2013 was going to be a full year of cycling and I knew this from the start. The triumph of Coed-y-Brenin put a firm date down – although location yet to be decided – for another winter MTB excursion, but I also had something big to look forward to before that. I was working for MITIE and they had taken on the sponsorship of the London Revolution and for some foolish reason I had applied to be a part of it. I did not even own a road bike at the time of applying, but was working on the principle that my MTB fitness would simply translate.
While I attempted to get a road bike sorted for the 186 mile race I carried on enjoying the dirt, but stepped up the intensity a little by incorporating races in the Gorrick Series, mainly because it was hosted in woodlands close to my home. The first of these was at a place known as Tunnel Hill and was an eye opener to say the very least.
This was my idea of training for a road race. I was surrounded by men on mountain bikes… wearing lycra. I thought knobbly wheels came with baggy shorts, but here it was certainly not the case, despite it being a frosted February morning and cold enough to freeze the balls off a penguin.
We all soon warmed up! This highly technical course through heath and woodland ended up being a red-line session, almost bursting my lungs with how intense the Master Male class went at it. I was frustrated that these riders left me for dead on the climbs and then more frustrated to find the same riders blocking my way as they struggled down the descents. Fortunately the race organisers put a couple of “chicken runs” on some of the hard-core technical sections (punishing the fearful with a slightly longer course) which allowed me to jump big groups until we reached the next climb.
Two weeks later and I was at the start line again for another Master Male session and this time at Crowthorn Woods. No warmer than last time, but even more technical with a section called Corkscrew which sang to everything I love doing on a mountain bike, however I came away from this feeling my race days were over before they had even begun. My placement put me as average, slap bang in the middle on both races and yet I knew in my heart I was not an average mountain biker. The joy of riding was not in pitching myself against other people but more the pitching myself against the terrain. Speed was a consequence of skill and the races, although peppered with technical sections, were focused on how deep a rider could go into their pain cave rather than how fluid they could look passing over the ground.
The next training session was back with the wolf pack and as the organiser I was getting a little excited. The South Downs Way is a 100 mile off road route and the first ever bridleway national trail in England. It runs from Winchester which was once the Capital city of England until the 11th century and from the shadow of Winchester Abbey, flows through the countryside passing hill forts, Chanctonbury Ring and Devils Dyke all the way to the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head in Eastbourne.
I had it planned down to the finest detail, with the wind behind us from Winchester completing 55 miles on day one with lodgings booked at Bramber. Day two would then be shorter and a touch easier to allow us to enjoy an early completion. The crew would be gathering at my house on the Friday with a short train ride to Winchester the next morning and would leave my house fully fed.
This plan was flawless… until the national rail decided to screw me over completely and plan closures of the track on our weekend. Instead we had to shift everything, traveling to London on the Friday and getting a train to the coast for Saturday morning. The route was now from Eastbourne to Winchester with the wind in our face and starting with a first climb of Beachy Head.
Baz, Mark, Paul and Dan followed me to the start of the route from the train station and we paused briefly at the foot of the green trail sneaking a way up Beachy Head. We were cold and irritable, looking at the sky growing darker and darker. None of us felt properly rested and the long train ride had done little to amend this. We also knew that once we started we would be away from civilisation until we reached our end point at Bramber.
That first climb set our legs burning. The gradient combined with the damp grass beneath robbed us of traction, but we made it up and pushed on over the ridge. Two more climbs tested us, but also warmed us against the cold wind coming off the sea and we stretched out along an open ridgeline past the chalky seven sisters. Our moods lifted as we settle back into the group’s signature atmosphere, but then we descended on a flint littered track and suffered the first casualty of the South Down’s Way.
A piece of flint had flown up from Dan’s front wheel and taken out his hanger. We flipped his bike, feeling the warmth we had generated from our initial 17 miles slip away as the icy fingers of March picked through our layers. There was no saving the rear derailleur, but we were too remote to do nothing. Bravely we broke the chain, removed the derailleur and as best we could on a full sus Canyon, set Dan up with a single speed. However we knew this was going to hurt with the 28 miles of terrain ahead so Mark heroically passed over his Camber and took the Canyon.
