I have been riding on the South Downs since mountain bikes first arrived in England in the 80s. I never get bored with it and enjoy it as much today as I did then.
Back in the day, riding the whole of the South Downs Way non-stop became a popular challenge so it seemed natural to give it a try. I have completed it several times over the years, getting my time down from over 14hrs to 9hrs 31mins. It is a pretty tough day out though, so I was gobsmacked when Ian Butler completed the first non-stop two way ride inside 24hrs in 2005. Over the next few years I heard of several more riders completing the double in faster and faster times, but I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do the double myself.
However, the double had fired my imagination and I became curious as to just how far I could push myself. I discussed the possibility of attempting the ride with my friend and coach Julia Armstrong. She was sure that with the right preparation I could do it, but despite her confidence I still had my doubts. I always felt that for me to complete the double within 24hrs was a huge ask.
We drew up a plan and I started to train specifically for the double in the summer of 2009. By spring 2010, I was in great shape and had just completed one of my fastest ever long road rides on Sunday March 14th, my birthday. Three days later, I was lying in the road screaming with pain with a separated shoulder and some displaced ribs having been hit by a car on my ride home from work. Game over for a 2010 double attempt.
It took quite a while before I could ride properly off-road again, but, by late summer 2010 I was back and spent the winter training hard, whilst keeping a keen eye out for hatchbacks turning right when I was road riding.
By June this year I was ready for a try at the double. It was one of the longest days of the year with a full moon, so should have been perfect. However, it did not go to plan. It poured down with rain and there was a screaming headwind. Worse still, the temperature during the night plummeted to less than 2 degrees and I got extremely cold. Eventually, mildly hypothermic, after a huge downhill crash and hopelessly behind schedule, I called it a day after 130miles.
Although disappointed I learnt a lot from this ride, the key thing being only to make an attempt in perfect weather conditions. There followed an extremely frustrating period. Whenever I had work commitments, the weather was perfect, warm and still. When I had time available, it was either pouring with rain, blowing a gale or a combination of the two. I was also losing daylight every week and by August any 24 hour ride would involve 2 additional hours of night riding. I became obsessed with weather websites, looking for a suitable weather window whilst desperately trying to hold on to my fitness. The last few months have been incredibly windy but, eventually, an opportunity presented itself.
So, finally, at 13:15 on Friday 19th August I set off from Eastbourne and pedalled up the first hill. I spent the first few miles settling down, spinning up the climbs and not expending too much energy fighting the slightly unwelcome headwind. It was a fine line finding the right pace: on the one hand I didn’t want to use up my legs too early in the ride; yet I knew I had to push on or I would not complete the distance inside 24 hours. I was wearing an HRM but rode on feel for pretty much the whole ride.
I had an uneventful ride on the outward leg, stopping as briefly as possible at Truleigh Hill to pick up water and down a For Goodness Shakes sachet, and then again at Cocking where I clipped on my Exposure Joystick helmet light, put on my gilet and arm warmers, and went into night mode.
Riding at night is always special. I hadn’t seen another human being for hours, but I was certainly not alone. Into the twilight I was accompanied by the biggest bat I have ever seen, deer started to appear in ever increasing numbers and I was often regarded by luminous eyes peering silently at me from amongst the trees in the wooded sections.
At one point, I could see something on the trail ahead; this turned out to be a tiny owl which looked exactly like a character from a children’s book. At another point, I saw a bunch of huge stags silently watching me from an adjacent field. It’s amazing how many deer there are living on the Downs, I simply can`t imagine where it is they all go to in the daytime. During the first hours of the night there was no moon so it was very black I pushed on, being careful not to hit any suicidal rabbits or badgers and enjoying the sensation of feeling almost like a visitor in another world.
Riding up Butser Hill the half-full moon finally put in an appearance. After this point, there are no big climbs so I pushed on hard in the flatter sections, anxious to take time wherever I could. Some of the wooded sections were very wet and muddy which was a bit of a hindrance but I eventually rode around King Alfred’s Statue in Winchester in 11hrs and 5mins. This was a little slower than I would have liked but still gave me a big enough margin to make it back. Once again I was pushing hard on the flatter section before Butser in the knowledge that in the end any lost minutes could make the difference between getting inside 24hrs, or not.
It was here that I heard the unwelcome sound of a rear wheel puncture accompanied by the feeling of sealant spraying onto my calves. It was a big hole, smack in the middle of the tread. I anxiously waited for the sealant to do its thing; eventually, after much frantic wheel spinning and holding my thumb over the hole it stopped. The tyre still had just enough air in it to ride on so I decided to continue to Cocking where I was scheduled to stop for water rather than wasting any more time. At Cocking, I picked up water and topped up the pressure in the tyre.
