The South Downs Way Double – Double Attempts

Second Attempt – 178 miles covered in 23 hours

Less than a week later, I was back on the bike for a second crack at the South Downs Way Double.

I did the second attempt on my own. I also made a few other adjustments too:

  • As effective as it was, I replaced the thorn as a plug. The tyre was mended and new sealant put in both tyres.
  • I swapped SPD pedals for flats and decided to ride in trainers. I had lost bolts on the first attempt and hadn’t been able to replace them in time. Plus, I thought that if I started to get any pains anywhere, I could change contact points between my foot and the pedal to make it more comfortable.
  • The rattling had proven too much for my bottle cages. Both had broken. They were another thing I couldn’t replace in time. I decided to rely solely on my hydration pack slung over my back. There are public taps situated at regular intervals along the route so this wasn’t a problem. Also, when going down a few bumpy descents, my bottles would rattle out and go flying. It was a bit of a bore having to stop, get off the bike and go running back up the hill to rescue the errant bottles.

Aside from those smaller changes, everything else remained the same. I planned to start from the top of the Ditchling Beacon at midnight and head west towards Winchester. And so here I was, seven days later, carb-loading and trying to squeeze in a nap before the eventual spin back up the Beacon for a midnight departure.

Another obligatory selfie was taken. Then, headphones in and I was off. The temperature was perfect. And, there was little wind this time. Surprisingly, there were people! And, a trove of animals – some I would have preferred to avoid and some good.

There were about seven or eight fields where there were bulls in the fields. Not a problem during the day – the bulls are visible, I’m visible and there is no surprise about seeing each other because they’re used to seeing people at that time. It’s an entirely different scenario at 2 o’clock in the morning! Some breeds I saw (at the very last minute) are just black. So, I’d be barrelling down a hill, focused on the line I was taking and thinking all’s good only to have these chunky black silhouettes suddenly everywhere around you… There were also a few long-horn bulls in one field. But, beyond mutual observation (less vigilant on their part), there was nothing else to report, thankfully.

When attempting the South Downs Way Double you are faced with some truly stunning vistas.

I saw an uncountable number of badgers (I did keep track to begin with, but with the mental priority being cycling, I soon gave up and just sang along to music). Also, lots of deer. Both, roe and fallow deer. Around dawn, I startled a pair of Roe deer. They ran North, away from the path. They ran up a hill planted with waist-high wheat towards the horizon. As they ran over the horizon, they became silhouetted in the early dawn sky! Such an amazing sight.

I was happy with my progress from Ditchling Beacon to Winchester and covered the 70 miles in 8 hours, 5 minutes. I had a 25-minute turn around in front of King Alfred’s statue. And then, I was away. Even before I arrived in Winchester in the early morning, I could tell that it was going to be a hot day.

On the return trip to the Ditchling Beacon, the temperature and humidity steadily rose. Conversely, being exposed and baked in the sun, my energy plummeted. From 11:00 am through to 16:00 it became progressively more difficult to pedal. And, I lost time. There are two hills that stand out in the haze of my memories of that day that proved particularly ruinous. The first one could be called The Peak Climb on Strava. It’s a rutted, grassy climb that’s 0.92 miles long at 9%. After 130-miles, it’s a tough climb. Even pushing the bike is difficult. The second hill was Truleigh Hill – it’s a 660-foot climb. It starts out between 10-12% for just under a mile before levelling out to a 5% climb for almost another mile. In total, it took me 45 minutes to cover less than two miles!

I stopped at the only shop I know of that is close to the South Downs Way. There’s a petrol station about 100 meters south of the path in Pycombe. Arriving at approximately 17:00 meant that I had covered 70-miles in 8.5 hours – not bad and not too much time lost given the heat and how I felt.

I know I got food – I restocked for the second loop and got food to enjoy then. This veritable feast was comprised of a sandwich, a Magnum, a Fanta and a Snickers. I know this because I have the receipt and some non-lucid recollections. There was no such thing as enjoying the food, it was simply devoured fast, with no appreciation for it!

