The South Downs Way, a 100 mile bridleway route along the historic South Downs from Winchester to Eastbourne, the Neolithic version of a motorway.
There’s 3810m of climbing in the 100 miles and hardly an inch of flat. For years the challenge has been to ride the length of the Downs. But then some endurance cyclists, a few brain cells short of the full complement, decided to try and ride it both ways non-stop. 200 miles with a mighty 7620m of climbing packed into the folded contours of the route.
Then some slightly more crazed cyclists decided to ride the whole length of the Downs and back unsupported, carrying all their food and equipment for the ride apart from water which was collected from the public taps en route. Then the challenge was the do this in under 24-hours, which was soon achieved.
The problem with setting times for long distances is there is always another more competitive endurance cyclist in the wings willing to try and beat it. Thus the problem escalated. More cyclists tried the double and the record tumbled and tumbled, down to the record of 18h 3m 12s, set by Ian Leitch in 2009.
Then a young and even more ambitious cyclist decided that he would quite like to break the record. Me!
The double record has been in my sights since I moved down to Brighton in the spring. I quickly fell in love with the South Downs, the long rides, big views, the peace and quiet. So not wanting to do things by half I decided the best thing to do would be to do a double: really quickly.
So at the stroke of midnight on Thursday 22nd September, I headed out from the shadow of King Alfred’s statue in Winchester on my attempt at the record.
I had been super nervous all day, shaky hands and all. I knew my preparation was good. I had the bike for the job; full suspension 29ers are the way to go for this kind of stupidity (big orange ones are even better!). I had the route dialled in my mind, my nutrition plan sorted and was travelling light compared to all the previous attempts – I had no rucksack, all my food and equipment was stored on the bike frame or in my jersey pockets.
The reason I was so nervous was a lack of confidence over my form. I had trained hard over summer, including regular recces of the route and had planned a block of three hard races to get in top shape. Unfortunately I managed to get ill and missed all my end of season races and pretty much not ride my bike. In actual fact I had all but written off the double for this year and if it wasn’t for a snap decision upon returning from an awesome trip to Italy a week previously I wouldn’t have started it.
I planned to ride myself into it gradually. The first few miles are off-road which allowed plenty of time to warm up. The only difficulties encountered in the opening miles were avoiding a policeman who was exposed by my Exposure Lights weeing in the bushes!
I was very conscious of my fitness, or lack of (so I thought), so was keen to hold back at the start. I knew I would struggle on the steep climbs in the middle of the route so wanted to save some energy for them. I was also running a minimal lighting set up to save weight. An Exposure Diablo on low setting on my helmet plus another Diablo on my bars with an additional single cell Piggy Back Battery to allow me to flick between low and high to the tricky fast descents.
The plan was to ride smart; when Ian set the record he was on incredible form but suffered from six punctures costing huge amounts of time. My plan was to take the descents at a controlled pace aiming to avoid flints and therefore punctures, not hit out too hard on the first leg then push harder on the return and try to get as close as possible to my outward bound leg on the way home.
The nutrition plan was simple too. One Torq gel and one bottle of Torq of energy per hour plus a few Torq bars (four to be precise) to keep hunger at bay during the course of the ride.
The main dangers of the early stages of the ride were avoiding wildlife and keeping awake. Staying awake wasn’t too much of an issue; I was wired on Torq Caffeine gels. Avoiding wildlife however was not so easy. I saw a number of badgers early on which all luckily scuttled into the bushes as they saw me coming. There were big herds of deer out but again they soon sprung for cover when I came along destroying the peace on my bike.
The main issue was the rabbits. Rabbits have an annoying habit of freezing in your lights and then hopping for cover at the very last minute, usually right into your path. For this reason I tried to leave a bit of a gap between me and the edges of the path to avoid and suicidal rabbits wrapping themselves around my spokes and taking me down.
