I have history with this ride.
I have history on this ride.
Once upon a long ago myself and few friends attempted the South Downs Way on cyclo-cross bikes. We were all young(ish) and fit(ish), we had help in the form of friends and partners in support cars and yet it still went wrong, unceremoniously depressingly wrong. As ride organiser I wanted it to be a nice day out with friends, if a long one. That was my first mistake; I was too nice. We stopped, we faffed, we dithered around the cars at every stop chatting, chewing snacks, it was a pleasant Sunday ride. When there’s 100 miles of off-road to cover in a day you need to be making some sort of polite progress at all times. Whips need to be cracked. We had delaying punctures, that’s to be expected, but at one point there was the complete dismantling of a set of cantilever brakes, I remember watching quizzically as I ate an unsatisfactory cheese sandwich. We got sucked down by the undertow of faff.
At not even the halfway point one of the riders bailed into a car, and we were hit by a band of weather which dampened everyone’s ardour. There was that moment at the top of Chanctonbury where we all saw a World War II bomber flying low under the cloud and still no-one is exactly sure if it actually happened or it was a group hallucination. It got weird, a dreamlike struggle.
Us remaining three riders trudged on until procrastination, a failing group dynamic and progress frustration had finally chipped away enough of my spirit and on the small grassy rise up to Ditchling Beacon I felt my soul rise up from between my shoulder blades and gently float away from my body. I didn’t have the will to carry on and in the Beacon car-park with a waiting car I make the executive decision to bin the ride. From the top of the Beacon you can pretty much see where we needed to go all the way along Kingston Ridge, across to the pylons atop Firle Beacon and the white cliffs beyond. We had dithered too far into the day, we were never going to make it at this stuttering rate.
I felt sick in the short journey home, I still feel bad all these many years later. Those demons need to be slain.
I have history on this ride because I have lived in the lee of the South Downs the majority of my life, I could do over half of the path with my eyes shut, I know every hill, lump, stone and rut off by heart. I figure this will stand me in good stead towards the end of the day’s ride and I can just switch on the auto-pilot. Despite this I have only ridden the entire length of the South Downs Way once, I’ve never felt the need, because it’s always there. I only did that a couple of years ago on a mountainbike, because I felt it was something I had to do, just once. As rides go it’s definitely on the mountainbiker’s tick list, it’s not the most technically demanding of adventures but despite being down south where everyone knows it’s flat the unrelenting nature of the hills mean it’s not a casual undertaking.
In its 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne the SDW has about 12,000ft of climbing, the consequence of constantly dipping in and out of river valleys, so, you know, enough over the course of a day to see you tired. If you feel those stats aren’t big enough for you then the South Downs Way Double, there and back again, is now a recognised Thing, the current record standing at just under 18 hours. Then someone though that was too easy and completed the triple which was stupid enough until just recently when someone else upped the game and rode the Way four times back to back. There’s got to be better ways to avoid going to B&Q at the weekend.
For today doing the SDW on a cyclo-cross bike will be enough thanks. The Wiggle CX Century is the next step up in the relatively new CX Sportive format, and the perfect place to test your new gnarmac bike. While the terrain of the South Downs is relatively easy on a mountainbike it’s a different beast on a cyclo-cross bike; the Way is hard-packed, rutted and littered with stones and flints. None of these tend to play well with 35mm tyres. Pinch punctures are annoyingly frequent and it’s all too easy to be an unwitting victim to a tyre slash. What a CX bike might gain in speed on the fast chalk it can lose in having to tip-toe round trail obstacles that a mountainbike can happily bludgeon over with fat tyres and suspension, especially on the descents, where finesse and a delicate amount of mincing are recommended. To keep the event cyclo-cross specific the CX Century organisers have stipulated that bikes must meet the cyclo-cross ethos, with a maximum tyre width of 40mm/1.5” and no suspension.
At 6.30 in the morning in a Park-and-Ride just outside Winchester my mind is wrestling with the memory of previous failure mixed in with the reassurance of local knowledge. Demons seductively chew my lower lip.
There are things today that vastly increase my chances of making it, and vastly increasing the other 100 or so riders chances of making it to the finish. The whole route is marked with arrows and orange tape, the entire South Downs Way is well signed with finger posts as it is but the orange markers negate the need to stop and look and check. More logistically useful are the checkpoints along the way for riders to log in to and to grab refreshments. We’ve also been given a bag to stow any stuff in; it will be waiting at the 100km point and at the finish 100 miles away, which is handy for carting extra food, spares and clothes. And inner-tubes, extra inner-tubes. This means we can ride light and swift without a cumbersome Camelbak should we wish or the need to harass our rear pockets to bursting with all the crap we need for the day. Which is mostly inner-tubes.
