First spoken of, some five years ago after experiencing many cycling challenges with the heights of Fort Williams; Scotland, Les Getz; France, Chatel; Switzerland and our beloved Wales, the challenge of the South Downs Way, England seemed reasonably in our sights.
My riding companion, another Dad of young children under three and I, finally organised ourselves to plan our attack. Some say it can take three days, some say it can take only one. We decided to go right down the middle and as we would say we were of an intermediate ability, we headed off on day one at a confident 7am.
The South Downs Way from Winchester, Hampshire to Eastbourne, Sussex is a 100 miles long or in our case 102 miles (explanation later) of country bridle pathways with a total ascent of 3000 metres which we were fully aware of and had experienced before, but perhaps not in such intensity over 21 hours of solid riding.
Our theory was to familiarise ourselves with the route and plot on our map where the water points were in order to keep hydrated. This was a god send as you could easily fly past a water tap and not pass another for miles – top tip. But even though we had our route firmly in our sights we soon found that one signpost, read in haste and in error, can send you way off track. For us, by another two miles and an easy half an hour added. Note to self must remember to stay alert when fast riding down the hills… but it is fun!
Another essential would be a trusty pump and puncture repair kit. On day two we both had a puncture within the first few hours, only fair I suppose after day one’s 50 miles of off road riding. With a quick repair, we were off again to enjoy more of some amazing beauty spots en route, such as Beacon Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Seven Sisters and my favourite Devils Dyke, all areas of outstanding natural beauty where hand-gliders and para-gliders take full advantage of the thermals and the clear views for miles on a bright sunny day, which wouldn’t be so pleasant unless the weather is on your side. Our recommendation is to tackle the route in good weather, otherwise you could find it even tougher going when cycling through wet mud, rain or the cold. We had amazing weather and it was still tough.
Although three days would have been less gruelling and a more leisurely ride, we found a few resting points that are a must and conveniently right on the route. The first was the Cafe in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, just past Petersfield and the other was right on top of the National Trust site, the Devils Dyke Pub. Sadly we were on a no alcohol pact as there really is no time for relaxing or resting and as we assumed we could have been burning about 5000 calories a day, so energy bars are essential too. Another recommendation would be to ensure your bike is firstly up to the challenge, ideally a light weight; full suspension bike will make riding more bearable, as my companion will tell you as he reluctantly found himself off his hard tail pushing his way up a hill.
All the planning and preparation was rewarded as we finally finished our route at 8.30pm on the second day and although we are fairly fit, without the preparation we would have surely failed to hit the target in two days. To date, the South Downs Way has to be one of the most satisfying challenges I have certainly done and am hugely proud and glad I have done it. With one swollen knee and a very dirty bike I am still keen to see where our next challenge will takes us, perhaps the West Highland Way (Fort William to Glasgow). Watch this space.