After I rode the South Downs Double (the South Downs Way, from Winchester to Eastbourne and back again inside 24 hours) last year, there’d been some laughing and joking in the car on the way home – “Next time you can do it on a single speed!” No way, I thought. My legs were so wrecked after that ride I figured I’d be lucky even to be able to go shopping by bike again, let alone do another 200 miles off-road.
But winter came and went, my legs slowly recovered and one day Rory Hitchens from USE popped around to drop some kit off. We fell to talking about the Double, and he mused whether it was even possible on a singlespeed. I paused for a moment, and uttered those fateful words, “I think so”.
And so the seed was planted, to fester and grow in my head, to tease and itch. I tried not to scratch as long as I could, but in the end I knew I was going to have to give in. And so, planning started…
Yet almost immediately there was a hitch. Out on the way to a Sunday club ride, I found myself body-surfing down the flinty descent to Cocking at 25mph. Scooped up by ambulance and greeted by a “Goodness, where to start?” in A&E, the news was that I’d fractured my elbow but otherwise there wouldn’t too many new scars for chicks to dig. Those summer trails suddenly became distant when the doctor guessed how long the elbow was going to take to fix.
It turned out he was a pessimist – I spent a day on the Internet learning about elbows, and the next in the fracture clinic where I saw the X-rays. It was only a little bit of bone that was broken off and the joint wasn’t damaged. This doctor told me I wouldn’t make it worse by using the arm, shook my hand and his head, and said not to fall over for a while. Soon I was back on a bike, and recovery went so well that it seemed the game was still afoot!
Time to dig out my old On-One Inbred 29er SS, then – usually a winter tool. The tubeless wheels and forks from my geared bike found themselves transplanted onto it, and a spacer kit with a 21-tooth rear cog gave a suitably low gear. Right, that’s the bike sorted.
But would my legs survive this time? I’d put the previous problems down to using SPDs instead of my usual flats, so I’d been riding clipless more. Then again, this time I was going to be on a singlespeed. Against which I was planning to walk the steep hills. But I’d be carrying a heavy backpack. Too many factors, argh! I gave up analysis in favour of suck-it-and-see.
Up to this point all the preparation was very low-key. I’d decided to go ‘Alpine Style’, ie carry everything I needed but water, so I could just quietly set off and see if I made it – and if I didn’t, well, it would be a private failure.
Of course, I let Rory in on the attempt, and he instantly offered to come along and take pics, do timekeeping, and help with logistics. I accepted as quickly as he offered, and after a chat we decided I’d carry the GPS tracker in case Bikemagic were interested – though being singlespeed this was going to be way slower than Rob Lee’s epic 20h 55m 51s ride earlier in the year.
Luckily, I had the GPS log of my previous ride, and I used that to print out a 24-hour schedule of times and distances which was taped to the bike. A test ride in mid-July showed I could keep to it – for at least half the distance anyway – and when the weather suddenly went nice the next weekend that was it, time to scratch the itch.
Rory and I found ourselves before the King Alfred statue in Winchester, blinking in brilliant sunshine and thinking “Some clouds would be good!” Fortunately Rory magiced up some sunscreen and I set off on the dot of 9:30am, weaving and spinning that ridiculously low gear through the morning traffic.
After taking the traditional wrong turning, Winchester was soon behind and I settled down to the job in hand. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a sudden feeling of freedom as everyday worries and concerns get dropped, swept aside, dismissed as irrelevant. Just one thing to do now – ride, ride, ride from here to Eastbourne – and back.
Rory knew my schedule, but we didn’t really discuss meeting up on the trail – by going ‘alpine’ I was completely free to do my own thing. He’d just appear somewhere and shoot pics as I went past, then race off and somehow get ahead of me for the next photo opportunity. I was thinking if he was having a tenth of the fun I was having, he was having a good time too!
It was just so nice, pootling along in the sun, rolling down the hills, spinning up the gentle slopes and when things got steep I’d shrug, get off the bike and start pushing with one hand while eating a sandwich with the other. This was a key tactic – walking isn’t that much slower than grinding up the steeper hills, and meant I could eat as I went.
One regret I’d had about picking this day to ride was I was going to miss the Brighton Explorers (my local club) evening ride – and more importantly, the BBQ, hot dogs and beer afterwards. As I went past the venue, Katherine and Colin were already there, waving me on – that kind of encouragement means a lot on rides like the Double, and a few miles further on I met Adam from the club who’d come to ride along for a bit. Good then he was there too, else I’d have assumed the huge snake that slid out from under my front wheel was just an early hallucination.
With a wave Adam turned towards the sea at Telscombe while I made for the bridge at Southease – the 80 mile point. I took it easy on the big climbs, and soon enough Eastbourne appeared at the foot of the Downs.
