So, the real beginning for me was back in 2006 when Rory Hitchens came out with a passing line “so when are you doing the double?” I paused for a second, and desperately searched for a moment of wit to hide the fact I had never heard of “the double”. The seed had been planted and over the next few months it began to grow.
Two years on and we’ve seen some incredible rides take place on the South Downs Way, with utmost respect going to Rob Lee for pioneering the Alpine challenge, Neil Newell for being the first to conquer the Double on a singlespeed and Lydia Gould for taking the crown as fastest lady. Not to mention the numerous rides that all deserve a place in South Downs history. The Double was now well and truly starting to flourish.
I’d always planned on riding another Double this year. No matter what else was happening on the SDW, I wanted to try and better the time I set in ’06. The original plan was to have a go in June when the weather was favourable and the hours of darkness kept to a minimum. The season was rolling by and much to my frustration I found that every time there was a glimmer of good weather and fine trail conditions I happened to be out of the country, overloaded with work, or both.
Fast forward to September and after the Eurobike trade show the dream of riding a decent double looked like it was going to have to be put on the back burner for another season. At this point the best I was hoping for were some dry days when I could ride sections of the route.
As the jet stream moved north, with it came a band of high pressure and the back end of September looked to be the final opportunity to get a big ride in. I’d wanted to get away from it all for a while as I had some things on my mind that I needed to work through in peace. The only way I could ever try and do this was on my bike, alone. No rush, no stress, just me and miles of trails unraveling ahead. It was a perfect chance to do what I needed to do whilst also reconnoitering the route for a more focused attempt the following summer. So with that I booked the day off work and, as my parents arrived back from holiday, greeted them with the line “can you give me a quick lift to Winchester on Thursday night?” Now I was getting excited, just a couple of days and I’d be free.
I rolled out to the chimes of Winchester Guildhall. The town was still buzzing with activity but I was soon climbing away into the quietness and serenity of the Downs. It was awesome. I was leaving everything behind and within minutes I could feel my worries evaporating in the midnight air. I looked up at the stars, my body filled with joy. It was going to be an amazing ride.
s I sliced my way through the cold air it was as if the human world was put on pause. It was so quiet, no traffic noise or voices, just the rumble of tyres on fire road, the sound of me breathing and the rustling of wildlife as I pass. To be able to experience this parallel world first hand, almost as a spectator looking in, as nature comes to life was incredible. To be just three foot away from a barn owl as it looks straight at you, with an expression that suggests it knows that you’re feeling anxious about the unknown ahead, is indescribable. I was fully prepared for 7 hours of darkness before dawn and rode through the night with respect for everything that crossed my path. From herds of deer to badgers, rabbits, sheep, cows and bats, it was their time. I was trespassing on their space and needed to remember that.
Through the cold, eerie, mist at Amberley, it wasn’t until Truleigh Hill (63 miles) that I decided to fill my water bottle and jet wash the worst of the dirt from the bottom bracket and drive train. I was getting some nasty chain suck that I wanted to try and cure and having bent the front mech cage I couldn’t get on to the big ring. I spent some time trying to get it functioning again but soon came to the conclusion that only MacGyver would be able to pull this one back from the brink. I just had to remember for the rest of the ride to ease the chain up on to the 44 ring and, with occasional assistance from my hand, try desperately not to lose a digit in the process.
The tap at the youth hostel was running for a couple of minutes so I assumed it would be nice and cold. Much to my surprise, despite the large sign saying ‘drinking water’ on the wall, it was hot. Now there’s nothing like gulping back a lovely warm bottle of water after six hours in the saddle.
Onto Saddlescombe and I had the first hints of day break. I love riding as the sun comes up and by all accounts it was going to be a beautiful blue sky day. Exactly what I had hoped for. With the night behind me, and only making two mistakes during the darkness (which was later confirmed by the GPS to have cost me 11 minutes) it was evident that I’d been riding at a pretty good pace. I was feeling totally at ease and having a lot of fun on the descents just letting the bike go and doing enough to follow it on whatever line it wanted to take.
By Ditchling I was in daylight and as I dropped down to the A27 I saw Rory, camera in hand, snapping away. It was perfect. The water tap gave enough time to say hello, Zym my bottles and hit the trail again. At Southease I decided to take my packlite shell, beanie and warm gloves off, remove the Joystick and piggy back cell from my cycle helmet and quickly repack everything in the bottom of my bag. I couldn’t wait to get to Eastbourne now, but at the same time I was trying to savour the moment as much as I could. It would be 30 miles before I was back at Southease and able to fill my bottles again so despite filling up just 8 miles beforehand I took the time to top up again.
