The South Downs Way in a day - 100 hilly miles on a mountain bike

1st August 2020

nice

A couple of weeks ago on a ride with my friend, Pete, riding the South Downs Way (SDW) was mentioned. And by nightfall I’d agreed to attempt it in a day. Almost instantly I regretted the decision, as my brain flooded with worries, worries and more worries.

The South Downs Way is not to be under-estimated. Whilst only 100 miles, it is predominantly off-road with over 3,500 m of climbing (as a gauge the Ben Nevis summit is 1,345 m). A lot of the terrain is extremely exposed and it’s rare for it not to be tremendously windy. Completing it within 10 hours is considered an achievement. And I’d just agreed to ride it with someone much, much faster, fitter and more skillful than me. I train for 1-hour flat out cross-country races…what the frig was I doing!!??

The logistics are an additional challenge. We needed to get ourselves to the start, have sufficient food and drink available and then get home. Our plan was for Pete to drive us to the start, picking me up at 04:30 and my husband kindly agreed to meet us twice on route (at Bignor Hill and Ditchling Beacon so we could grab provisions) and then again at the end to drive us home. Pete then had the job of collecting his van the following day.

So, on Tuesday 28 August just after 6am, Pete and I set off from Winchester and a little over 10 hours of riding later we arrived in Eastbourne like Cheshire Cats. I’d done it! And, I’d loved all of it. The scenery had been stunning, the weather was kind-hearted and the Goddess of Mechanicals had looked down on us favourably.

Here’s a few things I did that really helped me:

  • Respect for the SDW! 10 days before, I did a 4-hour ride on the South Downs. It was meant to boost my confidence. But I rode it under-fuelled, too fast and the heat was unbearable with sweat dripping into my eyes. Afterwards I had a spaced out feeling and my confidence was anything but boosted. In hindsight this was a blessing in disguise. It meant that I needed a plan! I agreed with my coach, Jenny Copnall, to ride to heart rate and stick to 130-150bpm (my zones 3 & 4). For some of the hills it was impossible to keep this low but overall I stuck to this pacing as much as possible.
  • A working and comfortable bike. At the beginning of the year I had a bike fit at Cyclefit and I'd thoroughly recommend them. Also, just before, I got my bike serviced at Velocipede Cycles, who I race for. So, I was as confident as I could be that the bike wouldn’t be the limiting factor!
  • Nutrition. I was super worried about this as I usually have no appetite when riding. But I put together hourly bags on 50-60 grams of carbohydrate and I force fed myself the contents. I used a mixture of bananas, fig rolls, garibaldis, roast potatoes, bagels, jelly babies and fingers of fudge. For drink I had water and electrolyte tablets. 
  • An “enjoy the moment” mindset. I deliberately didn’t have distance showing on my Garmin as I didn’t want to be obsessing about that. I just had time (and heart rate). I intentionally didn’t know how many big hills there were or when they were. My approach was that I would just have to ride whatever was ahead of my front wheel.
  • Comfort. Any ride over 3 hours and my saddle becomes quite uncomfortable. This became quite a stressor for me, so I decided to switch my normally super comfy road saddle onto my mountain bike but somehow this was even worse so I switched back to my original saddle. I couldn't see how my bootie was going to last the 10-hour ordeal! At the very last minute I decided to wear two pairs of shorts. This totally went against my usual “nothing new on race day” approach but the risk luckily worked out and my bootie survived!
  • Good company. I loved riding the SDW with Pete. Not because he kindly opened 99% of the countless gates (my attempts normally accidentally inflicted pain on him); but because it feels like we share the same magic and joy of cycling.

The experience has been a brilliant reminder for me to try to not fear failure and to pick up the dice and roll’em because outside the comfort zone is where the magic can happen!

The Cheshire Cats in Eastbourne

cheshirecats

If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen!

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Author: Claire Hitchings

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