South Downs Cycle Route By Jack Martin
Thinking about tackling the south downs. Read Jack Martins experience of riding the route for the first time.
Having lived in Winchester for the last two years for university, I have explored the many quiet lanes of the south downs, test valley and new Forrest but have never ventured out on the south downs way.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic and local lockdown put a stop to competitive racing and group rides.
With the racing season coming to an abrupt end, at least for the time being, I was left with a void in motivation.
I knew that to enjoy cycling through lockdown I needed to come up with a set of new challenges or goals.
Whilst I have always liked chasing power numbers and race wins, there is something special about setting yourself a challenge that completely put you out of your comfort zone.
The south downs way was that exact challenge for me. I discovered the south downs way through a video on the global mountain biking youtube channel. This video gave me the inspiration to plan my own one day adventure. Common mistakes on long distance riders.
Most people complete the south downs way on a mountain bike. However, only having a road bike I put a set of 30mm tyres on my bike and set out. This one subtle change had unlocked an entirely new type of cycling experience. Read 5 long distance tips by Robbi Ferri.
At the Age of 36, I found myself giving up the job at Caterpillar as I was now a single parent looking after my 2 children a daughter who was 11 and a son who was 6 I started doing a few part-time jobs to help keep a roof over our heads.
But I still found time to keep cycling when kids were at School. During this time I ended up with a spinal injury a disc had slipped and I was in a lot of pain and on hard-core pain killers, it got to the stage where i was almost housebound hardly able to walk even.
After 2 years of hospital visits and close to ending it all i seen a surgeon at Leicester General Hospital who said he could operate on me but there was a great chance i may never walk again, well i said to him i can hardly walk now and I am in so much pain even with tablets etc so he put me on the waiting list to have the operation.
Anyway, I got the Operation at Christmas time as there were a few cancellations i woke up in bed after the operation and the 1st thing i thought was can I move my toes, sure enough they moved, i thought that’s got to be a good sign and there was no pain either.
A few hours later the surgeon came to see me, asked how i felt. I said I am in no pain, that’s good he said and proceeded to lift both my legs in the air as i lay in the bed, how’s that feel he said, any pain. No none at all.
Good I will see you later and off he went. He came back a few hours later and got me out of bed and told me to walk down the ward, all went well from then on. When i was due to leave hospital a few days later the surgeon said to me.
Mr Robinson just take your time for a month or two do a lot of walking and do some cycling and swimming but not breast stroke as its bad for your back try front crawl.
This was great news i could ride my bike again. So back home i started walking daily and eventually got out on the bike.
This is when I started to do the Hinckley CRC time trials on a regular basis to keep me motivated and try to get fit again after being unable to do a lot with a bad back.
The first one I did after the operation took me 33 mins to complete the 10 miles I came last much too the delight of 2 ladies who did it for the 1st time.
Over the next few months i got a bit better and got my time down to 27 mins. This was on an old Raleigh 6 speed with down tube shifters.
Anyway, one evening a chap called Martin came up to me and said you’re doing really well on that old bike well done, I said thanks but i would love to go a bit quicker and get down to the low 26 minute mark i did a few years ago before my back issue.
Well Martin said come out with me on Sunday and i will get you quicker. So the following Sunday i met up with Martin and off we went.
Well, he took me over to Charnwood forest area in Leicestershire up all the biggest hills he knew of over there and we ended up doing around 60 or 70 miles the last hill i came to i fell off the bike with cramp in both my legs at an hill called the Ski Slope at a place called Orton on the Hill.
This amused Martin. Anyway, the following Tuesday evening at the Hinckley TT my time was quicker i got below 27 mins. From then one i went every Sunday with Martin and other who were well better and faster than me but it was fun and i kept hanging in with them on my old 6 speed steel Raleigh doing 80 to 100 miles on those Sundays in all weathers.
On Tuesday Nights at the Hinckley TTs i started beating a few of the better riders there and a lot if them didn’t like it and said things like I must have had a bad night or some other comment, it was never well-done Robbo, so I got a white Tee Shirt and when i beat one of these so called good riders i put their name on the Tee Shirt with a permanent marker pen.
The Tee Shirt had the Roll of Shame across the shoulders at the back. As i got quicker more names ended up on that Tee Shirt. I’ve still got it 20 + years later.
It was just that back then Those Time Trial riders were a secretive lot not telling you where they were riding etc or encouraging at all.