As is the way with mass starts the first bit of the CX Century is quite trafficy with off-road sportivists, but there’s no real point in barging past all elbows, it’s going to be a long day, any unnecessary effort now will smack you later. Enjoy the morning, the low sun bouncing off the cornfields. This initial section of the South Downs Way is a little scruffy, a later 20 mile extension to the original route which began in the village of Buriton and added to bring the distance up to a tidy hundred and help link the chain of long distance paths across the UK. The new bit of the way uses existing bridleways and roads so zigs and zags confusingly across the landscape before hitting the old path and striking due east.
The first descent sees an alarming plague of punctures, which is quite odd as there seems to be nothing much to flat on, not a good way to start your day. Say a polite word of assurance and crack on. The mix of paths round fields, gravel tracks and tarmac of these early miles means it’s easy to gently make good progress, only the short sharp climb up Salt Hill causing any real effort and slowing of speed. Completing the SDW is all about maintaining a consistent average speed, learn from that failed attempt, be gently efficient, don’t linger at the stops, be quick with gates. Oh, all those gates; averaging at about one per mile gladly accept a held open one and kindly reciprocate where possible, be fast where prudent to nibble at time, don’t get too excited on the descents, a five minute puncture stop isn’t worth the thirty seconds faster you may reach the bottom by going for it.
Climbs and fields and concrete paths and dirt tracks come and go, the gaggle of cyclists hasn’t splintered yet so there’s plenty of opportunity to chat along to ease the distance; the French pair with handlebar streamers, the guy on the mid-80’s Roberts road bike with fattest tyres possible squeezed in, he wins an award for something, and the guy who recognizes me from the Isle of Wight stupidity a few years ago. The Way is nibbled away at, if there’s an off-road version of a Rouleur this is what it would be.
Luckily conditions are dry and the temperature is just right. Despite some sharp thunderstorms clattering over the night before the weather has been kind this summer and the trails are hard and dusty. Wet chalk is nowhere to try and pilot a bike. And with low 20 degree warmth, a benevolent tailwind and scattered cloud cover it’s not too sweaty going. A fierce sun bouncing off pure white chalk can be blistering on a climb.
The fast grassy descent off Butser Hill slingshots us into the second checkpoint and first food station of the day at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. There are handy toilets but the café isn’t open yet which is a shame as it’s the perfect time of day for a bacon roll, so grab a handful of snacks from the table instead. Clip back in and roll up the gravel track that heads die straight up the crease in the woods, happier now that the preliminaries are over and we’re on the Way proper.
Somewhere on the other side of Beacon Hill I puncture, going up a hill, the rear tyre spanks off an embedded flint and pinches. Sigh, sit down, check tyre for gash, new tube, pump, sigh, bit of a munchie bar, wee. Would really have liked to go puncture free today, just because. Not too much later I puncture again going down the over-excitable hill into Cocking, front wheel this time, hit something big, think I might have got away with it until the tyre looses all air in an instant and the only way I can stop is by steering into the side and a comfortable bramble bush, with nettles. Sigh, check tyre for gash, new tube, pump, sigh. Gingerly continue down to the feed stop. No more of those please.
Bits are snipped off our green tags to record that we’re been through a checkpoint and numbers ticked off the list, there’s a lot of places in 100 miles to lose a rider so a record of where everyone’s got to is essential. Fill up on water and maw in some snacks. Despite being in the South and surrounded by cluttered civilisation the Downs are a barren place for sustenance. There are about a dozen taps along the way which should see you right for fluids, but food is harder to find, usually only available a long fall down the scarp and then a longer climb back up. Having regular feed stops makes the effort of 100 miles significantly easier.
At Cocking I’m on home territory and this local knowledge sees a slight lifting in pace up the climb. I know every inch between here and Eastbourne, all of the climbs characters and hardships, I know how to pace myself, where to take it easy and where to make the most of a ‘cross bike on this terrain and eke speed. The top of the hill along Graffham Down has a long flattish section, a place where it’s advantageous to cover distance quickly, keep on top of the gear and power along.
