Thursday, 31 March 2011

Preparing for the South Downs Double

A few people have contacted me saying they would like to have a go at the South Downs Double.  To act as a reference for other potential South Downs Doublers, here is some information that may help.

The main difference between the SDD and a race or event, is that you have to organise your own ride.  Few decisions are made for you, so it’s a matter of making appropriate choices to help you achieve the Double.

Choose Start point
The Double has been achieved from a variety of start locations.  Originally Winchester was the favourite with the flatter start and finish, then riders chose Eastbourne to coincide with the BHF Randonnee events, whilst some have started from the middle.  Personally I think it sounds better going from one end to the other.

Select a date
Unlike an organised event with a set date, you have the wide choice for the time of the year and the day of the week.  Naturally the summer is better with the longer days and the generally dryer conditions.  Some experienced riders have taken the opportunity of a good weather window, leaving just 2 weeks of final preparation before their Double.  If you are attempting the Double for the first time, preparation is the key, and try to be flexible with the date in case there is bad weather.  I spent 9 months planning my ride with the choice of two weekends.  To help with navigation riding with a full moon will improve night time visibility, providing there is a clear sky.

Pick a Start Time
When choosing your start time, consider your natural body clock and the duration of darkness.
Setting out first thing in the morning will leave the night riding till the end when you are tired.  Alternatively, starting in the evening will help with the night riding but tiredness can set in on the second leg.  Check out the sunrise and sunset time for the hours of darkness.
If you're going for a record attempt you can almost avoid any night riding.  Ian Leitch chose well by starting at 3am  to finish at 9pm.

The official SDD route is on the web site.  A New Temporary route was introduced via Exon in 2009 and the End at Eastbourne was extended by about a mile in 2012.  If you are going for a record breaking attempt consider the routes used by your past, or future, competitors.  Check the directions carefully as there are some variations with the route currently marked and that used by the BHF.


If you are looking out for the SDW signs, you'll probably spot them.  However some signs and turnings are not immediately obvious.  Study the maps very carefully noting any turnings or forks.  Remember that some turnings can easily be missed when travelling in the opposite direction.

In several locations there are roads running alongside the SDW bridleway.  For the Double, the bridleways should be used.

Following tracks at night is relatively straightforward.  Traversing wide open spaces, especially in thick fog that may appear in the early morning, can be tricky.  A GPS navigation system will help you stay on the right trail but is no guarantee.

The most challenging hills are at the Eastbourne end with the hardest section being from Eastbourne to Ditchling Beacon.  The hills appear to go on forever with steep descents.

It is often easier, yet slower, to walk up the steepest hills.  Make the most of this opportunity off the bike to grab something to eat and use different muscles.

There are 190-200 gates encountered on the Double.  Learning how to open gates without unclipping your feet will save a bit of time and effort.  If you get really bored or need motivation, you can count them.

Support riders
Whilst it is reassuring to have riders accompany you on the Double, unless otherwise stated, it is meant to be a solo effort.  If other riders are with you, you will need to set the pace and open the gates as if you are riding solo.

Support Crew
This may be a 24 hour event for you but it's also a 24 hour event for your support crew.  Build in some rest times for the crew with a longer distance between some check points.  I gave my crew a 2 hour rest between Winchester and the QE2 Country Park when they could grab 40 winks.  Supply loads of food and refreshments for your crew.  I even provided some in car entertainment for them in the form of the Blackadder Goes Forth CD.  Apparently this helped them to keep awake in the early hours.

Check points
As you can choose your check points, space them out so your support crew can reach them in time.  It can take a while to follow the SDW by road where sometimes it is quicker to ride.
If possible select check point locations to be at the top of hills.  They will motivate you on the way up the hill and you won't have a dreaded climb immediately after a break.  Some of the check points used on the BHF ride have limited parking.

Have a plan in place if the support crew are not at the expected check point, with at least two forms of communication between yourself and the crew.

There are several public taps along the SDW.  Have a backup plan in case the one you want is not working.

GPS battery backup
If you use a GPS to validate your ride, ensure the battery will last the duration.  I made an external battery pack for my Garmin Edge 705.  Some riders have used a fresh GPS for the return leg.

To qualify for the South Downs Double, your ride will need to be verified.  Check with the adjudicators on the site for acceptable evidence.  A GPS log or photographs with a timing clock at specific locations could be used.

Completing the South Downs Double is a fantastic achievement, which has only been accomplished by a few.  Be aware that it's a tough cookie where there is less than a 50% success rate.  Whether you are a regular long distance rider or just a weekend warrior, it’s a mighty challenge that will get you smiling for a long time.

The official South Downs Double site is Do let me know if you come across any more advice that can be offered to potential South Downs Doublers.

If you want advice on preparing for a 24 hour event, see Anne Dickins

Enjoy the ride and watch out for the wildlife.