After the restorative energy top-up and with the cooling evening, I was off. I was finally beginning to feel better. The legs worked and were happy to spin. More fields with more bulls, but they remained unprovoked.

I did make a wrong turn to come off the South Downs Way and cross the A27. Where I should have gone south, I continued heading east. The missed turn happened while whizzing down a hill, of course – it always does. When I retraced back to the turn, the sign to turn was clear and obvious. Not anything I needed that far into the ride.

Crossing over the A27 to the south side of the road, I was disheartened. I could look to my left and see where I should be going. But, the route and Garmin were both telling me to head west, up a long ridge called Swanborough Bowl. It’s horrible – long, mostly high-resistance grass climbing. I hit another low here. The climb is just over a mile long and varies between 6-8%. At the same time, some chap out on a short, evening spin caught me up (not hard) for a cheery chatter (the cheeriness was decidedly one-sided). He did kindly wait for me and held some gates. Thank you.

After that climb was behind me, the path wound its way back towards the east. And, I carried on happily enough. Of course, by this point fatigue was really kicking in, but I was still happy to continue. Much like the sunrise, the sunset was also beautiful to behold, I felt privileged to be out in a natural setting and to be a part of it. Then the sun went down and the lights were turned back on again. An unwelcome reminder that the day and my window of completion were steadily diminishing.

The one and only person I was happy to speak with across the day was at the very end. It was dark and some distance from the roadway, so I was somewhat spooked to come across someone casually dressed and with no lights ambling in the opposite direction. But, they were coming from the direction I was heading, so maybe they had good news of what was ahead. And they did. Eastbourne was only a couple of kms further on the trail! Then, they proceeded to tell me about the glow worms which were out in particularly strong numbers that night. I dunno, I didn’t care. I was just happy to not be spinning or thinking about the ride for 5 minutes.

After some un-coordinated navigation, I got into Eastbourne. And, finally to the café that marks the start of the South Downs Way in Eastbourne. It was 23:00 and I had over 20 miles to cover to get back to the start. It was clear I wasn’t going to make the Sout Downs Way Double cut off time of 24-hours. This I had been aware of since maybe that wrong turn starting the second loop.

I had a few choices:

  • I could continue cycling back to the Ditchling Beacon to complete the 200-miles – even if it wasn’t in 24-hours
  • Look at trains or taxi’s.

I didn’t much mind another 30 miles and thought it’d be awesome to have the 200 under my belt. But, the ride isn’t straightforward. And I thought about the wrong turns I’d likely take (even with mapping, it’s not easy to do!), two treacherous descents and the bulls (sensing a phobia? I think it’s legit). I estimated it would be around 03:00 or 04:00 when I finally arrived at the Beacongradients and then I had a 5-mile ride to get home.

While updating everyone on where I was, a friend asked if I wanted him to drive a 60-mile round trip at 23:00 to come and collect me. What a legend. I owe him innumerable cakes. I accepted. And, promptly curled up on a park bench at the foot of the hill with my hydration pack as pillow and handlebars jammed into my side as my burglar alarm and had a nap.

Summary & What’s Next?

The South Downs is a cornucopia of beauty – from seeing animals in their natural habitats just living their lives to those immediate views right in-front of beautiful hills, to the holistic view – those vistas that sweep the horizon for miles and miles.

It is some challenge, though, covering 200 miles in a single day. But, what makes it tough, aside from riding 200 miles in 24-hours or less, are the regular sections that creep up into the mid-20% vertices (hairy when descending in the middle of the night). Then there’s the regular, longer strips of glue-like grass and the millions of gates (in reality only about 200).

And so, this is where I find myself. Two attempts on the South Downs Way Double made, 320+ miles covered over 43-hours, yet no closer to completing the challenge.

What’s next? Another go? Accept defeat? The latter sounds easier. But, I think I prefer the former.

So, it’s back to the drawing board. Looking at where I can make gains to achieve the target and put theory into practice. If you have done a similar off-roading challenge, are a coach or nutritionist and have suggestions, I welcome them!

Otherwise, follow me on Instagram and Strava and keep watching this space until I get it right!

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