Rob Dean got round in 19hrs 59mins 13sec (pic: Rory Hitchens)
Rob Dean was the first rider to have a crack at the South Downs Way Double winter alpine record earlier this year, but stomach problems forced him to pull out after some 125miles.
Keen to set the record straight and add his name to the sub-24 hour club, Rob went out for what was intended to be a practise ride of the South Downs Way Double. In fact, he ended up riding it very quickly indeed, and got round in an impressive 19hrs 59mins 13sec.
At midnight on Tuesday I set off on a experience I’d been looking forward to for a very long time indeed, or more precisely a few minutes after midnight on Tuesday after nattering to Lydia Gould who had very kindly arranged to come and see me off. Talking to Lydia and her experiences brought to the front of my mind what lay before me and also why I was doing this, and I couldn’t wait. As I rolled lout of Winchester into the darkness a gentle headwind chilled the warm air and I couldn’t have been happier or more relaxed. I was going to do a South Downs Double.
The ride to Eastbourne flew by, my lights, thanks to the great guys at Exposure, opening up the trails in front of me. Riding through the darkness is always special and owls, badgers and deer didn’t disappoint. Although I’m sure there’s fewer sheep in daylight hours. As I rode through, and into, the sunrise I couldn’t have been happier. I got my first glimpse of the sun itself at Chanctonbury and after riding for some while into a magnificent rich deep orange sky, the view didn’t disappoint. It was with some trepidation that I watched it rise, but thankfully, all the way to Eastbourne the heat stayed out of the air. It was at Jevington that I first looked at my time against my schedule. I was amazed to see I was a little ahead, a squeeze on the pedals up the final climb to Eastbourne saw me reach the turn in a very satisfying 8hrs 54mins.
Rob Dean alone in a vast landscape (pic: Rory Hitchens)
A quick hello to my Morvélo team mates who were waiting for me, a sandwich and a liberal application of suncream (and maybe a little too long chinwagging as I was having such a great time) later and I started up the climb at 9:10. The sun had started to warm the air but this was nothing compared to what faced me later in the day. As Rory Hitchens of USE is always keen to remind me when talking about the South Downs Double “it’s not about the ride…. it’s about the ride back” how true his words would be today.
As I cleared the worst of the Lumps at the Eastbourne end I was greeted on the trail than none other than Ian Leitch, the record holder. I find Ian’s endless enthusiasm and passion for riding infectious and with talk of the ride ahead of me dominating the conversation I waved iam off at Kingston ridge with a broad grin and a bounce in my legs. This really was a lot of fun. As I passed over Brighton the smile was cemented to my face by good luck messages on what I think was every gate between Kingston Ridge and well, I forget now, but a long way further down the rail indeed. Passing the point that had proved too much for me last time without any of the problems previously was a big moment for me. I knew I was going to make it.
A snapped chain and a re-application of suncream took chunks out of my pace, but by now the sun was out and beating down hard and I quickly resolved to take my eye off the clock and just make sure I finished a my sole aim. Just keep taping it out kept I reminding myself. A few miles down the trail and I was joined by Neil Newall who flew around, full of energy, offering yet further encouragement taking photos and sharing his experiences. This was becoming a very special ride indeed. Neil was with me just after Amberley when the heat started to take its toll. I was trying to drink a pint at the taps and two bottles between where possible but it was proving not quite enough. I was determined not to be broken though and slowed down some more, walking up the stiffest little sections of climbing.
Grinding up one of the many steep grassy climbs on the route (pic: Rory Hitchens)
Neil turned off with more encouragement, and some fantastic photos for my scrap book and I was greeted at the top of the next hill by none other than the king of thee South Downs Double himself, Rory Hitches armed with camera and tripod and huge cheers and shouts. There was another cyclist at this point who joined me afterwards, none other than Ant White, this was turning into a very special ride indeed, a who’s who of endurance racers and SSDers. This encouragement kicked me over Harting Down, but not before myself and Any had locked bars in a lapse of concentration and came tumbling down at pretty high speed. The ride was clearly meant to be though as neither rider nor bike was harmed and a quick dusting down later and we were off, myself energised with the quick adrenaline fix and another ride anecdote.
And then I reach Butser Hill. I had been making steady if undramatic progress to this point, the smile firmly fixed to my face as I knew I could make it. Until Butser Hill. Being out on the hill, exposed with the sun beating down, I have never been so exhausted. I could feel the heat pressing down on me, my heart pounding at an alarming rate, it was all I could do to move one foot the tiniest distance in front of the other. if someone had told me before hand that the temperature would be 31° before I started a SDD ride I’d tell them they were nuts, doubly so after the feeling I had at this point. The shouts and encouragement from Rory helped enormously and focussed my mind on what I had to look forward to. A pragmatic break at the top of the hill and in some desperately needed shade over the brow a stretch, a sip of precious water, electrolyte and as much of a bar as my stomach would hold without complaining and I was off. This was it, the final push. Still unaware of the time I rolled into what I knew would be a very welcome wooded section. Shade has never felt so good.
Slowly my legs came back to me as I rode more wooded sections, I’ve always loved riding in tree lined trails, but never more so than at that moment. Ant White popped up a couple more times on the way back, offering yet more enncouragement, but for the last hour I was alone, left to savour the feeling, any pain or even discomfort banished from my mind.
Nearly 20 hours later, at the finish in Winchester (pic: Neil Newell)
Then I looked at the clock, could I have made a mistake, no, it was quarter too, twenty hours hadn’t passed and I could see Winchester. A switch flicked in my head, it was as though the starters gun had just gone off. Fresh legs were placed under me, big ring selected for one final time and we were off. The next 14mins and 13 seconds were a blur of trails and fingernail biting nerves for me, could I do it, and achieve what I wouldn’t have thought possible. The tension was unbearable and drove me on. As I turned the final corner to the King Alfred statue I looked at my watch, I was going to make it! I sat up, zipped my top up like a tour stage winner and stopped the clock as I flew past the statue, still cranking at a very special 19:59:13. I couldn’t believe it. I still haven’t stopped smiling. I’ve never done anything like this before but I am certain more will follow. I enjoyed every minute, and understand something that Neil said he’d use to describe his ride when he said “the only muscle that hurts is the one I smile with”.
With Lydia and Neil on hand at the finish to greet me I was duly awarded my obligatory finishing photo with timecard, the amazing bike that had got me there in the foreground and the King Alfred Statue in the background. I felt like the king of the world.
I owe a special think you to all those who came out to encourage me and make my day very memorable, specially to Rory from Exposure for supporting me with endless encouragement and also in providing lights, to Morvélo for providing the stylish kit that, I am sure, made me faster on the day and kept and to the many people who appeared throughout the day to offer endless enthusiasm and encouragement to keep me smiling broadly through every mile.
I highly recommend the South Downs Way as a great long ride to anyone, but to any one contemplating the epic and speciaal ride that is the South Downs Double, as I learnt in the brutally hot sun on my ride, I offer but one piece of advice: SDD – It’s not about the ride. It’s about the ride back.