This plan worked fairly well apart from one incident on the super fast farm track descent down to the first tap at Cocking. I was travelling at 30 miles an hour in the middle of the track when a rabbit launched itself at my bike. It timed it to perfection though as it managed to miss the spokes and became just another slight bump for the 29ers wheels to roll over. It was a close call and could have ended in disaster so I took it as a sacrificial sign from the double gods to slow down and be careful.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully. My mind started to wander around witching hour, just before dawn. By this point I had been awake since 8am the previous day so was feeling a bit jaded.
The first glimmers of dawn began to appear as I passed around Brighton, perfect timing as it gave me a boost just as I was thinking of my nice warm bed only 15 minutes away. As I reached Ditchling Beacon I heard my name being called; Brighton legends Rory Hitchens and Charlie Eustace had got out of bed super early to cheer me on and shoot some photos and video. It was a huge mental boost and my mind focused back on the task. The section from Ditchling Beacon to Eastbourne is my favourite of the downs, a series of four gradual 5-10 minute climbs interspersed with long ridge sections and massive views in either direction. I hit Kingston ridge at sunrise and that will be a memory that will stay with me forever. From high upon the ridge I could see the Downs silhouetted by the rising sun, the tops of which seemed to be floating on a sea of mist.
I ticked off each climb one by one in my head, encouraged by Charlie and Rory and still feeling strong. I hit the turn in 8 hours 27 minutes, a little behind my schedule and 24 minutes behind Ian’s record time. But I was confident that I could avoid problems and keep the pace up for a strong return leg. I reset my clock, the return leg was what counted and I was classing it as a separate ride. I had nine and a half hours to get back, a slight south westerly wind and was feeling strong as I pedalled back up the hill from the turn with Rory’s words ringing in my ears: “It’s not about the ride…. It’s about the ride back!”
After the turn I was suddenly back in my racing zone. Having not turned a pedal in anger since July my mind was not entirely hungry for pain and suffering on the way out. But once I hit the turn and had a target time it was on, I put my head down and pedalled. Suddenly I was thinking about times, doing maths in my head , working out how fast I could go, what I needed to do. I desperately wanted to go sub-17 hours so I figured it was possible if I matched my outward time, so thought I’d give it a good go. I don’t think this was entirely realistic looking back at it, but hey what harm was there in trying?
The return leg was going well. I made it back to Ditchling Beacon feeling super strong. Tap stops were quick, I was organised, I knew what drink I wanted and where it was and even where the individual bag was in my pocket. I didn’t stop for more than a minute at any taps. This was a key part of my strategy; keep eating, keep moving and don’t stop. I think due to lack of sleep I even may have explained to a rather bemused cow on Kingston Ridge that I had to keep ‘MOOOving’. It entertained me anyway.
Once I reached Devils Dyke I treated myself to my iPod. Now the tunes were on I was going to smash it. I figured 6 hours back from there would be a good time so I locked in on the target and cracked on. Things were going well, the bike was holding up, no punctures, nutrition good, hydrated, legs a little sore on the steep climbs but that was to be expected.
Former double record holder (and man behind www.southdownsdouble.net) Neil Newell popped up a couple of times to offer some words of encouragement which was again greatly appreciated as the loneliness of the ride was beginning to set in by that point. It’s worth noting that this is a huge factor. In 24 hour races there is always someone to speak to, you get looked after in the pits you get a clean bike, fresh kit, warm food, but out on the double it’s just you and your bike. You carry everything you need on your body and bike and most importantly the thoughts to keep going in your head. It’s a whole new challenge.
As I reached Cocking once more I was beginning to get tired both physically and mentally. It takes a lot of mental power to think about times, food, navigating and avoiding flints, rock and wild life and 15 hours of cycling certainly begins to hurt the legs especially the series of steep climbs leading to Cocking. Thankfully John and Tom from Exposure lights had popped out to see me and cheer me on which was once again a huge boost and very much appreciated.
Over the top of the Cocking climb there are a few miles of rutted farm track. I was keeping to the middle avoiding flint where I could still stick to the conservative ride plan. Suddenly there was a group of riders coming in the opposite direction and I had a momentary lack of concentration as I decided which rut to pass them in.
