Somewhere between being too sad and too busy, I have been unable to get myself out of bed and on the bike before 10 am in a long, long time. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with that in many ways, it wasn’t until I was finally up before the streets were lined with cars, that I remembered how amazing it could be, to spin the pedals on empty lanes.
I always used to be a morning person; functioning best while most of the world was still enjoying a peaceful slumber, and burning out before most of the world was enjoying its first cocktail. I would get up, go for a ride, or walk, before most people had breakfast, and I loved it. I cherished the feeling of stealing a moment to myself to enjoy the beauty of the world before anyone else.
In the past few years, all that has changed. In feeling exhausted and saddened by work, I let that part of my life go. Favouring the long, comforting, weekend lie-in with a book and a cuppa, clinging on to the peace of sleep and avoiding what had become the new Saturday routine of cleaning the house. While there’s nothing wrong with this, reading being a huge passion of mine, and houses needing to be cleaned, without realising, I had lost something I loved.
I hadn’t acknowledged this until last Saturday morning when I woke up at 6.30 am after a peaceful nine hours sleep (yes I fell asleep on Friday at 9.30 pm, don’t judge me). I went to roll over and close my eyes just like normal, and then something stopped me. I was suddenly struck by the lure of Ditchling Beacon. Which made no sense at all, because after the last time cycling up it I vowed I would never, ever do it again.
If you don’t know it, Ditchling Beacon is a short climb, at 0.9 miles, but pretty brutal, averaging 9%, but maximising at 16%. It’s hard work physically, but for me the problem had always been mental. The road is really narrow so if you get a car behind you it can’t overtake. And obviously if you’re me, going at a snails pace of around 4 mph, that can frustrate the car behind you a fair bit.
The first time I went up I crawled to the top knowing there was a long, long, long line of cars behind me and I was so stressed I nearly threw up . Going down doesn’t get much easier. I am no Nibali, I’m a nervous descender, and the epic (but exposing) views across Sussex rolling out in front of me give me the heeby jeebies. So I go slow, and again, annoy more drivers. Having said all that, it’s the best climb around and therefore I wanted to love it. But, after a few tries, the stress got to me and I called it quits.
On that Saturday morning though, something changed, I felt the lure of the hill and it seemed wrong to ignore it. I quietly snuck out of bed, fed the very confused cats who were clearly wondering what the hell was going on and why I was up so early on a Saturday, hopped on the bike and off I went.
Once again I was reminded that there’s something so magical about being up before everyone else. The quiet roads; being able to hear nothing but the spin of your wheels and your breath. The strange feeling hanging around in the air with the cooler temperature and softer light as the sun is emerging. The slightly different bird song and the odd fox skulking away from a night of rummaging through the bins back to its lair.
As soon as you’re no longer using all your senses to avoid being hit by cars, it’s so much easier to enjoy the world around you. I noticed every flower and every tree on that ride. Every detail of the road and my surroundings were somehow amplified, and I was ready for the Beacon.
I wasn’t completely alone, I did pass the odd cyclist (coming in the other direction, overtaking is a rare thing for me) and it struck me how peculiar it was that each of them said hello. Normally I ride along, smiling and saying hello to everyone I pass and get absolutely no response. But those that were up before seven it seemed were much friendlier. I even had a chat with a couple of them.
From the two veterans who had been riding together for years (one of whom’s chain came off right at the beginning of the climb) to the guy who sounded like he was dying coming up the final corner of the hill that smashed his pb by 13 seconds, everyone was lovely. It’s amazing how fulfilling these tiny interactions and brief moments of connection can be.
Unrewardingly the early morning fog meant there was no spectacular view at the top…
But weirdly it didn’t matter.
It was ethereal and beautiful.
I got up and down the hill with pain and suffering in the legs for sure, but none of the previous stress. My mind was free. The morning made me love the climb. Proving that sometimes it’s good to try something again, even if you’ve vowed not to, because you may just be pleasantly surprised.
As I rode home, somewhere between pondering breakfast and thinking about how beautiful flint walls are…
…I had time to ponder how much change I’d been experiencing recently and how although I was enjoying writing, I was struggling to get back to my book. I’d been hit by a new wave of inspiration and strangely had been thinking about writing fiction stories. Which is both great, and frustrating, as it would be nice to finish the book I started and put so much effort into. But I just hadn’t been feeling it at all. And every time I sat down to write I was always drawn to other things, and in turn beating myself up a little for this.
But that morning, with goosebumps on my arms from the fog, I felt like there was nothing I wanted to write about more than the freedom machine and those people who had built their lives around it. I was ready to go back to my laptop and the joy of sitting in weird places, pondering interviews with the giants and characters of cycling, trying to make sense and meaning of everything I learnt.
But first, I had to get home, and get some breakfast. I rolled in and before long was presented with a gloriously fatty cheese omelette sandwich (note Bigsby the cat’s expression of disdain at not being allowed to share)…
…And as the cheese oozed, I smiled gleefully, not only because cheese is life, but because I felt like after the past few year’s struggles, I was finding myself again. And if nothing else, even if I never wrote a book that would find its way onto bookshop shelves, at least I would always have the beacon.