For those that don't know, the South Downs Way (SDW) is basically a ridge of chalky downs thrust out of the otherwise flat Southern English countryside. For the mountainbiker, it contains a lot of climbing!
I was on a bit of a come-down after the Brecon Beast and only found out about this event a few days before.
My shonky old GT had done me proud in Wales so I figured why not give this a go.
The Maxx Exposure event is run by Trail Break and is a farily unique format. The plan is, you arrive at Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Winchester with your bike and your gear. Then you hop on a coach (and your bike hops on a lorry) and get taken on the worringly long coach journey to Beachy Head! Here you have two options. One, head out into the sea over the cliff like countless forloun lovers before you. Or head off down the chalky byway leading you off into the distance.
The event starts around 6pm and so soon you are thrust into darkness. I chose to hire the AMAZING Exposure 6-Pack light from the organisers and it was perfectly adequate on low and capable of 20+mph descents off road on high.
I was to do the race with a new friend I had met through the Cycling section of the excellent "The Rev Counter" forum.
The following write up was one I wrote for the forum which followed on from "Weeksy"'s write up.
It looks like I'm going to have to do a race-to-dakar style "we'll all tell our seperate tales from this point on" to fill in the gaps.
Firstly, Weeksy is right, the SDW definately rides at twice it's actual distance. So when Team TRC made their way down the first set of downs, I was honestly expecting a Control Point! Fat chance!
We'd decided to ride our own rides up the hills, then regroup at the top. Unfortunately, bad timing with a puncture meant Weeksy and Crust were stranded at the bottom and by the time I'd realised, I was a good mile away. A quick phone call to Weeksy and I decided to ride on.
Eventually, I reached CP1 in 3hours and learned I was 8th from last. I decided to not stop longer than necessary and just chucked some jelly babies and a flap-jack down my neck before carrying on. With a target time now in mind to hit CP2 at Midnight, I slogged off into the darkness. It was so surreal riding through the night with literally nobody around. The weather was perfect. It was mild but not too warm with a gentle tail wind and perfect visibility. I'm used to being out in the woods at night, but being up on the top of those rolling downs with high powered mountain bike lights stretching out some 10 miles ahead of you to the horizon, some busy climbing, some bombing down a hill and some not seemingly going anywhere was out of this world.
Eventually after what felt like a week, I spotted a light on the next climb that seemed to be going slower than I. To my utter amazment (everyone on the coach looked like a cross between a whippet and a racing snake!), I caught and passed him. Over the next 15 miles I passed 9 more! At this point I felt really good. A bit of a down point was when I was sure I must be half way to CP2 as it felt like I'd easily been riding 1h30mins. Looking at my watch, I'd been riding for 30!
Reaching CP2, which had our half-way bags there, I downed my Tomato Soup, stuffed in a Rice Crispies square, munched 2/3 of an apple and topped it off with a handful of Jelly Beans. Then, I took the spare Lucozade from my half way bag and used it to refill my bottle.
Not wanting to lose my addrenalin, I set off again. At this point, the emormity of the whole thing set in. I never felt tired and I never once yawned but it was the middle of the night for gods sake! This isn't natural. Not only that, but I'd just done 1 Brecon beast (only with more climbing and less rocks!) and had a whole other one to go. I've never ridden further than 60 miles either so who knew how I was going to cope.
Funny thing is, the pure madness of the thing is actually easily overcome by doing one simple thing- KEEP PEDALING
As Weeksy said, this stage was mental. Loads of crazy climbs. Anyway, coming over a canal Bridge, I embarked on a fairly long climb (remember this one for later). This then crossed a main-road, rolled up and down for a bit past a farm, then started a crazily long climb- easily an hour. At this point, it was 01:30 so I knew I was pretty much half way to CP3. At first, I was going to get to the top, then stop and eat M+M's as a treat to myself. Then I decided it would be simpler to get off and walk, keep moving and eat the M+M's at the same time.
Eventually I reached the top, then ended up on some National Trust land. At this point, the signage was very sketchy. A fair few had been pinched and there were a couple of hairy moments wondering if you'd taken the right path. I was totally by myself at this point, so there weren't even any lights to follow.
I then reached a crossroads with about 6 different options. I had no idea where to go. Looking in the dust, I could see bike tracks heading off to the left, so thas where I went. I was wrong. Following signs that said SDW on them, I began dropping down some fast long decents and before long had covered a couple of miles on this long straight track which turned into a tarmac lane. Now, it wasn't unusual to not see a sign for a bit, so I kept going. Needless to say, by the time I had realised I was wrong, I was a long way down!
Looking back, I can't understand why I didn't resign myself to back tracking. However, the madness of the situation means I made a bad choice- I carried on. I figured that I could go down to the next valley bottom, join the main road, then pick up the point where the SDW crosses over it. This I achieved perfectly- with one tiny error. I for some reason assumed the track I should have took was one further to the left. It was actually the one to the right.
So, as I reached the main road, I assumed I needed to turn LEFT to find where the SDW crossing was. I slogged up a long road climb and it's fair to say I was panicking. My mobile battery was too flat to get the contact numbers off of my emails, I had no idea what the road I was on was called and I had no idea where I actually needed to be.
Seriously bad times.
Anyway, after perhaps a couple of miles, a crossed the Arundal Castle roundabout and kept pluggin on. At this point, I spotted a big sign saying SDW. So, assuming I should have been coming from the left, I turned right, pleased I'd finally found it and threw myself with gusto into a big long fast decent. I never even questioned the lack of reflective signs as I'd by now assumed all this section had been stolen.
Then, my panicked despair turned to desperate confusion. There, coming towards me, were two MTB's with fuck-off lights on!!! Yep, you've guessed it, I'd just ridden down the climb after the canal bridge that I'd already climbed 1h30 earlier!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I can safely say that had there been a support truck with us at that point, I would have galdly thrown in the towel. This meant I now had about 2 miles of climbs and about another 2 miles of tracks to ride that I'd already ridden. I was a broken man. Luckily, the two guys let me tag along so thats what I did.
I sat on their back wheel for the remainder of the entire course. It was painful. I just kept going over the stupid mistake in my head, beating myself up for the fact that I should by now have been at the final check point. On top of that, my knee was really hurting for some reason and where I was compensating by limp-peddaling, the tendons on the back of my ankle started to hurt too. I can safely say though, that if I hadn't ended up riding with these two guys, there were at least another 3 occassions where the signs had been stolen and I potentially would have got lost anyway.
The final n miles from CP3 to the finish taught me a lot about myself. I still didn't feel tired, my legs still didn't ache, I still hadn't yawned, I still wasn't out of breath, I was deeply depressed at my error and my knee was about to explode but from somewhere, I found the resolve to keep going and keep up with these guys.
The relief to be finished was amazing but within 2 minutes, I was already thinking about next years event (which unfortunately never took place although it is due back in 2014)
It was madness! Addictive, pointless, stupid, crazy madness! But it is EPIC. The darkness, the imposing downs, the route, the climbs, the sheer distance (Weeksy's 150 miles of Ridgeway comparison is spot on) and the unbelievable sense of achievement. I highly recommend it!!
My time was 12h19 minutes but I can honestly say taking off the time for getting lost and 15 minutes waiting for the two guys I ended up with to have a drink every 2 miles, my true time would have been around 10h50 I reckon.
If I can get a bike thats not a bone-shaker with no brakes like my GT, I reckon 10h is achievable next year.
Sorry there's no pics, but my phone hadn't charged so I wanted to save my battery.