The South Downs Double is the classic English mountain biking challenge: 200 miles across the lumpy bits of the South, as fast as you can. Last month Grace Henderson became only the second woman ever to complete it solo. Here’s her story.
Late a few Saturday nights ago my mountain bike and I pitched up outside a dingy kebab shop, complete with its own bouncer and drunk people yelling about how desperate they were for greasy meat. Not the endpoint I’d usually choose for a bike ride, being more a tea and cakes kind of girl, but the ride itself was a bit unusual.
I had just ridden the entire 100-mile length of the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne and back again. Only the second woman to ever complete the challenge solo, my time of 30 hours, 51 minutes and 30 seconds makes me the fastest woman to have completed the ride supported. (The famous endurance racer Lydia Gould holds the record for the fastest unsupported South Downs Double.)
The idea of the South Downs Double has always held a bit of magic for me. The landscape of the South Downs is beautiful and I love long-distance cycling, especially off-road with no traffic to spoil the fun.
I decided about a year ago that the South Downs Double 200-mile bike ride was a challenge I wanted to attack. I went on some long rides and learned the route; I practiced eating and drinking on the bike; I got a shiny new bike with big fast wheels – a Santa Cruz Superlight 29er – the perfect and most comfortable machine for the job.
The clock’s ticking
The early part of the year was too muddy. I thought it would never stop raining, and then summer came and went and I realised that September 21 was absolutely my last possible chance for this year. The date was set.
I set off from the King Alfred statue in Winchester at 4.30pm on the Friday. Expecting the ride to take longer than the Holy Grail 24 hour target I thought this would give me enough time to make it back before nightfall, thereby avoiding having to ride in darkness twice.
The best laid plans. The start was inauspicious. I pressed start on my timer, pedalled on to the roundabout – and got stuck in traffic. Only for a few minutes though and then I was on the cycle path, headed for fields and freedom.
The first few miles seemed to zip by and buoyed by the average speed reading on my Garmin I started visualising a 25-hour finish time. But the Winchester end is faster, with more country lanes and less arduous climbs than the Eastbourne end, so deep down I knew victory wasn’t mine for the taking and anyway, with 180 miles still to go it was too soon to be considering the finish line.
I always get a bit ‘Blair Witch Project’ spooked out riding in woods at night so I was keen to get through Queen Elizabeth Country Park before dusk, maybe that made me pedal faster in those first few hours.
I settled in to a steady rhythm of riding and eating and drinking, trying to keep every movement smooth and energy-efficient. Darkness fell and it started to rain. I got my waterproof on just in time before the gentle mizzle became a downpour and kept pedalling.
Top tip from current SDD record-holder Josh Ibbett: ‘pedal fast but not too fast and don’t stop.’
Despite the rain I was enjoying the night ride and the solitude of my mission. As I crested Harting Down I realised I wasn’t as alone as I thought. A giant owl was sitting on a South Downs Way signpost. I looked at him in awe, so rare to see such a creature; and he looked at me, probably in irritation as I was no doubt blinding him with the full force of my Exposure Diablo head light.
Down the next hill I was expecting to see deer as I’d seen them there the week before and I wasn’t disappointed. They bounded into the trees as I sped towards them.
Badgers badgers badgers
Still on a high from seeing the owl, my night riding experience was made even more perfect by the noisy arrival on the trail ahead of me of a badger. And then another one, and a third. No night ride is complete without a decent badger spot so to see three in one evening was brilliant. Smiles all round. Yes, I was talking to myself by this point.
I punctured just above the A27 road crossing but managed to get fixed up and running again relatively quickly. I was keen to get across the road as the next section of trail is part of my commute home from work so I know it well and was hoping to make back some time on the more familiar route.
As I approached Chanctonbury Ring I saw bike lights ahead of me, a welcoming committee of friends come to chase me over the top of Brighton and away from the lure of going home to bed.
I’ve suffered with sleepiness in other night-time bike races but not this time, making it to Eastbourne was my sole aim and the night ride, complete with starlit backdrop, was so lovely that thoughts of bed didn’t even cross my mind.
Down to the River Adur and up Truleigh Hill and here popped up Rob Dean, the fastest man to ride the South Downs Double on a singlespeed (and, more importantly, my other half) fresh off the plane from Korea. No time for chatting though, I was in the zone: eat, drink, pedal, eat, drink, pedal.
From Ditchling Beacon I was back on my own and the temperature started to drop. It was under 5 degrees at the coldest point over night, just about when I got my second puncture of the ride.
This is just bad luck, I am light and I have big wheels, I never get punctures – I am puncture proof. And because of this, rubbish at fixing them. A sharp piece of flint had poked a hole in my tubeless tyre, those anchovy things just wouldn’t work for me.
I put a tube in, it instantly got a puncture from some tiny shard of something or other that I hadn’t found on my initial tyre exam. I fixed the puncture, started pumping, realised I hadn’t fixed the puncture. And repeat. This is actually shameful. Who goes on a 200-mile bike ride without being able to fix a simple puncture? Mock me, I deserve it.
The worst part of puncture-gate is that I never really fixed it properly. Every half hour for about four hours I had to stop and pump up the tyre.
Rolling slowly into Eastbourne there was a fantastic sunrise and I was momentarily ecstatic to see the sea, but then my spirits and the tyre deflated again as I realised I couldn’t fix the puncture and riding another 100 miles with a squishy tyre was a ridiculous option.
