South Downs Way Challenge

IMG_0002The view from the downs – basically imagine riding down to the valley bottom and back to the top and repeating for the rest of the day. That just about sums it up. 

Hard to believe as I write this that about half way into yesterdays ride I was thinking that I had it all under control and was looking forward to reporting a quicker than expected time with an early train home in time for dinner. It even crossed my mind that writing it up afterwards would be a rather dull read populated with nothing more than some scenic photographs to make it a bit more interesting. But I suppose I should have known better than that and not for nothing is this known as the toughest off-road ride in the UK. To put it into context, it’s something usually undertaken over three days with the help of a number of nice pubs and bottles of wine to erase the memory of the soreness of the day before. Doing it in a day requires a certain amount of pig headedness and an ability to look no further ahead than the next gatepost (more of that later).

So to try and keep a sense of chronology about the whole thing, I woke up at 4:45am on Tuesday, and cycled over to Clapham Junction after an Alan Wells-esque portion of porridge to catch a 5:37am train to Winchester. On arriving in Winchester I ignored my first omen when, bending down to tie up a shoe lace, my new iPhone fell out of my jacket pocket and promptly smashed its screen on the pavement in front of me. Fortunately, whilst it’s not exactly sleek to look at anymore it does still function so no real harm done. At 06:50 I set off from the traditional starting point of the King Alfred statue in Winchester feeling confident and as I made my way along the route that I’d already ridden back in February in the earliest of the morning sunshine everything was looking good. Despite the early climbing (about 4,100 feet in the first 34 miles) I was riding within myself making sure I stopped every hour for food and drink and rest. Early pace was good – around 19 km/h and the route was dry so that it was virtually unrecognisable to the mire I’d slogged through in February.

Following the route at this point was pretty straight forward, partly because I’d ridden the first 20 miles before and knew where to go and partly because at the Winchester half they mark it out exceptionally well with footpath signs that are hard to miss. However, something else that was hard to miss was the rising temperature – with a light breeze and azure skies this was the most alien of riding environments which was presenting some unique challenges. Firstly, staying hydrated and secondly not getting too sunburned. Call me cautious but I did actually slap a bit of suncream on my face and arms as I got dressed in the dark before 5am but sitting here with the benefit of hindsight …. I missed the odd patch! But this was small beer in the grand scheme of things – the ground was dry, the sun was out, the breeze was on my back and I had the entire South Downs virtually to myself at this point. And then I ran out of water as I topped up my bottle from my camelback reserve.


The crowd go wild. Got any water?

That was mildly alarming but the boy scout in me figured out that with some deft handwork you could actually persuade a passing drinking trough to fill up into your bottle by holding it right under the inflow as you push down on the float. The trick is not to let the green stuff in at the same time as the trough overflows into your bottle. But it’s a good get out of jail card, so it was understandable that the boy scout in me sulked a little as we came across a public drinking tap half a mile down the road to replenish the reserves properly (and much more quickly).

Other than that I think it’s fair to say that the first half was pretty uneventful. The riding was hard and it was hard to really appreciate the downhill sections when you knew that you had to repay every foot of descent with an equivalent climb in the very near future. But downhill sections were thrilling nonetheless not least because they felt like ‘free’ yards and the key to going quickly on a course (I learned from motorcycle racing) is to do the fast bits fast and let the slow bits take care of themselves. All good theory but somewhat harder to put into practice as you barrel down a dry chalky stream bed trying look out for rocks and potholes while the vibrations make your eyesight blurry – Paris Roubaix was good training in more ways than one! In case you’re interested, top speed for the day was 61 km/h if you can trust a Garmin.


The view from the lunch table.

So in the best football parlance it was a game of two halves really with half-time at the 80 km mark spent in the company of some cows on a river bank while finishing off the last of the sandwiches and yet another energy bar. But time was still good and despite setting myself a budget of 13 hours for the ride I must admit to letting myself start to think that I could get well inside that even though I knew that the second half is considered to be a bit tougher than the first. However, the subject of gates was starting to annoy me.


A gate. Or progress interruption device depending on your point of view. Note the rare sighting of a South Downs Way marker in blue! 

