the end! Like a sportive there are gold, silver and bronze time bands*. Richard and Alex (2hr 27min!) managed gold, while I was 6 mins outside of the gold cut off and made a "strong silver." This was 8th in my age group, so I’ll take that on an MTB course. Not bad for a lemon.
*Update with background from Martin Harrison at Trail Break: The Gold, Silver, Bronze system actually came from mountain biking; specifically from our rides! We have been running this format of Trail Rides since the early 1990s and came up with the Gold, Silver, Bronze bands when we started, as a less formal adaptation of the reliability ride format, to provide a legal way of timing a ride on public rights of way (we used to have category called “Pub” below Bronze too!). When we launched the first of our road sportives in 2006, we carried over the same system to keep the rides legal on public roads. None of the few early sportives that existed in the country at the time used anything like that, but others subsequently started to adopt it and it eventually evolved into a standard for the sportive format.
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