Saturday, 25 May 2013

Up the Palace

On Wednesday evening I decided to take advantage of the vaguely summery weather with a ride up to Crystal Palace after work. Ostensibly this was with the intention of doing a few hill reps as I have now started following the RideLondon-Surrey 100 training plan, but really it was just an excuse to loosen up the old legs after my London Revolution epic and remind myself why I love cycling in the first place, the sense of freedom, independence and adventure, the freedom to explore wherever the road may lead. 

Important to throw a few fun rides into any training schedule for psychological reasons, a reminder that not every bike ride has to be A BIKE RIDE. No carbon fibre, Lycra, no gels, no Garmin or heart rate monitor - just my trusty bright orange Condor Fratello, a bit of merino wool, a bidon of water and enough loose change for an ale if I the mood grabbed me, which it often does.

Originally I'd planned to ride up via Brixton and Herne Hill to explore some of the little climbs around Crystal Palace, roads I know fairly well from Dulwich Paragon days. The climb up from Herne Hill to the foot of the famous BBC transmitter on Sydenham Hill is one I have used for training before - it is plagued by the usual London issues of traffic lights, roundabouts and bus drivers but is pleasantly leafy and gradual with a bit of sting in the tail near the top.

Keeping things very gentle (this was supposed to be a Z1 ride), I spun up Croxted Road past the velodrome and then up Dulwich Wood Avenue. Have to say that my legs felt bloody fantastic after their 180-mile weekend - the Condor is no lightweight and sometimes I find it a bit of a shock to the system after the superlight Focus but this time it just felt brilliant, my legs powering up the inclines without any complaint, the steel frame absorbing chatter from London's rutted roads. It also felt good to be riding a bike with Campag again (the Focus is a Shimano rig), perhaps it's just the placebo effect of the famous 'winged wheel' logo and all that illustrious history but even the bargain-basement Xenon/Laser mix on the Condor always feels silky smooth even after Ultegra.

I then did a lap up the steeper College Hill, a climb that used to have me panting slightly back in the day but which felt pretty much flat after some of the London Revolution climbs. It was a really lovely evening, almost balmy by the parlous standards of spring 2013, so rather than punish myself with any more climbs I decided to have an explore around Crystal Palace Park. I have ridden past this place more times than I care to remember - most recently on Sunday as the sportive came back into town from Kent but also many times on club rides, often swearing at traffic near the top of deceptively-steep Anerley Hill - but for some unknown reason, I had never bothered to stop and have a poke around the park itself.

All I can say is that I wish I'd bothered sooner. It is a really interesting and pretty little place, full of random historical artefacts and with some stunning views deep into rural Kent. Obviously most people know about the transmitter, you can see it from pretty much anywhere in London and its elegant design is underrated, sometimes compared with the Eiffel Tower although to me it conjours up images of a Saturn V rocket arrowing towards the heavens. The National Sports Centre stadium is also well know for hosting Grand Prix athletics events and the like - there must have been some kind of track and field meet happening on Wednesday night as the floodlights were on. Most people also know how what was once just a quiet corner of Sydenham and Penge gained its modern name after Joseph Paxton's monumental Crystal Palace was moved here from Hyde Park in 1854 after wowing the crowds at the Great Exhibition of 1851, pretty much the zenith of Victorian pomp and bombast. Fewer people realise that the Palace re-erected in the suburbs was almost completely different to look at from the original version, being far more in keeping with the emerging Beaux-arts fashion of the time. Either way, it must have been an impressive sight sitting atop the hill, as this old photo demonstrates. Sadly it wasn't to be a permanent addition to the SE London skyline as following a long decline into disrepair the Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936. Over 100,000 people came to Sydenham Hill to witness a conflagration visible across eight counties. These spectators included a certain Winston Churchill who said afterwards that, "This is the end of an age," implying that he regarded the Palace's destruction as some kind of belated funeral pyre for the Victorian age. Incidentally, television pioneer John Logie Baird had also been using part of the building for his early experiments in transmission and much of his research literally went up in smoke along with the Palace itself. Just think - if it wasn't for the Crystal Palace fire, we may have been enjoying HD TV for ten years now...

There is very little left of the Palace nowadays although one small section of ironwork remains to give a vague indication of how it would have looked. The park is full of lots of other interesting things, though, from sphinxes to the famous dinosaur sculptures that predated the Natural History Museum. Crystal Palace Park also has a history of motor racing, sections of armco are still in place and today the circuit is used occasionally for criterium races. I must say it was great fun to have the little track to myself the other night, the surface is billiard-smooth and there are some nice little hills and hairpins so a good place to practice bike handling. Half-tempted to enter one of the races if I get fit enough one day as it feels like a relatively relaxed environment in which to try crit racing. 

Another thing that caught my eye was the strikingly modern concert stage, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects in 1996. This has an amazing monolithic quality to it, the rusted steel contrasting beautifully with the lake and surrounding parkland to create a decidedly Zen-like, almost Japanese feel in the middle of SE London. I would love to see a performance there one day and bet it looks even more beautiful in autumn as the leaves start to turn.

After a few laps of the park I turned for home, the increasingly-chilly dusk air requiring gilet to be zipped right up. I never did go for that beer but it was still a lovely ride and proof you don't need to go far from home to feel like you've been on a little adventure. And you definitely don't need to be wearing Lycra.

(PS: Realise I've managed to make a gentle 1.5 hour bike ride feel like a right epic by rambling on so apologies for that. I am now off to Wales for a few days to celebrate my uncle's wedding but am taking the Condor with me and hope to enjoy a few more rides around the beautiful Gower Peninsula. Tempting though it is to prolong my post-Revolution cutback week indefinitely, I need to keep some miles in the legs for Dolomites. Not long to go now!)

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