This picture may look to you like an ordinary gate, quite unassuming and a perfectly sensible way to enter and exit a field. After 50 miles of them though, they take on a more sinister visage altogether. There are (I’m told) about 100 gates on the South Downs Way although that seems like a wild underestimation to me. Each of these gates is it seems, for reasons which are probably perfectly logical to your local farmer, are placed at the bottom of every descent or generally at any point where you might feel that you were starting to build some momentum that could ease the effort of turning the wheels over the miles stretched ahead of you. So every climb comes from a standing start which is often easier said than done with clip-on pedals and shoes. And quite apart from the time lost slowing down and getting back up to speed consider the monotonous routine of the common or garden gate. You pull up to it and reach forward because putting your bike down is too much effort – you try to solve the puzzle of the locking mechanism which is invariably stiff and placed so as to be as hard as possible for someone straddling a bike to reach. You get the gate open. You shuffle through and then let the gate swing shut. It closes. It hasn’t locked properly. Reach back and try and slam the gate shut again until finally you turn your attention to the slope staring down at you. How long does all that faffing about take? Then multiply that by 100. I reckon I spent nearly an hour yesterday opening and closing a gate!

The issue of gate physics aside, I would say that I was more or less on top of things all the way to Ditchling Beacon just outside Brighton where, after treating myself to the largest Mr Whippy they could come up with I was met by my Mum and Dad who, bless them, turned up laden with cold water (luxury) and ham baguettes. So it was with a spring in my step that I set forth on the final leg which, according to my satnav was only about 34 km from the finish. In my mind, I made the mistake of putting Brighton and Eastbourne as being virtually next door to each other in my mental map of the South Coast. Not so much as it turns out.

From this point on a few things started to conspire against me. Chief among which was an increasingly annoying ‘granny ring’. Unless you are a mountain biker that’s not what you’re thinking! There are three varying sized cogs on the front of a mountain bike mechanism by the pedals and 10 cogs on the rear wheel itself. 30 gears in total. The granny ring is the smallest of these front cogs and is best thought of as your 4 wheel drive, diff-locked Land Rover in the first couple of gears. It’s your climbing gear which only really comes out on the steepest of climbs. Unless you’re riding the South Downs Way in which case it comes out about every 5 minutes. For reasons which I still don’t really understand it was becoming more and more unreliable in that every time I tried to engage this cog the chain would slip over the (no idea what the technical term is … bottom stay?) of the rear sub-frame where it would immediately wedge/ lock itself as you tried to turn the gear. Result? Instant loss of forward momentum, a rapid dismount, some swearing and the liberal application of brute force to free it again. I’ve subsequently learned that this is a phenomenon called ‘Chain Suck’ where the chain is not released at the bottom of the front ring but instead starts to go back uphill so to speak where it promptly gets wedged as per the picture below. For anyone coming across this who has encountered similar problems there is a load of information on google but bottom line you need a new granny ring and probably a new chain. Taking a bottle of chain lube in my pack would also have been a good idea with hindsight and might have put the problem off at least until the end of the ride.


The final straw – a photo of the wedged chain taken as I sat on my backside.

Eventually, after not managing to dismount and simply falling backwards back down the hill I gave up on it altogether. I was now tackling the sting in the tail without my low gears. On a shorter ride you could probably tough it out in the higher gears but with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing already inside them my legs weren’t feeling tough at all! As a consequence of this I found myself having to walk/ push up the remaining steep sections which consumes a lot of both time and energy as well as being generally demoralising mentally.

The second, and more significant development, was the satnav system. I had borrowed this from Jake so as to free up my phone battery for emergencies and also because it enabled you to plot a route in advance and follow it. Peering once again through my powerful hindsight goggles it would have been a good idea to get fully familiar with the kit before the ride. It turns out that this thing could do an awful lot besides just follow a route and there was a certain amount of on the job training going on as to how exactly I even managed to do that. But by and large it kept it’s end of the deal – it would let you know if you were straying off course which happened from time to time but it kept me from making any serious errors and definitely saved my bacon a number of times from going off-piste. And then it ran out of battery. Well, that’s not good I thought to myself in the sort of over-confident understatement that any good explorer might use (I must have been tired – the narcissistic hallucinations had already begun.) It was especially ‘not good’ because the Garmin’s dying words to me just before it died for good were ‘off-route’ in extra large letters before, like Leonardo DiCaprio slipping below the waves at the end of Titanic, it was gone for good. Not a problem though because I just needed to pick up the signs for the SDW and follow them like a trail of fairy tale breadcrumbs to Eastbourne which I could still easily make in daylight hours. Now I think about, the breadcrumb idea didn’t work out too well for Hansel & Gretel either.

