Ever since I became a mid-life crisis endurance cyclist, I’ve held the South Downs Double (SDD) in mind as one ride I knew I’d have to one day attempt. It’s a special ride for UK cyclists, perhaps because it’s quite possibly the original UK long distance off-road time trial. Over the years, as numerous other routes have appeared (see selfsupporteduk.net), the SDD has remained a must-do for endurance riders. Part of the attraction is its simplicity – ride 200 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne and back – following an established route & making use of public drinking water taps along the way. Just you, your bike, and the hills. Make it back in under 24 hours and you join the South Downs Double “Hall of Fame”.
Look deeper and you see the small print: in excess of 20,000 feet of climbing – not long gradual climbs, but mostly the long steep granny gear sort. The route is mostly quite exposed, leaving you open to a battering from the wind in one direction or another, and offering little in the way of shelter from the summer sun. It’s also best to avoid the South Downs Way when it’s wet – chalk, flint and rain make for a nasty combination. Whilst researching the route, I came across a statistic suggesting that only 30% of people attempting the Double manage to finish…and only a handful within my optimistic goal of 20 hours.
It’s Wednesday 16th July 2014 and I’m standing under the King Alfred statue in Winchester, the traditional start/finish point of the South Downs Double. It’s around 6pm and the warm evening sun is shining. As ever, my lovely wife, Ceci, is here to support me with pre-and post-ride logistics and to send out updates to family and friends as the ride progresses. We’ve just ridden the first couple of miles of the route out & back together so I can learn the start as it leaves Old Winchester (I’ve been warned it could be a bit confusing – it was). Part of me just wants to forget about the Double and go for a nice bike ride with Ceci in the evening sunshine, but there’ll be lots of time for that later. Bike’s looking good. I’m feeling ok. It’s time to get on with it. My South Downs Double attempt starts at 6:14pm.
Within a couple of miles of dodging traffic out through Old Winchester you’ve reached the countryside, where you’ll remain for most the route. The SDW starts you off fairly gently, allowing a nice warm-up of the legs. Although I’m not familiar with the route, I’ve read and seen enough to know that you need to take advantage of these early miles. Of course I have to be careful not to start off too quickly, but the lack of major climbs means the first 20 miles go by quickly in 1 hr 34 mins. At mile 21 comes Butser Hill, in this direction a descent. Two thoughts go through my mind as I plummet down the 350ft grassy slope at 35mph: “Wooohoooo!” and ” this is NOT going to be fun to climb up after 180 miles!”
The Butser descent leads straight into Queen Elizabeth Country Park, where I lose my first minute or two to navigation blunders. There are points on the route where the classic SDW I am following deviates from the signposts. Here I end up messing around amongst the trees when I should just follow the paved road through the park and out the other side. No great harm done, but I’m already cursing my lack of route familiarity compared to many previous Doublers. Once through the park, it’s a swift 15 miles to the first tap at Cocking Hill Barn, 36 miles in and 9:16pm. This is the first official tap on the route and also the only one that I had previous experience of – in 2010 I rode a short stretch of the SDW with some friends before bivying just off the route & returning the next day. I quickly fill my bottles (710ml and 610ml Camelbak Podiums), thumb a quick text to Ceci so she can send out an update to friends & family, and I’m back on my way. Now, in order to get under my 20 hour target, I’m aiming for at least 10mph average over the ride. I’m feeling pretty good at this point and averaging just under 13mph, but of course well aware that this is the easiest stretch of the ride by some margin and that average will only decrease as the hills get bigger and my legs get tired.
The sunlight is starting to fade and I find myself needing to switch on my lights at 9:30pm as visibility in the woods is getting a bit sketchy. I nearly borrowed a friend’s Exposure Diablo for this ride, but in the end decided to stick with my tried & tested Maxx-D on the bars. The Diablo would have saved me a chunk of weight, but even with a fairly short period of darkness on the cards I just love that I don’t have to worry about the run time on my lights. As I have done on previous long rides, I set the Maxx-D to medium and there it stays for the next seven hours or so, supplemented by a helmet-mounted Exposure Joystick when I need it.
10:28pm and I reach 50 miles, 4 hrs 15 mins ride time. I send a quick update text and pedal onwards. I’m approaching Washington where – according to my notes – there is a public tap. My bottles aren’t yet completely empty but to be safe I’d like to refill here. I slow down and shine my head torch left and right, left and right, peering into the darkness for some sign of a tap. I know it’s here somewhere, my map says so. Oh well, my map also says there’s another tap seven miles ahead at Botolphs, I’ve wasted enough time here so I crack on.
Now, I don’t recall exactly what time it was, but at some point during the night the most beautiful moon I’ve ever seen rises in front of me. Huge, bright and red, it really takes my breath away and I wish Ceci was here to share it with me. I always enjoy riding through the night…it’s as if you have the world to yourself , and I’m feeling privileged to be out here. No matter the enormity of the task, it boils down to simply a whole load of time doing what I love, riding my bike through the countryside.
