Mountain biking the South Downs Way

I was on a dog walk with my mate Chris (tine) one weekend recently when, as she does, she casually dropped a fitness challenge into the convo “Hey Sal, I think we should mountain bike the 100 mile South Downs Way.”

What normally happens at this point is she’s met with some vague dismissive “hmmm”s and some diversionary questions, being as I’m a commitment-phobe, and planning anything that I might actually have to DO, even if I don’t feel like it on the day, gives me a rash, as does being away from my sheepdog, Scout.

How hard can it be?

So it was a few weeks before I gave Chris an answer, out of the blue. Having at first pretended I hadn’t even heard her mention it I actually went away and gave it some serious, but highly secretive, thought. I mean the South Downs Way, it sounds so nice. It’s in the south for a start so how hard can it be? There’ll be Boden and Joules boutiques en-route, quaint coffee shops and pubs, and each day’s 30-40 miles will only take us a few hours, after which we can sunbathe and swim. What’s not to like?? Cue thunderclap. ⚡️

Departure day

So departure day arrived and of course I started packing in good time at 5pm, before the planned leaving time of 6… Scout watched with doleful eyes as I carefully stowed three days worth of clothes and emergency supplies/instruments into a rucksack I could virtually fit under my hat – as it turned out I way over-packed, not realising that mascara would pale into insignificance, as would most personal grooming, in the face of near-death. The drive to Eastbourne was a breeze, albeit with a heavy heart and thoughts of my lonely, bereft, collie. Chris and I arrived separately at Eastbourne and after some angst-ridden girly attempts at getting my back wheel back on my bike, with a lot of derailleur-related gnashing of teeth, we just angrily chucked it in Chris’s car in bits, hoping to find a handy geeza in the morning, and zoomed off to Winchester, where we’d start the ride.

Day 1

After a delightful night in Saskia’s B & B (highly recommended, not least because of the resident gorgeous Labrador, and Saskia herself, and her man, who are all fantastic company) we set off on our bikes in the warm sunshine for the three-day stint to Eastbourne (100 miles and 13,000ft of climbing – of course we only knew about the 100 miles bit at this stage) After getting lost in Winchester and not being able to find the start of the route due to poor signage, which would crop up along the whole of the trail, we were cooking on gas, oh how we laughed and chatted! Our first stop, of many, was about 30 mins in when I had to strip off in the trees and apply swathes of Sudocrem to my already shredded baby-making bits. But then on we went til we got to the first of a few National Nature Reserves, Beacon Hill, and gaily tripped about taking photos as if we had all the time in the world to get to that evening’s stop, 35 miles away at the enticingly-named village of Cocking.

 

 

Onwards we went through some of the most beautiful landscape you could imagine, yes there were big hills but they would soon be over and we’d be trundling along at 13mph at least! The joy. Four hours later with heart rates at maximum, and burning legs, and what felt like the ascent of several Everests, we saw a sign that told us we’d come seven miles from Winchester. The planned four-hour completion of day one suddenly became a lot more serious.

Suffice to say we rolled in to our nightstop as darkness fell, at about 9pm after what seemed an endless (but stunningly gorgeous) journey up and down vast killer hills strewn with tree roots and clumps of chalk. This was a good ten hours from when we’d started. We didn’t even care that we were in a place called Cocking, all plans of amusing pictures under the village sign were forgotten; we could hardly speak, let alone think about Cocking (have I said Cocking enough?).

The night before, we’d been discussing eveningwear, and what we might wear on our casual, jovial, energy-filled nights out. Fortunately we decided to abandon evening shoes and floaty bohemian trousers because as it turned out we simply walked like two Tin-Men across to the pub in our minging cycling kit, with sweaty hair, dusty arms and legs and shell-shocked faces (mine being burnt to a crisp as “Nah I can’t be faffed with sun cream”).

We ordered what we thought would revive us, plenty of carbs, extra chips, the works. Only to find we hardly had the energy to lift a said chip and were so traumatised that we couldn’t even eat properly, or in fact speak. We did have an amusing few minutes reading a blog by some guy who’d mountain biked the route and mentioned it being ‘bewilderingly remote’. Yes! There were no Joules boutiques or coffee shops, there was nothing, NOTHING, just fields and tracks and sheep and cows and hills, it was like a parallel universe stuck in the middle of the most populated part of England. A breathtaking, uninhabited ridge, traversing the south east of England. You couldn’t make it up.

