January 2017: 24 hours on the South Downs Way

The idea: Spend 24 hours bikepacking on The South Downs
Location: The South Downs, Eastbourne – Amberley
Transport: 3 x mountain bikes and 1 x cyclocross bike
Essential kit: Mountain bikes, bivvy bags, sleeping bags, warm clothing
Less essential kit: The speedometer on our Garmin
Kit we wished we’d had: Alpkit Sonder Bikes, Patagonia Hybrid (super lightweight) sleeping bags
Cost: £17 each for return train tickets, £10 for spare inner tubes

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Our legs were on fire but our throats were ice. Exhaled breath billowed around us, catching the light of our headtorches, reminding us that it was one of the coldest nights of the year. It was 10pm as we stood high above the East Sussex coast looking out over the lights of Eastbourne, but we felt wider awake than we had all day. We’d just conquered the first hill of the South Downs Way, and we had many, many more to come.

We cycled through the night, taking our time to adjust to the weight of mountain bikes plus panniers loaded with all the equipment we’d need for camping. The trail cuts through the countryside like a rollercoaster, with achingly slow climbs and terrifyingly fast descents. We sweated on the uphills and froze on the downhills, testing our reflexes as we dodged potholes and fallen tree branches that only came into view when we were 30cm away. This was a lot different to road cycling. We’d only travelled eight miles by midnight, but we didn’t care.

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We continued until 2am, when we reached the 20 mile point. Finding a rare patch of woodland in which to pitch a hammock and lay down three bivvy bags, we put on as many clothes as we could and called it a night. Despite waking up a few times to tighten the drawstrings on our sleeping bags to block more wind, we slept until sunrise, waking in time to see miles of frosty hills glimmering in a pink glow below us. Eager to get on with the ride as soon as possible, we drank Huel for breakfast and got back in the saddle.

Cycling in the light was a completely different experience. Going slow up the hills meant we could appreciate the awesome beauty of the South Downs, which gave us the motivation to keep pushing. We cycled through flat tyres, broken brakes and 17,000 gates, averaging a pretty laughable pace of 4mph throughout the day (blamed on too much kit), but didn’t stop. Not until we’d reached the halfway point near Amberley, after having spent 12 hours in the saddle and an energy-sapping-yet-life-affirming 24 hours on the South Downs Way.

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Why cycle the South Downs Way?

Rather than hitting the gym after a long week at work, we prefer to go exploring. We’ve never been fans of static machinery, or artificially controlled environments, and there’s so much more to discover by stepping outside. We wanted a physical challenge, and we also wanted to fully experience England’s newest national park, living in it for a solid 24 hours.

We thought about running the SDW at first, but then realised we wouldn’t be able to carry our overnight kit and would likely die of hypothermia without it. Cycling meant we could carry our kit in bike bags, and also meant we’d get to see more of the scenery as, theoretically, we’d be travelling faster.

In reality, our 30kg bikes meant that we cycled up (the never ending) hills slower than many of the runners we met on the trail that day. It took a while to accept our average speed of 4mph, but the steady pace focused our minds and allowed us more time to appreciate our surroundings.

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Why sleep outside in January?

Winter is the best time for adventure, because it’s when it’s needed most. Rather than wishing for hibernation and falling asleep in front of a fire at 8pm, why not make a campfire and sleep under the stars? All it takes to get outside in winter is the right kit and a positive attitude. We all had suitable sleeping bags, down jackets and thermal under layers, so warmth wasn’t a problem. Waking up to go for a pee was tough, but being able to watch the sunrise over frosty hills when we woke was more than enough to make up for it.

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The best bits

  1. Having nothing to do all day but push through the miles and explore.
  2. The view from our sleeping bags in the morning and, more generally, the views we experienced all day.
  3. Getting to the halfway point at the end of the 24 hours and knowing we’d be completing the rest in summer.

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The worst bits

  1. One set of brakes failing at the top of a near vertical downhill, which led directly onto a main road.
  2. Jake’s swollen ankle. He suffered an injury while running 100km the weekend before, which the ride made worse.
  3. The gates! There are SO MANY gates on the South Downs Way, which might offer another explanation (excuse) as to why we were so slow.

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Would we do it again?

Absolutely! We’re planning on going back to do the final 50 miles in summer. Next time though, we’ll service our bikes first and pack a little less kit.

Oh and, you’re all welcome to join us… ▲

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