Eastbourne train station seemed a welcome destination. I phoned Rob, full of throwing in the towel suggestions and defeatist attitude. He told me to keep going and he would come and meet me at Alfriston to fix the wheel. I turned round and started plodding back up the hill.
I had volunteered myself for the challenge of the Double and even used it as a charity fundraiser to make the whole thing a bit more worthwhile, but at that point with a squishy tyre and the thought of doing the whole route again backwards, I was seriously contemplating quitting. I wanted to quit, I really did.
But even as I heard myself saying to Rob ‘I don’t want to ride anymore, I want to go home’ I knew I couldn’t let myself off the hook that easily. He urged me to get into the car to keep warm while he sorted the bike out, but I couldn’t do it. I kept my backpack on and stared bleakly at the journey ahead of me.
Stiff upper lip
Once the bike was fixed (in about 30 seconds) there were no more excuses for stopping so I was up and at ‘em. I admit it, I cried my eyes out at this point. I had chosen this challenge but the distance left to ride seemed insurmountable and if I was tired and in pain, who could I blame but myself?
I was literally sobbing as I wheeled through Alfriston village, only pulling myself together when a dog walker approached. Stiff upper lip and all that.
Somewhere between Alfriston and Firle the cloud of misery lifted and I started to enjoy the ride again. I watched paragliders floating above the Downs in the sunshine. Everyone was out having fun in the sun, including me.
At Kingston Ridge Rob appeared again on his bike to spur me on and then at various points along the way friends popped up to wave and cheer. Accepting mechanical help meant my ride could no longer be classed as Alpine style, so in supported rider style I had the pleasure of people opening gates for me.
The gates were one of the biggest challenges for me, I’m convinced that being shorter made opening and closing the more than 100 less than perfectly maintained gates on the route harder work.
Soon enough I was alone again and the miles kept passing. It had been obvious by the time it took me to get to the halfway point that I’d be riding well into the night again, so extra lights had been provided by the hastily assembled support crew. No badgers, owls or bunnies for company this time though.
I was ticking off the milestones and singing out loud to my iPod. Down Amberley Mount, past the last tap at Cocking, through the spooky woods, push up Harting Down (scanning the woods for any sign of the night-time deer), over the road, and on and on, bound with determination for QE Country Park.
The home straight
Once you get there and up Butser Hill you’re on the home straight. I saw a few mountain bikers in the woods of the park, including Tom from Exposure, busy making ready for the arrival of the first few Max Exposure racers. Knowing I was doing the Double he asked me if I was just setting off. Perhaps he was just being kind, or perhaps the dark of the night hid how exhausted I looked.
Finally Butser Hill loomed in front of me – I could still move my legs, albeit slowly. (Big thanks to Sabreen at Active Physio Clincs for the amazing pre-ride physio which kept my legs turning smoothly right to the last) but my breathing was becoming laboured every time I had to go uphill and I was getting impatient for the finish line now.
Friends popped up to cheer me on again and I must admit that though I had wanted to do the Double Alpine-style, having cheerleaders for moral support was fantastic. At Old Winchester Hill Rob appeared again, bringing more warm clothes for me as a combination of tiredness and slowing speed was making me shiver.
The hill, which had seemed short on the way up, seemed to go down and down and down forever – isn’t that meant to be the other way around?
The last section of the ride is a bit of a blur in my memory, my tired mind visualising the last turn round every corner, only to be disappointed to realise I wasn’t there yet. And then all of a sudden, I was there.
The final section of trail into Winchester city centre runs alongside a busy road to get people safely across the ring road from the South Downs Way. It’s less than distinguished, but it had never looked better.
Through the streets, round the roundabout, and back to the King Alfred statue where I started 30 hours, 51 minutes and 30 seconds before.
I’d made it.
And that’s how my support crew and I ended up in the takeaway, devouring plates of really rather good fish and chips. Well, it was Winchester, the takeaway was never going to be that dingy.
My South Downs Double didn’t exactly work out as planned, but it must have been fun because I’m already thinking about a second attempt next year. I raised more than £300 for charity with this effort so thanks very much to everyone who sponsored me and, of course, to all who helped and supported me on the big day.
10 things I learned from doing the South Downs Double
Keep eating and drinking regularly. Food = legs turning, eyes staying open and body staying warm.
Learn every twist and turn of the route; the trail can look different when you’re tired.
Practice the sections you’ll ride in the dark, in the dark.
Enlist some friends as supporters; having cheerleaders can make a real difference to your motivation.
Include some sprint and hill repeat sessions in your training to build power as well as endurance.
Stop. Keep moving, however slowly, and you will get there in the end.
Forget to be cautious with your lights. I used mine on a 10-hour setting which meant I had no back-up when it got dark again.
Cross your fingers and hope it won’t happen to you. No long distance bike ride will ever be free from mechanicals.
Try anything new on the day. I had some chocolate ice-cream protein bars but only managed half of one as they were so chalky.
Forget to smile and enjoy the challenge!
About the South Downs Double
The South Downs Double is a 200-mile bike challenge with the aim being to ride the South Downs Way there and back in under 24 hours. The women’s unsupported record currently stands at 27 hours, 26 minutes and 52 seconds (Lydia Gould). The men’s unsupported record currently stands at 17 hours, 47 minutes and 30 seconds (Josh Ibbett).