The descent here is fast and grassy, and at the bottom I zipped into the trees to loop around the signboard marking the end of the trail. Rory was there, of course, but I should have looped the other way since the cameras were pointing the wrong way – sorry Rory. He snapped a pic of me and the clock anyway – the first 100 miles had taken just under 11 hours, and being 30 minutes ahead of schedule made for one happy bunny going back up the hill.
With half an hour to sunset, the sun was already behind the Downs but appeared again as I crested the rise. By Alfriston it was getting really low; I love riding in the dark, and was looking forward to the night with the sort of anticipation normally reserved for a date with a beautiful woman. A quick play with the lights arrayed across the bars (a USE Joystick MaXx LED plus 5 and 12 watt Lumicycle halogens) confirmed I was ready for my date – bring it on.
With the night came the wildlife. First up were the squads of suicide bunnies, no problem there. Next it was the badgers, thankfully choosing uphill sections to scurry across my path. Owls and the bats flew around ahead, taking advantage of bugs and small critters disturbed by my passage. Herds of deer ran through the fields alongside, their antlers a giveaway in the moonlight. And a young hedgehog offered its services as a tubeless-tyre puncture tester – I declined the offer with a skid and a swerve, but did stop for a wee chat about trail etiquette.
The warm summer night was cosy, almost like being in bed and dreaming about riding. My lights unrolled the path in front, and the darkness rolled it up behind – a bubble of light and happiness just drifting along, doing my own thing at my own pace.
Around 1am I came across a sign put up by the Brighton Explorers, far more effective an aid to progress than any number of energy bars. Then thirty minutes later I passed the usual trail turnoff to home, and tested myself with the thought that I just nip off here, have a bath and crawl into bed. No, not even tempted. Onwards.
Walking up a steep flint-strewn track from the Adur, there was a flash of fire underfoot – what? It had me puzzled until it happened again a few steps later, and I realised it was the SPD cleats striking sparks against the flints. A strange effect but quite entertaining!
Amberley passed in the small hours; significant only in being around three-quarters distance, just 50 miles to go. A hint of dawn in the eastern sky, and it looked like sunrise would happen around Cocking.
Ah. Cocking. My first descent along there since the crash. The downhill was a bit of a head game, but a sloppy 170-mile-tired bunnyhop was enough to see me over the obstacle that had brought me down. Good to put that one behind.
Rory (does the man not sleep?) caught the happiness on my face as I blatted past in the dawn light. And not much later he was there again as I climbed Harting Down – low-lying mist below made for a magic spectacle. That one sight made the whole ride worth it, and though the pics are great they still can’t compare with being there.
Daylight now and I found I was running faster, gaining more on the schedule. Even the low morning sun was warm, and the riding was easy. Thinking about the finish line and starting to feel like the job was done. But suddenly an alarm bell went off deep in my head and I shook myself, realising I’d lost focus, there were still around 30 miles and 3 or 4 hours riding to go. So deep breath and back to work.
Now came the time for the assault on Butser Hill – the last big one before Winchester. Oh Butser, I thought, you’re going to get such a kicking. Surveying the ascent, it’s not the ideal hill for a singlespeed but I rode a lot of it anyway, and where I’d crawled before I now strolled up, eating my last sandwich. Remounting at the gate and riding to the top, I hammed it up for Rory’s cameras and sailed on.
There are some smooth fast descents in the final section, so it was full-on flat over the bars aero-tuck action. And on the last ascents it was clear I’d been very conservative – walking the steeper hills had paid off big, big, time and my legs felt barely tired.
Just a mile or so to go, and the roar of traffic audible and building as I headed towards the M3. Across the bridge and into Winchester… wham, after 23 1/2 hours of quiet countryside riding, dealing with the rush-hour traffic was a shock. Was I going to sit in the queues of traffic to the roundabout? Was I hell! I zipped down the outside, twiddling the pedals like a madman, sliced across the jams and lined up for the finish line. Crossing it with my fist punching the air in delight, I circled back to be welcomed by Rory and to get the 23h 20m 32s news – I’d done it, I’d just completed the ride of my life and set a new record as a bonus.
Afterwards, I was just deliriously happy. Jim, who supported me last time out, was at the finish line too which was great, especially as this time I wasn’t rolling around the ground in pain! It was hard for me to thank them enough, especially Rory who’d taken so many awesome pics and videos, did timekeeping, driving, organising, advising, lighting and much else – thanks guys, I owe you big time! A special mention to Rob Lee, for showing the way on ‘Alpine’ style rides, big thanks to everyone who watched the live tracking, and especially to Dave and all at Bikemagic for shining the spotlight on the corner of mountain biking madness that is the South Downs Double!