59 miles in and I’m looking for the Botolphs tap. I waste some more time backtracking, fearing I passed it. Can’t find it. This could be awkward, I really need this fill-up. Eventually I find it about 100 metres further down the trail. Phew! Bottles filled, onwards, but with more time wasted.
By this point I’m feeling that my legs aren’t quite as happy as I’d like. My preparation for this ride maybe wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, but my legs shouldn’t be feeling this heavy so soon. Oh well, plod along and see how it goes. As expected, the closer I get to Eastbourne, the bigger and steeper the hills are. I’m clearly slowing down, but not yet too worried as this is to be expected – the 40 miles or so towards Eastbourne were always going to be tough work.
A super quick stop at Housedean (74 miles) to top up the bottles should keep me going to Jevington church (93 miles). I’m not a religious man, but I do appreciate how reliable churches can be for water stops – top tip if you’re in unfamiliar territory and in need of a refill – head for the local church (also handily marked on your OS map)!
At around 3:30am I make it to the end of the South Downs Way… without actually knowing it. It’s still dark and I’m tearing down a grassy hill when my GPS bleeps “off course” at me. I stop, pull up the map and try to work out where I went wrong. Oh, I’ve just gone past the end. Well, that was anti-climactic! Other than my GPS track, the only hint that I’ve reached Eastbourne is the slight whiff of sea air and the sound of a seagull. I check my watch…9 hours 13 minutes. Not too bad, but I have a feeling I’ll be considerably slower on the way back. I plonk the bike on the ground for a couple of minutes, have a quick stretch, mix up a Rego recovery drink and, as promised, leave a voicemail for Ceci with details of my one-way time and how I’m feeling.
The next two hours are the hardest of the ride. Hauling myself back over those big, steep hills is slowing me down. I’m starting to suspect that the home-made rice cakes I’ve been mostly using for fuel are just not giving me enough of a kick for the intensity of this ride. I’d used them in training for a while with success, enjoying the lack of blood sugar rollercoasting, but none of my training rides demanded the frequent and sustained high intensity efforts that really can’t be avoided on a singlespeed bike along the South Downs Way. Fortunately, I’ve also brought a good mix of Torq bars, High5 Energy bars and SiS gels, so I decide to switch to higher sugar content fuel and this helps me enormously for the rest of the ride. That first High5 Coconut bar tastes so good! Clearly my body was screaming for easier to digest fuel.
The sun rises by about 04:30. Finally I have a sea view, albeit behind me. At one point I actually stop to admire the stunning view. From high up on the ridge I can see pockets of mist down below, the tops of buildings poking through here and there. This is what it’s all about, I think to myself. The night so far had remained fairly mild, adequately dealt with by my lightweight gilet. At this point of the early morning though, those misty valleys are cold, requiring arm warmers and some fast pedalling to prevent the cold creeping in. But it’s not long before the sun is feeling warm on my back, and the early morning dew on the grass that sprays into my face on fast descents becomes quite refreshing.
It’s clear this is going to be a hot day. I’m passing Housedean Farm at around 6:30am, with about 73 miles remaining, and the sun is already hot on my back. I’ve lost a bit more time since the turn, and I know that my super-stretch goal of beating Rob Dean’s incredible 18hrs 41min singlespeed record will have to wait for another day.
A sight for sore eyes (and legs) appears over Ditchling Beacon at 7:05am. I’d recognise that Cal jersey anywhere…that’s Ceci riding towards me! We ride together for ten minutes, mindful that this is an unsupported ride so no drafting and no help with the gates. Oh yes, the gates….this is the SDW, so of course there are lots of them. 200 over the double apparently. To be honest though, they really don’t seem to irritate me as much as the gates along the Pennine Bridleway did on my end to end ride last year. I think perhaps the SDW gates are spaced a little more evenly so you can generally get a decent run in between them.
Ceci & I part ways before the descent into Pyecombe. I’m starting to feel a bit stronger now. The fuelling change is making a difference, and it helps to know that most of nastiest hills around Eastbourne are behind me. Of course, the climbs keep on coming, but I’m finally getting that “diesel power” feeling – where you feel that you can ride forever – albeit without the bursts of high power that leave the legs during a long ride like this.
9:04am and I pass through Washington. Naturally, that flippin’ tap I failed to find in the dark is blatantly conspicuous right on the side of the road. This time I don’t need it as I’ve already refilled bottles and poured cold water over my head at Botolphs a few miles back. (Although despite soaking my buff and jersey, within minutes it had already dried up.) This hot day was still going to get a lot hotter!
I continue to push on, spinning well on the (occasional!) flats, making slow but stubborn progress on the more gentle hills, and pushing up the steepest. I’m happy to reach the Cocking Hill Barn tap at 10:50am. Mentally, this is an important milestone as it’s the final refill of the ride and I know the easier stretch towards Winchester is coming. I’m now thinking that a sub 20 hour finish is looking tight, but certainly somewhere between 20 and 21 hours should be realistic. The climb up Cocking Down has other ideas. It’s only a 400ft elevation gain, far less than many on the route, but with an 8% grade at this point in the ride my legs are not enjoying this hill. Eventually I decide discretion to be the better part of valour and I get off and push. I’m riding well in between the climbs, but I also opt to walk part of the climb before the descent into Queen Elizabeth Park. Of course, us singlespeeders really have two gears: one – walking, and two – pedalling. Often first gear is not much slower than second and – particularly in the context of steep hills – prudent use of first gear is useful to protect legs from blowing up.
