After my previous attempt a few weeks back, I decided that there weren’t enough CX entries on the South Downs Double list of attempts.
Figured I may as well put another one on there.
The South Downs Double on a cross bike
The idea of riding the South Downs Double has always appealed to the idiot in me. It’s a bit silly. Extra silly on a cross bike. Each single I’ve ridden has taken me so long I’ve never considered two were possible in a day. Add the fact that I have never ridden for 24 hours before and the whole thing just seemed ridiculous.
As is the way of such things, once the idea materialises, carrying it out is the only way to banish it forever. I wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of a nice ride, may as well just give it a go, see what happens.
Pondering this last Easter weekend, a day suddenly became free. The trails were dry, the overnight temperature was just about warm enough and the forecast was slight rain for a couple of hours. Fuck it, I’ll never be ready anyway, Sunday night it is then.
Start time 19:50
A27 to Eastbourne to A27
The day of the ride I checked the bike and packed up a small rucksack of food in preparation. After putting the kids to bed I rode to my starting point where the South Downs Way crosses the A27, started all my gizmos and set off.
I can’t deal with the scale of big rides so I split them in to chunks and just ignore the bit I’m not doing. This bit was just a ride to Eastbourne. Knowing this section quite well I could just get on with it and tick off some familiar landmarks; Kingston ridge, yellow brick road, Southease. They all came and went in the dying light. A slight tailwind along the tops of the hills helped and I pushed a bit in an effort to gain a time buffer for later.
Before I knew it I was climbing up to the golf course above Eastbourne on the way back and straight into a headwind. 100 miles of it. I tried my best to ignore it, just a ride to the A27. Thankfully I dropped out of the wind with each descent and stayed out of the wind on the climbs. Everywhere else I just had to tuck in to the bike as much as possible in prayer to my bottom bracket. Annoying but manageable. Just.
Elapsed time 4:30
A27 to A24
A brief stop at the A27 to eat and fill my bottles from the tap then a lovely standing-up-all-the-way climb towards Black Cap to get me going again.
Knowing the terrain when you’re on a cross bike is knowledge made of pure gold embedded with giant diamonds. The bits that you can push on to make up time, the lines to take on the descents, that bit where you have to slow right down or you will wreck your puny tyres make a huge difference to overall progress. If you didn’t know it already, 33mm tyres are the absolute shittest tyres on Earth to ride the South Downs Way on. Ever.
I found those hours of riding in darkness hard work. The concentration levels required to not crash, to not double puncture, to constantly watch what I was doing were mentally draining. Reaching the top of the climb from Pyecombe, I stumbled trying to avoid a large rock on the path, smashed my knee against the solid metal casing of my light and fell to the ground in agony. I lay on that rocky path looking at the stars and watching the mist from my shouts float away like tiny clouds into the night and thought to myself, this is probably the end of the ride.
After a few minutes of rolling around feeling sorry for myself, I tried standing, then hobbling a bit. It was painful, too painful to put my full weight on my left leg. I considered rolling back to the A23 bike path and home. Could I ride this off? New plan, ride to Devils Dyke before quitting; give it a go, see what happens.
Those first few wincey turns of the pedals were sticky out bottom lip time. Head down. Think about something else. Anything.
Elapsed time 7:23
A24 to A3
The pain subsided a bit but I could no longer stand on the pedals when climbing. Not ideal on 1 x 11 gearing. I was still going though which was good, but I had slowed enough that a sub 24hr time was looking unlikely. No matter, it would take as long as it took. The Downs aren’t going anywhere if I wanted to have another go.
A quick bottle fill at the A24, snack and climb up a dark lane and back on to the ridge. Take 2 bottles into the shower? I just snack and climb. The strangeness of those early morning hours had arrived and my mind tuned in to Weird.FM for a bit. I tried keeping the pedals turning and ignoring it.
