Gravel Culture: Not the North Downs

Posted By Gravel Union On 5 October 2021

The south of England. Flat. Polluted. Busy. Expensive. Boring. Right? Wrong! Despite being in sight of the UK’s capital city, Surrey is home to some of the finest gravel riding in the UK. Olly heads south to explore his old stomping grounds.

“Do you fancy riding Handbag or Commuter first” said Matt, with a big grin on his face. In some bits of the world, locals give names to their trails. There’s some good logic to this – instead of saying “Do you fancy riding the trail through the woods, which is a bit rooty and twisty and has a steep drop towards the end?”, you can just say “Commuter?” and all your friends will know which trail you’re talking about.
Here in the UK, the trail naming culture has taken off in some places, but it’s not universal and many of the trails have been named by local riders rather than anything official. It means that one set of riders will call a certain trail by their pet-name for it, but a different group, riding the same trail, will call it something totally different.
Anyhow, back to my difficult quandary – Handbag or Commuter? There is no wrong answer to that question! Neither of them are ‘typical’ gravel riding trails – both are twisty, rooty, swoopy and fast. In places they are narrow enough that both your shoulders brush past rhododendrons bushes at the same. Both are challenging, albeit in a good way, on a gravel bike.
I was cheating somewhat by riding my monstercross bike, but Matt was on a genuine gravel bike with 45mm tyres fitted. We played a high-speed game of follow-the-leader. Our tyres scrabbled for grip in the bone-dry conditions, forearms pumped up with the challenge of holding on over the roots and steering a smooth course on the sinuous trail. We got to the bottom grinning like small children in a sweety shop.
“I had forgotten how ridiculously fun that trail is” was the first sentence I uttered once I had regained my composure. “Well, you discovered it, so it’s a good job you still enjoy riding it” replied Matt. I was fortunate enough to have lived in Surrey for nearly 10 years and with a small band of fellow trail addicts, we explored every single bit of rideable trail within quite a significant radius. We knew which trails ran best at what time of year. We knew the hazards to watch for. We knew about the sneaky climbs that got steeper as you went up. The bits that never dried out. Where the cheeky overtaking lines were. And, most importantly, where the best mid-ride cafes were.
Because the trails were very similar looking, we gave them names. Handbag – because we discovered an abandoned shiny gold painted handbag at the very start of the trail the first time we rode it. Commuter, because I discovered it on my way back from work one evening. Some names were super obvious – “Top-to-bottom” or “The only rock in Surrey” for example. Some were slightly more esoteric “Coronation Street” and “Muffin Top” probably had sensible reasons behind their nomenclature, but they are forever lost in the mists of time. None of these trails are archetypal gravel trails, but the smooth/flowy nature of the surface and the lack of anything too extreme meant they were ideally suited for riding on dropbar bikes. Initially we used CX bikes (in an era pre-gravel) and then moved to proper gravel bikes. I hadn’t ridden these trails since I put my monstercross bike together, so I was super keen to see how it (and I) faired.
“You’ll wish you had a dropper post” for this, said Matt, with a slightly worrying sounding tone to his voice. “It’s steep enough that I can’t always get around it” We were standing looking at a very short section of homemade trail that some locals had carved out of the loamy soil. It was no more than about 200m in length, was decently steep (around 15-20% I guess) and had two 180degree hairpins just at the steepest part.
We had deviated off our route to go and have a look at this bit, as Matt knew I had some weird addiction to trying to ride steep and twisty trails on an inappropriate bike. You had to push your bike up the hill to reach the start and it was all over in about 30 seconds. With quite a dollop of luck I managed to get my weight back far enough to not tip over the bars and rolled around the hairpins on my first attempt. I didn’t ride it perfectly, but it made it down without making a fool of myself.
To any southern-based UK MTB riders, the North Downs are like mecca. A vast network of trails of all stripes and flavours covers the area. If you go on a sunny Sunday you can get thousands of cyclists riding there, both road riding and trail riding. To the south of London, from a geological point of view, is a range of hills comprising a mix of chalk, clay-with-flints and sand. They extend roughly 160kms in length and reach a slightly-underwhelming 270m in altitude at their highest point. The most famous bits (from a cycling perspective) is arguably centred on the tiny village of Peaslake and at weekends it’s rammed with cyclists. Which is exactly why we chose to go to the Not-the-North-Downs instead.
Matt and I had used our local knowledge and we were riding nearly 50kms to the east of the more famous areas. We had roughly centred our ride around the picturesque village of Westerham, which was where we had our lunch. We were still in the North Downs, it’s just that we’d chosen to ride away from the masses. We rode for around 7 hours and probably met a handful of riders off-road in total. There were a lot of road riders in Westerham enjoying the sunshine and the local cafes, but once in the woods, we had the whole place to ourselves.
I’d asked Matt to plan a route that took in a wide range of riding – some singletrack, some vehicle width tracks, some woodland trails, some heathland riding. He did an unbelievable job of tying it all together and making a route that not only flowed perfectly, but which had constant variation to keep us entertained and stop us getting too fatigued.
Matt’s route started as he meant to go on. A tiny amount of warm up on some urban trails near his house followed by an insanely steep climb up to a viewpoint. He kindly let me go first “as I had better climbing gears”, but this lulled me into a false sense of security. I flew up the first section (despite having cold legs and lungs), but as the gradient ramped ever steeper, I soon regretted my early bravado.
At the very top was the crux move – a large, partially buried, ceramic pipe crossed the trail at an obtuse angle and the surface of the trail itself was littered with fist-sized chunks of flint. Anyone sensible would have just got off at this point, but who said anything about being sensible! We both ‘cleaned’ it but the shock to body and mind of doing something so hard right at the start of our ride was hard to underestimate. It took me a good 5 minutes before I got my jelly legs to calm down and my heart rate under control again.
Luckily, the joy of the North Downs is that you can make it as hard or as gentle as you like. You can ride all day on smooth, flowy trails and gain/lose height gently, or you can do what we did and basically go up and down every single steep climb and fun descent that we knew. Our total route was only just over 70kms, but probably 90% of that was off-road and we shoehorned in nearly 1500m of climbing.
Towards the end of the afternoon we came across a large wooden sign, painted black and with an extremely large royal crest prominently displayed in the center. This sign marks the official southern boundary of the City of London. When you generally think of a city with an estimated population of 9.5 million people, you would perhaps be more likely to think of concrete, high-rise buildings and traffic jams, but here we were riding through a patch of broadleaf woodland, enveloped by the sights and sounds of nature.
The City of London signboard summed up to me everything that is great about riding a gravel bike. Nominally we were riding within the boundaries of one of Europe’s biggest cities, but by linking together a mix of trails and short stretches of urban riding, we’d managed to escape the hordes and have a superb day on the bikes. You really wouldn’t have thought of looking inside a city for world class gravel bike riding, but that’s exactly what we’d found.
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