Butser Hill was fun on the way down yesterday. It would clearly be a hot, sweaty first gear climb today. By a stroke of luck, Ceci drives around the corner honking the horn at me just as I cross the road towards the bottom of Butser. We say a quick hello and I explain that I’m now aiming at somewhere between 20 and 21 hours, particularly with this Butser push ahead of me. I make a half-hearted attempt to ride a bit of the long grassy climb, but it soon ramps up and I admit inevitable defeat, step off the bike and begin to walk. Around 100 metres or so from the top, I can see someone with a camera pointed in my direction. I figure it must be Neil Newell (ex-SDD singlespeed record holder) who had suggested he might try & meet me somewhere out on the trail. I’m happy to see Neil, but I’m damned if the only picture of me on this ride will be whilst I’m in singlespeed first gear – walking. Giving in to pride, I swing my leg over the bike, clip into the right pedal and push off up the hill towards Neil. I manage to wobble my way past him, say a quick hello and continue onwards, gaining some relief from the knowledge that there are only 20 miles and 1500 feet of climbing between me and the finish.
I had resigned myself to missing out on a sub 20 hour finish, but I now look at my watch, do some rough calculations in my head, and realise that actually it might still be do-able. I reckon if I can achieve at least 14 mph average over the last 20 miles then it’s still on. To do this on a singlespeed after 180 miles of hills is not going to be easy. After all, that’s just about the average speed I’ll achieve on a particularly fast 30 mile training ride in the Chilterns. However, I’m feeling good away from the steep climbs and it has to be worth a try. I suppose adrenaline kicks in near the end of a big ride like this, but I find myself spinning as hard & fast as I do on those local, short training rides. I’m helped by a few fast descents, whilst constantly glancing at the speed readout on my Garmin and feeling encouraged whenever it’s above 14mph. I’m pushing hard on the flats, and for the first time in the ride getting as aero as possible on the descents. Somewhere along this stretch I see Neil again (with his camera). This time I fly past him and yell “Sub-20 hours could still be on!”.
By the time I’m climbing up to Telegraph Hill, I know I’ve made it. Less than five miles remain, all easy or downhill, and I have about 30 minutes in hand. I have a smile on my face for those final few miles. I’m still pedalling hard, wanting the best time possible, but allowing myself to feel the satisfaction of a job well done. I spin down through Old Winchester, left on the roundabout and straight ahead of me King Alfred is waiting along with Ceci and Neil. Ceci stops her watch timer… 19 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds. I feel pretty satisfied with that as it puts me in the top 5 all-time SDD results.
Needless to say, I owe a huge thanks to Ceci for all the support before & after the ride, and for tirelessly keeping friends and family updated on my progress. She’s a total godsend whenever I do silly things like this.
Thanks also to Neil for the pre-ride route assistance and giving up his time to meet me out on the trail and at the finish. Thanks to Roger for the loan of his GPS, Matt for the offer of a Diablo (and a GPS!), and Rob Lee & Chris Noble for some useful tips before the ride.
A few words about the bike. I generally ride a custom Singular Pegasus, but my wife’s been enjoying it a little too much lately so this time I was on my Salsa Selma 29er, which is also a fantastic race bike. The main triangle is Scandium, with a carbon rear end for comfort. I opted to keep my preferred rigid Niner forks on the front for this ride as I wanted the bike to be as light as possible for all the climbs. I knew I’d lose a little time on the descents over a suspension fork, but I planned on picking careful lines anyway in order to avoid the dreaded flint punctures that the SDW is famous for. Amazingly, I didn’t suffer any punctures, I’m sure partly due to luck, but also perhaps because I’m accustomed to riding on the Chiltern hills where flint is a constant threat…therefore careful line choice is second nature for me. For tyre geeks, the rear is a Continental Race King ProTection 2.2. I really like this tyre on bumpy trails as it has a stiff carcass so I can run low pressure for comfort and speed whilst having a fighting chance at avoiding damaging the rim. Front tyre is a Schwalbe Racing Ralph Snakeskin. I’ve sliced a few of these in the Chilterns, but nevertheless they do seem to hold up better than most, and roll super fast with a reasonable level of grip considering it’s a race tyre. The Snakeskin sidewalls are essential and only carry a modest weight penalty.
I usually run either 32-18 or 33-19 gearing for most rides. In this case I opted to put an easier 20 on the back, paired with a recent find - a Goldtec OneKey oval chainring. The latter has been a revelation for me, really doing a great job of eliminating the dead spot in the pedal stroke. I like it so much I’ve placed an order for five of them!
And finally, Ceci makes it all worthwhile with some fantastic American home-made brownies and a cold beer…