Cyclo-sportive: Suffolk Rough Stuff
DISTANCE 10 miles (taster ride), 25/30 miles
MAIN CLIMB Pedlars Lane
TOTAL CLIMB Negligible
ACHTUNG! Deep sand, slippery corners and the red arrows marking the course
Modern day stereotyping probably wouldn’t place the CTC right at the cutting edge of cycling. But long before challenge rides had come into vogue and mountain bikes had showcased the recreational virtues of off-road riding, the Cyclists’ Touring Club were championing both these aspects of cycling — sometimes together.
“This event has been going for the last 50 years,” explained Paul Remblance, organiser of the Suffolk Rough Stuff ride. “It’s not always been put on at a level as formal as this, but it has been run every year in one form or another.”
The ride used to take place on the periphery of Ipswich, utilising everything from suburban lanes to public footpaths around fields. Sometimes it was a very low key event undertaken by just a handful of people, while in other years it was more organised and attracted a bigger field.
Then in 1987, the devastating October storms that swept across south-east England forced the event to up sticks. Much of the old route had become un-rideable and the annual off-road outing moved north-east to the forest and heathland beyond Woodbridge. Tucked away between the A12 trunk road and the unspoilt Suffolk coastline, the area is flat, minimally populated and characterised by sandy soils and big skies. The fact that it’s also criss-crossed with a myriad of legitimate off-road riding routes is something of a bonus.
Winds of change
“Really, it was good that the storms encouraged us to look elsewhere for the ride,” noted local CTC branch secretary Pete Whelan. “With the right of way issues that the mountain bike boom brought about, the course we used to use on footpaths would nowadays be unacceptable. Besides, most of it has probably been built upon.”
This year the event fell almost exactly 20 years after the storms but, considering it was mid-October, we really couldn’t have asked for a much nicer day. At the start outside Butley Village Hall, the sun was steadily rising somewhere over the North Sea and there was not a cloud in the crisp, blue sky.
I’d ridden this event last year with friends but, because of a family birthday engagement, had peeled off early. Even in this truncated form it was good end of season fun, so this year I wanted to enjoy it without compromise.
Combining the basic notion of a sportive — essentially getting around a set course within various time targets — with the thrills off-road riding, this year’s event had also appealed to a rich mix of many other riders.
Present in the field-cum-car park at the headquarters were cyclo-cross racers filling a gap in the local league calendar, hardcore mountain bikers out to enjoy some action close to home, roadmen who also had a fat-tyred bike in their shed and, of course, the original type of rough stuff rider: a cycle tourist or everyday leisure cyclist with a certain sense of adventure.
Setting off in small groups at five-minute intervals, we rolled away at 9.40am and were almost immediately riding on the dirt. A narrow little path led through a field filled with decrepit farm machinery before edging into Rendlesham Forest where much of the ride was based.
Next we took a bumpy cart track between the trees followed by a long stretch of dead straight lane. When a group appeared in front of us like a carrot on the horizon, we put down the hammer to catch them up.
After crossing a busier road, a wide, sandy track took us up to the perimeter fence of the old airbase of RAF Woodbridge. It was around here that one of the UK’s most famous UFO sightings is said to have taken place in 1980.
As we made our way along a narrow little trail beside the fence, the only funny business for our group was the laugh we were having mucking about among ourselves. We did sight one flying object but we quickly identified it as the bike of a rider in the group we’d caught who’d come off on a slippery corner.
Beyond the airbase and the traveller camp happily settled outside its gates, we moved onto another network of sandy bridleways and byways. Although the routes were usually wide and quite straight, the loose and sometimes deep surface added a technical element to the riding.
“In some senses you want it to rain for this ride,” observed Whelan. “If it’s really dry, the soft sand on the route can make it feel as though you’re trying to pedal through custard.”
As it was, the sand was bone dry and the best way to handle it was to sit far back in the saddle, take as much weight off the front wheel as possible and avoid making twitchy manoeuvres.
The first checkpoint of the ride came at eight miles and offered the option of an extra loop that would add on five miles to the standard distance of 25. This included some more tricky sand sections and a long, hard-packed driveway around the Sutton Hall farm estate before returning to the first control again.
There’s something wonderfully old-school about the techniques that the CTC employ to administer these rides. At the beginning, we’d all been issued with a route sheet — a whole A4 piece of paper choc-a-block with OS grid references and coded but precise instructions. “SO & CONT on TRK (SP Byway, FR S4)” may not make much sense at first glance but you soon get your head around the abbreviations. At each checkpoint we would stop and queue up to get the route sheet signed by marshals. These would then be handed in at the finish to verify that we’d completed the route and were deserving of our certificates.
Alongside the route sheet, the organisation had also thoughtfully scrawled big red arrows on the ground. Alas, this didn’t stop us getting lost in the depths of Rendlesham Forest.
Eventually we broke free and followed a bridleway around the edge of a field before rejoining another rare stretch of road back in the direction of Butley Low Corner.
This is where I’d called it a day last year, so the next section was all new to me. It took us along a long bridleway beside a field before dropping down to a back lane near to the start village. This wasn’t the end of the ride, though, and we had another loop to complete around Tunstall Forest, north of the village of Chillesford.
This loop started with what was probably the biggest climb of the day: the short, shallowly rising singletrack bridleway up Pedlar’s lane. It’s really not very hilly round these parts and the rest of the loop was flat, taking in the fire roads and singletrack paths round the forest. The ride then returned to the finish back down the narrow tree tunnel of Pedlar’s Lane where the mild thrill of the slight downhill was enhanced by the fact we were dodging other riders still coming up it.
Back at the HQ it was all tea and cakes out on the steps. Then, in the spirit of the touristy nature of the ride, we slipped round the corner to the local pub — time for lunch and a pint.
The ride starts at Butley, close to the Suffolk coast, due east of Woodbridge. From here it takes an anti-clockwise loop first west then south through Rendlesham Forest and around the western side of Woodbridge airbase to the first checkpoint.
Riders doing the longer distance then do an extra loop around Sutton and Shottisham before rejoining the 25-mile route north through the forest to return towards Chillesford. Hereafter the rest of the ride comprises another anti-clockwise loop around Tunstall Forest.
WANT TO RIDE IT?
Next year’s event takes place on Sunday, October 12 and will cost £3 to enter. See www.greenlivingcentre.org.uk/ctc for more details.
CW's Dummies' Guide to Cyclo-Sportives