The lure of the South Downs Way beckoned again as the BHF hosted another of their well organised events. My specific challenge was to beat my personal best time of 11:17 hours for the 100 miles.
Arriving at Winchester, we saw a large group of about 50 riders set off at 5:30am. Not wanting to get caught up with the masses, we held back for a few minutes. I was riding with Julian, Mark and Chris from Redhill Cycling Club, who kindly said that I didn’t need to wait for them if I wanted to go a bit faster. During the next few minutes several other riders set off so we picked our moment and hit the trail at 6:10am.
The weather was overcast and drizzled for the first 2 hours. Some areas became slippery where fortunately the ground was generally firm. Riding with the others for the first few minutes gave me a controlled warm up, yet we still overtook loads of other cyclists. The South Downs Way route is now very familiar to me, except for the change last year via Exton (10 miles). I don’t like this alteration as it has an awkward climb with steps on Winchester Hill, taking about 10 minutes longer. It was somewhere around here that I lost touch with other Redhill guys as I continued to overtake small groups of riders.
Reaching the QE2 Country Park (22 miles) in 1:50 hours there were loads of riders taking a break. My strategy was to ride at least 50 miles before I stop. Carrying 4 litres of liquid with gels and Shot Bloks accessible in my back pocket, there was no reason to stop the wheels from turning. The number of riders had seriously thinned out by this stage so I switched on the iPod and settled down to what would turn out to be a solo ride for the next 75 miles.
The miles whizzed by as the hills came and went. At Bury (42 miles) it had taken me just 3:25 hours with an impressive average speed of 11.9mph. A 10 hour ride time was looking possible. I focused on powering up the hills and relaxing on the descents. From recent experience, this strategy can make a big difference to the overall riding speed.
Coming across another rider at Gatting Beacon (39 miles) who appeared quite fast, I stormed up the next hill leaving him standing. At Amberley Mount he tore past me where I couldn’t keep up with him on the hill at Washington. Seeing him again at Steyning Bowl, I upped the ante, and eventually caught him at the bridge near Steyning.
By this stage my CamelBak bladder had run dry so I planned to stop at Steyning for a refill. Unfortunately the tap was broken, so I continued on to the Youth Hostel at Truleigh Hill (60 miles). Passing the BHF officials, I was encouraged to hear that only 5 other riders had reached Steyning. This inspired me to keep up the pressure.
Reaching the Youth Hostel I took a well deserved break for about 10 minutes. Rehydrating the CamelBak and grabbing a banana, I also cleaned the mud that had collected on the gears. The sun was trying to poke through the clouds so a quick spray of sun protection was a worthwhile precaution, despite my legs being covered in mud.
Pushing on to the check point at Devil’s Dyke, I said a quick hello to the BHF volunteers who had just set off the 35 mile riders. Rapidly overtaking the small groups, I head up to Ditchling where I enjoy the long gradual descent to the A27. Seeing a couple of muddy riders, I discover they are also on the 100 mile route and pass them quickly.
Grabbing a banana to relieve the cramp, I set out on the long slog up the (400 foot) climb beyond the A27 (77 miles). Mentally it’s a tough climb as you can see the top from the bottom. 10 minutes later I rounded the first crest and tackled the gradual climb along the top of the ridge, which took me into the clouds. Visibility was less than 100 metres and it was difficult to stay on the right course. Coming across a gate I didn’t recognise, I retraced my tracks and flicked on the GPS to guide me back to the main route.
Powering along the gradual descent, I passed several walkers in full wet weather gear. Wearing just a thin top and shorts, I felt fine as long as I kept riding. Passing 2 more 100 mile riders I realised there couldn’t be many others in front of me. This felt good.
Catching a thorn at Bothops, I heard the rear tyre hiss until the slime plugged the hole. After a quick squirt from the gas inflator, I was back on the trail feeling pleased to overcome the puncture in just a few seconds. Climbing the hill after Itford Farm (84 miles) the tyre hissed again, this time due to a flint. The slime went everywhere and there was a small nick in the tyre. Changing the tube and using a small piece of plastic to patch the tyre, I was soon back in the saddle gaining altitude.
Passing Firle Beacon (88 miles), which was my last stop when I rode the South Downs Double, I knew I was nearly there. I also knew that I had two massive hills to conquer. The clock was on my side and a sub 10 hour time looked possible. Feeling a bit greedy I wanted to beat 9:50 hours. Pushing hard against the strong headwind, I rounded the top of the last hill. Changing into the big ring and standing on the pedals, I power across the golf course and down into Eastbourne.
Arriving at the finish I enter the sports centre after 9:48 hours. This is an hour and a half off my personal best time, which felt amazing. The centre was pretty empty and I heard that only one other rider beat my time, out of about 100 participants. If only they had a podium!
Enjoying the benefit of a sports massage I relax and reminisce over the day’s events. All my training and preparations paid off to achieve a fantastic ride.