“PSSSSSSSSS!” Bugger a puncture. I survived all the loose flinty descents and then on a muddy track, the one second I lost concentration I hit the only sharp flint in sight. My legs were sore so I decided to sit on the track whilst I pumped up the tyre and I was up and running within 5 minutes.
However, that’s when the problems began. As soon as I stood up and began to pedal I was faced with a slight dilemma… there appeared to be three of everything. I think my body got quite angry with me when I decided to stop and sit down after 15 hours constant pedalling and started to shut down. All the blood had suddenly been removed from my head to go and mend the damage so once I started up again I was all over the shop.
My mind was strong still but I just couldn’t concentrate. In the end I just picked the middle of the three things in my vision, aimed for it and hoped for the best. The short steep climb up to Harting Down was horrific, I was weaving all over the place, falling off the trail and unaware of anything or anyone outside of my tunnel vision. I’m pretty sure I passed a number of walkers and riders on those climbs that all said Hello but I was unable to form the words to reply. All I could think was keep eating, keep moving and don’t stop.
I broke the route into sections and set a finish line at the top of Butser Hill. I knew if I got up there in one piece I’d get back ok. My legs were beginning to break but I made it up Butser with some good self motivation swear words and roars of disgust that I’m stupid enough to do these things.
After Butser Hill it’s just 20 miles left with no serious climbs to speak of. I had two gels, a bar and a bottle of energy drink, so necked a gel and told myself I had enough calories to get me back. 2 hours to do 20 miles and still break the record so get on with it. I pushed as hard as I could on the flats, went as fast as I could on the descent without risking another puncture and crawled up the few small hills left.
As soon as the gradient tipped above 10% my legs stopped working and I was pinned in first gear. I kept skipping to the high tempo songs on my iPod to keep my rhythm up and buried myself. I was trying to work out how long it would take to get back. For some reason my inadequate mental arithmetic wasn’t up to scratch at that particular time so I was convinced I had blown it and would only just scrape a record. This just made me push even harder, I couldn’t suffer like that for the last 3 hours and not get the record.
Slowly the landmarks and miles ticked by and I dug deep, deeper than I think I’ve ever dug before. I certainly learnt how to really hurt myself in those last 20 miles. Finally I hit Cheesefoot Head and the end of the off road sections, all that remained was a quick blast into Winchester on the road. I think I knew I had the record by that point but I still blasted it as hard as I physically could.
I made the turn into Winchester and sprinted full gas towards King Alfred, totally broken. I didn’t feel any emotion, my brain was so tired. Torq team mate Lydia Gould and Exposure’s John Cookson were there to meet me and I asked John if I had the record expecting him to tell me I was 1 or 2 minutes quicker. To my surprise he said I was 16 minutes quicker.
17 hours 47 minutes and 30 seconds.
I was relieved more than anything but also a little disappointed. I was feeling so strong for so long and on for a faster time but the last 3 hours proved a bit too long.
In the few days since the ride it’s finally settled in.
I’ve had huge amounts of messages of support which I am extremely grateful for and now that my name is officially recorded as the South Downs Double record holder I can finally let a smile out. The experience was so magical and surreal that I didn’t believe it really happened for a while. But now I do and it’s a great feeling and I’m extremely proud to be recorded in the history books alongside those other enduro nutters.
Now it’s time to start plotting a sub-17 hour attempt…
Finally I have to thank everyone who has supported me, given me advice and encouragement, in particular Rory Hitchens, Charlie Eustace, Neil Newell, John and Tom from Exposure lights for their shouts of encouragement. Lydia Gould for letting me park at her house and seeing me off at midnight, the guys from Torq for providing the energy to keep me going, Exposure Lights for lighting the way at night and Lezyne for helping me inflate that tyre so quick and also Rob Dean for all the help with the route planning. I’m sure there’s some other people I need to thank but I can’t remember right know so thanks anyway you know who you are.
Right, racing season over, which way to the pub…