South Downs Way, second time lucky
I like keeping lists. I use a little app called Simplenote and have it synced across every PC / Mac / Phone I use and jot down anything that comes to mind. What I need to get done, things that might come in useful, snippets of thoughts or just things that need writing down, rides, films to watch and so on. There were many things in the “Rides” list for 2016 but one which kept on jumping out at me was to attempt to ride the South Downs Way. What I really wanted to do was ride it one way this year and then have an attempt at both ways the following year. I’d seen various people do it and it’s one of those things that looks like a challenge but somewhat achievable, one way that is. There and back looks ridiculous but had hoped to be able to work up some fitness towards that goal.
So I floated the idea of it with a few friends, some London, some Brighton based and all met up in Winchester to start the journey. All pretty excited for a nice day out on the hills. Apart from we (London lot) were waiting at the station larking around and they (Brighton lot) were waiting at the King Alfred statue in the centre of town. Cue faffing, missed phone calls and starting 45 mins late after obligatory photos at the statue and chatting about a beautiful retro Marin with a man.
So we’re off. Racing up hills, chatting, introducing ourselves to each other generally having a nice time. A few little wrong turns. Beep. Garmin check. Back on. More hills. Faffing. Gates. So many gates. Bash decides to come off in a puddle. We trundle along, generally enjoying things.
I’m only a few weeks back from my collarbone snap and I’m not as fit as the rest of the group. Jo is recovering from a chest infection and Bash didn’t sleep. Excuses mount. Matt takes a tumble at high speed on a descent slicing his elbow open and more worryingly scratching his frame at the same time. Adam is as fit as always and doesn’t complain.
We meet a variety of characters who we end up passing, stopping, passing, stopping and so on. One was an older gentleman who tells us that he comes out and does the SDW in little sections. He’d done routes all around the country, doing a little section then ending in a pub. From the sounds like it he had covered quite a lot of ground in the UK. He had an ancient bike and no fancy kit but the smile on his face was enormous. As we cycled away I thought that he was probably the only person I’d ever met entitled to use the hashtag #outsideisfree. What a way to spend your retirement!
Back on with more trails. Lots of cows. Some fun descents and a lot more chatting.
We stopped for lunch against the better advice of Jo. Ten pounds for a baguette and a coke each and we’d lost a lot of time. Back on out of the valley where we had stopped an on. Hills became tougher but I found some new strength after lunch. We stopped on a hill to help a man who was having trouble with a puncture. He’d got the wrong sized tube, the wrong type of valve and no pump and was on an immaculate £3500 bike. Sympathy faded a little more after each fact was revealed but we helped him get it sorted and wished him well. More time lost.
By the time we got to the YHA near Brighton we were flagging. Mentally mapping out the hours we’d need to get to Eastbourne seemed to more to dampen our spirits. I was of the opinion that we must and should complete it. But then by the time we’d made the climb to Devil’s Dyke I too had caved in. Arriving at 10pm in Eastbourne probably wasn’t going to be much fun. Sure we’d have done it but it would have been a bit of a schlep and then to get the train home without any social time or laughs with our friends. Hard to believe I’m writing this but we all caved in and went to the pub. It’s not a very good pub but it was what we all needed.
I spotted a great photo of everyone looking out to the low sun in the sky and the silhouette they were creating. As I raised my camera a kind woman literally forced me into the photo. How nice to actually be included in the photo to record the day when I’m usually the other side or there’s one person left out of the pic.
It’s probably one of my favourite cycling photos as it captures having had a great time as well as the characters involved. Four pints (each), six packets and crisps and two bowls of chips later (between us) we rolled down the hill into Brighton and got the train home. We didn’t achieve what we had hoped but the laughing and smiling in the pub til it hurt more than made up for it.
The following week Beth and James went out and completed it. They had horrific weather for it and ended up finishing in the dark. Congratulations to them both but I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret that we hadn’t pushed on. Especially as it was such a glorious day for it. But there’s really no point in regret, it’s just a waste of energy. Best just get on with it and do it again. I really did want to get it done in 2016 and not regret it. Even though regret is futile.
The trouble with this idea was that the evenings were drawing in and alarmingly so. The days were getting shorter and shorter which however you set it up means finishing in the dark. Being exhausted and tired mixed with the risk of bad weather is not my idea of fun, or a particularly safe ride. Wet chalk and tiredness – no thanks. So I came up with the stupid idea of starting in the dark. Why not get the dark bit out of the way before and then end in daylight? Adam and Bash were up for it. Matt had dislocated his collarbone and couldn’t. Jo was maybe and “I’ll see” on the day. Train times were pushed back and forth and a date agreed. I was coming from London, Adam from Brighton. How best to meet and not hang around in Winchester alone was discussed.
So a few weekends back we met at Clapham Junction at 11pm to get a train to Winchester to begin our silly little adventure. As expected the train was full of drunk people commuting home after an evening in the pub. What we hadn’t envisaged was it being completely rammed. Fuck. Not that door. Shit. Not this one. Run. ‘Scuze meeeee. And just about squeezed in both bikes around the drunk people. A man was lying slumped against the door clutching his phone who appeared to wake occasionally before grinning and then falling asleep again.