Day 2

We went to sleep that night with trepidation, wondering how the hell we were going to get through day two, let alone get to the finish. After a restful night in what was basically someone’s garden shed we filled up on poached eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes and muesli. We filled our Camelbaks to the brims with water and headed off. We were once again joyous, much more mentally prepared today, we knew the brutality of the route by now and we were going to be masters of it. Of course the day started with a 30 min massive climb out of Cocking but we passed it merrily by talking about the foibles of blokes and other varying subjects – we concluded we were a fine pair of catches, based on our ability to cover a wide range of topics, in-depth, and being generally fit and well ‘ard, though these qualities didn’t seem to have enhanced our success with members of the male kingdom, although had it not been for Sudocrem some of our attractions may have been permanently damaged…

Anyway, we soon came to realise that if there was a fork in the route and the way wasn’t clear we could assume it was the fork that went severely uphill rather than the one that went invitingly downhill – this is the best navigational strategy to take on the South Downs Way. The hills, no, the bloody great MOUNTAINS, are relentless right til the finish, despite what well-meaning locals might kindly try to have you believe.

We’d initially planned another 35 miles on day two, finishing at a B & B in Ditchling, which was slightly off-route. Looking at the map though we realised that getting down off the route, and getting back up to it next morning would probably add another couple of hours to the ride, and a lot of it up what looked like Mont Blanc on Viagra. So we binned that and decided to finish 14km further on that day (14k doesn’t sound like much does it? Only 8 miles? It added hours on to the day…) and stay with some ex-work-colleagues from our Natural England days, in Kingston Nr Lewes. Pat and Steve promised hot showers, beans on toast and a comfy bed, and TWO dogs to cuddle – what a goal to head towards.

We held it together well over the course of that 12 hour ride…. That was until our village came into sight just before dusk, a gorgeous-looking chocolate box affair we could see from above. Of course though, there was a vast semicircle of an uphill ridge to negotiate before we could drop down into the arms of Pat and Steve. That ridge must have taken us a good hour but finally we were plummeting on a bright chalky track towards a night of super-comfort. Pat and Steve’s two adorable dogs found us deliciously salty and gave us a good wash as we sat and told of the horror and beauty of our ride so far. Steve already has lots of mountain bike rides under his belt, including one that involved a fifteen mile climb – WAAAAAAA! After an evening of lovely food (spag bol as it turned out) and chat about our days at the Nature Conservancy Council/English Nature and Natural England, then the luxury of a bath, we piled into bed to get some Zzzs in for the last day.

Day 3

We set off next morning plied with cheese sandwiches made with Pat’s homemade poppy seed bread, and some gorgeous cakes made by Steve (honestly, these two are WASTED, they should open a caff on the route, virtually the only caff on the route…). Pat asked if we’d like some tomato in our sandwiches to jazz them up, and I remember worrying whether I’d have the mental wherewithal to deal with two things in a sandwich, and what if the tomato went soggy, it could be the last straw that sent me hurling my bike over Beachy Head; so I calmly said no thank you. Steve decided to ride the first part with us, which turned out to be soul destroying as he powered, unflinching, up a near vertical chalk track. Steve is fifteen years older than me, and twenty older than Chris but he could leave us for dust. Chris put in her best effort and stayed in the saddle whilst I embarrassingly jumped off and walked bits of it, my legs were just shot to bits. Later I blamed having only half a working kidney – this was my resounding excuse for any walking throughout the three days… Steve waved us off eventually, looking fresh as a daisy, and we embarked on the last part of the route to Eastbourne. We had been led to believe by one or two people that there was a lot of downhill on the last section. Those people were severely deluded individuals; the route continued as it had all along with ascent after ascent, with a few exhilarating downhills, one or two where you thought you’d actually tip off forwards.

 

 

I want to add here that all this is through what I named ‘Landscapegasms’ – the views made us gasp and just stare wide-eyed. The wildlife and the sheer naturalness of the route were breathtakingly beautiful, and we met so many happy, chatty cyclists and runners. There were multiple highs throughout every day.

