MY wet shammy was surely heavier than my bike; I had guesses to what weight I would be at the end. Water was rushing down into my gloves and squirting out the fingertips, almost like a built-in water pistol.



While it’s funny to think of now I’m home and dry, the humor-meter was set to whining. Wishing for the end isn’t a happy thought in this sportive though.



It’s not the start that everyone is talking about when they mention the Le Puncheur, it is the finish – at the top of Ditchling Beacon. After 69 miles this is a brute and on everyone’s mind as they pedal their way through the West Sussex countryside.



Torrential downpours forecast for the day didn’t deter 225 of 400
pre-registered riders who made this their first sportive of 2012. Le
Puncheur is famed for being a good blow-out of the legs before the race
season starts, thanks to its rolling roads, draggy climbs and
fast-flowing lanes. This is the sportive where you find out whether all
the winter turbo sessions have paid off, and what needs to be tuned
before racing begins.





The slow race gets serious as the gradient steepens



So, when driving to the start, wipers on full speed, with text messages coming though from friends organising a group turbo session, I did wonder why I was trying to start the season in a weather bomb. Route changes had been communicated out during the week due to roadworks, and I was preying organiser Morgan Lewis had made it shorter as a result.





Mist opportunity: A lone breakaway sees his chance



The Infinity Food breakfast on offer helped whittle away several more minutes in hope for a break in the weather. When the relentlessness didn’t ease and I couldn’t go for yet another ‘final’ loo break, there was no more hiding; only riding.



The route, designed by Lewis, was a great showcase of the area; heading north towards Horsham through flowing lanes before coming back through the Ashdown Forest, a section used in the 2007 Tour de France. The route was kept simple with few turns meaning you could get in a great rhythm, stick with a group and drag each other past the white historic signposts and the daffodils poking their heads out.



Although rivers flowed down the road and rain at times splashed so hard it was bouncing off the road, there was little debris and few potholes to avoid. Imposing churches loomed as vistas materialised through the haze one by one. Balcombe Viaduct popped out of the rain, an impressive reminder of the industrial revolution.





Wet wet wet: Three soggy sportivistes ride in harmony



Heading through Sharpthore and across the A22 the route was beginning to turn and head back through the Ashdown Forest. A hidden gem, this area is home to fictional Hundred Acre Wood – residence of Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore and Pooh comments flowed as the moral slackened without the rain following suit.



Much like a cold bath after a hard session, you know you have to do it but it isn’t pleasurable. Ditchling Beacon was my cold bath. Sodden riders trudged to the top like kayaking upstream, it just wasn’t pleasant. What goes up must come down and the shaking bodies zooming back down having finished was not a motivating sight. A mile of twisting road and false summits transport you up and up. After 60 miles it feels like Alpe d’Huez has been relocated to the South Downs. Today we were not even greeted with a view to the sea yet thankful the course was four miles shorter.

Once back in the hall Morgan and his family were on duty to feed sodden riders fresh cooked pasta (thanks Sarah), hot drinks and more Infinity Food snacks. Blankets and massage were on offer. The heaters were cranked up high and it wasn’t long before the shaking bodies and raw throats from the cold were telling stories of water riding to steam up the windows. The communal meal was a great way to keep everyone together and make new friends. Then there was just one final hurdle – loading up the car in the pouring rain for the drive home.





Carrying speed into the climbs



Sportive sound bites

Name: Josh Fanner

Age: 14

From: Burgess Hill

I found it tough due to the weather conditions and the spray from people in front. It was certainly character-building. I am part of Preston Park, which the organiser is involved in. We had a shortened route for club members only. I started cycling in May last year and love it. I didn’t find Ditchling Beacon too hard as I am good in the hills. A bit of fatigue did kick in half way up.



Name: Alan Butler

Age: 37

From: Brighton

Good day. It was the first time I rode it, Morgan has done well to link the best parts of Sussex. I did it as training for a bigger trip I am doing in April where I am riding a race route from the Fifties. Thirteen days and 1,300 miles to raise money for diabetes in memory of my dad. I didn’t find Ditchling Beacon too much of a problem and rode another 25 miles after. Weather-wise I just had to ride. I thought if I can’t ride in the rain on my doorstep then how will I get on in Poland?





This one really is a puncheur



Anything you can do, I can do better

Puncheur organiser Morgan Lewis comes to the sportive world as a passionate rider. He spent years riding sportives throughout the UK, each one ranging from very good to not so good. He took a look at the range and thought he had cracked the formula to what makes a good sportive.

Unengaged in his day job Lewis wanted to prove to himself that his sportive judgment was correct. He decided to let his creative talent loose, put his criteria to the test and La Puncheur was born. Four years on the event is kept to 400 riders and described as “grass-roots but classy”.

Lewis has added another dimension by providing a shorter route for the riders of Preston Park Youth Cycling (PPYC). The 45 miles option was out to the first feed station and then a direct route back to base.



PPYC meet at one of the world’s oldest tracks, Preston Park in Brighton. The club is growing and Lewis wants to show his support to the local club. They are showing their class too, recently producing Felix English who has signed for the Rapha team this year.





Riders push on in the wet weather



What’s so special… Ditchling Beacon

AT 248m Ditchling Beacon is the third highest point on the South Downs. It towers behind Brighton and is the point at which all children yell out on sighting the sea to get their ice-cream. The climb averages seven per cent for its one mile, with the occasional ramp up to 12 per cent. The hill was an iron age fortress and is now a National Trust area with many walks, talks and activities throughout the year. The main sporting highlight is when the London to Brighton charity ride sends all 30,000 riders up the hill and then down the four kilometres into Brighton to the finish.



Stats

Fourth year running

A ‘Puncheur’ is a tactically Savvy rider with an explosive kick



Map and elevation can be found here Le Puncheur details