Finding the trail didn’t take too long – the Garmin had shown me I was close before it jumped ship – but holding onto that gossamer thread of a route with no electronic help was another thing entirely. Let me try and explain why. The SDW is not, as I had naively supposed, a long chalky ribbon snaking in a more or less straight line across the spine of the South Downs joining points A and B. Turns out that it gets a bit more complicated than that. Firstly there are any number of symbols you are trying to look out for – mostly though it revolves around an acorn on a blue background about the size of your palm fixed to a piece of wood. Unless it’s a blue arrow on a wooden background which denotes that you’re on a bridleway – which is good because as a biker you have to stay on bridleways – unless it’s a different bridleway. And don’t lose concentration and blindly follow the path or some other bike tracks either in the mistaken belief that the SDW surely wouldn’t turn sharp right in front of a gate, or even double back on itself for no discernible reason … because it surely does. The first you’ll know of this (if you don’t have a Satnav reminding you that you’ve strayed ‘off route’) is when you reach a fence at the bottom of a slope (it’s always the bottom … ) without any markings on it whatsoever. So you’re pretty sure you’ve gone wrong and that means riding back up the slope back to the last gate that you thought you should’ve gone through. More sapping of the morale that thought it was on the last leg of the journey.


A long chalky ribbon. But is it the RIGHT chalky ribbon?!

One particular case to try and over-emphasise the point. I was approaching yet another gate on a chalky path, much like any of the other gates I’ve passed through – only now I’m having to be extra careful not to lose the route. The path looks to be better worn turning 90 degrees right and there is no badge whatsoever to suggest you should pass through the gate. There is however a badge on the other side of the gatepost directing people in the direction you’ve just come. Does that mean you should pass through the gate or is it just directing people coming from the other direction towards the SDW that you’ve just been riding on? You could either turn right, which looks like it might go downhill (hmmm downhill ….. tempting) or slog onwards though the gate until you come to another gate which may or may not have a badge on it. As I mentioned before, there’s rather a lot of these gates – on the final stretch some have badges and signs and some don’t. It is incredibly easy to get thrown off the route particularly if you pick up the wrong bridleway sign. (The answer by the way is that you should have gone straight on through the gate but as you get more and more tired it becomes harder and harder to apply sensible logic and reasoning … as if that might help!).

So by now you can see where this is heading. After passing a SDW sign that said 6 miles to Alfriston (the start of the final push) I became misled and at the bottom of a glorious descent that must have gone on for a mile I was confronted by two blue arrows pointing in different directions- neither of which mentioned the SDW (but remember that doesn’t mean that they’re not!) From the bottom of my valley, the sun has dropped over the horizon and the wind which has been freshening is now cold. Retracing my steps didn’t enter my mind for a second because of the length of the climb involved and because I felt I might still be on the right route. I checked my Apple maps on my phone. As expected, it helpfully confirmed I was somewhere surrounded by a sea of green. Zooming out though did at least give me a general bearing on the direction of Alfriston from where I knew I could pick up the SDW again and surely, it couldn’t be far from there to the finish. The drama played out here where, after crossing Seaford golf course, I ended up on the edge of Seaford from where I was able to pick up the Alfriston Road north to the village of Alfriston. A little lesson learned (again with the powers of logic slowly returning to my mind some 24 hours later) is that if you zoom in on google maps enough (assuming you get a 3G connection) you can actually see the SDW route marked on it. Apple maps doesn’t. I’ve had a little weep on finding that out as I searched for the last link and I’m all better now, thanks for asking. So I high tailed it north in something of a race against time because it was getting dusky to say the least and I didn’t have any road lights with me. A couple out on their road bikes seemed mildly surprised as I climbed past them on my chunky tired steed. I think the lack of lights and sheer bloody mindedness that no was was I going to come back and repeat this was the only thing that stopped me from turning right and riding to Eastbourne on the road. Long story short – those 6 miles to Alfriston took me around 3 hours and added I don’t know what to the climb and mileage total (and never will since the Garmin gave up the ghost with 20 miles to go).

