Friday 12 July 2013

Riding the South Downs Way

The South Downs Way is a lovely 100 mile bridleway between Winchester and Eastbourne as it undulates across the top of the South Downs.  Between the hills are the valleys, so you are usually going up or going down, and it gets rather lumpy as you approach Eastbourne.
SDW Acorn
Picture by Anne Dickins

Most discerning mountain bikers have the South Downs Way somewhere on their 'Must Do' list.  It certainly is a classic ride that can be tackled in a variety of ways.  Two or three days is a sensible option if you are not used to riding more than 50 miles at a time.  Admiring the views and stopping at one of the numerous B&B's along the way enables you to take in more of the South Downs.

More experienced riders challenge themselves to the 100 mile trail in a single day.  Don't be lured into the false sense of security of  the relatively non technical double tracks and the apparent flatness of the South East of England.  The South Downs Way is a cunning animal that will devour anyone who is not prepared.

Here are some tips from someone who has ridden the South Downs Way a few times in the past.

SDW Route map
Know the Route - Although there are markers along the way, some can be missed if you are not specifically looking out for them.  A wrong or missed turn can lead you down a long descent, only to find that you need to climb back up again.  Study the route on a map paying particular attention to the turnings and cunning forks when crossing wide open fields.

Break the route down into sections - When you have ridden 20 miles, it makes it harder if you think about the 80 miles to go.  Focus on the 10-15 miles in front of you to reach the next check point.  Later it will be tempting to look back and congratulate yourself on achieving 80 miles.  Your body will say "I must be knackered after riding all that way" then will really struggle for the next 20 miles.  Look back only when you get to the finish.

Check Points - There are loads of places for supportive friends to meet you along the way.  Listed below are the popular places with some helpful information.  If you are taking part in the BHF Randonnee ride, it may be worth avoiding some of their check points due to limited parking.  

View South Downs Way in a larger map

Distance from Winchester (approx)
Some parking (chargeable) next to King Alfred's statue.
Parking at the cricket ground used for the BHF ride, toilets on site.
Lane End
Mulburys Pub
The Mulburys Pub just before Wynd Farm can be used but it's a bit close to Winchester. 
Old Winchester Hill
There is space for a few cars by the gate leading to the field to Whitewool Farm.
On the way to QECP there is a small layby at Wether Down.
Queen Elisabeth Country Park (QECP) A3
Easy parking (chargeable)
Coffee/snacks for supporters, proper toilets.
Good location which is used by the BHF.
Follow the bridleway going left at Telegraph House (don't go through the gate)
After the climb at Devil's Jumps turn left at the crossing of the bridleways towards Cocking.
Free parking
Tap 200 metres up the track East of the road.
Good location which is used by the BHF.
Very limited road side parking
Used by the BHF
High Titten Road
Tap on the right between the bridge over the river and the bridge over the railway line.
High Titten Road is quiet and good for parking.
Don't stop for too long as the steep climb of Amberley Rise is waiting
Car parks
The car park South West of Storrington is set just off the SDW behind a gate
The SDW goes across the car park South of Storrington
Washington A24
Free parking - just before a gritty climb
Good secluded location with some shade.
Steyning Bowl
Two large gated entrances on top of the hill provide an alternative to the small car park on the A238 at Botolphs, however these are more difficult to access by car.
Steyning / Botolphs
Some parking (watch out for the vehicle height barrier)
Tap between the car park and the bridge. Used by the BHF.
Truleigh YHA
Tap on the left by the main entrance to the Hostel
Devil's Dyke
Used by the BHF.  Very limited parking next to the SDW however there is parking by the pub for a small charge. Saddlescombe is a better location. 
Free parking in natural lay by for a few cars.  Good location with some shade.
There is a tap the other side of the farm houses.
A23 crossing
Limited roadside parking by the bridge crossing over the A23.
Easy for the support crew to reach
Ditchling Beacon
Easy parking
There is often an ice ream van in the car park.
Housedean Farm
Some parking, popular location.
Tap on the wall
Tap by the church, near the entrance to the graveyard
Itford Farm
A26 crossing
Tap by the farm house near the road.
Limited parking.  Used by the BHF.
Easy parking (watch out for vehicle height barrier in main car park)
Good motivational check point near the top of the hill.
BoPeep Farm
Easy parking about a mile off the A27.
The SDW forks left 300 metres after the car park. If you get to a gate without the SDW acorn, you may have gone the wrong way.
There is a car park as the SDW enters Alfriston which could be used as a check point.
It is difficult to park by the river where the BHF have their check point.
There is a small layby on the East side of the river
There is also a small car park part way up Windover Hill
Once over Windover Hill, go through the gate and turn left heading down into the woods.  Take the subtle fork to the right leading to the church. This can easily be missed.
In 2012 the end of the SDW was moved from Paradise Drive to King Edward's Parade.
There is limited parking In King Edward's Parade near the small café.

It's tempting to stop for a rest at each of your chosen check points.  Have in your mind exactly what you need before you arrive at the check point, grab it then go.  Keep an eye on your progress and try not to let the stops be more than 5 or 10 minutes.  Lots of stops can very quickly add up which could easily equate to an extra 1 or 2 hours. 

Hills - Most of the hills are rideable, but if you're moving slower than walking pace it's time to get off your bike and use different leg muscles.  This will give your cycling muscles a rest and it’s a good time to grab something to eat if you can't eat whilst riding.  When climbing a long hill get into a comfortable rhythm and have something solid to think about, look just a few metres ahead and you'll soon find yourself at, or very nearly at the top.

The South Downs Way has very approximately 100 feet of climbing per mile.  Incorporate hills into your training rides so your legs are not so surprised when they see the South Downs.

To complement your training on the bike, invest in some core stability exercises such as Pilates, sit-ups, planks, swimming etc.  Having a strong core will give your legs something solid to push against.  Someone with a weak core, whose shoulders and hips rock when pedalling, is like a mountain bike with very soft suspension absorbing all the power from the pedals.

Try to eat on the go, there are a few short road sections where it is easier to down a gel on the move. Have some food accessible in a pouch by the stem to nibble as you ride.  Consider your diet carefully; too many sweet things may make you feel sick, not enough food and you'll run out of energy.  Pack a variety of foods with spare supplies in the support vehicle.

A lot of time can be wasted in negotiating the 100 gates.  Work with a friend so only one person needs to stop to open and close the gate.  If you are on your own and feeling confident you can try negotiating the gate whilst keeping your feet clipped in to the pedals.  Always check the gate is properly closed if there is livestock in the field.

BHF SDWPedalling hard to gain a few extra mph on the descents really won't save you a lot of time.  It is much better to recover on the downhill sections so you are fresh to climb the next hill.  Increasing your speed by a few mph up a hill will save you much more time in the log run.

Although it sounds pretty obvious, do have your bike thoroughly checked before the ride and carry the appropriate spares.  I'm amazed at stories of experienced riders taking the wrong size of tube or forgetting a pump.  I share a tip on how to avoid this in my book.

If you are finding it really tough, focus on the rear wheel of the rider in front and do your best to keep up with them.  The last part is all in the mind, using your mental strength and positive thoughts to persuade your body to keep going. Think of the money you are raising for charity and how it can help those in need.

Completing the South Downs Way is a fantastic achievement. Congratulate yourself.

You can get a National Trust certificate here

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