Breaking the South Downs double record is something I had been dreaming of for quite a while. It’s been a long time in the making and the actual ride itself represented a very small amount of the total time invested in the record.
I had been considering the double as far back as last summer but it wasn’t until I moved down to Brighton in March this year that the plans and preparation really took off. My first ride on the South Downs had me hooked and I knew right there and then that I wanted to record.
The Downs are an incredible place, stunning views of the coast on one side and inland on the other. The south east is a very densely populated and busy area but as soon as you climb up onto the Downs you enter a bubble of peace and tranquillity where you can be alone with your thoughts, away from the stresses of real life and, most importantly, enjoy riding your bike.
Ian Leitch set the record of 18 hours, three minutes back in 2009 so to me this was the benchmark I had to beat. I knew that when Ian set the record he was really on form. Ian is much faster than me over the shorter distances and has a better power to weight ratio than me on the climbs so I decided that it would take some smarter thinking to get the better of him.
There are three main areas which I gave attention when planning the double: learning the route, equipment choice and nutrition.
My thinking was slightly different to those who had gone before me. I was going to go as light as possible on equipment, while maintaining reliability, taking exactly what nutrition I needed for my maximum target time (18 hours) and play it safe. Avoiding mechanicals, bonking and navigational errors was going to give me a better time.
Here’s how I addressed each area:
Navigating is a huge part of doing the double. Unlike a 24-hour race, where you just have to follow the tapes, the double puts you out there alone. You have to be able to follow the route under fatigue, great exertion and, at some points, when it’s dark.
The South Downs way is a way marked route but quite often the signs can be easily missed, even in the daylight and especially at speed! Mike Cotty missed a turn during his record breaking ride which cost him about 10 minutes. Pre-riding and learning the route is essential, one small navigational error could be the difference between beating the record or not or even making the magic 24-hour mark which allows entry into the exclusive South Downs Double club.
I’m lucky enough to live in Brighton which made learning the route much easier as it’s less than 30 minutes from my house up onto the ridge. I was able to cover the whole length of the Downs with three big out and back recce rides.
The first is the classic Eastbourne and back route – the staple long ride of many a Brighton local. The Eastbourne end of the Downs is my favourite. It contains the longer climbs and has incredible views of the coast. I hit this end of the route at sunrise during my attempt and the memories of the sunrise will stay with me forever.
The second recce ride I did was from Devils Dyke to Cocking. This has a number of short but super-steep climbs as well as some faster sections where it is easy to miss a couple of turns.
The third big section I researched was Cocking to Winchester. This involved a bit of a drive to the start but I was able to cover lots of ground as this end of the Downs is very fast. Navigation here is critical as there is one section around Old Winchester Hill where there are two options due to some land ownership issues. It’s widely acknowledged by riders who have ridden the double that riding up Old Winchester on the road is the best option, plus its marginally quicker.
It’s also good to get as much advice as possible off people who have ridden the double before. I had many long conversations with single speed record holder Rob Dean about the route and he highlighted the potentially tricky parts to keep an eye on. This advice was invaluable and was a real help. I was also in contact with double riders Ian Leitch, Rob Lee and Mike Cotty at various points during my preparation, as well as receiving plenty of sound advice from Rory Hitchens, who has ridden the South Downs his whole life.
There are a couple of other little tricks I used to memorise the route. I got hold of all the OS maps which cover the South Downs Way, laid them all out in order and highlighted the route. This was a great technique to visualise each section and how they all link together, although the fact that the maps were longer than my kitchen when laid out in order was somewhat intimidating!
The other priceless resource that I used was the Bike Downs website. This has a turn-by-turn guide to the whole of the Downs, complete with photos of all the main junctions. I looked at the website before each recce ride so that when I came to a major junction I automatically knew which direction to go with out relying on the way markers.
Taps are another important aspect of the double as they are the only source of water available. It’s important to remember all the tap locations as dehydration has been the downfall of many riders. On a sunny day the white chalky tracks reflect the sun back up at you, making it even hotter (remember to wear sun cream too, even when starting at midnight!). When I finished my double the back of my shirt was stained white with salt, an indication that I was sweating pretty well! Therefore learning the tap stops and staying hydrated is imperative.
The equipment I chose for the double was a balance between light weight and reliability. There is 7,620m of climbing in total so it’s important to have a light bike to help on the climbs, but equally it needs to be strong enough to withstand the downhills and general wear that a 200-mile off-road ride causes. My bike of choice was the Santa Cruz Tallboy – a bike I love. I’m a complete convert to 29er wheels and the combination of this and the 100mm full suspension travel makes this the perfect bike for long distance rides and races.
Fitted to the Tallboy I had some Fox F29 Terra Logic forks, brilliant for climbing and one less thing to think about (I’ve forgotten to turn the lockout off so many times!), an XT groupset pimped out with a KCNC chain and Mt Zoom jockey wheels, and a set of Stans NoTubes Crest rims built onto Superstar components hubs with Sapim spokes. Tyre choice was also particularly important. I chose Maxxis Crossmarks on the advice of Rob Dean as he’s over 90kg and managed not to puncture on the notorious South Downs flint during his single speed double, so I figured these would be a good choice.
I was keen to carry the minimum amount of equipment possible in order to save weight. I also wanted to make sure that all this weight was mounted on the bike. All previous double riders had gone with a hydration pack to carry food, drink and tools but I’m a racer at heart and hate wearing bags on my back while I ride so decided to try and avoid them at all costs. This would mean travelling light which would help climbing and save energy while having the additional bonus of keeping me cooler.
