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The South Downs Spectacular

There is a feeling like no other that enduance sport and big adventures whilst cyling can bring. The one where you are riding the last mile of a big ride: you are floating. All pain is gone. The feeling of joy is unfounded. Of relief. You know it is over. You have achieved. You left it all out there. The hot shower beckons. The food. The chance to tell your tale.

The bigger the adventure, the harder the task, the greater the struggle- the better the feeling. I feel this is why people are pushing themselves further and further on a bike. It doesn’t have to be longer or further, it can be found in a variety of ways.

If you read the Three Peaks blog from last year- I talk about this feeling when getting to the bottom of the final peak- Pen-Y-Ghent. I hit the road and literally started crying with joy and relief. I had survived, I had held on down that final descent, hitting rocks and drops at such a rate that I couldn’t focus on anything except a blur of spectators at the side of the trail. The sheer adrenaline and sense of achievement was overwhelming and it is this experience that riders try to replicate. It is why I ride my bike.

Another time I had this feeling was when completing the South Downs Way last year. Three of us took it on, on our cross bikes. It was a challenge I had wanted to do for ages and certainly something I knew would bring on that feeling at the end. And it certainly delivered- in every way I could and couldn’t imagine. The climbs, the descents, the heat, the distance, the never ending vista of hills, the mental fortitude needed to keep pedalling. It brought about a terrifc sense of achievement. It also takes at least a month or so before your brain forgets the struggle and just remembers that feeling of joy- and you start to plan again…

During Lockdown, I’ve been itching to plan something big- something to challenge and test my training. Seb made the mistake of mentioning that he wanted to do a SDW ride but starting at the mid-point, riding to Eastbourne and then back. Personally (and I know I’m not alone) the second half, from Amberley to Eastbourne, is the hardest part of the SDW. So we started to organise and I planned a route. We were left with this: SDW Spectacular and set a date.

118 miles, 13,500ft. Many double digit gradients. No flat- you’re going up or down the whole time. We knew what we’d be tackling, or at least we thought we did…

Preparations were pretty easy- get a framebag, fill it with food. I’d been training all through Lockdown and knew the fitness was there- I just wanted to ensure my nutrition for a longer effort was good, seeing as last time on the SDW I overate and my body shut down with 30 miles to go. Seb has been riding his analogue self away from Strava in the woods doing jumps- but he is an enigma where on any given day, he can just do these things with zero effort beforehand. It is annoying. Ben (Seb’s brother) has been riding hills in Wales all through Lockdown and recently put in a 400w 16 minute effort up Horseshoe pass , so he had nothing to worry about!

Rise and shine

I was up at 4:30am to get down to collect my bike from my parents and ride across to Seb and Ben who were an easy three mile ride away. The forecast was alright, not too hot like the days proceeding it (30+ degrees), small percentage of rain but with potential for a strong Westerly wind. For a single run of the classic SDW it would have been perfect…

Within 30 seconds of riding towards Seb’s, I felt the wind and had a quick thought ahead to the turnaround at Beachy head. It felt like such a distant situation though that I happily shrugged it off and got on with eating some flapjack.

We set off through Angmering Park Estate and made our way joyfully up to the SDW just after Amberley. The sun was out, we had a tailwind and we made good progress, recording the podcast as we went. I was running 30psi and had a 40-46 gearing which made for the perfect setup both up and down on the cross bike. Especially compared to my last setup for the SDW which was 36-34.

One thing I did notice early on was my descending- there is a lot of it on the SDW with many open, steep downhills that reward letting go, hanging on and picking lines well. I’ve been pretty rubbish at doing this- particulary after the badger crash, and I felt it really contributed to my fatigue last time. Going much slower, braking more (bad cantis meant four finger braking by the end), catching up, making mistakes etc. So after one of the first descents where I managed to ‘stay away’ from Seb and Ben and even got a “Who is this guy?!” from Seb- I was absolutely delighted. The time on the cross bike and MTB round Tilgate and St. Leonards and working on those skills has had a real impact and I know it made a big difference on this ride. It is a tiny thing, but it meant a lot to me.

The ride was basically split into four parts of 30 miles. It was from home to Pyecombe BP. Pycombe BP to Eastbourne. Eastbourne to Pyecombe BP and finally Pyecombe BP to home. This blog is not sponsored by Pyecombe BP.

Dropping in

The first section was fine, the hills were good, familiar, we were in good spirits, we could see a few miles ahead but nothing daunting and the wind was behind us. Chanctonbury hill was the first major climb and Seb and I kept a conservative pace knowing what was to come and Ben went on ahead, because he had watts to spare. I realised that although I could have easier gearing (MTB style 36-50) I don’t think I’d go any easier than 40-46. There is enough resistance that you can keep pressing on, but you are still covering a decent amount of ground. It was also easy enough on the legs.

