The South Down Way is popular with mountain bikers, a dramatic ridge that runs from Winchester all the way to Eastbourne through rich landscape, rolling green fields, chocolate-box villages and never that far from the coast.
Earlier in the week I visited Brighton resident Rob Dean, an enduro specialist who knows all about the South Downs Way. In 2010 he became the latest mountain biker to join a very small elite group of people who have ridden the South Downs Double – to ride from Winchester to Eastbourne and back again – in less than 24-hours. And on a bike with no gears too.
Inspired by this visit, I decided it’s time to get familiar with such a popular trail. I’ll admit to only having ridden small sections of the public byway, and most of that was in the MaXx Exposure night ride a few years ago, an 80 mile romp from Eastbourne as the sun sets to Petersfield.
I’ll admit here, for the first time, that I want to ride the South Downs Double, though my target is a more realistic one, anything inside 24-hours will put a smile on my face. Having only ridden it a couple of times, I decided, following a conveniently appointed meeting in East Sussex, to park the car at the top of Ditchling Beacon and ride a fair chunk.
The South Downs Way is stunning. I pointed the bike East and followed the chalky trail as close to Eastbourne as I could – light permitting because I’d set off a little later than planned and didn’t have any lights on the bike, only the knowlegde that the sun sets close to 9pm.
It’s a tough route. With a tail wind, the ride to Eastbourne begins very fast, hurtling along chalky double track, down snaking singletrack, across the edge of fields following yet more fields, scattering the dopey sheep by shouting ahead to them. The closer to Eastbourne you get, with the sea a visible sight over your right shoulder, the tougher the riding gets.
Long draggy climbs that have me in my lowest gear typify this stretch of the trail. It doesn’t get any easier when I turn around either. Now with a strong wind in my face, the first few miles of my return route are incredibly tough. I down a few more gels. Negative thoughts creep into my mind, but I quickly try to banish them. I push on. I’m racing the setting sun back to Ditchling.
The hills slowly become less steep, and the pace creeps up. Head down, I push on, turning the pedals over at a good pace. But a spanner in the works. A huge navigational blunder (actually my second of the ride). I’d set out planning to see how easy it is to ride the route just following the blue direction signs. Quite tricky it turns out.
They’re small, located on posts often placed out of view in covered by overgrowing hedgerows. Sighting them when you’ve got your head down is a challenge. Fortunely the Garmin Edge 800 on my bars comes to the rescue, and after a long detour (I missed a turn, getting carried away on a fast gravel track), I’m back on the South Downs Way proper.
I meet all sorts of mountain bikers when I’m out. It’s appraisingly busy for a Friday afternoon. I bump into a friendly pair from the Isle of Wight, who have ridden from Winchester today. They ask how far to Eastbourne. 30km I tell them. They too are experiencing navigational issues, even with a SatMap. Their plan is to stay in Eastbourne over night and ride back the following day. Doing the double over a leisurely two days.
4 hrs 16 mins later, I arrive back at my car. Spent, I collapse into the drivers seat, and catch my breath. With 50 miles clocked, it’s given me some insight into just how much of a physical challenge the route is. There’s a serious amount of climbing. Yes it isn’t the most technical, but that’s more than made up for by the sheer beauty of this part of the country.
One things for sure, I’ve got serious respect for anyone who rides the South Downs Way end to end. And even more for anyone who has ridden the double – in one go or spread over two days. I’ll be back for more soon.
Have you ridden the South Downs Way? Are you a regular rider? Have you done the full route? Please let us know in the comments box below, we’d love to hear from you.
More information about the South Downs Way here www.nationaltrail.co.uk/Southdowns/faq.asp?PageId=7&p=2