Drop onto the Duncton road, climb out the other side to the Glatting Down pylons and on to Bignor Hill, drop fast again, traverse the north edge of Houghton Forest and drop further into the Arun river valley to tackle the sheer face of Amberley Mount. I pass a bounce of mountainbikers at the bottom by the gate so it’s a matter of pride to make it up this grass precipice, I know they’re watching, but they can’t see my bulging eyes. It’s a battle of traction with a thin treadles tyre on bumpy grass but once at the gate it’s rolling across the tops to recover. Green, white, cattle-grid, green, gate, white, cattle-grid, barn, gate, hayroll, skylark blue. Drop down into Washington for the stiff climb back up again, this time to the ring of trees that mark the ancient hill fort of Chanctonbury.
This is a good place to sit and take in the view and tell the lore and tales of this circle of trees, this special place. Ghosts, UFO’s, the devil, possible WW2 bombers. You can see the whole second half of the South Downs stretched out to the left, all of that needs to be covered, waves of green whaleback hills, while Worthing and Brighton are sea sprawl on the right, all ice-cream and promises of escape. Down through the pigloos, across the Adur and the struggle straight up Beeding Hill threading through the walking to the relief of the 100km feed station on the corner of the Truleigh Hill road.
I could turn right here and freewheel the three miles home, it would make life an awful lot easier. I deliberately face north and concentrate on my sandwich and cup of tea and blinker both my eyes and mind. Easy spin up the tarmac to where the off-road starts again at the Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel and what was to be the incremental beginning of the hurt.
There’s another change in the character of the hills here, as you traverse each lump of the Downs you realize each has their own subtle character, it’s a more open vista here, large sprawling squares of field and drapes of green downland, less wooded with nowhere to hide both in the landscape and physically as from here on in it’s recognized that it’s the harder part of the SDW. The block from here to Pyecombe reflects that as the hills punch you in the legs in quick succession. While they might not be the longest or steepest climbs their relentless nature is wearing.
The sharp tarmac ramp into Pyecombe and then the gravelly climb out of the village through the golf course is the final hit in this volley for there’s a bit of breathing space after Keymer Post and the chance to clip along the backbone making the most of that tailwind again that actually seems to be getting firmer as the afternoon progresses. Which is handy.
I pass the place a few hundred metres before the Beacon at Ditchling where my spirit left me that time and every pedal stroke now is a small victory. A checkpoint in the Beacon car-park has me speaking to a rider who ponders the wisdom of hitting the road and cruising down to Brighton station. The trouble, or saving grace of this ride is that there are many places you can easily bail, find a train station or hit a road and call in for support. I don’t see that rider again that day.
I’m riding mostly on my own now, about half the riders retire at the 100km point, and it’s no bad thing. Skimming across the tops of the Downs on a day like today is a special feeling. You are a small thing hovering between the immensity of green and blue, a dot on a hundred mile strip of white with just the skylarks and the tyres humming along to their song for company. This is England at its best. There is a smile through the pervasive hurt.
At Blackcap the path takes an uncharacteristic sharp right after so many miles of straight-lining through the countryside to veer off this lump of hills and head seawards and back up onto a different ridge of Down. It’s a different and quieter place, feeling seldom used despite the frequent footfall tramping the path, a transitional valley between two masses bothered only by sheep. The route scuttles up a wooded bank, quickly down the side of a sun-bright yellow field, across the A27 via a footbridge before sneaking along and under the railway line and up another sharp bank to begin the long grassy drag up past Newmarket Plantation and onto Kingston Ridge, all of this a cobbled together diversion from the old Way to make a safer crossing of the dual carriageway to Lewes.
Again, another place to make up time once the summit has been breached as the path skirts the lip of the northern scarp of the Downs, until that bit that curves around Swanborough Hill that’s mostly brick embedded in the chalk. I know this section well and it hurts at the best of times, but everything is hard work now, the Downs have got me against the ropes. Again. My legs throb from the climbs, my back aches from the endless pizzicato pounding and I’m not sure when my arms really started to hurt but they do now, the insides of my elbows shooting a sharp stinging pain with every bump, it’s difficult holding onto the bars on anything rough or down. Which is awkward as I’m off-road on the Downs. I try the Belgian cobbles tactic of big-ringing it to float over the top but my legs don’t have much big-ring left in them. The long and fast descent down Front Hill on the white concrete path is a delicious if brief respite.
It’s all mental games and positive attitude now, in my mind there are just three hills left, I’m ignoring the countless little rises that are the ones that unsparingly empty the legs. Three hills; Itford Hill out of Southease, Windover Hill away from Alfriston and the final climb out of Jevington. Three. Hills. The sun is very much on my back now suggesting that we’re well into the afternoon, time’s a wasting.
