SDD CX

The South Downs Double on a cross bike

The idea of riding the South Downs Double has always appealed to the idiot in me. It’s a bit silly. Extra silly on a cross bike. Each single I’ve ridden has taken me so long I’ve never considered two were possible in a day. Add the fact that I have never ridden for 24 hours before and the whole thing just seemed ridiculous.

As is the way of such things, once the idea materialises, carrying it out is the only way to banish it forever. I wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of a nice ride, may as well just give it a go, see what happens.

Pondering this last Easter weekend, a day suddenly became free. The trails were dry, the overnight temperature was just about warm enough and the forecast was slight rain for a couple of hours. Fuck it, I’ll never be ready anyway, Sunday night it is then.

Start time 19:50

A27 to Eastbourne to A27

The day of the ride I checked the bike and packed up a small rucksack of food in preparation. After putting the kids to bed I rode to my starting point where the South Downs Way crosses the A27, started all my gizmos and set off.

I can’t deal with the scale of big rides so I split them in to chunks and just ignore the bit I’m not doing. This bit was just a ride to Eastbourne. Knowing this section quite well I could just get on with it and tick off some familiar landmarks; Kingston ridge, yellow brick road, Southease. They all came and went in the dying light. A slight tailwind along the tops of the hills helped and I pushed a bit in an effort to gain a time buffer for later.

Before I knew it I was climbing up to the golf course above Eastbourne on the way back and straight into a headwind. 100 miles of it. I tried my best to ignore it, just a ride to the A27. Thankfully I dropped out of the wind with each descent and stayed out of the wind on the climbs. Everywhere else I just had to tuck in to the bike as much as possible in prayer to my bottom bracket. Annoying but manageable. Just.

Elapsed time 4:30

A27 to A24

A brief stop at the A27 to eat and fill my bottles from the tap then a lovely standing-up-all-the-way climb towards Black Cap to get me going again.

Knowing the terrain when you’re on a cross bike is knowledge made of pure gold embedded with giant diamonds. The bits that you can push on to make up time, the lines to take on the descents, that bit where you have to slow right down or you will wreck your puny tyres make a huge difference to overall progress. If you didn’t know it already, 33mm tyres are the absolute shittest tyres on Earth to ride the South Downs Way on. Ever.

I found those hours of riding in darkness hard work. The concentration levels required to not crash, to not double puncture, to constantly watch what I was doing were mentally draining. Reaching the top of the climb from Pyecombe, I stumbled trying to avoid a large rock on the path, smashed my knee against the solid metal casing of my light and fell to the ground in agony. I lay on that rocky path looking at the stars and watching the mist from my shouts float away like tiny clouds into the night and thought to myself, this is probably the end of the ride.

After a few minutes of rolling around feeling sorry for myself, I tried standing, then hobbling a bit. It was painful, too painful to put my full weight on my left leg. I considered rolling back to the A23 bike path and home. Could I ride this off? New plan, ride to Devils Dyke before quitting; give it a go, see what happens.

Those first few wincey turns of the pedals were sticky out bottom lip time. Head down. Think about something else. Anything.

Elapsed time 7:23

A24 to A3

The pain subsided a bit but I could no longer stand on the pedals when climbing. Not ideal on 1 x 11 gearing. I was still going though which was good, but I had slowed enough that a sub 24hr time was looking unlikely. No matter, it would take as long as it took. The Downs aren’t going anywhere if I wanted to have another go.

A quick bottle fill at the A24, snack and climb up a dark lane and back on to the ridge. Take 2 bottles into the shower? I just snack and climb. The strangeness of those early morning hours had arrived and my mind tuned in to Weird.FM for a bit. I tried keeping the pedals turning and ignoring it.

Salvation at the A285, fellow doubling idiot Vic was waiting. It was great to see a friendly face after hours of battling alone in the dark. It was perfectly timed. I stopped for a bit, necked some painkillers, got loads of encouraging chat and was bullied back on to the trail with zero sympathy. ‘Just get on with it’. Perfect. I had been close to bailing. Thank you so much Vic.

