The time is 9am on Saturday June 29th 2013 and I’m rolling downhill towards the centre of Winchester from my home on the west side of the city. It’s a lovely day to be on a bike, warm but not hot. This feels very different from three weeks previously when I was waiting with a group of friends at the King Alfred statue, ready to set off on my first South Downs Double attempt. Then I felt anxious and sleep deprived, now I feel excited and focused.
I ease to a stop beside the King Alfred statue once again, alone this time. I run one last check over the bike and the contents of my back pack, I look up at the City Hall clock, start my Garmin and pedal away from Winchester at 9.07am. This was the low key departure I wanted, no pressure or burden of expectation, just setting off on a long ride into the South Downs.
My wife Helena had left the house before me that morning to take the kids down to the local Park run. Before she’d left I’d asked her if it was ok if I went on a big ride, “How big?” she’d asked, “200 miles?” I ventured. “Good” she replied “Take care and call me when you can”. That was all the ceremony I needed.
I do have a basic plan even though it’s a last minute decision to go. This is essentially to get to Eastbourne in around 11 hours making the best use of a moderate westerly tail wind and then turn around and grind my way back home hoping that the breeze fades overnight. I still have very little idea whether I can ride the 200 miles in under 24 hours but this time I’m determined to complete the challenge irrespective.
I come up behind a group of mountain bikers on the first small climb leaving Winchester. We exchange greetings and it turns out they are on an organised ride along the South Downs Way (http://www.trailbreak.co.uk/lemming/index.php). This is very much the pattern for the first part of my outbound journey, it’s a busy day on the South Downs Way but this gives me some social contact and targets to overtake.
I’m using a heart rate monitor but am mostly riding by feel. The HRM is really to make sure I don’t get over-excited in the early stages but I feel so strong that I push on and largely ignore the numbers. I realise that I’m using two gears bigger than normal up an early climb towards the Sustainability Centre a few miles out of Winchester but I’m not fighting the bike and it feels just fine.
The conditions are perfect and the miles disappear under my wheels. I stop briefly at Cocking to refill my bottles and move on quickly. I’m deliberately not checking split times on the way out, I’ll just ride at the right tempo and see how things stand when I get to Eastbourne. My next stop is the water tap at Botolphs, again a short and efficient refill and I’m on my way up to Truleigh.
My first surprise comes after the sharp right turn in front of Blackcap, just beyond Ditchling. This is one of the few sections of narrow singletrack and I pull over for a group of riders coming in the opposite direction. As they pass me there’s a “Hey Jonny, what are you doing here?” It’s my regular mountain biking buddy Chris with his sons and a friend, they’re doing a two day ride from Eastbourne back to Winchester. “Hell of a training ride!” he says, then looks at me again and adds “It’s not a training ride, is it”.
He asks me what time I left and mentions something about being pretty fast and tells me to get on my way. This is a big lift for me, I know that messages will be exchanged and that the word is out, I already feel the support and encouragement of a network of good friends.
I stop briefly at the water tap beside the A27 and then get back on my bike and keep tapping out the rhythm as I move closer to Eastbourne. I’m lost in the riding but I do notice the wind on very ridge, it’s definitely not dying, in fact it feels stronger than ever. It comes from different directions as the SDW zigzags but is predominantly from behind, I’m not looking forward to turning round.
Before long I’m riding up the final climb from Jevington, past the golf course and hammering down towards the turn at Paradise Drive (I believe the official SDW start/end point might have been changed recently but this is the one used by previous “Doublers” so it’s good enough for me).
I stop, fish my phone out of my backpack and check the time. 6.45pm. Some very quick mental maths and I calculate that it has taken me 10 hours and 40 minutes to get to Eastbourne. That’s ok, just inside my target schedule.
Then I take another look, redo my maths and come up with a different answer – 9 hours and 40 minutes. Hang on, that can’t be right, I think I need a second opinion. I call Helena who sounds surprised and totally delighted that I’m at Eastbourne. She must think that I’m a blathering idiot as I check the time with her “What time do you have? How long has it taken me?” 9 hours 40 minutes is confirmed and I feel a huge mental lift. I have over 14 hours to get home within the magic 24 hour mark.
Something else happens at Paradise Drive whilst I’m stuffing a sandwich down my neck. A mountain biker comes down the hill and stops beside me. He’s friendly and we chat, he’s ridden from Southease and is getting a lift back from his other half who is waiting in a car nearby. He asks me about my ride and I tell him I left Winchester this morning. “Bloody hell, good effort” he says “How are you getting back?” I tell him I’m turning around and riding back, he looks at me in bewilderment, shakes his head and wishes me good luck.
As he’s loading his bike onto the car, I overhear him say to his partner “That bloke has ridden from Winchester this morning and now he’s riding back” and then he says three words that take me back to my encounter with Mike Cotty in 2008. “What a nutter”.
Those words ring in my ears as I crest the hill out of Eastbourne into a stiff headwind. My pace feels pedestrian and I sense that the return leg is going to be a very different animal, rather more tortoise than hare. I stop at the water tap outside the church in Jevington, down a bottle of Rego followed by a gel and set off feeling a touch queasy.
I get into a rhythm again, albeit a slower one, and keep telling myself to go steady, look after my legs, look after the bike, don’t take any unnecessary risks. It’s getting dusky and, after a near miss with a solid looking badger on my previous attempt, I’m very aware of the dangers of hyperactive wildlife at this time of day.