I figured that two 750ml Torq bottles would be enough to get me through the ride. There is a long section from Cocking to Winchester where there are no public taps to refill from so I needed to be able to carry enough water for 30 miles, the rest of the route has enough taps to be able to use a single bottle. I mounted these on Mt Zoom titanium bottle cages, one on the frame and one on a triathlon style saddle mount. The cages are super light (and come with pretty red bolts!) and also grip really well, essential for the double as a dropped bottle could spell disaster.
The double is an unsupported ride so I had to be able to fix and mechanical issues by myself. Rory from Upgrade Bikes kindly supported me with some Lezyne products for the ride. I used a Lezyne Alloy Drive pump mounted to a bottle cage mount. This proved invaluable when I punctured with 30 miles to go and I was fixed and away in no time. I also had a Lezyne Caddy saddle pack which contained a Lezyne stainless steel V10 multi tool, some quick patches, a tyre boot and a couple of CO2 canisters.
In hindsight I wouldn’t have taken the CO2 canisters as when I came to use them I was so tired that I couldn’t grip them well enough to unscrew them and release the gas! The pump was hardly any slower anyway… lesson learnt! I also took two inner tubes, one taped under the stem and one taped to the seat post. It was a risk only taking 2 tubes (Ian punctured six times during his ride) but I figured if I punctured twice I’d probably not make the record anyway. I also took a small bottle of chain lube and a chain quick link and taped them under my ‘bars.
I started my ride from Winchester at midnight so the first 6-7 hours of the ride would be in the dark. Lights are essential and this is an area I figured I could save some weight. The setup I decided to use was two Exposure Diablos, one mounted on my helmet and one mounted on the bars. I had them both on the low setting which lasts for 10 hours, but used the bar mounted light in conjunction with a single cell piggyback battery. This gave me the option to switch to the high setting for the tricky downhills. I also used a Exposure Flare rear light to enable me to be seen from behind on the few road sections.
In terms of clothing, I wore my Torq team kit, a light base layer to keep the chill off during the night and some arm warmers. I also carried a very light weight gillet in my saddlepack just in case of emergencies. I decided against wearing knee warmers during the night as this would require a stop to remove them and also I wouldn’t have anywhere to store them. Instead I used some warm up oil to keep the chill off (and make my legs look faster!)
My helmet was a Torq team issue Limar Ultralight (in matching orange, of course) and a pair of Lake shoes (in pimp white for extra speed). I also took a phone and a tenner in the saddlepack just in case (you are out there on your own after all) and my iPod Shuffle for some extra motivation later on in the ride.
You can have all the best equipment in the world but if you don’t have the fuel to keep going then you are doomed. I’ve been lucky enough to ride on the Torq Performance Team for 2011 and have had access to the best nutrition products and advice.
I had many a conversation with Torq owner Matt Hart about the best strategy for the double. Through 24-hour racing I know that I can go for most of the race on energy drinks and energy gels alone. The strategy that Matt suggested was to get as many calories as possible through energy drinks as it provides a better energy:weight ration, i.e I can get more calories from 10g of drink powder than 10g of energy gel
So for the ride I took 18 zip lock bags of Torq Energy powder (half orange and half the new Vanilla pod flavour) and a 25 Torq Energy gels, plus 4 ginger flavoured Torq bars to nibble on and keep hunger at bay. I chose the ginger bar as ginger has the effect of soothing a bad stomach, something which can happen when relying on sweet energy products for so long. I also started the ride with two bottles of Torq Energy ready mixed and downed a Torq gel and a Torq caffeine gel in the half-hour before I set off. This way I knew that I had enough energy for the first hour. I calculated that this would be enough calories for me to survive for 18hours before I would run out of energy and blow (an added incentive to beat the record!).
This lightweight food strategy also meant that a bag was not required. I stored all the powder for my outward bound leg in my left jersey pocket, the gels for the outwards bound leg in the middle pocket and the return leg powder in the right rear pocket. My return leg gels were all taped to the top tube. This meant that it was more weight that wasn’t carried on my body and also meant that I wouldn’t have to reach around and dig in my rear pockets when I was tired at the end of the ride, therefore minimising the risk of crashing.
One of the rules of the double is that you take all your rubbish with you to the finish. As I had no pocket space for the first 100miles I stuck the rubbish up my short legs and up my jersey. As soon as I’d finished all the gels in my pocket I moved all the rubbish into there as it can be a bit uncomfortable riding with a sticky gel rapper up your shorts!
Bringing it all together…
I think my preparation played a key part in beating the record. I knew exactly what I needed to do and when, where everything was and which way to go. My physical preparation was less than ideal. I hardly touched the bike in the month before the ride as I managed to pick up a cold which totally wiped me out. It was a last minute decision to have a crack at the record upon returning from a trip to Italy. I certainly wasn’t as fit as Ian when he broke the record but I was lucky with the weather and the trail was mostly dry apart from a few muddy sections at the Winchester end. Most importantly, my careful strategy paid off. Getting good weather is key so the best plan is to set a 10-day period to do the double and as soon as the weather is good and trails are dry, go for it!
The most important thing, however, is to enjoy the experience. Whether you are going for the record, aiming to beat 24 hours or just trying to complete the distance make sure you soak it all in as it’s a pretty incredible experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
I hope these tips inspire someone else to have a crack at the record. It can be done faster and it would be great to see it beaten (if only to give me an excuse to do it again). It’s such a good thing to do and I’d encourage anyone to give it a go just for the hell of it!