Elapsed time 11:53

A3 to Winchester to A3

I’ve only ever ridden through Queen Elizabeth Country Park once and that time I got hopelessly lost in the dark. This time, in daylight and following a Garmin was much easier but I did wonder how I managed to get it so wrong before. The grassy climb of Butser hill just after QECP was a new treat going in this direction and full tacking was deployed.

I reached Winchester, rode around the King Alfred statue and back onto the Way. Just after climbing that first ridge I was back into a slight tailwind for the first time in 12 hours. The 100 miles of headwind were finally over. It was a great feeling and with the day developing from murky to glorious, thoughts drifted back to a sub 24.

Elapsed time 17:10

A3 to A24

Loads of families and walkers were out enjoying a sunny bank holiday weekend on the downs, it’s great to see this beautiful place being appreciated. I wasn’t going to be a dick and spoil someones day so slowed for each group I came across. Plenty of bits without people on to make up time. This section is the longest ‘bit’ I had given myself to do and by the time I hit Washington at the A24 I was flagging. That extra speed I needed hadn’t materialised and it felt like the sub 24 was agonisingly out of reach. My maths skills had evaporated and I just couldn’t tell if it was on or not.

Elapsed time 20:51

A24 to A27

Climbing up from the A24 felt like I was finally nearing the home straight. I had just over 3 hours to get to the A27. What was in front of me? Chanctonbury Ring, Pig Farm, Truleigh Hill, Dyke, Pyecombe, Beacon, Black Cap, end. Surely this was doable? I’ve ridden this bit a few times but I just couldn’t tell in my scrambled state how long it would take, my mind was alternating between it’s just round the corner to it’s going to take all night. I had to trust the part of me that thought it was doable and just go for it. If I flogged myself for nothing at least I tried.

Just as I was starting to get my head round this my front wheel lost all air in an instant and I had to fight the bike to a stop without crashing. My only puncture in nearly 200 miles of flint and chalk and rocks the size of grapefruits hiding in every rutted dip. I should have bowed down to the flint gods in gratitude that this was the only puncture. Instead I swore at the sky at the top of my lungs. Breathe. Count to 10. Swap the tube. Just get on with it.

Perhaps it was the puncture, perhaps it was my body just wanting this thing to end but I got in the drops and went for it. No more stops. No stopping to put my arm warmers back on. No stopping to fill bottles. No stopping for anything. Don’t stop ’til you get enough. I flew down past the pigs, across the Adur, past the YHA and the lumps to Devils Dyke. Approaching each gate on the opening side, angling the bike to get through as quickly as possible and pushing the gate back with a force to let it shut with its own weight. Gritted teeth up Newtimber, not even registering the spot where I smashed my knee all those hours ago. Up past the golf course, tuck in for the blast across to Ditchling Beacon. No. More. Stops. One more ridge top ride then it was downhill all the way. I didn’t stop to check the time, I might have been hours out, I didn’t care, no more need for pacing, everything was getting chucked off the back; water, energy, sense.

That last descent down to the A27 was a blur. The last gate, the last drop down some steps, the final sprint to the tap. The last anything. Done.

Elapsed time 23:23:24

UPDATE:
 I couldn’t resist having another go a few weeks later –
http://www.kinesisbikes.co.uk/Blog/Archive/May-2017/Doing-the-double

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The TransAtlanticWay Race 2016

The inaugural TransAtlanticWay race took place this year, starting in Dublin and heading north to pick up the start of the Wild Atlantic Way route. The race then traverses southwards along the west coast of Ireland, out and back along each peninsula and crossing several counties before finally arriving in Kinsale on the south coast. From here it leaves the Wild Atlantic Way and heads up to the finish at Blarney. 2500km of quiet lanes, stunning landscapes and hills. Lots of hills. And weather. Lots of weather.

Dublin to Derry

The start line in Dublin finds 30 or so seasoned endurance riders raring to go, and me. Having been a dot watcher until now this is to be my first experience of racing an endurance event and I stand there blissfully ignorant about what is to unfold. Too late to worry about it now, we’re off!