But Martin and his group of friends were great fun even though they always took the Micky out of me and my bike they made me better and i will always be grateful for that.
After a couple of years of doing Time Trials i was asked to join a new club it was going to be a Triathlon Club it was decided to be called 1485 Tri Club.
What is the South downs way
The south downs way presents many challenges for even the most experienced of cyclists. The 100-mile route consists of mostly off-road bridleway and single track tacking in breathtaking views throughout the south downs national park, Queen Elizabeth country park several other spectacular locations.
With over 4,150 meters of ascent, the south-down route takes most cyclists between 14-16 hours to complete if they are to ride it in one go.
However, it is also common to take several days to complete the route and stay in hotels or camp out in the wild overnight.
The south downs way experience
Within half a mile you are out of the busy Winchester streets and out into smooth single track which wides its way up to Cheesefoot head The climb up to Cheesefoot head is challenging and really gives you an insight into what the next 100 miles are going to be like.
The next notable point is Beacon hill at the 13-mile mark. It’s late May, and at 9 am temperatures have already reached 20 degrees, and the sky is a clear blue with no clouds in sight. Rolling through the quiet bridle paths that cross Exton, I see several riders in front of my now doubt attempting to complete the same route.
At the 18 mile mark, I hit old Winchester hill, a road I frequently use for interval training. However, I am not rushing today and can take in the views all the way up.
I stop at the top and visit Allan’s coffee van at the top of old Winchester hill, taking a few minutes to taste what many say is the best coffee around these parts.
For the next 30 miles, I criss-crossed narrow country lanes and tight single track making my way up to the highpoint on the route, Buster hill.
At an elevation of 271 meters, Buster hill should provide the best decent for the whole day. The smooth roads into the Queen Elizabeth country park provide a well-needed respite from the bumpy single track and bridleways that have formed the route so far.
At 2 pm the heat of midday sun is beating down, and I find myself on the knights filed climb a menacing off-road climb lasting for 0.26 miles with an average gradient of over 19 per cent.
For many riders, this is a get off and push moment and today that is definitely the case for me.
This climb may average 19 per cent but peaks at over 32 per cent in places. #
This is the halfway point and it has taken me 5 hours to get to this point. The combination of the summer sun and my lack of experience in off-road riding is beginning to take its toll, and I find myself questioning if I will make it to Eastbourne before the sunsets.
Many riders choose to tackle the south downs way over multiple days and I now understand why this is the case.
Attempting to tackle this route in one day is no mean feat. A few hours of narrow winding single track littered with steep climbs and jaw-dropping views have passed, and I find myself on the penultimate climb of this ride.
The temperature has dropped considerably compared to the unbearable heat from earlier in the day and cycling up the climb to leave Alfriston I almost feel cold. These last few miles are definitely the best, and the end is in sight and I begin to feel a sudden rush of energy as I know how close I am to finishing this challenge.
The final climb up Willingon provides great views over Eastbourne, and on a hot summers day like to day, it provides a great place to sit and reflect on the journey you have been on to get here.
Top 5 tips for completing the south downs way
Take your time
Whilst I completed the route in one day, it is more common for people to complete the courseover 3-4 days, staying in hotels or camping out in the wild. If you take your time you can enjoy all of the cafes and extra viewpoints.
The route is 100 mostly off-road with some small sections of technical singletrack. There are points on this route that will be far away from any bike shops. So before you set off on your adventure, make sure you have multiple inner tubes, items of food and other spares that you may need.
Use the widest tyres that will fit on your bike.
The south downs way can be slippery, rough and heavily rutted at the best of times. The wider your tyre the lower pressure you will be able to use with pinch puncturing. A wider tyre with lower pressure will also be more comfortable over the long-distance of the route.
Share the adventure with someone
With lockdown restrictions easing and group rides of 6 now being allowed, now is the perfect time to go on an adventure with a cycling friend. Spending hours exploring new destinations, seeing some of the most spectacular views in the south of England, hopping between cafes, and even a spot of wild camping will make for the best adventure with your favourite riding partner or group.
Take in the views
With over 4,150 meters of ascent, there are more than enough hills to provide spectacular views over Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex.
The first half of the route provides excellent countryside views of farmers fields and small villages and the second half gives you picturesque coastal views. So make sure you take your time and stop for at least a couple of the most popular viewpoints along the route.
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