I stop again at the A27 water tap to refill and switch into night mode. Arm warmers on, knee warmers on, lights clipped on. It is a stunning evening, the last remnants of the day captured in the red sky ahead of me to the west whilst darkness rolls over me from behind. Bats accompany me on the slow grind up to Ditchling Beacon, a group of night time hikers with head torches give me the spooks on the way down to Pyecombe – it’s a busy night on the South Downs Way.
Botolphs water tap is my next scheduled stop and I’m surprised to see that it has been turned into a temporary campsite, tents and bikes littered on the small grass space. Judging by the snoring, this is a group of riders getting some well-earned rest so I go about my business as quietly as I can. I replenish my bottles and check the time – 11.40pm. It’s taken almost 5 hours to do the 40 miles from Eastbourne but I’m on track, I have nearly 9.5 hours to complete the 60 miles to Winchester.
It’s a long old climb up to Chanctonbury Ring but it somehow seems easier at night, I simply focus on the 50 yards I can see and before long I’m at the top riding past the trees that make up the Ring. Local legend has it that Chanctonbury Ring was created by the Devil and that he can be summoned by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise. When he appears he will offer you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. The hairs on my neck prickle as I ride past the Ring, I don’t hang around.
The headwind is still there but I’ve got used to it now and I feel comfortable on the bike as the miles and minutes go by. My heart rate does spike sharply at one point just before Bignor Hill, I’m at a gate grabbing a breather when a loud “Hello” comes out of the darkness. I nearly jump out of my skin and my head torch lights up a small tent with a bike beside it. There’s a head sticking out of the tent, “So, are you doing the Double?” it asks. “What? Er, yes” is the best I can do. “Thought so” the head continues, “Better be on your way then”.
Before long I’m hammering down the farm track to the Cocking water tap. I stop at the tap and get my phone out to check the time, it’s 2.45am. This is good, very good. I have over 6 hours to ride the 35 miles back to Winchester and this is the quickest section of the South Downs Way.
I text Helena to let her know where I am, not expecting a reply at this time of night. Thirty seconds later my phone beeps, a text, “We’ll meet you at QECP”. This is wonderful news although I’m not sure how she’s going to get the kids out of bed.
Bottles full, I make the long climb out of Cocking, past the large and rather ghostly chalk ball http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/southdowns/site.asp?PageId=26&SiteId=111&c= and up onto Didling Hill. I look briefly over my shoulder and see that the sky is already getting lighter. I feel good, I’m nearly on home turf and I have a welcome waiting for me at QECP. My only concern now is that the bike will break, the gears have been misfiring for most of the return leg and, in my paranoia, I imagine the whole drive chain suddenly exploding into hundreds of metal fragments.
I negotiate the short, sharp hills around Harting Down and pick up the pace over the undulating trail that follows. Then just short of QECP the inevitable happens, not the drive chain, but a sudden hissing sound of air escaping quickly from my back tyre. It sounds like a mighty big hole but I spin on fast hoping that the sealant in the tubeless tyre will do its job.
I arrive at the centre at QECP at 4.15am to be greeted by Helena and my very good friends Chris and Kirstie Green (the kids have clearly been taken care of...). This is lovely but I’m not good company as I’m properly stressed out for the first time on the ride. The tyre is flat and after a quick look, I can see that no amount of sealant is going to fill the hole. I take the wheel off, remove the tubeless valve and grab an inner tube out of my saddle bag.
I try to put some air into the tube, it won’t hold it. I get the other tube out (I have 2 tubes only) and my stomach tightens as I get the same result. On closer inspection it seems that the tubes have rubbed against the inside of the saddle bag and have multiple splits in them. After much panicky patching, one of the tubes decides to stay up and I’m off again up Butser Hill.
Butser is a cruel climb and I fully expect the 180 miles already done will mean I’m walking before the top. But there’s a lot of adrenaline in my legs now and I grind my way to the gate on board the bike. My problems start shortly after that, the back tyre is losing air and I have no more patches or tubes. I dismount, pump it up and ride on as fast as I can.
I reach the Sustainability Centre a couple of miles further on and the tyre is flat again. I can’t see myself stopping to pump it up every mile the whole way to Winchester so I call Helena and arrange to meet her with a new tube at the top of Old Winchester Hill. At this point, the South Downs Double purist might say that my ride is now supported but I’m not troubled by the distinction, I’ve ridden 185 miles alone and now I just want to finish.
I stop at the top of Old Winchester Hill (having re-inflated the tyre a couple of times in between), take the wheel off, rip out the tube and wait. Five minutes later Helena arrives and throws me a tube, I grab it thankfully, shove it in the tyre and inflate it. A hurried goodbye and I’m hammering down Old Winchester Hill on the final leg home.
The last few miles are a blur, I cross paths with a mountain biker who also asks me whether I’m doing the Double (is it that obvious?) and then I’m at Cheesefoot Head looking down on Winchester. I’m smiling now and speed joyfully down to Chilcomb like a kid on a new bike. Another rider approaches from the other direction, it’s Dom, one of my regular mountain biking mates. “Don’t stop!” he shouts so I wave and ride on.
|Home! 7.28am on town hall clock|
Someone thrusts a cup of tea into my hand, there are photos and congratulations. I feel two emotions, one is relief at getting the job done; the other is a great sense of satisfaction, all the planning, training and worrying coming together in one unforgettable ride. I also feel the overwhelming desire for a bacon sandwich and a lie down.