Salvation at the A285, fellow doubling idiot Vic was waiting. It was great to see a friendly face after hours of battling alone in the dark. It was perfectly timed. I stopped for a bit, necked some painkillers, got loads of encouraging chat and was bullied back on to the trail with zero sympathy. ‘Just get on with it’. Perfect. I had been close to bailing. Thank you so much Vic.
Elapsed time 11:53
A3 to Winchester to A3
I’ve only ever ridden through Queen Elizabeth Country Park once and that time I got hopelessly lost in the dark. This time, in daylight and following a Garmin was much easier but I did wonder how I managed to get it so wrong before. The grassy climb of Butser hill just after QECP was a new treat going in this direction and full tacking was deployed.
I reached Winchester, rode around the King Alfred statue and back onto the Way. Just after climbing that first ridge I was back into a slight tailwind for the first time in 12 hours. The 100 miles of headwind were finally over. It was a great feeling and with the day developing from murky to glorious, thoughts drifted back to a sub 24.
Elapsed time 17:10
A3 to A24
Loads of families and walkers were out enjoying a sunny bank holiday weekend on the downs, it’s great to see this beautiful place being appreciated. I wasn’t going to be a dick and spoil someones day so slowed for each group I came across. Plenty of bits without people on to make up time. This section is the longest ‘bit’ I had given myself to do and by the time I hit Washington at the A24 I was flagging. That extra speed I needed hadn’t materialised and it felt like the sub 24 was agonisingly out of reach. My maths skills had evaporated and I just couldn’t tell if it was on or not.
Elapsed time 20:51
A24 to A27
Climbing up from the A24 felt like I was finally nearing the home straight. I had just over 3 hours to get to the A27. What was in front of me? Chanctonbury Ring, Pig Farm, Truleigh Hill, Dyke, Pyecombe, Beacon, Black Cap, end. Surely this was doable? I’ve ridden this bit a few times but I just couldn’t tell in my scrambled state how long it would take, my mind was alternating between it’s just round the corner to it’s going to take all night. I had to trust the part of me that thought it was doable and just go for it. If I flogged myself for nothing at least I tried.
Just as I was starting to get my head round this my front wheel lost all air in an instant and I had to fight the bike to a stop without crashing. My only puncture in nearly 200 miles of flint and chalk and rocks the size of grapefruits hiding in every rutted dip. I should have bowed down to the flint gods in gratitude that this was the only puncture. Instead I swore at the sky at the top of my lungs. Breathe. Count to 10. Swap the tube. Just get on with it.
Perhaps it was the puncture, perhaps it was my body just wanting this thing to end but I got in the drops and went for it. No more stops. No stopping to put my arm warmers back on. No stopping to fill bottles. No stopping for anything. Don’t stop ’til you get enough. I flew down past the pigs, across the Adur, past the YHA and the lumps to Devils Dyke. Approaching each gate on the opening side, angling the bike to get through as quickly as possible and pushing the gate back with a force to let it shut with its own weight. Gritted teeth up Newtimber, not even registering the spot where I smashed my knee all those hours ago. Up past the golf course, tuck in for the blast across to Ditchling Beacon. No. More. Stops. One more ridge top ride then it was downhill all the way. I didn’t stop to check the time, I might have been hours out, I didn’t care, no more need for pacing, everything was getting chucked off the back; water, energy, sense.
That last descent down to the A27 was a blur. The last gate, the last drop down some steps, the final sprint to the tap. The last anything. Done.
Elapsed time 23:23:24
I’ve had another try since making this attempt.
A huge chunk of South Downs including Cissbury Ring, Chanctonbury Ring, and what seems like every single up and down along the ridge to Lewes. It’s a hard day out but well worth the effort. Thank you Jo for a beautifully crafted route and thank you Mark for the inspiration.
There is a rather splendid idea of making these UCX rides a brevet type thing, kind of like a permanent Audax. More here:
Astronomical Twilight is the point at which the Sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. For those 6 degrees of travel the world darkens until at 18 degrees below the horizon, light from the Sun can no longer reach the sky and night begins. If you stretch out your arm and hold up three fingers you can see it’s just a pinch of sky, 6 degrees of twilight is fleeting.
