In Stuarts words
We’re sat in an Indian restaurant in Winchester arguing over who’s silly idea it was to try the Southdowns Double. He’s is convinced it’s my idea, whilst I’m trying to put the blame back on him, but deep-down I know it was probably my idea, and probably even before I’d even done a one-way trip on the SDW.
On the fifth attempt I’ve finally managed an un-supported sub 24hrs Southdowns Double. Yes, four previous attempts and I can now put this one to bed and re-fuel on a huge curry and cider.
The obsession started in 2014 when I watched my friend traverse the SDW using the Endomondo tracker, jealous that he’d ridden it whilst I’d been chained to my PC working on a Saturday. The same year I rode the West half and he proclaimed, “that’s the easy part, you wait until after Amberly!”. In 2016 we rode the whole route with the BHF and I decided I’d come back that Autumn for a double attempt after getting to the end in a bit over 12 hours in the intense heat.
For the 2021 edition there isn’t much to say and I will remember previous attempts for the things which went wrong and the darker places within my mind which I visited. I pulled together the knowledge from previous attempts, looked at other peoples’ crossing and re-read every nugget of information within this website.
I had pencilled in the week of the attempt a few months beforehand based on sunset/rise and moon phases. Although the moon shouldn’t be the only reason for planning the ride, I always find that the extra light it provides helps with navigation and moral. As the date approached the “training” ramped up and I prepared all the equipment.
At 5PM on a Thursday night I left Winchester with a slight northerly-side-wind, feeling strong and eager to go, only to have an unwanted stop in a field to remove all the recently cut grass from the derailleur & cassette. Annoyed that this stop increased the stopped time, which I was desperately trying to minimise, I pedalled on and nothing else of interest happened until Amberly where it was my first drinks re-fill and food re-stock. With it now being 2 hours after sunset I layered up, put the headphones on and settled into the night with the next target being Jevington for a re-fill and then Eastbourne for 5AM.
For this stint there was plenty of nature out to see me. Badgers, birds, rabbits, sheep, cows and the one which has accompanied on every trip so far, barn owls. As noted by others, they fly alongside you, silently gliding, white as snow, only to stop on a fence post a few meters in front, then take off and fly with you again as you approach.
I pulled into Jevington 30 mins ahead of schedule and topped up the hydration pack in the dark, putting on a hat to keep me warm in that chilling period just before dawn. Up/down to the turnaround point and then I was heading back. A few messages popped up on the Garmin congratulating me about reaching the halfway point, and although I was on schedule, I was only “on” schedule, not ahead, so I knew there was no slack at all for the next 12 hours.
Tracing my tracks back through the morning dew I could see the sky becoming lighter and sunrise greeted me on Firle Beacon as riders/walkers reappeared on the trail. I stayed on schedule as I stopped at Saddlecombe and then Cocking. In my head, once I was back up the hill at Cocking it was all downhill until the end and I could make up time. In reality, its not all downhill from Cocking, but I was able to make up time over the last 25 miles.
My friend popped up at Harting Down for a quick photo and to remind me that there’s a curry waiting in Winchester. Butser hill was the last long walk and then the pace ramped up coming back into Winchester with almost half-an-hour to spare from the magical 24hours with a stoppage time of 9%.
Previous attempts haven’t been as great….
2020 – 25:38 total time, 22:15 moving time, 13% stoppage. A slit in the sidewall at Bopeeps at 3 AM was interesting as I stuffed a tube in. This then gave me another puncture on the way back at Alfriston when I was coming down to the field with the river in at Dawn. I thought this would be a relaxing place to change the tube out with the morning mist, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Squadrons of midges descended on me as soon as I stood still. I retreated back up the trail, only to still be attacked relentlessly on every inch of exposed skin. I danced, swore and squealed changing that tube. Another puncture slowed me at QE Park where I had to change the tube out again, thankfully I’d taken some time to patch the first tube in a water trough earlier in the ride in case I needed to re-use it as I was only carrying two tubes.
I had picked a relatively still night for the ride and although this reduced any headwinds, I was repaid by thick hill fog hampering progress as I could barely see past my front wheel. Sheep (who like to sleep on the short grass of the trail) would appear out of nowhere.
Without the punctures I would have completed that ride in 24 hours. I would have also missed out on the midge bites and the week of itching after the ride.
2019 – 24:57 total time, 21:02 moving time, 16% stoppage. I suffered from cold on this trip as the valley temperatures dropped down to 7oC overnight, chilling my body on descents. I also learnt to double bag all energy powders as the packets ruptured and spilt energy drink all over the inside of the saddle bag. Nutrition was an issue and I under-fuelled midway due to an unsettled stomach.