There are some fantastic descents in that section- you just have to be aware that there are gates right at the point you reach terminal velocity, and often with a surface that isn’t ideal for hard braking- so be aware. A highlight for all of us was the run down from Devil’s Dyke, where Seb actually ran out of braking force and somehow got round a seemingly impossible sharp turn making use of a makeshift berm. It was masterful.

Straight after said descent is a pretty nasty climb that starts in a rocky valley, goes into a very steep technical singletrack section and finally a grass slog that seemingly goes on forever. You are rewarded however, with a super fast grass descent that changes from reward to trap when the grass turns to steps and your vision blurs with the shaking! That leads us into Pyecombe and the first chance to recharge and refuel.

Nutrition wise, knowing ths stop was at mile 30 and mile 90 helped plan what we packed and ate. I took gels, flapjack, hydration tablets and sweets. I decided not to have carbs in my bottle as the plan was to keep to 30-40g an hour- I work far better slightly underfuelled with the option to bump it up rather than overfuel and have no way back. At the services- I ate a bean wrap and Reece’s Pieces, to boost the intake and prepare for the longer stint ahead.

Refuelled and ready?

The next part- from Pyecombe to Eastbourne, was possibly the hardest 30 miles I have ever cycled mentally. It wasn’t hard physically, the weather was good, we had a tailwind even. But I wasn’t conciously aware of what my subconcious was doing or thinking:

-This is the end of a really hard ride (like the actual SDW) you can have that euphoric moment now!

-There’s a 30 mph headwind when you turn around

-You’ve been riding for 7 hours when you get to Eastbourne, that’s pretty much the most you’ve ever done

-This is a bit boring a hard now, and you’re 7 hours away from home, your family, a shower, that euphoric feeling

As we approached Eastbourne, I could feel myself start feeling sad. Literally just sad. I don’t know about everyone else, but when I feel sad, I work out why and I try to solve that. A bit like the film ‘Inside Out’ where Joy tries to fix it, when actually, being sad sometimes is absolutely fine. So I became increasingly stressed within myelf about this until I came to the conclusions conciously that my subconcious had clearly worked out already. I then thought about them and had that crux moment which I feel adds to that finishing moment, or even allows it to happen at all. I took in those ideas and feelings, processed them and carried on. This is where all those conversations, podcasts, books come in handy- the experiences of others in those situations. I had recently listened to a Payson McElveen podcast with Rebecca Rush where she talks about Leadville 100 and having dark moments. She says that you just keep pedalling, you work towards that feeling, that goal. You use it to drive you toward the finish. Because it will come. That’s what I took from it anyway. I also thought about how fortunate and priviledged I was to do something like this. My health, the support of loved ones, having Ben and Seb there, everything in society and my life that allows me to get on my bike and ride it 120 miles. It is my choice. So I should embrace and enjoy that process.

So with myself reminded of those things, I instantly perked up, and the other major factor to this ride kicked in- the comaderie with Ben and Seb. The shared experience. I started to talk more, to laugh more, and it made everything 100 times easier. I took it upon myself to check on Seb, make sure he was ok (I always knew he was, but it was a purpose and it helped me to feel needed) and keep his spirits up when I could.

I found this section hard geographically as well- it feels like you’re about to get to Eastbourne for 20 miles. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the terrain too well, but when combined with the hard climbs and technical descents- it drags on. Being prepared for this though, will help hugely!

The turnaround

We eventually hit Eastbourne- where the wind was insane, nothing was open and we just sat on a wall and took a moment to take in that we were halfway and 7 and a half hours in. SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS! Mentally, whilst being battered by a 40mph wind that will be in your face for the next seven a half hours, with no shops or ice cream trucks in sight, no water left, this was hard to take. In situations like this, I just want to crack on and start getting closer to the end. But at that moment, I did doubt we’d make it.

We descended from Beachy Head in crazy wind, blowing us across the road, and spotted an Ice Cream truck in the distance. This was a key moment. We got some cans of coke and bottles of water and set off on the return loop. This part of the course was essential in my view- it was the same distance but starting the way back on new trails and not retracing our steps for 10 miles was much needed. It was also through Friston Forest so away from the wind. We rejoined at Alfriston- found the best shop ever with lovely ladies running it, restocked on food and regrouped ourselves for what was to come.