Those fingers of twilight are my favourite time to be on a bicycle. It doesn’t last long, the Earth rolls into bed so efficiently but it’s enough time to notice the final dying of the light. The stars are already visible, turned on one by one as if by some old caretaker.
Traffic dies away as you ride through the night, slowly the roads become yours. Quiet villages come and go, at first a collection of lights but later just dark shadows, homes that you can barely see.
Between 2 am and 3 am on country lanes comes the night-ride witching hour. The tired mind sees and hears things that aren’t there. The tired body just complains. The tricks of the mind eventually pass and the last few hours before dawn float by as if in a dream.
The stages of twilight begin again at dawn. At some point in the morning the exact centre of the Sun passes the magic 18 degree mark and the first rays of light bounce off the upper atmosphere. A few degrees later, the caretaker gets up, complaining, shuffles down the corridor and turns off the stars.
Stages of twilight:
Measuring the night sky:
Alone on a hill
The man with the foolish grin
Is keeping perfectly still
Towards the Eastbourne end of the South Downs Way lies Windover Hill. The North side of the hill hides the Long Man of Wilmington standing tall above the Weald, but it’s the South side that contains the path climbing up from the village of Alfriston. The long, steep, chalky track follows the edge of this lump and curves South above a valley of farmland before rejoining the top of the South Downs and resuming its route to the sea.
It was about halfway up this track that I found myself alone on New Year’s Eve.
The battery on my phone had died, the inner tubes I had brought with me were in other people’s tyres and the tube-fixing patches I had were curling up like fortune telling fish from a Christmas cracker.
I sat there watching the fading light, pondering this perfect alignment of the cosmos then started running the 6 miles back to waiting friends and last place in the White Chalk Hills Ultra Cross.
“50 (ish) miles over varied terrain, on Cyclocross bikes, mostly off road and on the South Downs from Selmeston to Eastbourne via Beddingham and Firle and back again”
This being the 5th and final UCX saw a decent turn out for the foggy start that morning. Throughout the day riders met and merged around gates, forest tracks, at the tops of hills and invariably around punctured wheels.
At Birling Gap where the Chalk Hills meet the sea you can see thin dark layers of flint amongst the chalk exposed by the eroding coast. Future punctures in every single one of those black lines moving slowly to the surface. Patiently waiting in the giant slabs of downs cake for a 33mm tyre.
The present day layer of flint was doing its best to decimate our gang of friends but we progressed through farm tracks and fog and Friston forest. The pub in East Dean was another merging of riders for those that stopped. I had probably one more pint than I should have considering the long grassy climb to get out of East Dean but I was warm again. More punctures and pee stops on the downs above Birling Gap before swooping temporarily on to tarmac towards Beachy Head, then back off road for the return to Berwick.
Somewhere between Beachy head and Windover Hill on the way back there is a rutted, muddy downhill track with brambles on either side and troughs of doom in the middle you could fly an X-Wing down. It is the most ridiculous place ever to even attempt to ride a bike. It may well be my favourite bit of anything, anywhere to do just that.
We all giggle like idiots as we drop down the track towards the Long Man, then shimmy along beneath him. Simon holds the gate at the bottom of Windover Hill and I wait with him as the rest of our group continues up the track. His reward for holding the gate, a jammed rear mech which disintegrates as he tries to set off again. Between us we do our best to get him going by breaking the chain and attempting a single speed conversion but the gears keep jumping. Still, it’s coast-able, sort of and Simon turns back to Alfriston on his giant balance bike. I head off back up the hill hoping to God I catch the others before I get a puncture….
“Unsanctioned and irreverent, pointless even”
And that’s it, after the puncture I run back to base, eat, fix the bike and then ride back to Windover Hill to finish it in the dark. There’s no reason to do this, just ‘cos. The end of a great day. The perfect way to finish it, seeing in the New Year with friends.