2018 – 26:44 total time, 22:37 moving, 15% stoppage. Starting later in September and early in the morning I faced the night section after 12+hrs cycling. It was chilly in the valleys and not much warmer on the hills (2/8oC) and I didn’t have enough warm clothing. Too much time was lost to the cold on descents and I’d stop on the climbs due to exhaustion and just to embrace the relative warmth. The cold also resulted in lots of dew and I came off twice on wet grass as I drifted off the narrow path.
2016 – 28:46 total time, 23:23 moving, 19% stoppage. The first attempt which I should have aborted before leaving home. A lovely warm spell had end abruptly with intense rainstorms. The drive down had road closures due to floods, I got there late, had nowhere to base myself, started late, started frustrated. The trail was wet, it was windy and not overly warm. Within the first hour a gate had slammed shut on the rear wheel, taking me down and pulling a few spokes through the carbon rim. I rode on with my pringled-wheel, telling myself if it makes it down Butser and feels ok I’ll carry on. Massively under dressed and overly confident I ended up sitting at Southease train station in the early hours looking for bail out plans to get back to Winchester by rail or road. I even fell asleep on Windover Hill climb as I sat down to rest my legs. Too much gear, too much food, too little wattage and a lack of respect for the challenge I’d signed up to!
Over the attempts my moving time/ average speed didn’t really change, but I worked on reducing my stopped time. Not stopping unless I had at least two valid reasons to stop. Each gate stop was to be done as efficiently as possible, getting back rolling as quickly as possible. No stopping on hills. Quick re-fills with an organised system of re-stocking. Flexible clothing to allow adjustments without stopping. That’s where the gains have come from, just keeping moving. Of course, being able to keep moving on the hills is part of this and this is where my “training” came in and this consisted of hours on Zwift on the boring drawn-out hill climbs. This allowed myself to say; “its only another 10 mins on this hill, I’ve done worse time-and-time-again on Zwift”. I also picked my hills and walked a number. There’s no *need* to ride up Amberly Mount and a number of other short nagery climbs you encounter. I’ve ridden them before, and I know how much they take out of you.
Although I know the trail, I struggle to piece it all together and know where I am and what’s next, so I used a GPX course on the Garmin 830. This was a mixed blessing as on the first climb out of Winchester Climb-Pro pops up informing me that this is climb 1/39…. The Garmin 830 did 24hours with 10% battery remaining by the end, including navigation, Livetrack and the backlight on overnight. The backlight was turned off during the day to and I kept it off the map screen most of the time.
Over the years I’ve noticed it getting rougher and rougher and this year I replaced the front Maxxis Ikon with an Ardent Race for more grip and confidence and it definitely worked. I can only see the need for beefier tires increasing over the coming years as it’s a popular route which suffers a lot of erosion.
Nutrition – Personal subject and you probably have your system in place by now. I’m more gel biased with only having bars during the water stops or walking up hills. Torq gels are tasty at any time of the day/night, so there was never a desire not to eat them, but sometimes a solid bar is appreciated by the mouth/stomach after hours of gels. A second watch with the sole function of a repeating 30min alarm signalled when it was time to eat. Previously I’ve tried to stick to 500ml/hr on drinking, but I found myself stopping to let-out water too frequently. I’ve settled on 300ml/hr for long events and 5% Torq Energy. This plus the two gels does slightly under-fuel you for a long event, so I put a 1/3 dose of Maurten 160 on top to boost the calories, with the option to remove this on later top-ups if I’m not needing the full set of calories, or if its tasting too sickly. A few non-technical muesli bars were included as these were easier to eat and the normal taste from daily life helps when your stomach is questioning what time it is! 35 gels, 10 bars and 6L of drink. Of course, plenty of carb loading in the week leading up to the ride and keeping the energy levels up on the day of the ride.
Kit list – Items of interest – Whyte M109-C, Ardent Race & Ikon tyres, Niner RDO carbon bars & Seatpost, Ergon grips. HOPE-R4+ and R1 Adventure lights, 3L hydration pack, Garmin EDGE 830 & remote
Logistics – As I’m from the far side of London I choose to camp at Morn Hill Caravan & Camping site and base myself there. £30 for two nights, hot showers, good nights sleep. Food is available in the Holiday Inn nearby, or I can highly recommend The Light of Bengal down in Winchester!