A year of centuries 7/12

Having put this ride off since last year due to other commitments, century number seven of 2015 was the South Downs Way 100 organised by the British Heart Foundation. They say that off-road miles count double, so does that mean that this month's ride counts as 200 miles? July will probably be remembered as the hardest ride of the year.

The South Downs is on my doorstep and Eastbourne is known as the gateway to it. As England's newest National Park, it covers just over 600 square miles and to be honest, I've ridden only a very small part of it. In the weeks leading up to the ride I got out on a number of occasions to train on the hilly chalk downland. I even took part in an organised MTB sportive which took in some of the same terrain.

However, knowing that this ride is well known for it's difficulty, I was a little apprehensive about the ride. Many people take the ride on over two days and even the BHF suggest riders might want a support crew follow them during the ride. I wasn't doing either and I was riding alone. Planning would be key.

One of my friends, Richard, who was an official bike mechanic for the ride, had ridden the route a few times before and his latest ride was only two weeks before my attempt. I phoned him for advice and to check if there was any equipment I needed that I may not have thought of. While on the phone, he asked how I was getting there. I said I was thinking of driving up the night before and sleeping in my car and going back the following day on the train to get my car. He offered me a lift in his van along with two other riders (Jez and Julian) he was taking and the option to sleep in his hotel room, if only on the floor. This was one less thing to worry about.

The plan was to leave Eastbourne at 7pm. I had the afternoon off work so I could make sure I had everything packed and ready. The drive to Winchester takes about two hours and we arrived around 9.30pm at the Holiday Inn just down the road from the start. We headed to the bar and met with some of the ride organisers and some of the other riders and had a drink before heading to bed. We didn't get our heads down until 11pm though.

The alarm went off at 4am but I was already up as I'd woken needing a wee. It took about 15 minutes to fully wake up though. I had a sandwich for my breakfast and we checked out and headed to the start at Chilcomb Sports Ground. We unloaded the bikes out of the van and I checked mine over, loaded the Garmin and drinks bottles. All I needed now was to sign in and get ready at the start. As there were a number of us ready to ride, we were given the safety briefing early and we were on our way at 5am. Jez and Julian are faster riders than me so they disappeared.

You start off right on a bridle path. The terrain is flattened grass and not fast to ride on. Even though my plan was to ride slowly at the start as it was a long ride, I found it difficult to resist keeping up with the riders that soon overtook me. It wasn't long before the first climb started. The legs and lungs weren't quite ready for this at dawn. It was soon worthwhile as getting to the top gave way to a stunning sunrise. Totally clear sky and a glowing ball of light breaking over the horizon.

It wasn't long before the small number of riders that were in front, started coming back towards me and we'd missed a turning. Seemingly due to a sign missing! They'd ridden quite a bit further than me in the wrong direction. There was now several miles of fields, and farm tracks and nothing memorable. Arriving at Beacon Hill, 10 miles in, it's downhill for a while. I was due to eat something but thought I'd wait until the bottom. On the way down it's fast over grass and then you join the road. It was very new, smooth tarmac and the speed was fun. Near the bottom, Jez and Julian were sorting a puncture. I stopped to offer encouragement whilst eating an energy bar. I left them to carry on as I knew they'd catch me up.

It started to get slow again through fields and grass climbs and some gates. Gates that open toward you whilst trying to ride uphill are a real pain. Fortunately, with a number of riders at any one time, you don't have to do them all yourself. I was now headed up a steep climb to Old Winchester Hill. You can't really see the remains of the Iron Age fort from the path but it's very close.

More ups and downs, some road, farm track, grass, gravel, chalk etc. This will be a recurring theme. I'd not seen anyone for ages but it was time to stop for food at almost 20 miles in. Having stopped, it wasn't long before I did see some riders and several asked if I was OK. Back on the bike and it wasn't long before the terrain changed slightly. Open grassland and in the distance I could see riders on what looked like a ridge descending. I was at a place called Buster Hill, which is a fast grassy descent that leads down into Queen Elizabeth Country Park. I'd been warned that the drop was fast with one big bump. The grass was wet but I braced myself and went for it. There's a gate, part way down and it was open but it's narrow at speed. The next rider was a way in front and no one behind so had nothing to worry about. The speed was incredible. 41mph top speed on grass!

You are straight into a wooded section and at first I thought I was lost as I couldn't see any signs or riders but it wasn't long before my confidence was restored. This was also a recurring theme on the ride.

About 25 miles in and I heard a twang come from my bike. I didn't even stop to look for another few miles as I was certain it was a broken spoke nipple from my rear wheel. When I did stop my hunch was correct. I've had a number of these in the past so I just cable tied the spoke to another one and carried on.

