On 23 August 2008 Lydia Gould became the first woman rider to ride the South Downs Double, finishing in 27h 26m 54s. Here’s her report of the epic ride. (Photos by Rory Hitchens).
It seemed mad at the time, but the idea to do the South Downs Double came to me after I rode it one way. The worst bit of the day was driving back to Winchester in the evening. It seemed to take almost as long as the ride and we got lost trying to find the pub in the middle of nowhere to have a beer and some food.
“I’ll just ride home from Eastbourne, it will save you driving miles to get me,” I said to Richard.
So it grew from a joke to a plan. On a warm dry evening (21 August 2008) at 9pm Rory Hitchens, Neil Newell, Richard and I and my bike hung around King Alfred Statue, Winchester awaiting the start time.
A few photos later the countdown to 9pm began, and off I sprinted full of porridge and adrenalin, up to Cheesefoot Head and the nerves were settling. I rode fast over the familiar tracks where I knew every rut and root and how each gate opened.
Watch out for the rabbits at Butser. Dazzled by my lights they scurried frantically back to their burrows. Somehow I just missed hitting one.
Going up through the woods at Queen Elizabeth Country park, I felt uneasy, the presence of something lurking in the trees. I pushed on, keen to get into the open space of Harting Down. A dense mist descended and I felt enclosed again.
I had two Exposure Lights on the bars and a small Joystick on my helmet. They were both on for 10-hour duration setting, which gave me plenty of light for steady riding. I d never known a light to last for anywhere near 10 hours and doubting this, I was thinking what I would do if they suddenly went out.
I was using a USE suspension seatpost which made a huge difference to the jarring through the saddle. A must on the South Downs Way, which is one of the bumpiest tracks I know. Next thing I knew I hit a deep rut and was catapulted face first into a nettle forest. Winded, and tingling I untangled the bike, getting bonus stings as I dragged it out. I’ll remember this spot on the way back, I thought to myself.
The miles rolled by, the mist occasionally clearing enough to see the distant lights of towns and villages. I felt at ease now enjoying the solitude and the darkness, and had seen the first badger, trotting nonchalantly along ahead of me. I was to confront two more again, later in the ride whom I approached with caution (having read about the notorious badger-crash of a fellow mountain biker).
As I headed up Springhead Hill out of Amberley, I became aware how heavy my bike was, with all the kit I’d taken. I plodded up, saving energy, and using the time on foot to eat a ham sandwich. I had a small backpack, stuffed to bursting with all the food I needed for 24+ hours. That included eight small ham and chicken sandwiches, two Lemon Bakewells, two mini Battenbergs, (sorry Matt, cant live without cakes.) 14 sealed bags of Torq energy powder (which I would mix at tap stops), four of recovery powder and 14 Torq gels.
Trying to eat a sandwich while walking up a very steep hill pushing a bike seemed like a good idea. Actually, it was virtually impossible. I used more energy chewing than walking and I had the whole thing in my mouth and couldn’t swallow any of it.
I was not looking forward to Truleigh Hill and the narrow bumpy little track before the section to the YHA. I would have to walk part of it and my backpack was rubbing me. My spirits were raised when Neil appeared. He rode behind me (so I did the gates which were important as I was riding unsupported).
We talked as we rode. The pain had gone, dawn broke, Ditchling behind us our pace quickened as we headed towards Newmarket Inn (A27).
Neil turned back, and I was alone again. Going up the long grassy drag from the A27, thoughts of a huge sugary cream and jam doughnut got my stomach rumbling. Oh the joy of a supported ride – not. A lemon Bakewell would have to do.
I felt good, having ridden up Itford hill, passing Firle Beacon along the flattish ridge above Alfriston, and knowing it would be an hour to Eastbourne. In an instant the weather, and my mood changed. I was getting on my nerves singing rain songs, was sick of my own company and looking forward to seeing Rory at Paradise Drive, the turning point.
The brick climb from Jevington jarred my back, the greasy chalk track past the Golf course had me sprawling on the ground and I was at my lowest point so far. Rory was there full of encouragement.
“Remember, the granny ring is your friend.” Those words kept me going to the end. Neil’s “the pain doesn’t get any worse,” was another, which was true, as I rode up most of Butser on the way back.
A few photos later, I was homeward bound, and forbidden to sing anything. I needed to get on with myself. I buried my bad mood in Jevington Churchyard, topped up my water supplies ate a ham sandwich plus a measure of Torq recovery.
Suddenly Neil and the sun appeared. The views were wonderful, the South Downs Way spread out ahead of us. The sun brought many walkers most of whom we passed, except on the climb from the A 27 where we were passed by a middle aged gentleman. I imagined his expression as he went by.
Now I knew 100 percent I was going to finish. but I was losing time and this put pressure on. I had reached the turn in 12 hours and 9 minutes, about an hour slower than the sub 24-hour schedule predicted.
Every section I lost more time. How could I lose 3.5 hours? Where was I losing it? I was getting annoyed and at the tap at Cocking flung my backpack on the ground, wrenched my helmet off, kicked a flint into touch, then drank 500ml of pure cool water. A caffeinated Torq gel and a mini Battenberg got me back on track.
Feeling a bit sick, I struggled up Manor Farm Hill only to confront Rory, and his camera. I managed to smile. The sun was setting, there was a chill in the air and worries about lights came up again. But these were not just lights, they were Exposure lights. On they went and soon I was on home territory.
Everything (except my legs, funnily enough) hurt. Then another time-wasting wrong turn all the way down a muddy track strewn with sticks branches and flints, no way could I ride back. I fell into the mud and kicked the bike off me. Big energy wasting here.
Dignity restored I was back on the South Downs Way. Then I saw a green wombat squatting in the middle of the track ahead. No, it was just a grassy tussock. Several strange animals and a green man (they inhabit these woods, I am told) later, I’m riding up Butser. Something scares me to the side. Luckily its only Neil, who had ridden his motorbike to Queen Elizabeth County Park .
Nearly there now, I pictured the wine and a slab of chocolate cake awaiting me at home, then thought about Richard, Rory and Neil all waiting at King Alfred. Amid the hugs and congratulations I felt I needed to get back on the bike. It felt weird to have stopped. Then I felt weird as the darkness closed around me,. Neil came to the rescue, “lie down, and let the blood back to your head.”
Lying on the conveniently placed wall, (usually the resting place for drunks) I managed to smile for the camera and feel the achievement seeping in.
Always that nagging question, how did I lose 3.5 hours? Never mind, another day, another year? Anyway, it was all such an experience.
Last, but not least, a huge thanks to all those people without whom I couldn’t have done it, namely Rory Hitchens from USE for supplying the Exposure Lights, suspension seatpost, timekeeping and for producing the fantastic photos. Neil Newell who helped and advised me in preparing for the ride and who joined me as an observer and great company on the track.
Matt Hart from Torq, who supplied me with all the fuel I needed, and coaches me on my fitness and technique both of which are essential for injury-free riding. Joe Saber, my physio who keeps me injury free and is a great guy.
And Richard, my husband, who tolerated months of South Downs Way talk, bike bits everywhere, lots of scraps of paper with South Downs Way scribbling, and hours on the computer, and the phone, and who always is supportive of every crazy adventure I have, and who always has the cakes and wine ready.