But, accentuating the positives at this point – we’re back on the right track, its light (just) and the finish is surely around the next corner. The climb out of Alfriston is, I would say, the last big challenge of the route. It’s steep-ish, although perhaps not in the context of some of the stuff already tackled that day, but my God it’s long and it’s unrelenting. It goes on and on. And then on a bit more. It was probably just as well that I set to it without appreciating the full extent of what lay ahead. A fresh pair of legs would be able to cope with it reasonably well but by this stage of the ‘game’ I really was soaking up the last of my energy reserves. I got into as low a gear as I could (middle cog by now) and just tried to take it steady. Stand in the pedals, sit down, stand, sit and so on and so on. Around half way up I stopped to take this picture as it dawned on me that I really did have to go over the top of the hill I’d seen from the valley at Alfriston.


The view up the hill. Not much there to give a sense of scale but there were sheep on the far hillside – you just can’t see them in this picture!

I had assumed that the route would somehow go around the side, but now I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I set off once again heading towards the foreboding cloud that was gathering over the summit in the increasing gloom as the wind freshened once again with the sudden cooling of the land. I hunkered down in the last of the daylight in the lee of a trackside bank to scavenge what was left of my gels and bars and to affix the light I had brought for just such an emergency. This was a Hope Vision LED light which is a bit of step up from your average head torch. It attaches itself to the top of your helmet and knocks out a very bright light. I used to use it for riding through the woods of Wimbledon common in the dark at full speed – it’s that good – and the brightness was strangely comforting and re-assuring that everything would be ok. Through a mixture of riding, pushing and general swearing I slowly resumed my passage to the summit. By now it was dark and I realised I had a new problem which was the heavy fog. If following the route had been hard before, it was becoming increasingly impossible now as the bright light from my torch bounced back at me from the cloud closing in around me. In short it was a whiteout with visability down to about 10-15 feet. In places, I was having to make decisions about the direction of the trail based upon the relative length of the grass rolling beneath my wheels. Fortunately, I can only assume the National Trust had anticipated this sort of weather and although it was no trail of breadcrumbs, they had thought to hammer in posts with markers in the middle of fields without the usual wait until you came across another gate. As a result of this and a dollop of general good luck, I was able to stick to the route without any significant mishaps in spite of the fog but the visibility and an acute realisation that I couldn’t afford a single directional error in these conditions did make progress painfully slow – even on the downhill sections.

And then suddenly, out of the gloom I saw the streetlights of civilisation and without any ceremony or fanfare, the final signpost was suddenly upon me. No congratulatory message from the residents of Eastbourne, no recognition whatsoever in fact that this was the end of the route except for a lonely looking, long since closed, cafe and a bus stop. The time was a little after 9:30 pm. Over 14 and a half hours after I set off from Winchester.


Now that I was back in civilisation, Apple maps was finally of some use to me and riding on the pavements with my phone in my pocket, it was able to direct me quickly to the train station where I caught a 22:15 train to Clapham, finally pulling in at 23:45 hrs. When I heaved myself out of my seat to wheel my bike off the train, I found the rear tyre completely flat – my first and only puncture of the entire day. I assumed I must have picked up some sort of slow puncture in the final stretch but when I got around to changing the tube the next day there was a massive hole – the sort you could poke your little finger through – in the tube but no obvious damage to the tyre itself. After changing the tube over I levered the last bit of tyre back on to the wheel and the rim of the tyre tore away from the sidewall. All in all a little too close for comfort and if anyone is thinking of taking this challenge on themselves I would suggest fresh rubber just to be safe.

In conclusion then, it was tougher than i expected and surprised me with a bit of Boys Own adventure thrown in at the end. When the aching subsides I’m sure I’ll say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way!

So that’s that – job done and I’m never doing it again! If I had to impart any wisdom to someone considering the same route I would say that a) Route marking at the Eastbourne half of the SDW is patchy and often misleading. Remember google maps is able to pick up the SDW. Before you set off make sure all your phones wi-fi, bluetooth, mobile data etc is switched off until you need it. That way it still works as a phone (people can reach you) but the battery will easily last so that it’s there when you need it. b) When you’ve passed Ditchling Beacon the hard work is just beginning. Climbs out of Southease and Alfriston are tough but manageable – just be mentally ready for them.

For anyone feeling inspired or at least not completely put off by reading that – you might want to consider taking it on as part of an organised ride. The British Heart Foundation organise a ride with refreshment stops and route marking in the summer. You can enter here.


One thought on “South Downs Way Challenge

  1. Pingback: Goal! | Mamil On Tour

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