The South Downs Way Double – Double Attempts

Eoghan McHugh loves a challenge, after participating in the first-ever Atlas Mountain Race in February of this year he set his sights on a new challenge. To ride the South Downs Way Double, yes, twice, covering 200 miles in 24 hours or less! In his last blog, Eoghan shared his thought’s on the challenge and how he was preparing to take on this epic test of endurance. Here, Eoghan’s tells us in his own words about his attempts to complete the challenge, not once but twice! Read about Eoghan’s experiences in his blog titled; ‘The South Downs Way Double – Double Attempts’.

A Quick Recap

The South Downs Way Double is a 200-mile off-road challenge. It spans one end of the South Downs to the other and back again. To successfully complete the challenge, it must be ridden in 24-hours or less.

Well, that was the plan. But, things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes, it’s the case that things don’t go to plan more than once. I attempted riding the South Downs Way Double, twice! The first time was with a friend and the second attempt was a solo ride a few days later. And, I missed the mark on both occasions.

I’ve already covered what the South Downs Way Double challenge is in more depth, my preparation and thoughts around the challenge. Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of the ride.

First Attempt – 145 miles covered in 20.5 hours

The first attempt at cycling the 200-mile South Downs Way Double was done with a friend. The plan was a midnight start at the top of Ditchling Beacon. We would head 70-miles west to Winchester to arrive in the morning. Across the remainder of the morning and early afternoon, we’d make a return loop back to the Ditchling Beacon to complete the majority of the challenge. Hitting the Ditchling Beacon, we would ride a smaller 60-mile loop to Eastbourne and in doing so complete the overall challenge!

We were on top of the Ditchling Beacon about 23:50 – 10 minutes before go-time. We took an obligatory selfie together, counted down to midnight and started our adventure! Straight out of the gate, we had a strong headwind. But, we had fresh legs and that headwind was to become a tailwind for the ride back, when we’d start feeling some fatigue.

On we spun, ticking off the miles by the local landmarks that we passed – Jack and Jill windmills, Devil’s Dyke, the long descent from Truleigh Hill to cross the River Adur, past the pig farm, the prehistoric hill fort atop Chanctonbury Hill, then the descent into Amberly and the River Arun crossing.

The wide and uncovered run to Chanctonbury Ring was hairy. The wind was at its strongest point as we battled a cross-wind to cover the ground. A rabbit absolutely flew across our path, almost directly under our wheels. My friend and I later joked about mechanical doping – the wind was helping it hustle in an unnatural way!

Cloud cover was negligible. The moon was almost full and very low in the sky. We had some beautiful scenes – particularly when riding along the bank of the River Arun. The moon was big, wide and bright right in front of us, with it reflecting off the rapidly flowing Arun.

Our intrepid duo brave the blackest of nights in their attempt to conquer The South Downs Way Double

Soon, we were into Hampshire and off our home turf. Less familiar landmarks informed us of our progress – the commercial forests, the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, the Meon Bridle Path, Winchester Hill Lane, Cheesefoot Head, that descent where Winchester Cathedral is visible, Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium, and finally the ring road around Winchester. All of this before ending up standing in front of the endpoint – the statue of King Alfred the Great on the Broadway.

The dawn was simply stunning. About 3:30-4:00 am the sky started to lighten. Then the birds started to wake up. And, it was just the two of us cruising over the landscape to take in this unadulterated beauty. Crossing the A285 was dichotomous splendour. Looking left we had a clear view of the waning moon – still wrapped in dark shrouds of night-time. Looking right, the nascent day was barrelling forward with joie de vivre.

Near Elsted, the South Downs Way runs along the edge of the hill. At that point, the hill quickly drops away to the lowlands providing an almost endless view Northwards. At the time we were riding through, the morning mists were rising in the fields below us. Then the wheels started falling off. My friend had torn his Achilles years before. The legacy is occasional tendon strain in his knee. It was no surprise that the pounding that comes with smashing many off-road miles tweaked his knee.

He gritted his teeth and tried his best to get into Winchester. Once in Winchester, we had a quick break – he lowered his saddle, I raised mine, we ate, I stripped layers and updated everyone with where we were.

Then, we were off.

A few miles out, my friend had a puncture. He had been tempting fate by putting the biggest tyres he could possibly fit onto his bike to ride the SDW Double. Replacing the tube, the tyre just wasn’t sitting right and he had tyre wobble. It took about an hour to sort the issue so, eventually, we were off… again.

The strain in his knee was initially relieved by the lowered saddle, but the pain soon came back. And intensified. The next solution was to take the clips off his shoes. As we pushed the bikes up the steep, grassy hill of Old Winchester Hill, we made the call. Time for the clips to come off (he’s got very wide pedals, so was fine without clips).

Across the day as my friend’s knee went from bad to worse, the mission changed. It became less a goal to hit 200-miles in 24-hours. Instead, it became a ride for the two of us to get back to Ditchling Beacon together. While planning the ride, we did talk about leaving each other and riding solo if something went wrong. But, you can’t leave your friend in the lurch like that! Not to mention that they may suffer a big mechanical or a serious bonk.

I then had a slow puncture in the rear tyre. I was able to stop when needed and top-up with air, which was easy enough as I waited for my friend. My tyres are tubeless, but the sealant was a minimum of 5-months old. Meaning, what was left of the sealant wasn’t sealing the tyres effectively.

By the time we ascended the off-road part of Truleigh Hill, the slow puncture had become a mighty torrent that would have easily powered a minimum of 40 wind turbines. In my fatigue and lack of experience dealing with tubeless, I flopped between solutions. I looked at patching. It quickly became clear the logistics didn’t work. Then, I was going to put a tube in. That plan was foiled when I couldn’t get the tyre off. My solution to mending the tyre was to use a thorn as a plug (by the way, patent is pending on thorn as a plug)! There were loads of thorn bushes around me. I pulled a thorn off a vine and shoved it into the hole. And, it worked! Two days later, there was still a good amount of air in the tyre!

As covered in the preparation article, we had organised a resupply on the Ditchling Beacon. But, our resupply agent couldn’t stay later than 16:00. With progress being hampered, we weren’t able to get to the Beacon before he had to leave. So, he hid our resupply. Both of us had food. I had a whole new change of kit. Our friends started arriving on the Beacon about 17:00. They followed the instructions left in the WhatsApp chat, but couldn’t find the bag. Five different people wandered and searched. It was nicked! Can you believe it?! What is so attractive about a couple of pasties, sweets, pasta’s and lycra that inspired someone to steal it???

But, we managed to get back to the Beacon, where it had all started for us 20-odd hours before. Five of our friends were waiting to cheer us on. Thankfully, one friend had brought a Snickers Duo for each of us! It was delicious!

And, that’s where we left that day’s ride – 145 miles and 16,500 feet of elevation gain later.

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