The Southease feed station is a welcome excuse for a breather and the helpers there say it’s only 16 miles to the finish. Anyone can ride 16 miles, right? The immediate climb of Itford Hill has a reputation and strikes fear into cyclists in, around and on the SDW for it can break people, albeit in a picturesque fashion. If you have the presence of mind to look up from the increasing wall of grass there are lovely views over the Weald, Glyndebourne, Newhaven and the sea. Well maybe not Newhaven. I look up and see a friend coming the other way, patrolling his ‘hood on a late afternoon spin. Stop. Brief recovery chat.
The ups and downs towards Alfriston are ticked off with a perfunctory job-to-do mentality and very little va-va-voom, tick, tick, tick. Feet, calves, thighs, back, hands, elbows, biceps are all struggling now. Hang on to the bars somewhere between fear and pain on the fast rutted descent into Alfriston to stop at the post office/deli and grab an emergency fizzy pop, a bag of peanuts and oooh, a pecan pastry. There’s that odd feeling you get when you’re sweaty dirty in the middle of something and you pause in the polite calm of a quaint English village summer’s afternoon. A detached ghost of a human being that doesn’t register in people’s brains as they look for the nearest pub and gift shop because it doesn’t fit into the postcard. A minute further on I gatecrash someone’s reality; on the footbridge over the Cuckmere there are a couple of girls in all their fake-tan high-heeled wedding guest finery having their picture taken with Alfriston church in the background. I slow to squeeze past and ask if I can have a swig of their drink. It’s some cider punch, it has fruit in it so therefore good. I gulp half a pint on their insistence, thank them, ponder if I’ve entered the wrong event of the day and carry on.
The climb out of the river valley onto Windover Hill starts off as an old deep gulleyed track through trees, it’s steep enough at this stage of proceedings and tongue-out tricky with rocks and roots to step up, but belligerence and concentration sees me to the top, I’m not going to dab a foot now, there is a small amount of pride left, despite the two bits of hill I had to walk earlier by the A27. Cross the Wilmington road and the path opens up to classic South Downs again prescribing the hill in a gentle arc to emerge into a wide open field, the Long Man hiding under your feet to the left.
Thread the ribbon of brown that cuts across Holt Brow, left into the suddenly dark woods and take the cheeky right luckily signed with a brace of orange arrows and clatter the roots into Jevington. Ow, ow, ow, ow, fukinow. Every pedal stroke is one less to the finish, one more hill to go, one more hill. There’s no chance for history to repeat itself now. Stop at the church to refill the water bottle just in case, but mainly to gather fortitude, right and then left past the birthplace of banoffee pie and into the final challenge.
The initial effort of Bourne Hill could be a pleasant climb through a tunnel of trees, but it’s made horrible by the stuttery surface of greasy rock and brick. Bump and grind. When the trees end the open downland starts again and the path steepens in an exponential curve up to the trig point that overlooks destination Eastbourne.
There is complete body hurt now, why do the insides of my elbows ache so bloody much? My chain dry rasps in sympathy, but it’s been doing that for 80 miles. There is a biting of a bottom lip and an awkward gulp in the throat but my soul isn’t going to leave my body this time. Fight on, concentrate on the top, concentrate on the inch in front of the wheel. Stop that gulp becoming a cry. I have done this hill before, I’m not going to fail now. I crest the final brow and in the distance I can see the finish that’s the pub at Beachy Head, it’s not far away and yet a long long way away. No blubbing now. Desperately hold on for the final insignificant descent, to call it a descent is fluffing it up, it’s a gentle slope down but it still makes my entire upper body whimper.
Cross the A259 where it plummets into town and follow orange arrows across scruffy greenery to avoid the road. A time-trial is pounding up from Eastbourne at intervals, which is a bit bizarre, clashing into a world of shiny clean grunting in the big ring, while I’m all dirty sweat and easy gears. A friend is marshalling the corner, hello extra weird. One final push along the road and up to the finish line, or a timing mat by a van in a car park by the pub. It’s not the most glorious ending but there are cheers from the helpers and a medal. I sit down and eat the emergency pastry that’s been in my back pocket in quiet contemplative celebration.
It is done. That was… hard. The gentle slow thumbscrew application of hurt. But the demons from that ride once upon a long ago have finally been banished, though they did leave chew marks and almost broke me again for I have been painstakingly emptied. I should feel elated that I have lifted myself of this self-imposed burden, or even just a little bit relieved, but I’m mostly just tired.
I bloody love it here with all my heart. Only love can break your heart.
That’s my history with this ride done.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.