Thank you Mark for organising this wonderful, crazy thing. It’s easily my favourite ride — challenging, stupid, fun. What more could anyone want from a bike ride or from anything else for that matter?
“We were meant to be riding this together…”
I could see the anger in Jo’s eyes. I realised then, he and Gavin had been chasing us for the last hour.
Earlier in the ride Jo and I had spoken of not feeling great. We had paused at the top of a grassy climb to catch our breath and look out across a flat expanse of Weald below a giant sky. Jo was recovering from a cold. I had started the ride with wheezy asthma lungs but was feeling better. I thought to myself we should probably slow down.
Two miles later on the North Downs Ridge I was hunched on the drops pushing a crazy gear, laughing like an idiot. I was riding a carbon bike for the first time in months and the simplicity of this thing was just beautiful. A winter of riding into headwinds carrying bags, mudguards, chargers, lights — all forgotten, lost in the happy tears of wind resistance.
The day started early with a drive up to London from Brighton. 6 of us had entered the Epic Echappee ride — 176km, 2750m of climbing on mixed terrain including ‘a shit load of gravel’. Gavin and I scrounged a lift up with Oli to the start in South London where we met Mark, followed shortly after by John and Jo. ‘Team DFL’ had come about after many cat-herding emails a few weeks before and thanks to Oli we looked resplendent on that bright spring morning with jerseys to match.
I’d scanned the route briefly before the start and it looked hard. Loads of gravel secteurs and hills all stitched together into a testing course. It felt like the culmination of a lot of work and scary enough to warrant a few ‘I haven’t ridden all that much’ disclaimers.
The first few miles through South London streets led us to Richmond Park and then into the Surrey Hills where the numbered gravel secteurs began. The large group that we had set off with had dwindled as some riders stopped at cafes or to fix punctures but our six remained together. As we rolled into each of the secteurs there would invariably be a silly attack by someone followed by a counter attack and friendly jostling off of wheels. Chat, silliness and pointless attacks. A dicking about sort of ride.
All morning we battered ourselves and the bikes across golf courses, up gravel tracks, through woodlands, down bridleways — riding a road bike where it’s not designed to go is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how robust a road bike is. These things are ridden over gigantic cobbles by professional men and women with power outputs that could crush granite. My puny efforts would not be an issue.
At Reigate Hill we stopped for the world’s shittest coffee. Groups came and went and we chatted and faffed some more before heading off again.
“I think he’s with Jo”
The battery on my phone was dying and I was hassling Mark to text Gavin. Mark was very calmly sending him a message and telling me to relax. We’d just raced up some wooded singletrack, bunny-hopping logs, dodging dogshit, ducking branches, gritting teeth in an effort to keep going on the steeper parts of the slope.
I had a voice mail but didn’t dare use the dying embers of my phone battery. We waited. A message came though from Gavin that Jo had punctured and they had gone further down the hill past the climb we’d just done. Our 6 was now temporarily a 4 and a 2.
“They’ll just carry along the A25 and meet us further down the route”*
We swept down into Woldingham through a school past another golf club and then began climbing a rutted farm track eventually topping out by another road. A piss stop, more phone checking.
“Where the fuck are they?”
We waited a while, joking around and laughing and then spotted two figures climbing the farm track. I could tell Jo was pissed off as soon as he got off the bike. Gavin was just quiet. There was no shortcut. They had been trying to catch us the entire time. All we had been doing was racing away from them. I bore the brunt of Jo’s ire for being the main instigator of the day’s dicking about. There was a lot of looking at the ground feeling shit. As any baddie that crosses Steven Seagal’s path knows — *assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.
The threat of rain and the maths of completing in a reasonable time prompted a look at the map. We could head to Westerham and ride the final part of the route from there, chopping out 30km of Kent. The food stop in Westerham was quiet, the earlier fuck up still weighing on our minds. No one was talking about the fuck up.
