Haywards Heath Howler – a review of a tough sportive.

Haywards Heath Howler – a review.

Having ridden the epic route on the Haywards Heath Howler yesterday, I thought I’d review it while it was still fresh in my mind.

Riding in the gentle rolling hills of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk got me to wondering what it would be like to ride up a few real hills – we really don’t have anything like that round here. So, I went and looked at what Wiggle had to offer, and decided to do the Haywards Heath Howler as it was the closest ride to me with a decent amount of ascent – around 7500 feet or 2500m to those of you who use metric. That equates to about two runs up the hill at Alpe d’Huez, or  1.5 x Col du Galibier. The most I can squeeze out of a 100 mile ride round here is about 4000 feet, so it’s roughly double the ascent I’m used to.

To put things in perspective, having lived in Yorkshire and Scotland hills are nothing new to me, but I’ve never ridden up anything lumpy on a road bike since I got back into it about a year ago. There was a part of me that scoffed at the thought of riding up the little hill with a big reputation that is Ditchling Beacon – after all, I’m a northerner, a man of the hills!

I trained as much as I could on the weedy hills of Essex, and eventually event day arrived. A friend of mine, Ram,  who is an experienced Alpine cyclist and always a strong, stoical rider had signed up too and the plan was to ride together.

The view from the car park - Ardingley college.
The view from the car park – Ardingley college.

The event location at Ardingley College is beautiful, the weather was clement enough and we were excited to set off on what must have been just about the last wave of starters for the Epic (100 mile) course. The first 35 miles were superb – easy climbs, great roads and fast descents through some lovely country. It felt like we were on an endless, mellow descent punctuated by a few short, but not particularly challenging climbs. We held back the pace as much as we were able, reminding ourselves that there were some hills to come and we’d need to keep plenty in reserve for the hilly part of the ride which really started in the final third of the route. Unlike East Anglia, the area around Haywards Heath is heavily wooded so you don’t get much of a view of the surrounding area and that made it hard to anticipate when we would hit the hills, but about a mile from Ditchling, the Beacon hove into view.

Cycling Ditchling Beacon.

The view across the North Downs from Ditchling Beacon - worth the effort
The view across the North Downs from Ditchling Beacon – worth the effort

Having ridden through the attractive village of Ditchling, we eventually came to a junction where a period signpost pointed the way to “Beacon Road” and the adrenaline kicked in. I have to confess to watching a couple of YouTube videos of people climbing the Ditchling Beacon, and had thought “looks easy enough”….. The long, straight drag up Beacon Road to the crossroads at the start of the real climb is a good warmup, and you need it. The climb up the Beacon itself was far steeper (and longer than I had expected). I’m built for descents, not ascents and I had to stand on the pedals for at least half the ride which took me just a shade over 8 minutes from the crossroads to the car park. It was quite an effort, particularly with cars queuing behind riders to get up  – making overtaking fellow Howlers tricky – and all made that little bit worse watching successful summiters zooming back past on the downhill leg as we made our way up into a strong wind and light drizzle (on that note, it’s worth making sure your brakes are up to scratch for this ride – I was seriously under-braked on my 10 year old, £350 special, and lost the back end on my way back down Ditchling, as well as coming up short on a couple of other descents). To put the climb in perspective, I asked Ram how it compared to the alpine rides he’d done in the Annecy region of France and he said he hadn’t ridden anything that steep for such a sustained distance in the Alps!

The top of Beacon Road as it arrives at the summit.
The top of Beacon Road as it arrives at the summit.


Not my video, but worth a look. An ascent of Ditchling Beacon shot in glorious HD with power,speed and altitude display!

The next feed station was at the bottom of the Beacon, and it had a handy map and profile of the route laid out on the table. A brief inspection showed that there was another hill that looked to be as steep as Ditchling at about 65 miles, and then a few more less demanding hills thereafter. We decided to save our strength for the next big climb, and set off at a reasonably leisurely pace into a strengthening wind and heavier rain. By this point, the field had really thinned out, so the riding was done without the aid of a group.


