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BHF South Downs Way Randonee
« : June 13, 2005, 23:47:02 »

from Ride & Touring

11th June 2005

What inspires a man to get up at 4.15am and spend almost twelve hours riding what is arguably (until the Pennine Bridleway opens at least) the best long-distance off-road cycle route in England? Well, mainly to raise cash for the British Heart Foundation, but also as part of my build-up to a solo 24 hour race at Sleepless in the Saddle in August.

Oh, and for ‘fun’ I suppose.

For anybody unfamiliar with the South Downs Way, here’s two statistics which sum it up as a day ride. 100 miles. 10000ft of climbing. The route is (I would guess) 85-90% off-road, mainly on the quintessential rolling chalk doubletrack synonymous with the South Downs. Having ridden the route in as a two day ride last year, I knew getting along it in one day would not impossible, just very, very hard.

I spent Friday night in Southampton with old university friends, who were themselves embarking on the 66 mile Solent Challenge – ferry hopping on and off the Isle of Wight – the very same day, on their pre-war tandem acquired recently for £20! Awaking to grey dawn light, I shoehorned down a 1000-calorie breakfast before catching the 5.10 train to Winchester. Riding up to the start outside Winchester I soon encountered a trail of similar-minded (ie insane) mountain bikers making their way to the registration point. Arriving with ten minutes to spare, I had just enough to time to grab my registration pack, fit my rider number and force down a banana before we were ushered down to the start. A few words of encouragement and good luck, and two hundred riders began the long, long ride to Eastbourne.

After the single-file first corner, the pack passed down, almost shoulder to shoulder through the village of Chilcombe – where a few people had even come out to cheer us on. The first climb reared up almost immediately and strung everybody out. As things settled down I found myself in a fluctuating group of 10 or so riders and making good time. We knocked out a fast but comfortable pace for the first 20 miles until, above Queen Elizabeth Country Park: ‘BANG! Hiss … hiss … hiss … My rear inner tube let go – on the road, for no apparent reason. Cursing, I pulled over and decided I may as well take my time and eat a little as well as changing the tube. 15 minutes later I was on my way again, now well down the pack, which at least meant I got to spend the next two hours passing people. I pressed on until I reached Cocking, where I stopped to eat again and refill my Camelbak from one of the many convenient taps located along the South Downs Way.

With 40 miles down, the sun shining and my energy levels replenished, I felt in good shape and continued to make my way back up the field. I was further spurred on by reaching the village of Amberley by 10.30. This was the point at which we had stopped overnight when I did the ride in two days the year before, and I was here by the middle of the morning! I decided to press on until I hit the 66 mile point, knowing I would then be two-thirds of the way through. However things did not quite go to plan; halfway up Truleigh Hill, at the 65.5 mile point, I blew up so completely that continuing was futile without some food inside me. So, I simply keeled over by the side of the road, shoved another couple of thousand calories down my neck and, after ten minutes staring at the view, put myself back on the bike.

After taking on more water at Truleigh Hill YHA, I gradually pulled myself back together and picked up the pace again along the relatively flat stretch to Devil’s Dyke. This was the point at which those doing the 65 mile ride finished and those starting the 35 mile ride began. This meant the huge psychological blow of passing a large banner with ‘FINISH! CONGRATULATIONS!’ written on it, and having to ride straight through for another 65 miles of punishment. Pressing on regardless, and regaining some dignity by dropping a couple of riders who were just starting the 35 mile ride on the descent from Devil’s Dyke, I had an important rite of passage by giving in and pushing some of the next climb. Up to this point I had been far to stubborn to get off and push even the most savage gradients; now I was prepared to walk stuff that Miss Marple would have had a stab at.

The last 20 miles was all about highs and lows, in terms of my spirit, physical state, and altitude. After Lewes four long, grinding climbs lie between you and Eastbourne. Frankly I think the first of these was the worst. Halfway up I was off the bike with my head in my hands and had to wait for a group of riders to arrive and desperately tag onto the back of them. A big hello to the two guys (in case you’re reading this, you on a Scott and an Ellsworth, me on an Orange P7. I commented that you guys looked fresh and clean enough to be on the 35 mile ride) who got me up that climb and all the way to Southease. After the relatively tolerable climb to Firle Beacon and the thrilling high-speed descent to Alfriston, just 9 miles and two more climbs lay between myself and Eastbourne.

The climb out of Alfriston past the Long Man of Wilmington is the kind of ascent I would normally relish; technical and rocky in places, but rideable enough to attack and watch the view open up below. This time I was glad just to get up it without resorting to pushing. I did have to stop halfway up and reply to a text asking how I was doing simply with ‘8 miles to go. Suffering.’

The final climb out of Jevington was memorable only by my longing to see the view of Eastbourne from the top. The elation of this was followed by passing the 100 mile mark, and flying down the final descent at reckless speed and collapsing in a heap at the finish.

For the record, I finished in 11 hours 20 minutes (9 hours 39 minutes riding time) and covered 102.7 miles. I will probably go back next year - amazing how quickly you forget the pain and just think ‘that was brilliant! I’ll put myself through Hell again next year I think,’ isn’t it?

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