First up, a confession: I have a bit of ‘previous’ with this ride – I had to abandon half way round last year after suffering from the ongoing effects of some poor meal choices on a trip to Cairo in the preceding days. Having just come back from a potentially equally debilitating trip to some of the more remote parts of Russia this week I was hoping that there would be no repeat of the repeating. Two DNF’s on the season’s traditional curtain-faller would be a very poor show and would leave me feeling gloomy for the whole winter. With this in mind I had steered well clear of some of the less recognisable local dishes and stuck to an old-school cyclist’s diet of steak, steak and more steak. Whatever else, the extra stone in weight I’d accumulated as a result should have helped my descending.
The Ride of The Falling Leaves, organised by the large South London cycling club Dulwich Paragon, takes place on the same day as the Race of The Falling Leaves in Lombardy. As the last official Monument of the season the Italian race is viewed by many as the end of the racing season and, as such, is imbued with a slight sense of melancholy that is in keeping with the backdrop of autumnal decline against which it is set. The route passes the famed Madonna de Ghisallo – the tiny chapel which has become a shrine to the both the sport of cycling and it’s fallen sportsman. Amongst the relics – ‘memorabilia’ seems far too crass a word – is the broken bicycle that Fabio Casartelli was riding at the time of his fatal crash in 1995. The sense of our own Mortality is ever present.
The feeling of the inevitability of the passage of Time’s is also present at it’s English homage with many riders seeing it as the natural point for the last outing of the Summer bike before stripping and storing for Winter. One last Hurrah before the thick clothes, lights and mudguards come out. Done differently, it could quite easily become a decidedly mournful affair.
Thank goodness then that the sun shone and the good people of Dulwich Paragon put on a well attended, excellently organised event that had more of an End of Term atmosphere that an End of an Era one. Nearly all the London clubs were represented at the Herne Hill starting point and the coffee and croissants, which were included in the entry fee, were being enjoyed by a lot of small groups of riders who were obviously just as content to catch up with people who they hadn’t seen for a while as they were to get going and hit the road.
Even when the chat was finally done there was the small matter of an official starting lap of the famous velodrome to negotiate before heading out into leafy Dulwich village for the start of the route South. A (very tiny) bit like Paris-Roubaix in reverse, we savoured the short run on the smooth surface of the outdoor track, knowing that, despite the good weather which was already gracing the day, all manner of ruts, mud and gravel awaited us further down the line. Having taken a spill on similar muddy, rutted, gravel-laden roads a couple of weeks ago I had already decided to forego the full 110km route and nurse my still sore body around the 80km route instead.
The ride out of the city follows the popular urban roads of Crystal Palace and West Wickham before the route begins to green and the leaves began to fall in earnest on the rise up Layhams and beyond. The well staged start and long departure window means that the riders are spaced out from the off and the numbers never got too overwhelming on the road. The long slog up to Woldingham was the busiest section as the pace of many dropped significantly, despite the shade of the trees.
My friend and I peeled off from the long route at the top of Gangers Lane and skirted the ridge above the M25 towards the top of Beddlestead Lane and eventually onto Pilgrims Way. Here the route really came into its own – the full sunshine lit up the browning horse chestnut trees and the golden straw bales which filled the rolling fields. With the harvest so obviously collected, it was quintessentially Autumnal and, having ridden these lanes most weeks since this time last year, it felt like a significant closure to reach this point again.
We met up with the long route again just before the feed stop in Westerham. Bananas and flapjacks were much in force along with a good-spirited team from Paragon who were, once again, perfect hosts. The flapjack proved especially potent for my friend who shot off in pursuit of a faster rider shortly after we restarted and I rode alone for a while contemplating the stillness of the day. It was still early and much of the route was done. Time to think ahead and look around.
It wasn’t until had I had done Christmas Tree Hill, Keston and reached the fringes of suburbia that I found my friend again. He was complaining of a rubbing back brake which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a broken spoke and a very buckled wheel. We tied up the spoke, loosened off the brake and coasted back into town. He headed straight home rather than completing the course and I felt a pang of guilt about not going with him. He had abandoned along with me last year to help me get back safely. His reappearance at the pub a couple of hours later along with my family helped ease my conscience.
No sooner had he gone than another familiar face shot past and I jumped onto his wheel to share the final 5 miles back to the finish. A close encounter with a left-turning people carrier a mile from the end nearly spoilt my day completely but the pasta and pint provided by the organisers at a sports club near where we started rescued my mood once more. I spent a lovely hour cooking myself in the sunshine, admiring some gorgeous-looking bikes and catching up with others who I had not seen for months – years in one case – before heading for the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village to meet my family and a couple of other riders who had done the longer route for the rest of a perfect Sunday out. I left another couple of hundred equally happy people sprawled out on the grass in front of the sports club. I suspect that many were there all afternoon..