April 1, 2019

On Your Bike – Great Local Rides

As the days stretch out and balmy evenings beckon, now is the perfect time to get active and make the most of the open road right on your doorstep.

Cycling on Box Hill

Feel the cool breeze on your face as the world zips by in a blur. Ride through deep tunnels of arching trees, shafts of golden sunlight dappling the road in front. Maybe stop at a quaint little café for a cream tea (or a pub for a cheeky pint). There’s no doubting it: cycling outdoors is one of the most satisfying ways to connect with yourself and with nature. And it just so happens that Epsom and its surrounding areas boast some of the best spots to pedal your way to fitness.

For Brian Hill, general secretary of Epsom Cycling Club – established in 1891 and one of the oldest clubs in the UK – cycling in Surrey is synonymous with the Box Hill area of the Surrey Hills. Now an icon of British cycling after the London 2012 Olympics was beamed to millions of viewers around the world (the Box Hill circuit provided the gruelling section of the road race event, requiring the male riders to complete nine laps and the women riders two), it’s a good route for intermediate-to-advanced cyclists.

The Zig Zag road – comparable to Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps thanks to its switchbacks – climbs 120 metres over 1.6 miles from the Mole Gap to the National Trust visitor centre at the summit. Reach the top, and the route levels out to sweeping, panoramic views of the rolling Surrey countryside.

“The straight bits aren’t terribly steep, and you’ve got two hairpin bends and a right-angle bend near the top,” says Brian. “None of them are severe, but I should think by the ninth time those top Olympic riders were feeling it a bit! A lot of people, when they’re first beginning, often ride the Zig Zag road up Box Hill. If they live in the Epsom area, it’s about a 20-mile circuit to come from Epsom, round to Leatherhead, up Box Hill and through Headley and back.”

If you’re up for something a little more challenging and want your legs to feel the burn, Brian recommends Leith Hill, south of Box Hill and the highest point in the county. Featuring in the annual RideLondon-Surrey Classic, the bottom of the Leith Hill climbs at a steady 2% incline, before jumping up to 9%, and it doesn’t let up until you get to the top. It even reaches a not-to-be-sniffed-at 13% gradient at one point, which makes Box Hill’s 4.9% gradient pale in comparison.

“There are a lot of different ways up Leith Hill,” says Brian. “There’s a ride called the octopus, because there are eight different ways up. That’s one of the challenges that cyclists like to do.”

For something a little less, well, gruelling, there’s the Round the Borough Hike and Bike. A 20-mile loop designed for Epsom and Ewell’s yearly walk and cycle challenge, the route is open (and permanently marked with discs so you don’t get lost) all year round.

Starting in the lush green of Horton Country Park, the ride is a tour of all the scenic spaces that the borough has to offer; the Epsom Downs, Epsom Common Local Nature Reserve, Nonsuch Park and the Hogsmill nature reserve all feature. It’s the perfect route for a leisurely ride with the family – just be sure you have a bike that can handle trails and tracks; there are off-road sections aplenty. If you fancy making the ride more of a challenge, you can always have a go at the next Round the Borough Bike event. Taking place on Sunday 12th May, 2019, it’s free to register, and you’ll get a certificate for your efforts, too.

As for the mountain bikers, there are just as many options as the road riders have – if not more. Mostly located in the Surrey Hills, there’s a loose network of trails across the North Downs, Leith Hill, Pitch Hill, Holmbury Hill and Winterfold. You can easily link up these trails to form a loop, or choose to ride them separately.

Most of the mountain biking trails in the Surrey Hills aren’t officially sanctioned, so to get the most out of them, you’ll have to get adventurous and explore the area with your two wheels. After all, what is mountain biking if not adventurous? And if you fancy taking on the official trails on Pitch Hill and Holmbury Hill, just be sure you either have a GPS (or map if you’re that way inclined), or ride with someone who knows the area. If you’re new to mountain biking in the area, it might be best to start off with the only waymarked trail on Leith Hill.

Aptly called the Summer Lightning trail, the trail is an exhilarating 3.5km ride suitable for all levels. Starting at Leith Hill Tower, the Summer Lightning trail meanders through enough bumps, dips, berms, rocks, roots, climbs and downhill descents to keep even the most experienced rider happy – and all along a trail surrounded on all sides by majestic, towering trees and a dense carpet of bracken.

One thing’s clear: cycling’s never been more popular – and accessible – especially in Surrey. Whatever your age, ability or riding style, Epsom and its surrounding areas has you covered. And as the spring days lengthen and stretch out into summer, there’s no better time than now to jump on your bike, get out there and explore the county. So, what are you waiting for?

Epsom Cycling Club circa 1908
Members of the Epsom Cycling Club behind Epsom’s original High Street shops in 1908
Epsom Cycling Club during a ride in 2016
Epsom Cycling Club during a ride in 2016

Ian Hsieh

Top photograph
John Miller

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