This was a point I made on social media last weekend, following a big Moles day out on Friday 30 June when DavidS, Tony and I visited the 100-mile challenge. Well strictly speaking, revisited in Tony and my cases, as we have both done this ride before.
The South Downs Way runs from the former capital of England, Winchester, to Eastbourne on the Sussex coast, all the the full length of the South Downs. En route, riders tick off Hampshire and East Sussex and 100 miles or 158.5 kilometres of trails. In addition, you clock up 3,666 metres of elevation and open more gates than a rambler can shake a walking pole at.
The numbers only tell half the story, though; this is a ride steeped in English history. You start under the imposing statue of Alfred the Great opposite Winchester’s equally imposing town hall. Alfred looks every bit the warrior and would probably question the heroics of our polystyrene helmets, lycra clothes and carbon fibre “weapons” to tackle the quest ahead.
Winchester is in-land, and your ride takes you through the sweeping arable and livestock fields of southern England. You head towards the sea and the more typical geology and geography of the South Downs with its ice cream scoop hills of clipped short grass and white chalk.
From here, it’s on to coastal views (if you can see them – more on that later) and then to finish at (or close to) Beachy Head – famous in English parlance for where to throw useless items into the sea.
Our ride – Tony and I on full suspension rigs, David on an Ali hardtail – started as we expected from the forecasts: warm, but not too warm, a tailwind and some cloud cover to stop us burning.
We formed a happy trio, consciously enjoying a Friday off work and on trails and lanes devoid of weekend traffic. In no time at all, we had reached Queen Elizabeth Country Park, scene I was told of another historical mutiny, this time in Muddy Moles history.
Fortunately, our trio had no political shenanigans, and we kept the pace up but did take time to notice that those enjoying the man-made trails of Queen Elizabeth Country Park all opted for an electrical motor.
What we lacked in motors – and therefore weight and range anxiety – we made up for in team spirit.
For the first two-thirds, conversation flowed in the usual Moles way, sharing stories of previous rides on the South Downs, our passion for all things bicycle, the beautiful countryside and wildlife around us (Barn Owl, Vole, very close to a Skylark and a plethora of butterflies seen by the author alone) and no doubt a repeated story or two too.
As the ride got harder, unstoppable Tony remained, well unstoppable, and David attacked each and every climb like there was a jersey and prize money involved. Yours truly continued his usual, “I can do it but without speed and grace”, which typifies every ride, no matter the distance.
South Downs Way cafes
As someone who had completed the South Downs Way in a day before (in 2017) and had three attempts at it before that (weather; mechanical; changed my mind are the DNF reasons), it was noticeable how many facilities are on the route now. This was once a ride that required you to carry enough food to complete the day (water has always been available).
Today there are a number of cafes dedicated to walkers and riders, and we took the opportunity to sample two, Cadence in Cocking and the horse box cafe on the Shoreham road crossing. Both required rapid digestion whilst climbing. Luckily a winter of Cole Kitchen Lane climbs with a Dabbling Duck bacon sarnie as a training load meant nobody saw their food come back out!
South Downs Way weather
Having climbed past Truleigh Hill youth hostel and with Brighton in view, a glance over the shoulder revealed a change in the weather.
This is a coastal ride in Northern Europe, so expect coastal weather; in other words, it’ll change.
The gentle breeze grew in strength; when it was behind you, we joined the e-bikers we’d seen earlier and had to put no effort in at all. When it was side-on or a headwind (the South Downs Way is not a straight line), then it was far from welcome. With it came drizzle and then the sea mist I’ve witnessed a number of times on the South Downs. At times visibility was low, and the conversation ceased, but the ethos of the team remained true, with Tony keeping an eye on the slowest in the pack (yep me).
This change in the weather added to the challenge as the climbing continued and the pace dropped, but 100 miles off-road is not a task to be taken lightly, and both times I’ve completed it, it has been a major physical challenge.
Alongside the fitness demands, the South Downs Way in a day (or even over two days) requires some careful logistics.
Train travel in the UK is especially problematic at present, and trying to complete the ride for the train back from Eastbourne would add to the difficulty. We had cars at either end, and JustPark.com ensured we had a way to recover the car left in Winchester and somewhere to scoff down the obligatory Fish & Chips you’ve earned from all that calorie burning.
This is the second time I’ve had my car waiting for me at the end of the South Downs Way, and I recommend it.
So, is the South Downs Way the hardest off-road ride in the UK?
Well, having ridden it twice, I’m confident it is. I ride more now than I did in 2017 and am healthier, lighter and a better rider (especially since joining the Moles), and I still found it so.
One hundred miles is hard; 100 miles off-road is doubly hard. Also, 3,666 metres is a hefty day in the Alps on the road bike; granted, there isn’t the altitude of the Alps, but it is a constant series of grinding climbs that puts your strength to the test and the benefits gained on the descent are often lost to one of those gates.
I won’t be doing it again, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a marathon ride.