Less than a mile up the trail, air started escaping again. I managed to get it to stop and pumped up the tyre, only to repeat the process a few hundred yards up the trail. The hole was clearly too much for the sealant and it was pretty obvious that I needed to fit a tube.
I rode along with the rhythmic hissing sound of air escaping from the tyre; then, it suddenly occurred to me that I had tightened up my tubeless valve stem tightly with a pair of pliers. Needless to say, I was not carrying pliers but, if I could not unscrew the stem, I would not be able to fit an inner tube and I would be going no further! I was in full mental panic mode now.
I stopped by the side of the trail and tried to unscrew the valve lock nut. Thankfully, after some effort it came undone and I quickly whipped off the tyre and stuck a tube in. By now, I felt like I had wasted a huge amount of time and was very anxious about making it inside 24hrs. Not long after this stressful episode, the sun came up; this greatly lifted my spirits. I was very happy to be riding in daylight again which takes a lot less concentration than night riding.
I pushed on but the miles had taken their toll on my legs and I was climbing very slowly. The long climb up to Truleigh Hill felt very tough and I was starting to seriously worry about making it as there are some big climbs in the last section before Eastbourne. At the tap I downed another sachet of For Goodness Shakes. I had 5hrs left. Normally I can easily ride back from Truleigh Hill in less than 4hrs but I was not confident that I had it in my legs.
However, on the stiff climb out of Saddlescombe the For Goodness Shake and gels started to hit the spot and my climbing legs gradually started to come back to me. I was pushing hard now everywhere as I was desperate not to miss the 24hrs cut off by a few minutes after so much effort.
By the time I reached Ditchling Beacon, I felt very tired but had just under 4hrs to finish so had largely held onto my hour margin. I hammered the fast flat section along Plumpton Plain assisted by a handy tailwind and stormed the downhill to the A27. The long climb after the A27 is not overly steep but is a grind on a good day I was not sure how I was going to cope but my legs were feeling much better and I made it up at a pretty reasonable speed without too much fuss.
The steep climb up onto Beddingham Hill went much the same way. I was riding flat out now, using up everything I had left in the tank, gritting my teeth and swearing at any sheep that got in my way, believing that anything less than 100% effort would still result in failure.
My wife had recently told me about a quote from Sir Edmund Hillary. When he came down from Everest he summed up his achievement by saying: “Well, we knocked the bastard off”. That quote was going round and round in my head as I rode along; in the end, after all the thinking and meticulous planning, it is purely down to getting it done, putting down the effort and just finishing the bastard.
I reached Alfriston with about an hour and a half left. I can normally get back from Alfiston in 45mins so I finally started to relax, although I was becoming increasingly paranoid about getting a last minute puncture. I put all my remaining energy into the last climb out of Jevington and the last flat section across the golf course.
As usual, there were lots of immaculately turned out golfers wandering around but I felt as if I had no connection with their world at all. After 23hrs of almost constant riding, my world consisted only of kinetic energy with one purpose, to keep moving forwards as fast as possible. God knows what I looked like to them, probably a filthy, stinking, sweaty crazed maniac!
Finally, I reached the end. Flying down the last descent, I could see the end marker together with my wife Brioni and friend Julia ecstatically jumping up and down. I had made it unsupported in 23hrs 19mins and 39secs.
Julia had thoughtfully brought a bottle of Champagne which I duly cracked open and took a couple of big swigs. After a day on energy gels it tasted absolutely delicious and had a very rapid if slightly detrimental effect on my mental faculties.
Doing the double has been my dream for the last two years. Apparently when I stopped I just kept saying “I can’t believe it”, and to be honest I still can’t.
The South Downs Double ride may be a solo effort but I have had a lot of help along the way. I don`t have any sponsors, but the following people have helped me to get hold of the right kit:
- Tom Brown at Marin Bikes for getting hold of my excellent Carbon CXR 29er Frameset
- Andy Jeffries from ATB Sales Ltd for helping me out with Shimano parts
- Eurobike for the superb American Classics Tubeless 29er Wheels
- Exposure Lights for the outstanding Joystick and MaxxD lights
- SIS for their great sports nutrition products
Also, a big thank you to: Rory Hitchens and Steve Heading for their advice and encouragement. Alison Ogles and Nick Webborn at Sportwise for getting me back on my bike.
And a massive thankyou to Julia Armstrong for her unfailing encouragement, advice and coaching, but mostly for being my friend.
Finally I could not have even attempted this without the support of my wife Brioni. She has put up with two years of me obsessing and training for the ride, a task that is easily more stressful than the ride itself. I literally could not have done it without her.