The South Downs Way Double
It's 2011. Two of us are shivering in an over-stretched survival bag, cowering inside a disused sheep shed somewhere in West Sussex. Our attempt to ride the South Downs Way twice in one go had come to an abrupt, and somewhat embarrassing, early finish a long way short of our goal. The least romantic bivvy I've yet to experience being something of a forfeit for having been excessively bullish about our ability.
Fast forward to 2015 and we're back - leaner, faster, fitter and, most importantly, with a touch more respect for the challenge ahead. Just writing these basic stats - 200 miles of mountain biking with 7000 metres of ascent - makes me realise just how naive we'd been back then. A quick photo underneath King Alfred in Winchester and we're rolling. Destination: Winchester, via Eastbourne.
As mountain biking terrain goes, the South Downs Way is a relatively benign mix of bridleways, well tramped field tracks, dusty farm roads and grassy ridges. Nothing gnarly or technical, more passive aggressive. A cunning blend of wind (it can be a very exposed place), relentless hills, distance and flint, the nemesis of the mountain bike tyre, make for an attritional experience.
A week of dry weather before our ride had left the South Downs crisp and dry and the pleasant gift of a gentle tailwind wafting in the direction of Eastbourne helped us tick along in good time. The profile gets more toothy after 50 miles or so, and wherever possible the route stays high, never following the easy option and never taking a valley, but always crossing contour lines and cresting hills in the fastest way possible. Granny is your friend.
The satisfying hum of tubeless tyres across a dusty earth was our soundtrack. The dryness coming as a light reminder to be extra vigilant for wayside taps and fresh water points. We had carefully noted where water is available, but if you are flying downhill and trying to stay alert it can be easy to miss the small farm taps buried to the back of the hedges.
Approaching the turnaround, when the profile resembles an old rusty saw blade, the wind was bending the grass in our direction, and I was concerned that this would be a double-edged sword - favourable for the next few miles, but a real hindrance on the way back to Winchester.
Our shadows began to lengthen and saturation levels turned up a few notches as the sun lowered behind us and we dropped into Eastbourne. Halfway.
Climbing sharply out of Eastbourne it was now dark enough for lights. The beam of our lamps illuminating a gently swirling mist as we began retracing our steps back onto the high ground. Soon the mist had transitioned into dense fog and swallowed us whole. Light bouncing back off infinite tiny droplets turning everything grey and reducing our visibility to just a few metres, the way only being unveiled at the last second. Navigation slowed and frustratingly we began missing turns, trudging back up hills we shouldn't have taken. Hazy lights from the headtorch of the occasional ultra runner floated towards us through the translucent air.
Although it wasn't raining, nor particularly cold, the mist clung to our sweaty jerseys and gave us a light chill prompting gilets and arm warmers to be donned. Long cold descents into sweaty climbs in the still night air as the earlier wind ran out of puff.
With minds fuzzy with fatigue and eyesight strained by the foggy conditions our attention focussed more on staying alert and upright and less on watching for waymarkers. Missing turns adding more unnecessary distance and climbing to already weary legs.
As we refuelled at a 24hr petrol station the sky gradually began to lighten, the combination of calories and the warmth of an early sun delivering a fresh boost of energy. We had survived the night and now most of the climbing was behind us. The long slope out of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park feeling like the final obstacle, one final challenge, before a comfortable 25 miles or so run back in to Winchester.
Of course there was time for one dramatic puncture. The familiar "PSSST" and legs spattered with tubeless sealant, but the slash of a flint stone proved too wide for the gunge in my tyre to deal with alone. Thankfully Chris had brought some tubeless plugs (a compulsory piece of kit in South Africa apparently) and we quickly repaired the damage without having to open up the tyre and stick in a tube.
The trail began to widen, tracks became country lanes and lanes transitioned into roads. We were dropping back off the South Downs Way and into Winchester. 22 hours of riding, one puncture, many litres of water, several petrol station coffees, the BLT, a few pieces of caramel shortbread and thankfully no tumbles.
The unfinished business of 2011 could at last be put to bed.
Ross was wearing gear from the POC Essential range, including:
POC Essential Short Sleeve Jersey
For more images check Ross on Instagram