As I sit here some tens of thousands of feet above the earth, many miles from home, listening to Neil Young on the in flight entertainment system my sense of disbelief of the last 24 hours continues.
The South Downs Double is, for those of us living due South in the UK, our mountain bike playground. It’s 100 miles of fast flowing bridleway, climbing at times steeply with a combined total ascent of a shade over 3000m (depending on whose account you read). My plan, hatched in the dark winter days to motivate me to train was to do the double, riding from Winchester to Eastbourne and back in under 24 hours, this being the challenge someone, somewhere created sometime ago.
The record is staggeringly quick – too quick for me. My objective was, at first, just to do it. My addiction to single speed road riding gave way over the winter to an obsession with single speed mountain biking. Inevitably, the challenge became to ride the course single speed. If nothing else, it would prove to myself and my racing partner and coach Ian Mayhew that I was capable of riding the Trans Pyrenees mountain bike race in the summer on a single speed.
As with all the best plans, no plan stands contact with the enemy. A major house renovation distracted me from training (an experience Ian was all too familiar with). A ridiculous work schedule found me in a variety of European hotels having to run instead of bike all of which meant my fear of failure had risen to never experienced before levels. And so, I found myself rather too close for comfort preparing on Friday morning writing a checklist of things I needed. Departure was set for that evening. The bike had been serviced with a new bottom bracket, new tyres, bolts and pressures checked and all the paraphernalia required for 24 hours unsupported cycling gathered together. A sense of disbelief that I was still going ahead gnawed away at me all day – how could I believe I could do this on so little training?
In between taxi duties for my daughter, my wife dropped me off in Winchester. I booted up the GPS and set off, slowly at first, settling into the ride. The bike was creaking a bit, but I was chilled out, the BB had been fixed so it was probably just the seat moaning a bit. 15 or 16 miles my average speed was where I wanted it at a round 11mph. I reached the first proper climb, out of the saddle to push the solitary gear I had chosen for the adventure. Driving hard down on the pedal my knee crashed into the bars, the pain was awful, I lay on the ground feeling sick and weak with the pain, the broken chain responsible for the incident lying on the ground. Two links had sheared. Was this it? All over in less than an hour and a half? Not quite – I was prepared, I got the two spare links from my saddle bag and repaired the chain. Smugly I set off. Once again my knee crashed into the bars, this time not so hard. Another link had sheared. Game over.
I rolled back down the hill to the road and called home. My wife – Helene’s response was simply to ask where the spare chain was and she would bring it out – how could I give up when faced with that response? And so 20 minutes later, I sat on the grass in the light of the car headlights fitting a new chain, that is until the chain tool snapped. My ‘oh-so’ reliable tool had chosen today of all days to suffer metal fatigue. OK, so now it’s game over for definite.
Not quite, Helene had other plans…we loaded my bike into the car and set of for home, and in a frenetic frenzy of spanners, pedals, lights and bottle cages I swapped the necessary parts to my other mountain bike. This was also a single speed but unfortunately fully rigid – the downside of which is very uncomfortable descending on more tricky terrain.
By now, Helene was beginning to think this was all getting a bit silly. The evening was getting cold and damp, and so I found myself having to accept the addition of a sleeping bag into my rucksack to satisfy her that in the event of an incident I would at least survive the cold. What could I do but comply? It seemed a small compromise for all the support I was benefitting from.
And so, heading towards late evening I found myself dropped off where I had been picked up, spinning the bike back up the track past the oil marked chalk from the broken chain lit up by the bike light. I had to put all my layers on. The cold air on kit damp with sweat was deeply unpleasant and it took a while to warm up.
The hours and miles passed. Paul Wharton, at first customer and now friend had set his alarm at some ungodly hour and called me to see how I was getting on. He didn’t make much sense – but the gesture was awesome.
When we spoke I was fine. A little later I wasn’t.
At three in the morning my spirits started to sink. For hours I had an uncomfortable gut that didn’t seem to want to settle. Deep waves of fatigue engulfed by body and I found myself drifting off to sleep on a descent. Too much I thought. I texted David Mills and Ian Rodd who were due to meet me in Eastbourne and ride back – they attempting their first day traverse of the route and me my first double. I explained my arms hurt too much from no suspension and I was going to go to abandon in Eastbourne. I felt hugely relieved at having made the decision and began to relax and enjoy the journey.
