Muddymoles mountain biking in the Surrey Hills and Mole Valley

Ride report: The South Downs Way in a day

Posted by MarkC | July 6, 2023 | 8 comments so far

Big climbs on the SDW
The South Downs Way remains one of the hardest off-road rides in the UK.

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.

Tony, MarkC and DavidS in WInchester

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.

Mark downhill on the SDW

Starting out

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.

Tony uphill on the SDW

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!

What's on the menu at Cadence Cafe in Cocking

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).

Near Eastbourne on the SDW

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 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.

Summing up

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.

MarkC riding uphill on the SDW

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.

Filed under Rides in July 2023


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  1. Andy C says:

    A great read, which took me back to that fateful day back in 2011 ! Was it really 13 years ago? I wonder if Barry still has anger issues, and if Andy661 still wears a burqa? 😁
    Greetings from BC, D’Andy

  2. Tony Gordon says:

    Great write up. The day (apart from the howling wind at the end) went really well. Prompt start, no major map reading issues (cycle computers are so damn good these days), no serious punctures (well one quick that sealed quickly with sealant), no mechanicals, no toys out the pram hissy fits. In other words far better than the 2011 ride!

    It’s amazing how you forget the pain and end up remembering all the good bits! Still a fabulous but tough day out. Just don’t take you new hard tail that you hadn’t ridden a serious distance before on the SDWIAD. Yes David!

    • Matt says:

      If I remember (and I’m trying not to)…

      When I did the SDWIAD in 2011 a few weeks after the ‘Barrie and Burqas’ ride with Tony, Keith and Jez the takeaway from that was don’t buy a new pair of shorts the week before, and you won’t ever be needing a chainwhip!

      You live and learn…

  3. Matt says:

    Also, worth posting here that Gordon did the ride solo in 2018, which is a very Gordon thing to do!

    You can read his ‘Completing a challenge‘ write up here.

  4. David Sosa says:

    Great ride report Mark.
    Yes It’s was a beautiful day even when that cross/head wind was making it more challenging on the last 3 quarter of the ride.

    Thanks Mark and Tony for the ride, the tales ”hilarious“ from previous rides and the guide.

    Legs and energy were good but yes, the hard tail made me struggle and doubt in completing the challenge from time to time (seat position and tyre pressure was what it was killing my lower back). I managed to adjust the bike as the ride went along and recover pretty quick from those uncomfortable and doubting situations.

    PS. Never take a bike you haven’t ridden before for a long ride.

    Overall a fantastic day out with a great company, can’t ask for better.

  5. chris campbell says:

    Thanks for the article. Good timing as I’m going to do the SDW this weekend (albeit over 2 days).

    • Matt says:

      Good luck Chris – it’s epic and something to celebrate whether over one day or two. Two has the advantage of stopping for food (and drink!).

      Best advice is to watch out for wet chalk especially downhill if the weather is damp – its slippery AF! Fingers crossed for the weather.

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