Through Eastbourne golf course and my eyes were glazed with the sight of the sea ahead. It was hard to contain my excitement. At that point I really had the urge to ride on the immaculately kept golf greens and seek out a beautiful bunker berm to launch in to full flight. The course was already crowded and I’d forgotten to pack my golf socks so I had to decline the urge, probably to the joy of all the early morning swingers on the course.
The morning view was sensational and as I made the turn around point at Paradise Drive I glanced at my watch to see the digits 9:58 on the screen. It’s a huge point in the ride, knowing that everything from now on was worth double points. I had the whole route mapped out in my head, I’d made it through the night, this direction was ‘home’. At that moment I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
As I retraced my tyre tracks I started to do the maths in my head. I knew that typically the return is done anywhere between 1 and 1.5 hours slower than the outbound ride. I had a print out zip tied to mytop tube with various marking points and times on it. This was just meant to be a guide and I was using it to see how many miles it was between points and where the water stops were. Through Jevington, Alfriston and back to Southease and I was riding to the minute at 20 hour pace. It was weird, I didn’t look at my watch at all between points anxious that I’d take a glance and see that I was starting to slow. It doesn’t help if you know you’re slowing down, mentally or physically it’s better left unknown.
It wasn’t until the steep climb off of the A27 and back towards Ditchling that something clicked. It was a cross/headwind and I knew with the climbing it was going to be slow going compared with the way out (the times on my print out didn’t take in to account terrain, just distance and minutes) but instead of having the feeling that the wind was trying to blow away my dreams I was absolutely thriving off of it, completely in my element, thinking about the hardest parts of the trail with pure delight. The feeling that I had is hard to explain, I wanted to feel pain but I couldn’t make myself hurt. My body and mind were in complete equilibrium. I have no idea how to reproduce this (yet) but I’m working on it!
By Botolphs, with 140 miles covered, I was tracking 8 minutes behind 20 hour pace. With the wind and the hills it didn’t concern me too much as I knew there were faster sections up ahead where I could try and pull back time. At Amberly I was 4 minutes down and by Cocking (just 35 miles to go) I’d ridden for 16 hours 30 minutes, exactly back on pace. What a buzz, after so long in the saddle and it was coming right down to the minute. It would have been good to have taken my leg warmers off, and waterproof over boots, as it was a beautiful day but I now knew that it could mean the difference between finishing sub 20 hours or not.
It’s such an amazing feeling, having to respect your body for what your mind is asking it to do, knowing deep down that at any point the fine line could be broken when a ride turns in to survival. That’s what I like about this sort of stuff, it’s finding the perfect pace and balance when you feel like you can ride forever.
I wanted to scream out to the world, “I feel so alive!” Through QE park and the watch read 17.48, from here it was exactly 2 hours 12 minutes to Winchester according to my sheet and you know what that would put me at. Exactly. 20 hours to the minute. Butser Hill used to be my nemesis, it’s always a drag, a climb that’s hard to get any real momentum on but I’d been eager for Butser for hours beforehand. I wanted it to try and bring me down, to crack me, to reduce me to a walk or at worst to a crawl. That’s what it’s there for (can you give me any other good reason why such a dirty great pile of mud and grass is there?) I focused on the gate half way up, every time the gradient kicked up I’d get out the saddle, knock it down a gear and say “come on Butser, hurt me, you haven’t got long to do so”. I made the gate, flicked the catch open without unclipping a pedal, pulled myself through and swung it shut behind. Butser was well and truly busted and it knew it, the gradient eased and I was gone.
From now on it was an all out love affair with the trails ahead, I’d ridden this section more than any other part so despite the darkness approaching once again I knew it well. I crossed the A272 and from that point it’s practically all descending to Winchester. I stood up and let the bike go with a feeling of weightlessness. Relaxed, I took a deep breath and realised that subconsciously I’d worked out everything that I’d needed to in my head, and for the first time Einstein’s theory of relativity started to make perfect sense.
rel•a•tiv•i•ty A state of pure physical and mental equilibrium dealing with uniform motion E = mc2 where… E = Energy (Physical & mental equilibrium) m = Michael c = Cotty 2 = The Double
I passed King Alfred’s statue with a time of 19 hours, 52 minutes and 26 seconds. Amazed that I’d just ridden a sub 20 hour double, at the end of September, just as a ‘ride’ and not a focused record attempt. Just because I wanted some time away to experience nature’s tranquility in its own special way. I still had over 3kg of food in my bag, a full water bottle, spare Joystick and plenty of GPS battery power. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had my bro and Rory waiting to greet me at Winchester who knows where I would have ended up that night!?
A magical day that these words will never do justice to. Thank you South Downs Way. On September 26th you helped me a lot. Both now and in the future I will draw on this experience with humble gratitude.
Photos by: Rogers, Hitchens, Newell & Cotty
Check out the technology behind the ride here