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The ride to the first checkpoint in Derry is surprisingly fast on rolling A roads. After the early groups split up, I’m grateful for my fellow rider Jason’s company on the final stretch into Derry. One of the many highlights of the race is meeting the other riders. Lots of them are quite experienced at this and all of them are a real pleasure to meet. Jason has some problems with his bike so stays in Derry while I carry on northwards in search of the start of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Co. Donegal

The next couple of days through Donegal are some of the most exceptional roads I’ve ever ridden but extremely tough going. Short steep climbs dropping down to beautiful beaches then climbing back up to cliff tops. Long draggy climbs past peat bogs, across moorland, farmland and acres of country park. The road always snaking its way slowly along the craggy coast. Every inch of the route is stunning.

A theme for this route is starting to develop. A long slog out to one of the many headlands (including Malin Head the northernmost point) is followed by a long slog back, all the while seeing the next headland in the distance and the next slog. The race is already physically and mentally demanding.

  

Another theme becoming apparent is the Irish weather. Relentless headwind batters my progress along each headland and frequently becomes an evil crosswind on the return. The only respite I find is in the lee of the many steep hills (Mamore Gap and Glengesh Pass being the most memorable in Donegal). Intermittent showers turn into persistent rain and I forget about the wind for a day as we race along the coast and into the town of Donegal.

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Co. Mayo and Achill Island

The counties of Leitrim and Sligo roll by quickly in the early morning and passing through Ballina I realise I have reached Co. Mayo. The sun comes out briefly as I ride towards a giant rainbow across the bay and into the rain once more.

I make a stop in Ballycastle to stock up on my now established snack of Haribo when I spot another rider. Paula heads past into the morning gloom. She is having a tremendous race and is looking like cracking into the top few places in the next day or so (her account of the race is a good read). My own race has been patchy, a few mechanicals and a lot of tiredness has seen me put in less kilometres than I would have liked. My initial aim was to ride about 300km per day but with the terrain and the weather this is proving much harder than I’d expected. Somehow despite all this I find myself hovering around the edge of the top 10 on day 4, completely unexpected.

Paula has stopped for a bit further down the road and I catch up and ride alongside her towards Ballycroy National Park. It’s nice to have someone to chat to for a bit. Somehow during this section I manage to destroy my front derailleur and stop briefly to make an attempt to fix it. The outer arm of the mech has come away and there seems to be no obvious fix so I leave the chain on the big ring and carry on. I can’t keep up with Paula for long, she is a far stronger rider than me so I drop back to ride at my own pace and I watch her disappear down the road. I enter the park and find myself on long straight roads riding towards huge hills, crouching giants in the distance. This more than makes up for the continuous presence of my old friend, Relentless Headwind™.


The roads of the country park lead to Achill Island and three inner loops of the island await. I bump into Jack and have another welcome natter. He’s just finishing the island loops as I’m starting them and is very impressively munching through the miles (Jack’s blog about his race is well worth checking out).


Not long after that I bump into Stephen who I was trying to race a day or two ago but who is now well and truly out in front and pulling away all the time, another rider having a very impressive race. Achill Island turns out to be my favourite bit of the whole race. Narrow quiet roads wind their way out to the edges of the island, up and down from beach to cliff top. The rugged western edge of the island hides the most wind but this does not wipe the grin off my face. It’s a beautiful place and makes all the suffering worthwhile, just the kind of ride every cyclist lives for. 

I leave the island happy and with new sheep racing skills (they’re fast!) but slightly broken from being too lazy to manually change the chain from the outer ring….I’m sure it will be fine. I push on and race in to Westport to finally bust a more respectable 320km mark for a days riding.

Co. Galway

We’re over the halfway point and the miles are starting to take their toll. A few bad nights bivvying are also catching up with me. The saddle sores and aches and pains I’ve been putting up with are OK but I am starting to feel terrible and each day is getting progressively harder. I vow to push on whilst I can still ride.

I fix the front mech by wedging a chunk of cable tie on the bit of the outer arm at the point it used to be attached. It seems to hold and I’m able to shift between inner and outer rings but it’s probably too late, my left knee is starting to hurt.

