It was both looking for a way to properly test myself and an opportunity to complete a long overdue ambition that left me stood astride my trusty Cannondale Jekyll at 0720 in Winchester at the start of the South Downs Way.
Although September, the forecast was good and one hundred miles of largely dry, rolling trails lay between me and the finish in Eastbourne – what could possibly go wrong?!?! And for once, the answer was ‘very little’ as I made good progress towards my destination throughout the day. The signage is a little ropey in places leading to a bit of doubling back and the occasional scratching of the head as I stared intently at the Garmin 800’s little screen but aside from a few diversions the trail was remarkably easy to follow considering the minimal preparation I had done. It would be fair to say that I was ‘overbiked’ on the Jekyll and a hardtail may be a more efficient choice for this ride, but the extra bounce made things comfy towards the end. For those interested in statistics, the Strava file is here.
The speed of progress stayed really steady throughout the ride. The first 23 miles, which I was totally unfamiliar with, took just over 2 ½ hours leaving me at QE Park café for a bacon sandwich and tea at 1000. Revitalised, I pressed on with the next section. This part of the trail I ride fairly regularly and it was a real joy to ride it continuously in one direction, blitzing past all my local trails. This ended when I stopped for lunch at Amberley, now 5 ½ hours and 48 miles into the ride.
I was back on the bike in 45 mins and heading into the second half of the ride. I reached Ditchling Beacon about 1820 and realized I was running out of daylight. I still had 29 miles to ride and less than 90 mins of daylight so arranged for my lift to meet me at Alfriston rather than heading straight to Eastbourne. This provided a timely boost of food and water levels along with the vital addition of lights for my final push.
Restarting the ride with 10 miles to go the going was initially very tough. I had failed to pack a helmet light and did not know this part of the trail so was making really slow progress having to stop at every junction to illuminate the signs before moving on. Luckily, I caught up with a very friendly local who was out on an evening ride and who immediately volunteered to be my guide when I explained what I was attempting. Relieved of navigation concerns, the last 9 miles flew by as we raced towards the sea and my finish line. Then suddenly, we popped out onto Eastbourne promenade and it was a simple short roll down to the pier.
Sat eating fish and chips (a thought that had kept me going for the previous 15 miles!!) I was able to dwell upon what I had achieved; despite living only 15 miles from the South Downs Way it had taken me 10 years to finally get around to riding it end to end. It was 13hrs and 47mins between leaving Winchester and arriving at Eastbourne of which I had been moving for 10hrs and 44mins, covering 101 miles and climbing 3500m. Of course, I immediately started to think how much quicker I would be able to ride it with more support, totally in daylight and with more knowledge of the route… – maybe another time!!!
I have been back to complete the route a second time, this time with friends and over two days. If I am honest, I am not sure which was harder; one long day in the saddle or two big rides back to back. Still, it was definitely more fun with friends than solo so that I can comprehensively recommend…
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