Back on the road, some more miles ticked by. Smiles and chat were slowly returning. There was still the not-so-small matter of getting to the end of this thing. We began approaching built up areas but still the surprises kept popping up, this fantastic ride had been throwing up these hidden gems all day. With earlier transgressions shelved, a steep broken road up to Biggin Hill airport was contested and normal hill hostilities resumed. Just as we thought we would hit main roads again the route veered off and sent us down another farm track.
Rain clouds were chasing us towards South London and the sky darkened as we finally hit suburbia and the last few miles.
We had made it, slightly broken and a little wiser. Beers were drunk. Tales were told. Smiles restored.
I am a Strava Wanker
I’m lying on a trolley bed outside the operating theatre. I’m listening to the anaesthetist tell me how I will feel a cold sensation when the drugs are administered. As soon as I become aware of the icy pain trickling down the veins of my arm I’m in the post-op recovery room telling a nurse I feel fine. I was awake between these moments but I have no recollection of it. I know I was awake because a surgeon describes a conversation we had 15 minutes ago. 14 minutes before this memory. He told me the metal plate in my arm has been removed. The two memories are joined as if by one seamless hop through time.
The moments that led me here; a collision with a car, a bike ride through the night across the south downs, so many other points in between. Each moment like a grain of sand floating in an endless vacuum. Infinite paths between each one, each moment occurring both simultaneously and in sequence. The only linear path is the one my mind uses to piece them together. The linear distance, twenty years.
The crash. A glance from a large black Mercedes. A shove, poke, push into the kerb on Vere Street. I’ve just made a drop on Cumberland Place and radioed in “1–5, west one…”. I have the vaguest of hopes of another pick-up to take me home. It’s late, no other dockets come through on the radio so I head back to Soho with the last package of the day. The Mercedes and I meet as it moves towards the kerb on the slightest of bends. I don’t know if there is an obstruction, does the car need to move? Is the driver not paying attention? Do they even know they’ve hit me? I don’t think any of these things when I bounce off the car and fall onto the edge of the kerb. I am consumed by an intense white light of pain that blocks out all thought. When my eyes finally open a dark London street with a fuzzy white edge carries on as before.
The Downs are lit by a blood red moon. A warm breeze passes me. A herd of wild deer run past the beam of my light. I stand there for a while in the grassy valley, I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. I am in awe of this place. Later, I hunch over the bike as I climb a rocky path through a wood. I follow the path through the wood and emerge into a dark field. To my left I can feel a black expanse of nothing. The hill drops away and the space beyond is just…there. A giant cube of cool air. The world sleeps and the downs belong to me.
The receptionist signs my sheet and hands me back my clipboard. I struggle to put it back in my bag. I smile apologetically, pathetically. I head out into the street and unlock my bike. The West End is already full of drunks, short skirts, shiny shirts, shouting, laughter. I ride to the hospital slowly, my arm hanging limply by my side. I make it to A&E. I’ve still got my radio, my bike, my bag. I’m not sure how I’m doing things, I must be on some kind of auto pilot. The x-ray shows bits of bone. The decision is taken to fix a metal plate to the bone in my arm. An attachment.
The Earth spins towards the sun and I spin along the downs past Chanctonbury Ring, the monarch of the range. A faint smudge of light sits on the horizon. The grassy ridge narrows to a rocky path beside a field. I’m on the drops pushing hard on the pedals, full of joy at the silliness of riding across the downs at night for no reason. The best reason. A bounce on the rear wheel, breathe in, nope. The next bounce is the clang of wheel rim on flint. I fix the puncture and watch the sun rise.
I become aware of my surroundings. I’m in a hospital bed. A different time hop. My dad is there. He says something to me that I will never forget, something that stays with me forever, changes my life even. The paths between the floating grains of sand are altered. He has no idea the impact those words will have on me. I doubt he even remembers it.
I stop at the gate. It’s good to see smiling faces. I’m touched that friends would want to ride out and join me on a bike-ride-for-no-reason. We ride up and down the chalk hills. We stop for tea. We ride some more through the hot summer morning until we reach the end.