- Distance 45 miles (72km)
- Climbing 1381m
- Grade Hard
- Maps OS Landranger 187 Dorking & Reigate
- Download the route here
Gravity, if you think about it, is responsible for most of cycling’s greatest moments. Without Newton’s law of universal gravitation there’d be no knee-buckling climbs and no eyeballs-out descents. Taking on Alpe d’Huez would be just like riding in Norfolk, only with better croissants. But while some get their kicks on the way down, to a purist like Simon Warren it’s going up which is really special.
“It’s the challenge,” he explains. “It’s you and your bike against nature. Climbs are where racers fight their biggest battles and prove themselves. It comes down to showing the hill who’s boss.”
You could say Simon is a connoisseur of climbs. In fact, as the author of eight books on the subject, you could say he’s obsessed by them. These eight books have been bought together in a compendium called Britain’s Greatest Cycling Climbs. Here you’ll find 545 of the toughest climbs from Cornwall to Scotland and everywhere in between!
We’re chatting over a pre-ride flapjack at Ryka’s Café at the foot of Box Hill in Surrey, about to test ourselves against some of the hardest climbs in the Surrey Hills. Not only has Simon devised a route showing some of the local highlights from his two books, we’ll also get a taste of the route used for the 2012 London Olympic road race.
Although the famous zig-zag climb of Box Hill is just a couple of hundred metres up the road, its great views and new super-smooth surface won’t feature until the second half of the ride. Instead, we jump across the A24 and head westwards through the village of Westhumble.
The first serious hill arrives when we swing left and head up Ranmore Common. “Norwood Paragon use this road for the club’s hill climb championship each year,” says Simon. He was the club’s hill climb champion a few years back, and as he gets out of the saddle and accelerates up the hill it’s clear we won’t be dawdling today.
“You should be seeing stars at this point,” he says, as the climb really ramps up for a hairpin bend close to the top. Simon stays to the outside of the left-hander – “it’s not as steep as on the inside” – and pushes on towards the top. We emerge from the cool of the trees into the sunlight and spin along the flat for a few hundred metres.
It’s not long before we trade in our hard-earned height for some high-end speed, dropping down into Dorking. We’re soon through the centre of the town, and back out into the countryside. What starts as a flat road gradually edges upward. Then Leith Hill proper begins with a sudden steep ramp. Our chains rattle across to find a more sympathetic sprocket, and Simon stands up again. It’s only the second hill of the day, but I already know this is an ominous sign.
Steep wooded banks hem us in on either side, making a tunnel of brown and green. It’s cool and quiet, except for the hum of our tyres and the rasp of our breathing. After a mile or so of grunting and grimacing, we crest the first summit and freewheel out of the trees. The road is soon climbing again, but it’s relatively straightforward from here to the pretty village of Coldharbour. There’s a good pub here that would be worth a stop if it were later in the day, but Simon is picking up the pace again.
A break in the trees reveals the South Downs in the distance. The road forks left and down the side of the hill, and we change into the big ring for some more formation flying. The road is narrow and twisty at first, opening up for a fast sweeping descent to the A29.
We’re only on the main road for a few hundred metres, turning right to head back towards Leith Hill. Another right-hander and we’re climbing again, this time heading up Leith Hill from the south. The road is wider and more open than our first approach up Coldharbour Lane. It steepens towards the top, though, so it pays not to dig too deep, too soon. Simon is ahead of me as usual, turning a big gear with ease. I’m twiddling away behind, grateful for my compact chainset.
We regroup at the top and enjoy the long, flowing descent down the other side. The brakes go on hard to make a left turn onto rolling roads to Holmbury St Mary. The road twists and turns, dips and climbs its way to the day’s next fast descent. We drop down Holmbury Road so fast I could swear my ears pop.
As we ride along Simon tells me about the next two climbs, Barhatch Lane and White Downs. I’ve ridden both before, and mutter something about how tough they are. “Cycling is about suffering,” he reminds me.
Suffering is definitely on the agenda if a ride includes Barhatch Lane, it’s a climb that needs to be approached with caution. The first part is manageable, and the first time you ride it a false summit tricks you into thinking you’re at the top. Then the really serious climbing starts. The road becomes a steep and belligerent grind. A sign at the side of the road warns of a 21 per cent gradient, and the last 100 metres or so feel all of that and more.
I’m shattered at the top, but the grin on Simon’s face says he would happily turn around and ride it again.
The next few miles take us on deserted lanes through Hurtwood to Peaslake. It’s one of the prettiest villages in Surrey, and looks especially good today with the bunting out for the Jubilee weekend. As far as I’m concerned it’s the law to stop for a bite and a cuppa from the village shop, but you can tell Simon is itching to get riding again.
We head downhill again, before cutting across on some lumpy lanes. The short, sharp climbs aren’t long enough to warrant a mention in one of Simon’s books, but as he says, “they still hurt”.
They’re mere speed bumps compared with White Downs, the next hill on Simon’s circuit. “One of my clubmates can’t believe I only gave it eight out of ten in my book. He says it’s worth ten out of ten every time!”
You need to love pain to give full marks to this stretch of tarmac. It’s not as steep as the steepest section of Barhatch Lane, or as long, but thanks to the unremittingly tough gradient, White Downs is almost as hard as its neighbour.
Simon is in his element. I dig in and hold on to the top. He must see that I’m struggling. “I’ve suffered up here many times,” he assures me.
On the Box
Good news – the toughest two climbs of the day are in the bag. The remaining hill is the day’s most famous and most scenic. We grab a big gear and fly along the top of Ranmore Common, then ride back down the day’s first climb. It’s a hoot to ride going the other way.
A few minutes later we turn right onto Box Hill. Tackled nine times in the Olympics, we’re only riding it once, but with so many tough climbs in the legs, that should be enough.
For most of the ride we’ve only seen one or two other cyclists, but on Box Hill bikes seem to outnumber cars. Simon opens up a gap at the top – probably to discourage me from stopping again at the cafe – and we loop around to Headley and down towards Leatherhead. My legs almost shut up shop, but I find the energy to hold Simon’s wheel for a final blast around the A24 and through Mickleham back to Ryka’s.
Having given thanks for gravity, we stop to chat for a while about publishing, bikes and the day’s hills. I don’t mention it, but I’ve enjoyed going down as much as going up. For Simon, though, it’s all about the climbs.
Boxhill & Westhumble Station is on the route, but Dorking’s three stations are also very close.
Food and drink
Ryka’s Café at the foot of Box Hill, and the National Trust cafe at the top. Peaslake Village Stores is a good spot to restock; and you’ll pass a number of pubs en route.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels, B&Bs and campsites in the Surrey Hills. www.visitsurrey.com/accommodation
Local Bike Shops
Images: Geoff Waugh
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Looking for a bike to help get you up Surrey’s (on any other lumpy county’s) climbs? Then check out BikeRadar’s guide to climbing bikes.