The train thinned out as we went further South which allowed a bit of repacking and faffing. I realised I hadn’t fitted my helmet light properly and was bobbing around. I fashioned a little support from a spare business card I had in my wallet and a train ticket – thanks Matt for the business card.
I’d set up my SPOT tracker for a few friends and family to follow our progress. Although this required a little faffing too. In addition we had some support from some of the Brighton lot and Vic was offering to pick us up if anything went wrong. I cheekily asked what counted as an emergency (asking for a friend). To which the response was…
Less than 999, more than a ‘bit tired’
I found this highly amusing and kept me going in some of the darker moments. The thought of others looking out for us also helped a great deal.
As we got off in Winchester we ended up having to explain ourselves to a group of guys coming home from a good night in the pub. Rather than the idiotic reaction expected they were thrilled at the idea and encouraged on our way before shaking our hands as they left to get in their taxi. Good luck lads they shouted as they drove off.
Whilst on the train I found myself becoming more and more nervous as I often do before big things like this. My mind thinking back to a stressful week at work and that the last sleep was last night and I wasn’t going to be getting any more until Sat evening.
This is silly.
This is stupid.
Both going round and round in my mind wanting for some reason to not do this.
We got on our bikes, flicked our lights on and headed down to the King Alfred statue for a quick picture. It’s the official start so only right we started there. After that it was onwards out of town and up onto the Downs. Immediately I thought of how I hadn’t ridden for about 7 days and had a bit of a holiday with too much food and booze. Adam was immediately stronger and doing a better pace. I’d said to myself that I would plod along to get it done and not race up or down things for fear or peaking too early and / or coming off on a descent. Normally I would prefer to ride with someone next to me and hate seeing someone up ahead. For some reason being completely pitch black it was actually good to follow someone and see their light ahead in the distance. We rode together for the wider sections and chatted about work / life / cycling adventures and so on for a few hours. At around 3am I think we both stopped talking and just got on with riding.
It was a cloudy night and really thick darkness with little light pollution. This meant it was completely and utterly dark. Pitch black. The tendency was to focus on your own light ahead to track where you’re going. Stopping allowed a broader view of the areas we were passing through and a bit more context – this is that bit or we’re near that bit. All felt completely remote and wonderfully still and silent. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought and felt pretty exciting to be out exploring when everyone else was safely in bed.
Occasionally we stopped and turned our lights off and just appreciated the silence and stillness of it all. You could hear your own breathing over anything else. Each of us was beaming from ear to ear just enjoying the isolation and silliness of it all. I tried to take a picture of the nothingness. With little light around this didn’t really happen. I wanted to record it somehow but will have to make do with the memories of it.
I was really pleased with this one of Adam though. My light off and just his lights illuminating the immediate foreground. Again I imagined people seeing these lights moving through the countryside and wondering what the hell we were doing.
Riding trails off road was so much fun in the dark after I got over my initial apprehension and soon picked up a bit more speed descending. Tuck in and trust your judgement and kind of just go with it. One descent I did slow down for was the Butser Hill descent. Adam didn’t seem so bothered and flew down it. Each time I caught up with him at a gate he was beaming from ear to ear. He was clearly loving every minute of it.
We surprised quite a lot of the nature around us. We saw a few owls, plenty of foxes, rats, young deer and a few badgers. I’m pretty sure we saw a few birds of prey too but couldn’t tell you what they were. Not forgetting the countless cows and sheep that we saw who all looked pretty surprised to see us. We also had spiders webs appearing on our handlebars as they had strung them across the various trails we were passing through.
Speaking of sheep, on one descent at the back of Queen Elizabeth Country Park I had taken my clear glasses off as they had been steaming up a bit and annoying me. Of course this meant that a massive lump of sheep shit went straight into my eye. Cue lots of washing my eye with water and generally trying to get it out. No I just made it worse and then for the rest of the day I spent wiping green muck out the side of my eye as well as having a bright red stink eye to show for it. Always wear eye protection!
We had been making good progress and areas that I recognised seemed to arrive quicker than expected. Having ridden the route before it really helped. I dread to think what it would be like navigating it in the complete darkness having not ridden it before. I was starting to tire a bit though, more mentally than physically although that was starting to fade too. We’d been in the darkness for so long and I was counting down to when I thought the sun would be rising. In addition it had started to rain a bit and a thick fog had set in. This made seeing even harder as the light just bounces off the moisture in the air, more lumens doesn’t help at all.
The darkness seemed to go on forever. 6am came. Still dark. I’d mentally been working to 6am and it threw me a bit that we were still surrounded by it all. 7am still kind of dark and then within minutes it seemed to lift and we had a little sunrise to watch. Sadly it was partially obscured by the clouds but it still felt like the hardest part had passed. This also coincided with a neatly timed descent where we stopped half way down to admire the view. This looks good so we stopped, unpacked and got on with breakfast.