Some more climbing and some more battling against the wind as I make my way slowly through Galway, past the Connemara National Park and onto Sky Road. This headland loop turns out to be a real treat, more fantastic views revive me a bit and I pick up the pace. I ride through some wooded lanes towards the town of Galway. Whilst getting off the bike to check something I tweak my knee a bit and the pain is excruciating. I give it a minute and gingerly ride to the outskirts of town and decide to rest up at the first B&B I see. Adrian is just behind me on the tracker so I hobble out to cheer him on. How he has managed to organise this event and race it at the same time is mind boggling, all the kudos!

Co. Clare

There’s not much improvement the next day but I carry on in the vain hope that the pain will subside. It turns out to be a tough day. It’s slow going around the Cliffs of Moher and I have to stop frequently to rest my knee where I discover that the dry bag on my bars makes a really comfy pillow.

A pharmacy stop sees me stocked up on painkillers and I carry on. I finally reach a beautiful long beach at Spanish Point and lie in the sand for a while. I’m going slowly now but I’m still going, it doesn’t matter to me where I end up in the placings I just want to keep moving. I lie there a while and ponder the Spanish fleet that was wrecked on this coast and think myself lucky that this particular Spaniard can get back on his bike.

The sun breaks through the clouds as I make my way to the Killimer – Tarbet ferry. I realise if I speed up a bit I can make the next ferry so I pick up the pace and just make the crossing in time. The ferry across the Shannon Estuary provides a welcome rest before tackling the next county.

Co. Kerry

I ride a few more miles into Kerry and as the evening fades I decide to pack in for the day and set up a bivvy spot. The following morning is not great, knee pain and other ailments are making progress difficult so I decide to rest up for a few more hours in Tralee.  I visit all the pharmacies in Tralee, tape myself up, neck some Ibuprofen Plus and slather myself in Deep Heat and Voltarol. I think I look pretty good.

I decide to skip the Dingle peninsula in order to save the knees but it’s now taking hours to get anywhere. The full-route is basically over for me. I don’t feel too bad, it’s taken more than a few days of struggling to make me realise this so I’m prepared for it. I decide on a new revised version of the route to honour the race as best I can. I plan to ride cross country to the final checkpoint in Kinsale and then on to the finish at Blarney. I’m missing some of the best bits of the route in the final few peninsulas which is a real shame so I’m just going to have to come back and do it again!

Co. Cork – Kinsale and Blarney

It’s probably only about 100 miles or so to Kinsale and then onto Blarney from Tralee but it takes me 2 days of torture to get there. Stopping every few miles and riding like I’m on some kind of clown bike with square wheels but I make it, slowly. I’m immediately glad that I have when just after reaching the finish I see Jack arrive and into 2nd place overall (1st full-route finisher) behind Bernd Paul who had been out in front for most of the race and finished the day before.

Jack has ridden 600+kms in one go, 30 something hours to take 2nd place, a truly phenomenal ride and I’m completely speechless! It’s a real honour to witness his achievement and makes the last few days of torture worth the effort.

Later that evening we are joined by Paula who takes 3rd, another amazing ride and then that night and the next day the rest of the top few places arrive, including my buddy Stephen who has had a cracking race. The remainder of the riders arrive over the next few days and I enjoy hearing their stories and seeing the immense efforts that they have all put in.

Chapeau to all the riders, finishers and non-finishers alike. It has been a beautiful, brutal but ultimately rewarding race and I’m very honoured to have been a part of it and privileged to have visited this beautiful country and met its lovely people. A huge thank you to Adrian O’Sullivan for organising the race and Michael Marks for top work as Race Admin. In fact a big thanks to everyone involved in the race, including the dot watchers and friends at home whose support has been overwhelming.

Would I do this again?

Of course I would!!

See you on the start line for the next one.

UPDATE: Just published; a fantastic account of the 2016 race by Jesko Werthern. This is really worth a read, captures the experience brilliantly.

https://jeskowerthern.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/transatlantic-way-bike-race/