35 miles in and I was at the first rest stop. I eat something and topped up with fluids. It was starting to get quite warm and it was only 9.15am. It was straight into a climb with a tailwind and I was getting hot. It was a lonely climb, not seeing anyone until the top. The rider that caught up with me started chatting and we rode together for a few miles. A few miles later another rider caught me up and we chatted for a bit. A few miles later I decided to stop for more water and we parted company. It was now a long fast descent back down to sea level to cross the River Arun at Amberley. It was straight back into a climb where I spotted my first single speed mountain bike. He was walking up the hill but he was ahead of me at that point and I was the second rider to start.

A long slow climb and I was at the top. Looking to the right I could see the sea for the first time. The 360 degree view was stunning. I was almost halfway and it was time to eat again. I was just short of 6 hours in. Whilst eating I decided to hold the gate open for riders coming up the hill. It wasn't long before I heard a friendly voice call my name. Jez was approaching the gate I was holding open. Julian was a little way behind. They'd had several mechanicals and Julian had suffered agonising cramp. I said I'd catch them up once I finished eating.

Back on the bike I thought I'd get back with them in no time. However, a number of combine harvesters came off the field in front of me and totally blocked the narrow lane. It was really frustrating having to wait behind them. It was 5 miles and 30 mins later before I caught back up with Jez and Julian again. When we got to Washington the lads stopped for food and I decided to carry on as I knew they'd soon catch me up. The climb out of Washington was slow and tricky. Lots of loose chalk and very steep. The sun bearing down was very hot. At the top I was gasping for breath. It wasn't long before Jez passed me and then Julian. It was a lovely long, fast descent the other side though but very bumpy. My hands were really hurting from the many hours of bumpy terrain. At 57 miles it was time to stop for food and drink and I bade farewell to the lads again. I saw my second cyclo-cross rider of the day and we chatted while I rested.

At the 60 mile mark I stopped briefly to grab water and had a quick chat with my friend the bike mechanic. He told me I'd just missed Jez and Julian and I could see them ahead in the distance. It was a long slow old climb from Steyning to Truleigh Hill. I was now in slightly familiar territory having ridden some of this on the London to Brighton off-road ride a couple of times before. At the 64 mile mark I caught back up with the lads having a break at Devil's Dyke. We set off together. At Pyecombe golf club, Jez got another puncture and told us to carry on. Julian was a little ahead of me and I was struggling with the pace. At Ditchling Beacon I caught back up with him and had a short break before carrying on by myself. It's downhill to the A27 from here but there's one evil little climb which I had to slowly walk up. It was really pulling at my calves.

I was now 75 miles in and stopped for more food and water. The friendly faces of Jez and Julian re-appeared. We regrouped and started riding again. The climb up to Castle Hill, looking over Kingston, was slow. It seemed everyone was slow, even though the hill wasn't very steep. It was the first time I could really feel the wind. It was coming from my right as I was riding south up the hill. It was cooling but felt strong. Once at the top the view was, again, stunning. I lost Jez and Julian up the hill but at the top started chatting with another rider that had ridden most of the ascent with me. We rode the journey to Southease and when I stopped for water, we parted company.

On the climb out of Southease I caught up with the lads again. They were fixing yet another puncture. I told them I would continue on and see them again soon. The ride continued to Firle Beacon where I got caught by the lads. We rode into Alfriston and out the other side into one of the last climbs in the form of Windover Hill. I don't like this hill, especially at 90 miles in. It's long, slow, rutted chalk. Coming down the other side and arriving in Jevington, there's one climb left, Eastbourne Lane. This climb is cobbled, broken and slow, especially when you're tired. Lots of riders were tired. Many of them didn't know the terrain ahead, so I encouraged them, telling them it was the last climb. Jez was slowing down. I carried on over the golf course and waited for the two of them at the main road. I told them we should cross the finish line together.

It wasn't long before we descended into Eastbourne and crossed the finish line on the Western Lawns. My wife was waiting for me and I was so glad to have finished. I was tired and hurting. I got my medal and hung around for a free massage. However, my ride wasn't yet over. I'd finished the South Downs Way but not my 100 miles. With 2.5 miles left to go I knew I had to ride home. Fortunately it was flat and wind assisted. I finished the day with 101.8 miles and went out for a slap up meal.

Having finished the ride I'm so pleased I did it but have no intention to ever do it again. My hands were so painful from the constant impact of the descents. However, I'd like to ride the South Downs Way over a two or three days and enjoy the places along the route.

Me at the start with Julian in the background at 4.55am

One of the many gates

A rider comes a cropper (not part of our ride)

The view from the top of Ditchling Beacon

The three of us crossing the finish line.

Me with my medal


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