About five hours later, and after what must have been Chris’s seventh exclamation that this was our last hill and it was all downhill after that next one we could see, we got within half a mile of the route finish. Well this is the most badly signposted part of the route ever. It was anyone’s guess where the actual finish was, so we wasted about 40 minutes trying to find it, but finally there we were hurtling downhill into the uncharacteristic town of Eastbourne. We’d done it. We said we were going to get a South Downs Way tattoo each, like Ironman finishers do. We said it was harder than Ironman, harder than childbirth, harder than ANY physical thing we had ever done before. What a massive sense of achievement, but no medal to show for it, which matters not at all.

The experience was one of immense personal growth. It was grueling but it left us feeling we would conquer anything. The absolute freedom of just packing a small rucksack and heading off for three days with just you and your bike is unparalleled. Nothing now could stand in our way. The South Downs Way. Who knew?

Highs

Sheer beauty of landscape; National Nature Reserves of Beacon Hill, Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill, Castle Hill and Lullington Heath; the breathtaking views of the lowlands and the distant Seven Sisters cliffs; the varied farming landscape – huge arable fields with tractors that looked like tiny specks in a vast ocean; bright white chalk tracks that shone in the hot sun; the beautiful cows, sheep and free-range pigs that we chittered to along the way; the sound of skylarks all along the route, the sighting of a swooping owl, the lovely kindred-spirited people, friendly as they come; the stillness of the evening when there was just us and the bikes and wilderness; the discovery of random water taps to refill our Camelbaks; the sight and smell of swathes of wild garlic and bluebells; the abundance of wildflowers covering fields; Pat’s cheese sandwich and Steve’s cake; the freedom; the freedom…

Lows

The unexpected brutality of the route – that’s all.

Most used words and phrases

“FUCK” generally uttered at the top of every hill – so that was a lot.

“Give me a minute” when lungs and heart were bursting from chests.

“ I need the Sudocrem”

“Have we turned another page yet?” That’s another page of our map guide where one page seemed to last five billion years.

“What do the contours look like?? WAAAAAAAA!”

“We mustn’t let those 70 year old walkers catch us up”

“Oh my God. Just look at that. OH MY GOD” At the views.

If you’re riding the South Downs Way in summer here’s a packing list:
  • One pair of cycling shorts
  • Cycle helmet
  • Cycle glasses
  • Padded gloves
  • Sun cream
  • Anti-chafing cream!
  • Two lightweight tech t-shirts
  • Two lightweight tech tops
  • One pair of running tights to wear in the evening
  • PJ shorts
  • Three pairs of socks
  • Lightweight waterproof
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Inner tubes
  • Gas canisters
  • Small pump
  • Energy bars or sandwiches – there’s hardly anywhere to buy food
  • Water – plenty of it – you’ll need a Camelbak with good capacity
  • A map guide or GPS. We didn’t use any GPS apart from the occasional phone location but wished we’d taken GPS watches.
  • A phone for emergencies – you go long stretches without seeing anyone or any civilization.
And food-wise

Have a hearty brekkie. Porridge or muesli, and a couple of eggs on a good solid piece of real-bread toast. There are terrifyingly few watering holes along the route so you need to carry food. A simple doorstep cheese sandwich on hearty bread, three energy bars, I used Stoats, some nuts and raisins stashed in a water bottle on the carrier of your bike. Ideally you’d have a weak mix of cloudy apple juice and water in your Camelbak, though we used plain water but worried about water to electrolyte ratio on the first day when we found nowhere to eat til early evening and imbibed a good few litres of H2O (only tinkled once in ten hours by the way – just shows you). At nighttime you want something like a proper old-fashioned spag bol, this is no time for avocado and chia seeds or green shakes, no time at all, that would just be fashionable muppetry. You will find your appetite is suppressed by the trauma, you may find yourself unable even to chew, instead just sitting there bob-bob-bobbing like a goldfish.

So having screeched at so many points “I AM NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN” I spent today Googling various mountain bikes and long distance routes. What has happened to me?

If you’re thinking about cycling the South Downs Way, do it, but respect it.

The Downs… too much for one pair of eyes, enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.
Virginia Woolf

The South Downs Way is a National Trail following a chalk ridge which was formed 75-90 million years ago when the south of England was covered by a warm shallow sea. Marine deposits formed a dome of chalk that became eroded during the last ice age into the undulating ridge that stands today.

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