South Downs Way in a day

I've always loved riding the South Downs Way, it's a somewhat "natural" path which is mostly bridleway with nothing too technical apart from a few gravelly descents.  The full length of it stretches 160km starting at Winchester and finishing in Eastbourne on the edge of the English channel.  I've cycled bits and pieces of the route, mostly the last 80km of it as it's expensive to get to the start at Winchester.  However every year there is an organised ride to do the entire length of it in one day, this would be the furthest I've ever cycled entirely off-road but I decided to bite the bullet and do it.


I'd read about people doing this route in a single go in the past and thought it was slightly mad!  Total ascent is 3000m or so over mostly gravelly, flinty bridleway, byway and some singletrack.  While there aren't any long grinding alpine style climbs, the 3000m of climbing is made up of many rolling hills, some of which are up to 15% inclines up to altitudes of 300m above sea level.  There is a fair bit of descent as well, most of these are quite mild but some have pretty chunky gravel which would be challenging on a rigid gravel bike.

I signed up to the British Heart Foundation South Downs Way ride for July 15th, along the route they would have food and drink stops every 20-30km.  Despite this I planned on bringing my own food for the ride, my guess would that it'd take me roughly 10-12 hours including breaks. 

The ride

As there would be a 5:30 start I arrived the night before and stayed at an Airbnb, I'm not sure if it was due to nerves or just an unfamiliar environment but I didn't sleep much the night before, at most a few hours.  I woke up at 4:45am, had a quick breakfast and downed some electrolyte drink and headed to the start.  The light was just starting to break and I headed towards the start line under the dusky glow of the sky.

The air was cool and moist with apprehension of the long journey ahead, the start line was a collection of nerves and excitement, last minute checks of tyre pressure and final twiddles and tweaks.  I was the only person there with a drop bar bike, let alone a rigid bike amongst a sea of MTBs.

We set off on some singletrack from Winchester and it was pretty calm with most of us soothing our nerves with some chitchat.  I found I was overtaking a lot of people at the beginning, particularly up hills as my bike would be significantly lighter by 3-5kg than most of the full suspension MTBs on the ride. The singletrack turned into some quiet backroads through farmer's fields and then back to bridleways.

The first part of the route incorporated some hills but these were still reasonably mild compared to what would be in the last third.  Soon after overtaking many people I found people at a similar pace and settled into a rhythm.

Quickly I found out the advantages and shortfalls of riding a rigid bike on a ride like this, ascending I found the weight advantage and power efficiency became apparent, making me a little bit smug.  Downhill or over rocky flat terrain is where I had people zooming past me on full suspension bikes,  over time the lack of suspension and the comparatively small 45mm wide Rock'n'road tyres would be my downfall.

I packed quite a lot of food for the ride, usually on longer rides I try to include some food which isn't energy gels or bars, I find on long rides I get a bit sick of eating sweet sickly things and crave real food.  One thing I found I should have packed more of is electrolyte drink as I was getting some calf cramps early on.

The distance wears on  

The landscape of the South Downs is mostly rolling hills of farmed landscape, varying from wheat fields, grazing sheep and pig farms. The terrain is mostly chalky clay with lots of limestone rocks and some flints dotted around.  Towards the end of the ride my bike, hands, legs and face were covered with this fine chalky dust, luckily though none of the flints or rocks punctured my tyres.

Towards the latter half though, the lack of suspension really started to wear on me, my body was sore from the constant roughness of the terrain.  Having ridden up to 80km of the South Downs Way previously didn't prepare me for 160km.  Towards the end I wasn't even able to sit down over rougher parts of the trail and had to stand to be able to survive the rocks.  This became much of a hindrance towards the end as I wasn't so much cardio-fatigued but just felt entirely beaten up by the terrain.  Most other people at this point had full-suspension bikes or hardtails.  I was often a subject of curiosity, people were genuinely interested in why someone would do this ride on a rigid drop bar bike with comparatively skinny tyres, maybe I'm just pig-headed or crazy or a combination of the two.

The end in sight

Towards 140km I was able to see Eastbourne in the distance, these last bits of the South Downs Way are punctuated by steep, rutted and rocky ascents.  These are torn up by agricultural tracked vehicles and seek not only to test your bike, but your will to climb!  I was at the point where I was wondering whether this was the last climb only to get a glimpse of yet another one further along.  I was really glad though I had fitted the 34t chainring to the front, combined with the 10-42t cassette at the rear I was able to winch myself up these challenging climbs.

12 hours after I started I made it to the end, wheeling down the hill into Eastbourne seafront towards the red tents of the British Heart Foundation, I immediately crossed the finish line, wheeled my bike a few metres and dropped onto the grassy ground.  It wasn't so much my legs or lungs were bust, but I just felt so beat up by the terrain, all my body was aching from constant pounding from the rocks and ruts of the landscape. This was a ride that I had not even considered realistically doing only a few years back, it would be the longest off-road ride I had done yet.  Thanks for reading.