Half an hour later the most magical beautiful vista emerged in the early dawn. A temperature inversion had filled the valleys with dense cloud, with just the steeples of churches and the tops of tall trees poking through the white blanket. Crystal clear visibility dimly lit by a full moon and the weak signs of dawn made for one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen anywhere in the world. My spirits began to lift.
I set myself a deadline. If I could make the turnaround by 9am I would ride back. I texted David and Ian to this effect – a text they did not receive until it was too late. Our paths crossed some five or six miles from Eastbourne. They looked at me with worried expressions and disbelief at my change of plan.
By the time I got to Eastbourne they were 90 minutes ahead of me. So it was going to be a lonely ride back then.
With the promise of a beautiful day ahead, refreshed by the first water tap on the return leg, and a quick shop stop to satiate a desire for crisps and an impromptu purchase of some Twiglets I continued on my way. Munching Twiglets riding no-handed through patches of mist on the tops was a slightly surreal but nice experience.
A few hours later I came across David. Recognising his recent illness had perhaps take more of a toll than anticipated and interfered with his training too much he had wisely decided to pull out and save his energy for another day. Of greater interest to me was the news Ian Rodd was now only an hour ahead of me. Like a red rag to a bull this news re-energised me and drove me onwards, pushing that bit harder on the hills, suffering that bit more pain on the descents. Hour after hour passed with no sign of him. Where the hell was he? Was I being stupid trying to catch him? Was I being stupid thinking I could catch a geared bike ridden by someone who had been training hard for months and who was doing half the distance. Of course I was, but if I believed that, I wouldn’t ride as hard, and by now I was reduced to a speedy walk on the very steepest sections of some of the hills. I needed every motivator I could get. I clung to the knowledge I had years of endurance riding under my belt and Ian had only properly started serious bike training about six months previously after a few years of more leisurely riding.
But as I hit the 175m mark I began to lose hope I would catch him, a brief stop to sort out food combined with a wash and brush up at one of the water taps had consumed valuable time. The motivation was beginning to wane.
My nemesis was fast approaching. I’ve ridden Butser Hill on a single speed many times and each and every occasion it’s been a mind over matter battle. It was starting to get to me so I decided I would cut myself some slack and walk it. Just as I got to the bottom of the hill who should be climbing up the top of the hill but Ian!
But my decision was made – I was going to walk it. It lasted until the gate then anger got the better of me and I mounted and pushed myself onwards to reel Ian in. He’d spotted me and I found him relaxed, cross legged, in the sun, an array of nibbles in small cellophane pouches in front of him, like some sort of Moroccan trader in the Souk in Marrakech. It was absolutely fantastic to see him and having raided his stash of delectable’s we set of together swapping stories of the climbs and our adventures on the way.
But the Downs were not finished with me yet. Another deep wave of fatigue, worse than all the others left me weak and drifting behind Ian’s wheel. Whilst I knew it would pass and I was only a few miles from home, it was a 45 minute bout of deep discomfort that ceased only as we climbed up to Cheesefoot Head. We flew down the last hills and whizzed into the finish by the statue in Winchester to be greeted by our wives and Ian’s children.
Did I do it in the 24 hours? Well if you take out the extended pit stop due to the chain breaking the time was about 23 hours and 20 minutes. Add back in the time from rolling back down the hill to meet my wife messing around with the bike, heading home, rebuilding the other bike and returning and the time is 25 hours 55 minutes.
Whilst I am claiming victory, there’s a gnawing sense that I need to head back and do it on the bike I wanted to ride and do the job properly, but for now, 200 miles, 6000+ metres of climbing on a fully rigid single speed with no training for the two months preceding the attempt leaves me feeling pretty good and utterly convinced that the most important muscle to train in your body is your mental resolve. If you decide you can and do, then the body has a strange habit of believing you.
But for now, on the first leg of this flight to Mexico, I’m going to get my glass refilled and settle back into the fond memories of another adventure and start hatching plans for the next.