We pushed on, stopping again a few miles later to fiddle with the Canyon’s chain which had become too slack for Mark to use. We were on a windswept ridge again with trees deformed from the constant gusts they had been forced to endure through life and in that short 10 minutes we too began to hunch over.
We made it down to the River Ouse and had to call what was really happening. If there was no way Mark could carry on with the Canyon then none of us could handle it. The ride was therefore over for Dan for the day. Paul jumped on Google with the little reception he had and found that Lewes train station was probably reachable. We suggested finding a bike shop to fix the hanger, but Canyon parts are not generally stocked by UK bike shops. Instead Dan set off for Lewes, planning to get the bike back to London where he would collect his car and then drive down to meet us in Bramber.
And then there were four and we pushed on. A few more bitter climbs followed by rapid descents ate away at our energy levels so that when we came off the Downs Way onto the road leading to Bramber our group was limping. The Castle Inn, prominent on the high street, was ridden right past where fatigue played tricks on our minds and we had to double back to go find it again. I was so tired I could barely recall the name of it, but once checked in, showered and fed normality started to return.
The next morning I felt a little rough, having stayed in the bar when the others had retired and staying true to tradition, drunk a few too many jars than was appropriate. We had a grand breakfast with Dan now back with us working as support car and started the ride with a little more positivity that we had the day before.
Paul knocked this out of us. With hindsight we now realise he had already planned to drop out of the game, but that morning we knew nothing of the sort. He set the pace, being one he knew he could handle for half the day and we blindly followed. At points, trying to keep up, I imagined my lung was going to pop out of my mouth and hang over my lips like a skinned spaniel’s ear. Our path was also now vastly different from the day before as we had entered the world of “Clag”. This thick mix of sodden chalk and clay matted in the wheels until it literally locked out between the forks. Ridding on the flat or uphill therefore involved pedalling a few strokes, manual the front wheel, slam it down to dislodge the clag and repeat over and over again.
After one terrifying descent on a surface akin to ice, we came to a road crossing and Paul made his intentions known. I sat on the ground and used a stick to unearth my wheels from the clag and listened as chat around the support car circled around us all giving up. I let them talk. I was in the deepest, darkest place I had ever been and at the heart of it all was a fire.
Mark walked over to where I sat and opened his mouth to speak. I had been listening. He was going to tell me we would not make it to Winchester for dark and we had no lights. He would have said that Dan would drop Paul off at a train station and then collect us from somewhere further alone later. This would have been the talk had he got a word out but my raised hand silenced him.
“I am going to f*cking Winchester!” I said in a flat, dead and matter of fact tone.
He paused as calculations whirled through his head and I love him because I saw the tick, tick, tick of simply acceptance drop past any potential objection he may have had until his mouth finally formed the simply word “okay.”
And then there were three.
I was in the pain cave when we left Dan and I never surfaced from it. Mark led us, setting a pace to beat the failing light, but not so fast as to kill us on the trail. Barry quit, then carried on, quit and then carried on more times than I could count on both hands and we kept on going. At Petersfield we took water from Dan and bid him farewell. We were close enough to my house now that my wife could step in as support car if we needed it, but I was still set in reaching Winchester.
Butser Hill came upon us like a sleeping giant and I watched in awe as Mark powered to the top while Baz and I had to even walk in zigzags beside our bikes to conquer the gradient. From here we were too close to surrender. Devils Dyke was a cruel climb and after this we descended too far, missing our route mainly from lack of concentration through fatigue, but a few country lanes brought us back to it and then the blessed sight of a sign saying Winchester was but a mile away.
The light had not been lost when we rolled through Winchester looking for the train station and nor had we been defeated. I admit that the emotion rising up in me at the sight of our end point nearly brought me to tears and I choked on them as I rode beside Mark and Baz to the end.
I called my wife for collection while Mark and Baz purchased train tickets. I also sourced a can of beer for myself and some for them to enjoy on the train ride home. We had been through hell and there is no way for me to truly describe the challenge of the South Down’s Way on a wet weekend in March by using words. It is a triumph and curse that only those completing it will understand and we three wore those scars. Never had I been so deep into my reserves and as I write this in 2014 can say I have not yet been there again as yet.
Some use the phrase “Baptism of Fire”. What is this in the face of a “Baptism of Clag”?