At 6pm on Friday 26th June 2009, I set off from Paradise Drive in Eastbourne. Taking the 350 foot climb during the first mile carefully, I looked out towards the downs. The day had finally arrived where I was hoping that all my training and planning would pay off.
On the top of the downs there was quite a head wind. Reaching Firle, I received my first and only puncture. With a quick change of the tube I was soon on my way.
The descent to Pycombe was fast and enjoyable where I reached the A23 ahead of schedule. Here was my first longer stop after 30 miles where I tucked into a tub of pasta and the crew sorted out the night riding gear. Rory Hitchens from Exposure Lights came to meet us and it was a real boost to have his support. The climb up to Devil’s Dyke paled into insignificance compared to the fantastic sunset around me.
Climbing up to Steyning Bowl in the dark there is a large field to cross. I saw what I thought was a tractor with lights about 500 metres away. I also heard some gunshots. It turned out to be a 4x4 with flood lights shooting at anything that moved. They came within 100 metres aiming their search light right at me. I glared back at them with my Joystick head torch and fortunately they moved on.
Catching up with my support crew I then headed up to Chanctonbury Ring. The mist was really thick here with visibility down to just 20 metres. Suddenly I saw a whole series of small white lights in front of me. Getting closer, it was a flock of sheep with my bright lights reflecting off their eyes. Making appropriate noises they quickly scarpered so I could continue along the trail. The Exposure Lights were fantastic, anything less would have made it very difficult.
At Washington, Neil Newell (South Downs Doubler) caught up with the support crew and me. He kindly rode with me for a few miles, which was quite comforting given the previous two incidents.
At Glatting Beacon the trail runs along the edge of a field where a number of sheep were grazing. Verbally announcing my arrival the few sheep with the brain cells moved to the centre of the field, where some others started running away from me along the trail. They carried on running for a while where I was slowly catching them up. All of a sudden they turned and charged straight towards me! I let out an almighty ‘Roar’ as they crashed into my bike with quite some force. Somehow I managed to stay upright and sped off checking that I was not being followed. I was certainly glad to leave that field.
The climb up from Cocking was tedious. Visibility due to the mist was around 10 metres and the climb is long and uneven. My target here was Harting as I knew the hills afterwards got easier with the exception of Butser Hill by the A3.
Reaching the foot of Butser Hill the trail is hardly marked, except for the slightly shorter grass. With visibility still at just 10 metres and knowing the trail goes straight up, I head up the steepest section. With some wading through the longer grass, I eventually found the gate half way up the hill. Trying hard to stay on the shorter grass, I came across a trig point. I was clearly off course and visibility was now even worse. Using the GPS, which isn’t very good for off road navigation, I finally find a road and got back on track.
The trails approaching Winchester were wet due to the recent rain. Mud was flicking everywhere and I was soaked through. The halfway stop was at Cheesefoot Head on the A272 where it was getting light. I freshened up with a clean top and dry gloves. I tried to eat some cereal but started to gag.
It was a relief to reach Winchester for the turnaround at 05:17 matching my personal best time for the SDW.
Setting out on the return leg the smallest of hills caused a problem. I felt sick and gagged a couple of times. Picking myself up, I aimed for the QE2 Park. Descending Butser Hill with a mist was a challenge. It was such a relief to see the support crew as I felt pretty low. Eating a tin of Spag Bol tasted and felt good.
Just after leaving the QE2 Park my rear gear cable snapped. Finding a tree to hang my bike on, I replaced the cable and roughly set the gears so I could use most of them. Two BHF riders passed me so I caught them up where we stayed together until Harting. It was so much more motivating to ride with company.
At Cocking I was feeling very tired and the sun was now very hot. Being up all night and riding for 15 hours was taking its toll on my body both physically and mentally. John Twitchen from Sauce Consultancy on my support crew rode with me to Amberley. I was bored with my iPod music and it was great to have some alternative company. Returning to the field of sheep at Glatting Beacon, two of them faced me with broad shoulders and stern looks either side of the trail. As they stepped sideways I slipped past with no incident.
I’ve never been able to ride the climb up Amberley Rise and today was no exception. From the top I set a good speed to Washington, then up the steep chalk climb to Chanctonbury Ring.
After 160 miles near the bridge for Steyning, I saw Alex Bottomley from Redhill Cycling Club riding towards me. He turned around to ride with me. Following the steep climb from Steyning and with the heat of the sun roasting anything in sight, I stopped beside the road. Sitting down I felt as though I couldn’t move a limb. I wanted to lie down and rest, forget the Double I just wanted to go home. Alex was superb, he made me get up and we rode carefully to Truleigh Youth Hostel. I longed for him to give me a push, but the rules of the Double say that it must be my own effort. Putting my head under a tap at the hostel and soaking my arms and legs, I cooled myself down.
Passing Devil’s Dyke I head down to Saddlescombe to meet the support crew who provided just what I need without me asking. A couple of other Redhill Cycling Club members had kindly driven down to see me, and the text messages of support from friends were read out. This was a real boost. I felt if I could set myself small milestones I would be able to complete the Double. I had serious doubts on the sub 24 hour time, so I just focussed on finishing.
Climbing through Pyecombe golf course I aimed for Ditchling Beacon in the scorching heat. Looking forward to the descents after the beacon to the A27, I gather speed to cover the ground quickly.
Neil Newell met me at the A27 and accompanied me up the very long hill near Kingston Hollow. It’s a tough climb and the company was really appreciated.
Descending to Itford Farm on the A26 I was greeted by a BHF team who were very enthusiastic about my Double ride. Posing for a photo or two, I then tackled the climb up Beddingham Hill. My check point was deliberately at the top near Firle. The support crew were again fantastic, but drew the line at applying my chamois cream.
Jon Linscott from my support crew took a turn in riding with me. His freshness uplifted my spirits as we passed Alfriston. It wasn’t until I reached Jevington where I realised that a sub 24 hour time was possible. Passing the trig point on the top of the last major hill, I gave it all that I had to make it to the finish. The descent down to Paradise Drive was fantastic where my crew were poised with cameras to record the finish time of 17:31 The total time was sub 24 hours at 23:31.
I feel really honoured to have touched the league of the elite. The other South Downs Doublers have my full admiration for riding 200 miles unsupported, where some of them have ridden the double more than once. It was a privilege to ride with Neil Newell and have the support from Rory Hutchens from Exposure Lights.
The rock on the support crew was my brother Dave Sterry. He provided just what I needed at the right times. Jon Linscott and John Twitchen kept my bike in tip top condition accompanied by their superb sense of humour. Other members of Redhill Cycling Club were very supportive with their messages. Steve Young my fitness trainer described my fitness as ‘Pants’ in December. His gruelling training programme did the trick.
The 200 mile ride with 20,000 feet of hill climbing pushed me to my limits, then further still. The South Downs Double is certainly awesome and ridiculous, but if you don’t try, you won’t succeed.
Thanks to Rory Hitchens, Neil Newell and John Twitchen for the photos.