Andy wasn’t long back from racing the Tour Divide, which he finished in 24 days. A great ride for him, especially given the horrendous weather the first week, and the early monsoon rains in New Mexico. I was eager to meet up, ride with him, and get the lowdown on his experience, and learn what I could from him in preparation for my attempt in 2015.
We talked about the South Downs Way, known as a good training route for many UK based Tour Divide racers. Then I stupidly said “Let’s do the double, then we don’t have to mess about getting trains”.
We met at 4am in Winchester, parked the car, got the bikes out and set off under cover of darkness. It didn’t take long to leave town, and start climbing up onto the South Downs, not particularly high, but enough to be above the rest of the surrounding countryside.
The sun rose, and it was going to be a lovely day, we could tell. Not long into a section of rough flinty track, Andy’s tyre started squirting Stan’s goo out of a nice slash. Some faffing and we managed to gently pump it up and get it to seal. He rode tentatively on it for the next hour or so, then we both seemed to forget about it, and just crack on.
The route is not technical in the slightest, it’s just double track and field crossings, the odd small section of road, and lots and lots of climbing. It feels relentless, as you bomb down one hill, only to climb straight back up again, usually steep, and on grass. This would be hell in the wet I thought to myself.
There was a lot of livestock out to pasture. The sheep made for some interesting visual effects late into the night, with hundreds of eyes reflecting off our bright lights as we looked around. The cows for the most part were pretty easy going, and used to lots of traffic along the way. One climb was a bit sketchy though, maybe a 15% climb up a field packed with young heifers, and a bullock. The bullock was playful, and was bounding about with the heifers, which all looked like fun until they headed our way. Andy stood his ground, and kept riding, so I just followed. I guess he’d ridden through some huge herds in Montana and just dealt with it. I was ready to turn and get out of there a.s.a.p!
One thing the South Downs Way has is gates. Lots of gates. The count is said to be 95 in each direction, so that’s about one per mile! We didn’t take long to get a rhythm going, one of us would open and close, the other rode through.
There was some brief respite from the climbing where a few miles of the route spanned a wide valley, then it wasn’t long before we got up the infamous (in roadie circles) Ditchling Beacon. We didn’t ride up the road though.
We both started getting hungry around lunchtime, and were bored of the food we’d bought with us. I had a mountain of homemade flapjacks, and Andy had loads of sweets. We needed something savoury, and calorific, to keep us going. After about 2 hours, we found a pub, up on top of the ridgeway, with lovely views of all the para-gliders drifting around in the updrafts created by the northern edge of the downs. We had a burger and chips and got back on it after about an hour.
We ended up arriving in Eastbourne later than planned, and it was starting to get dark. We considered options, and decided to push on and start the return leg to Winchester. Another 95 miles, mostly in the dark. Strangely, this went by really quickly. I think because there wasn’t much to look at, so the miles just flew by for the first few hours. Around midnight I think, we both started feeling dozy on the bikes, and decided to bivvy down. We managed about an hour. Then we got back on the bikes and carried on.
By the time it got light, we both kept thinking we’d left our helmet mounted lights on, as we could see a circle of light dead-centre in our respective fields of vision. Turns out we’d just been staring at this patch of brightness so long, our minds had burn-in! 10 hours of 1000 lumen head torch!
We got back to Winchester mid-morning I think, about 32 hours overall. Which wasn’t going to break any records. But we’d done it, and Andy’s tyre hadn’t given in, the sealant lasted the whole 194 miles! A quick natter while loading the cars, and off we went in opposite directions. The drive home was a bit delirious!
Overall, it’s a great route, and one I will do again. Possibly before Tour Divide. I highly recommend it to everyone, just maybe not all in one go!