What was to come, was a head/crosswind so strong that at one point I got off my bike and held it up- it went fully sideways and parallel with the ground. For the next 30 miles I maintained the mantra of ‘just keep spinning’. Every pedal revolution is edging me closer to that moment. I really had time to practise those mental exercises of staying positive. This isn’t a cross race where every inch of wiring inside your brain is dedicated to going fast, finding lines, breathing. You are instead able to think, to comprehend what you are doing, what is to come. So you have to use that time to focus on things and keep yourself going. For battery reasons, I changed my Garmin to show nothing of use whatsoever, rather than speed distance and time. I didn’t need that. I just needed to know that all I had to do was keep pedalling, and the end will come, together with that feeling. That helped.

Ben got stronger and stronger through the entire ride, I really believe he could challenge for a top 10 time on the single attempt. Seb was also conserving his energy well, keeping on top of his nutrition and maintaining his sense of humor. During one stop, he went to lay down and I stopped him- I felt that things could deteriorate quickly if he were to. You have to keep the body in riding mode!

Familiar sights

A few hours of riding into a solid headwind later and the Amex came into view. This was the first known waypoint for my mind to latch onto and was a big boost for all of us. Much like the third interval of four in a hard session- the second and third sections were the hardest. But we began to close in on Pyecombe BP (please sponsor us) and from then it felt like the end was pretty much there.

Inside the shop we restocked, stared blankly at each other and giggled for no real reason. It was delirium. I’ve done this return leg on Gravel Chaser 1 after a fairly long day out, so knew what hills were to come. Without the insane headwind I truly believe it would have been relatively easy but riding up Saddlescombe Hill into a block 30mph headwind with 40mph gusts made it harder. I focussed myelf by ensuring I was still eating and drinking properly- I often stop eating towards the end of a ride but knew that in actual fact we still had three hours left, so it wasn’t the end. Far from it!

The final section of the ride was good- with every pedal stroke (we calculated whilst riding that it was around 63,000) we were edging closer. Even a sliced sidewall at the bottom of Truleigh Hill north of Shoreham for Ben had us laughing and taking it in our stride. We also spent a lot of time working out the best way to get home- which killed a lot of miles and kept the brains working. Seb and I would take it in turns to ride with Ben before he rode off and we paced it perfectly. We certainly weren’t ever riding at our best pace due to the unknown nature of the time and distance, and conditions. But it wasn’t about speed, it was about the adventure, about getting round: together.

This brings me to that moment I said at the start- I left Ben and Seb and made my way the 3 miles home solo. This was a 3 mile ride I will forever remember. The legs were good, the light was slowly fading and the wind was now inconcequential. I had won. We had won. I rounded the final corner to my parents’ house where I knew they were both standing- I also knew they would have been tracking our progress throughout the day on Find my Friends- and this had kept me going. I got out the saddle and sprinted the final 300m. Stepped off the bike and took a moment to take in that feeling.

And what a feeling.

I was left with no food, no water, an insane tan, tinnitus from the wind, a fully functioning bike with zero issues and a lot of fatigue. An epic day indeed. It has reset my mindset towards what is a long or hard ride. I feel my understanding of what is possible, how hard I can push and what I need to eat and drink is far better. Challenges like 6 hour MTB rides suddenly feel like things I can attack and sustain rather than just survive. I’ve pushed my limit far beyond what I thought. It’s odd that this is a completely unexpected outcome when had I thought about it before, it would have perhaps been apparent.

Rebecca Rush (if you don’t know who she is, check her out immediately) was asked if she had any mantras she repeats whilst deep in the zone. This one rang out to be loudly: “I can, I will, I won’t be denied.” Something I will be taking with me on every ride from now on.

In summary- it was mega. I’m good with doing rides less than 10 hours for a while now though. Anyone doing the double, or triple, or 24 hour races, or anything like that- fair play. That takes a special physical and mental mindset.

I wanna take on the whole SDW with an XC full sus MTB. Next year once I’ve got one. Already those huge distances between waypoints feel like mere tiny sections- rather than marathon efforts. The mind is a wonderful thing.

If you want to get involved with further adventures, be sure to follow us on all the usual places and listen to the Podcast. It’s what I love to do- plan mad stuff to challenge what I (and whoever else I can convince to come) can do on a bike.

A big thanks to Seb and Ben- it was an adventure, to all our supportive families and other halves allowing us to do such a thing.

If anyone wants to sponsor us or the podcast and our stupid ideas, get in touch, we wanna work with companies and people that are into doing these things.

-Sam

2 thoughts on “The South Downs Spectacular

  1. Welcome to Team DarkTimes!

  2. Just read that guy’s, was with you all the way, remembering that feeling of digging deep when I road with you last year on my newly purchased mtb, and that floaty feeling at the end, what a good description, well done chaps.

    Kind regards Steve Skinner.

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