It’s September 2008 and I’m pedalling slowly up the trail from Warnford towards Winchester. I’m coming to the end of long day in the saddle, exhausted but also quite pleased with myself. I left Eastbourne nearly 14 hours previously and I’m on the point of completing the South Downs Way in a day.
I stop at the gate at the top of the hill, take a breather and turn on my lights. I glance back down the trail and allow myself a moment of self-congratulation, the last climb of any note is done and it’s easy riding all the way to Winchester. As I look back something catches my eye, a light coming up the trail behind me. A local out for an evening blast; excellent news, just the motivation I need to keep my legs turning.
At the next gate I look back again, the light is bigger, brighter and much closer. That’s alright, clearly a local with fresh legs, no point trying to keep ahead. A mile after that the bike cruises past me with a friendly “Hello, lovely evening” from the rider. And then he’s gone, quickly gone.
I eventually get my aching body to Winchester and crawl up the hill to my home, my family and a hot bath. Over the next few days I tell anyone who will listen to me (and many who won’t) about the endless climbs and the sheer physical challenge of my big day out. I also want to find out who else has been tough enough to complete the South Downs in a day so I spend a lot of time searching mountain bike forums to find other members of this (I imagine) select band of endurance athletes.
It’s then that I stumble across a news item on the BikeMagic website – Mike Cotty breaks South Downs Double record. This gives me pause for thought. I read the article: Winchester to Eastbourne back to Winchester, no support, 19 hours 52 minutes. That’s not possible, is it? Apparently it is, he has ridden 200 miles, climbed 22,000 feet and carried all his own stuff and done it in under 20 hours – what a nutter! I suddenly feel quite humble.
And then it clicks – it was him, he was wearing fancy Cannondale team lycra. He was the friendly chap who made me look like I was standing still, he was 190 miles into his ride when I saw him! That is beyond impressive, how do you do that?
This question continued to hang in my mind as I slipped back into everyday family life. Periodically I’d visit the South Downs Double website www.southdownsdouble.net to see if anybody else had completed the challenge unsupported in under 24 hours. And a few did – 2009 saw Iain Leitch break the record, completing the ride in 18 hours 3 minutes and 2011 saw Josh Ibbett set the current record of 17 hours and 47 minutes.
I found these times very hard to relate to but there was a handful of others too, less exalted bike riders, who had done it, had got in under the magic 24 hour marker. These people interested me, they seemed more like me. But when I read their stories I was struck by the extraordinary commitment they had made to their preparations. Many, many hours of training. This level of dedication was simply not possible for someone with four young kids and a life hovering between chaos and outright panic.
So I lived my life and rode my bike whenever I had time. There were regular Monday night rides and trips with friends to Afan and other centres. I had the pleasure of riding with all of my children, watching them push themselves on our local trails and on trips to the Forest of Dean and elsewhere. I have always enjoyed the challenge of trying to become a more skilled bike rider so I went to see Tony Doyle www.ukbikeskills.com and spent an inspirational day with him.
And then I turned 50. A big party, a big hangover and a bit of a mid-life crisis. Along with the rest of the world, I was mesmerized and moved by the achievements of young athletes at the 2012 Olympics. I was also, I have to admit, somewhat mournful. I wasn’t finding it easy to be really quite old and found myself uncharacteristically reflecting on the past, not looking to the future.
It was in the pub (where else?) that I shook off all that introspective nonsense. A good friend had just done the South Downs Way in a day, he had worked hard to get fit enough and had come back from one failed attempt to finally conquer it. We were toasting his achievement when he turned to me and said “So Jonny, what about the Double?” “Don’t be ridiculous” I said, draining my pint. But, as I left the pub it was already too late, the seed had been planted.