Ashdown Forest

The next 25 miles were easy cycling on lovely quiet roads, and we really did feel that we were riding through the best of hidden Sussex, but eventually we turned onto the B2026 and up the next big climb over the top of the High Weald and then onto the descent to Friars Gate through Ashdown Forest’s 500 Acre Wood – the Hundred Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. This was a long, relatively straight drag up through some rather lovely woodland, but didn’t turn out to be the leg-killing ascent we had expected and then we got to enjoy a series of long fast descents punctuated by a few short climbs and some lovely smooth tarmac into the third and final feed station in Hartfield. ( Interesting fact –  Ashdown Forest is home to former pro-cyclist and TDF yellow jersey wearer Sean Yates, who lives in Forest Row and trained in the area with Lance Armstrong….)

By this stage, I thought we had got over the worst and started to look at my stopwatch – a mistake I had sworn I wouldn’t make. The sun was now beating down, and we were looking forward to a fast run in on the last twenty two or so miles that I had calculated would get us in under the silver medal time I vaguely remembered being 6 hrs 55 minutes. We only needed to average 16mph – “should be easy!”.


The sting in the tail

This is where the course planners went to town on us. As soon as we left the feed station, they had found a short sharp shock of a hill to throw us up, followed by a two mile drag which seemed to go on forever. I distinctly remember looking at my Cat Eye and wondering why the odometer was going so slowly. A fast, steep descent through dark, sun-dappled forest roads eventually led to another short sharp climb – the kind you really think you might see yourself keeling over on at this stage in a ride – and then another two mile drag up into the Sussex stratosphere. With all the effort and time spent climbing I felt like I should have up at 10,000 feet not down at 600 or 700. And they just kept them coming – short and sharp followed by relentless low gradient torture. Even the descents were beginning to make my neck sore and shaking my bike to pieces on some of the uneven surfaces.

About 10 miles from the finish, my legs had decided that enough was enough. Quads and calves were cramping up on the climbs, and I had to warn my riding partner that if he stuck behind me he might well end up running me over when I collapsed off my bike. I must have looked like a crooked, bow-legged pensioner trying to walk up a flight of stairs as I fought to overcome the cramp and stay on my bike. Finally though, about four miles from home, the climbing gave way to one final, blessed descent to Ardingley college. As we rode through the finish line, a couple of dozen people lay sprawled on the grass recovering and we joined them, glad to be off the bike. Sadly, we missed a silver medaI by two minutes which we lost investigating a mechanical problem and a far too leisurely stop at the final feed station (that on it’s own cost us over two minutes). I felt pretty good once my legs realised they had nothing more to do, but the Howler still had a sting in its tail and I felt absolutely shot to bits in the car on the way home – lucky I wasn’t driving.

Overall, it’s a magnificent event. Great cycling, beautiful scenery, some challenging and varied terrain and the roads were incredibly quiet, even this close to London. As usual for a Wiggle event, it was very well organised apart from the seemingly ubiquitous queue for the loo before the start. The winning elements are the hills though – I’ve now got the bug, and need to ride more of them. We’ll be back with a crew next year.


Tips for riders.

  1. The first 75 miles are easy enough (except for Ditchling Beacon) – save enough energy for the last 25.
  2. Make sure your gear ratios are up to the job – there are some steep climbs.
  3. Check your brakes – you’ll need them to work properly.
  4. Non-climbers like me should probably lay off the pies for a while beforehand if you want to turn in a decent time.
  5. A not insignificant challenge – but one that will have you howling for more.

For a map, ride profile and to laugh at my strenuous efforts, have a look at Strava.

About the author

Ed Yorkshire-bred, 20 years in Scotland and now in Essex. Father, salesman, marketer, surfer, snowboarder, hill lover.

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