How hard is cycling the South Downs Way? Well it is 160 km long or for those who prefer imperial 100 miles, it is steeply undulating with 3,810 metres of climbing along the route. A mountain bike is a must, with at least front suspension and preferably rear as well. It is mainly off-road and traces a route through the rolling hills of Hampshire and Sussex. Twelve years ago I bought a book about it ‘Mountain Biking on the South Downs‘ by Cicerone, so it was about bloody time I gave it a try.
The intervening years had not been good to either myself or my bike. I had what was now a 12 year old Giant Yukon MTB that was showing its age. Large framed and heavy as hell with splitting tyres and worn out disc pads for brakes. The description could also have been applied to myself without too much alteration.
To further compound the already daunting challenge that I’d had planned together with my pal Dale we would attempt this ludicrous bike ride on what would turn out to be the hottest weekend of the year so far, with temperatures bubbling around the upper 30 degrees mark (that’s around 100º in old money).
Bikepacking is all the rage now so being the trendy 55 year old that I am I decided we should follow suit and travel unsupported carrying all our own gear with us so that we could bivvy out under the stars and cook our own meals al fresco etc (I have no prior experience of riding a loaded bike needs noting at this point).
With Alpkit handlebar and saddle bags ordered and yet untried we set off for Winchester on a sunny Friday morning. The plan was simple – 3 days to get from Winchester to Eastbourne bivvying out along the way with a pick up by my long suffering wife at the end then back home for medals and cigars!
Day 1 – we got lost getting out of Winchester which is not uncommon I’m told. There seems to be no real start point for the National Trail, either that or we missed it! We decided that the statue of Alfred The Great in Winchester seemed like an appropriate place to start such a challenge so set off from under the raised arm of the great man himself.
Within ten minutes we had our first puncture, the first of what turned out to be three punctures along the way. After sweating profusely to try and force inflexible rubber mountain bike tyres onto their rims we were glad to hit The Cadence Cafe at Holden Farm. Scoffing down a “Sir Chris Hoy” Vintage cheddar & thick cut ham sandwich and a “Naughty Armstrong” Pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, dill pickle & French mustard ….. mmm delicious!
Suitably stuffed we struggled back off in the midday heat and then well into the afternoon until we finally reached the village of South Harting. Sore, sweaty saddle hardened backsides with helmet hair summed up our appearance as we halted at the village pub the rather nice ‘The White Hart’. Too sore and knackered to fully enjoy this quintessentially english pub we sat gazing into the distance and into our beer in the pub garden pondering what we had taken on! Two more days and approximately 70 miles still to go, it did not bode well!
After refreshments it was time to find somewhere to camp for the night and we struck wild camping gold! After such a tough day we were rewarded with what was possibly the best wild camp spot I’ve ever found. As the sun set over the horizon we got out our sleeping bags and hunkered down on Harting Hill. Nature gave us a grand show to watch.
Day 2 – would see us tackle another 56 Km of undulating terrain as we attempted to get from South Harting to Pyecombe. After a Jetboil breakfast we set of for the day. No punctures today just a slow-burn air loss from Dales rear wheel tyre. Thankfully the day was cloudier than the previous day and we started to make some inroads into the distance.
The gradients today were known to be unforgiving and we pedalled up and down, up and down for what felt like ages.
Water stops became our main mental focus as scoping them out on the map and then finding them became our main mission to survive the heat and distance. Hydration had been a bit hit and miss the previous day and we were determined to correct the error of our ways on day two.
It’s not all chalk downs along the route and we passed through several wooded and shady areas giving the opportunity for the obligatory MTB against logs backdrop photo opportunity that all good bikepacking adventures have to have!
After struggling for much of the day we realised that we were not going to make Pyecombe and the nice pub we had scoped out online for an evening bevvy and meal. Struggling up the latest incline we realised that we were both spent forces. The YHA at Truleigh Hill could not have been a more welcome sight!
We prayed that they had room left on their camping field and a cafe and bar to save the now arduous task of cooking one’s own meal in the evening. So much for the romantic notion of cooking on a camping stove, gone already by day 2..
We were however in luck and gratefully paid the full price for a pitch in the camping field that was on offer. Setting up camp was a strange task as neither of us had a tent per say and had to improvise to make a workable and acceptable set up agreeable to the authorities who were adamant that sleeping in the field with no canvas above us was a no no.
Day 3 – the last and final day and the big push to Eastbourne. The day was predictably hot even at 8am and as we set off we were painfully aware that we had a considerable distance to cover if we were to make it to Eastbourne and the sea.
Another 57 Km had to be pedalled in unrelenting heat to make our target and pick up point. By now we were both at the ragged edge and our arses were literally hanging out. My untested Alpkit saddle bag failed its first outing test with the strapping around the saddle pole disintegrating and coming unstitched. Gaffer tape in copious amounts wrapped around my saddle was the only solution, a ragtag set up for the tail end of the trip.
Although now in considerable pain and with a backsides numbed by their own rawness we gallantly cycled onward. The scenery was if anything more spectacular on this last leg of the route unfortunately I was in such a mental battle in my head to get to the end that I was unable to enjoy it in any shape or form.
The downs were far reaching and hill after hill of grass and chalk were peddled over, across and through. A delicious lunch of burger and chips was wolfed down at the Itford House YHA breaking the rhythm momentarily, a recommended stop to anyone and all who might want to tackle the trail.
Then with the end in sight we rode as fast as our tired legs and saddle sore arses would let us towards Eastbourne. The last few miles seemed never ending but then like a mirage in the desert Eastbourne appeared over the horizon. An oasis to two very hot and bothered cyclists.
Our bikes had just about held up to the punishment as had our battered bodies, but we had made it, 100 Miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. We had finally made it!
Debrief – Would I do it again? NO! Was it fun? Type 2 only! Was it a great feeling of achievement? Oh yes, it felt epic! Would you recommend it? Only if you are a true masochist! Did I underestimate it? Absolutely!