I’d packed my little Alpkit stove, brew pot and two pre-measured bags of coffee (15g each). We’d both brought little coffee pots with integral plunger which are a brilliant bit of kit. We both had fresh coffee and enjoyed the view whilst I boiled another batch of water for porridge each. Not fancy by any stretch but it tasted damn good to have something substantial sat in the middle of no where. Like some kind of sanity in the mad thing we were doing. Of course it’s all a complete luxury and could have managed without but I find these little things help to keep you going. I got a bit cold sat down and took a while to warm up again in terms of my core temp and also the legs after a stop. Of course the next thing is another great big hill to climb. Super!
By now more people are starting to be up and about and of course we say good morning to everyone we see. Dog walkers, people out fishing and also farmers and so on. We met a lovely farmer who kindly pointed out the tap we had missed a few hundred metres back. Filled water bottles and a bit more energy in the tank from breakfast we kept on. The next thing to aim for was Bash coming to meet us with more food!
We got to the agreed spot and negotiated with Bash where we were and how his progress was. We had to wait a bit in the car park but were kept entertained by the coming and goings of a local running club made up of mainly retired folk out enjoying the paths. Black labradors seemed to be standard issue and one tried to steal a sandwich from Adam’s frame bag.
Bash arrived and was sporting a Sainsbury’s bag which had been fashioned into a rucksack with straps made from duct tape. I wish I’d taken a picture of it but was a bit broken by that point and damp and cold still. In the ghetto rucksack were pastries and bananas. Wolfed down we got on our way again.
Adam was still much faster than me and Bash and him soon disappeared which sent my mental state through the floor. I find it hard enough at the best of times being dropped but was not thinking very straight without sleep and in my tired state. Rather than chewing on it I just said something and they both dropped the pace accordingly. It’s amazing how those tiny little things get to you as well as how much I find I need the support of others to get through a tough event like this.
I was still being really slow on the hills and just grinding away. Even my 36t on the back wasn’t enough and found myself doing that stupid thing of clicking away for more gears even when you know there’s no more. A mixture of desperation and exhaustion I think.
Having Bash arrive with fresh legs and being a little bit more mentally able helped massively. We chatted away and I found this extra energy really helped get through the next bit. We ended up at the familiar spots we’d ridden before closer to Brighton. The pig farm on the top, the Youth Hostel (more water here) and then finally the top of Devil’s Dyke.
The next thing to aim for was George who had agreed to meet us with more supplies. I’d kind of shut down a bit mentally by this point and then I saw Adam ahead talking to someone a bit longer than you might expect for your average ‘good morning’ type chat. I got a bit closer and it was George. Brilliant, so good. I was so happy to see him (and the thought of more food). We didn’t actually need food there and then and he agreed to drive a bit further along to meet us. This was actually much better as it allowed us to cover a bit more distance before settling down for another stop.
The weather had improved and the temperature risen and most layers had been removed. We ended up meeting George and his lovely kids in a sunny spot by one of the taps next to Housedean Farm. He’d laid on an amazing spread although admitted that it wasn’t as plentiful as before due to the kids snaffling a few bits and bobs. Coke, crisps, Haribo, bananas, chocolate bars.. everything a hungry cyclist could dream of.
After this we’d got to the point (at least I had) of trying to work out how many hills were left. I could clearly see from the Garmin how many kms were left but this probably wasn’t the issue. FIVE lumps left. Ok, let’s do it. This is achievable. FOUR. Ok, entirely possible. THREE. Actually there’s a little extra lump Adam had forgotten. THREE again. We were getting there though. I was still super slow and my glutes were in a lot of pain. A few Ibuprofen and we’re good. We got a nice flash rain storm as we hit Alfriston and quickly sheltered and then it suddenly passed and we were on our way again. Counting down. Our next target was the end obviously but also the mussels and chips place that serves the Belgian beer. God that beer was in my mind for so long.
And then as if by magic we saw Eastbourne in the distance.
YES! We’ve almost done it. After this we traced the SDW as far as we could looking for some form of official finish. After we while we both gave up and then sped down into town to our reward of food and beer. The restaurant kindly let us bring our bikes into the lobby to avoid getting hypothermic outside. Three orders of bread, two mussels and chips and two strong beers later it was time to get the train home.
The only problem was trying to stay awake and not have my bike stolen. That and the stench of my kit and self. I couldn’t face the cycle back from Clapham Junction so got a connecting train to Denmark Hill. Even the short ride up the hill was painful.
The vital stats were 162km ridden, 3525m of elevation climbed, 10.5 hours moving time and another 4 hours for stops on top of that with an average moving speed of 15.5kph. We set off at around 12.15am and got to Eastbourne around 4.30pm the next day without any sleep.
I’m incredibly proud of having achieved it with Adam and so grateful for the support of so many people who helped us get through it all.
Edit: In my haste to post this I forgot to add this little video clip which is from a service called relive.cc. You connect it to your Strava account and then it sends you a little video of your ride through an aerial perspective overlaid on Google Earth type graphics. Nine times out of ten this is boring as hell, laps of Regents etc, but this is really interesting as it traces our path along the South Downs and shows the fascinating topography of the whole area. Whilst we go up and down a lot we do traverse a ridge for quite some time.