The South Downs Way

Planning a bikepacking trip for the first time is not only nerve-racking but it is scary. The unknown. Yes, watching Youtube videos, listening to podcasts and reading blogs is going to help, double-checking all your gear and doing trials is certainly going to stop those little mistakes but how ready can you be heading into the unknown? 


Cycling took its firm grip around four years ago, snapping up a second-hand bargain and discovering Richmond Park was my first introduction.  Since then I have been hooked and trying to find my ‘niche’. Road riding has taken up most of this time to my great enjoyment. I have been lucky enough to travel up and down the country discovering new roads and last year took part in my first cycling holiday in France. 

Being part of a community like cycling has not only introduced me to some life-long friends, it has allowed me to grow physically and been a great output mentally. 

Once I became comfortable on the bike I continued to progress with my riding and for the first-time followed training plans. A change was coming. However, I always wanted to challenge myself a bit more than just a Sunday morning ride. 

My first opportunity came during a 24-hour endurance bike ride to help raise money for StreetInvest. A charity based in London, helping disadvantaged children around the world. Not only did I manage to raise a staggering amount of money for this cause (£1,205), I completed the ride covering 311 miles in 24hours. I realised that I had the endurance and potential to just, keep going.

It wasn’t long before Bikepacking came to my attention. After falling headfirst into the Youtube wormhole, I was hooked.  It was then I discovered the Silk Road Mountain Race and the subsequent podcast covering the race. Every morning on my commute to work I would listen to the story of the riders, how far have they travelled today? What bikes are they riding? How much gear are they carrying? And more importantly…why would these people put themselves through this?

Jennifer Doohan – Bikepacking.com

The Silk Road Mountain Race is an unsupported bikepacking race across the wilderness of Kyrgyzstan. 1700 kilometres and 30,500m of climbing. In 2019, Slovakian Jakub Sliacan set a new race record by completing the race in 7 days and 46 minutes. This, as I am sure you will agree, is mind-blowing. Not only that Jakub is superhuman and rode the race with very little sleep but human endurance in general. This caught my attention. 

To my detriment on occasions, I am very focused. If I decide I want to do something I will do what I can to make it happen. I will research, I will seek out the people to help me to achieve this. It was about this time I came across the G!RO podcast. Listening to stories from Matt Falconer, racing across the world in the Trans-Continental and Jimmy Ashby who set off & succeeded into cycling the world at 18 years old. 

I was inspired! Why can I not do this? 

Sensibly, I decided to ease myself in. First on the list – The South Downs Way, noted for its stunning views and potential for bikepackers around the world, this was where I would start. 

From the comfort of my home, I worked out a route that would take me from my home in London, down into Winchester. I would then pick up The South Downs Way route from Winchester and head to Brighton where I would pick up the old railway tracks and canal routes back to London. I figured I would be able to do this in four days give or take. 

The number of miles did not bother me, the solo riding did not bother me, over the past few weeks with the ongoing C19 saga this was exactly what the doctor ordered. At the same time, I can sing (very badly) to myself for many hours so that wasn’t an issue. This issue was the unknown. 

The night before I set off, I slept badly. I knew I was overthinking everything, every little detail. Did I pack my extra light? Do I need to take an extra charger? What happens if both my tires go flat, my seat gets stolen and the world is attacked by aliens? I forced myself to sleep. 

On the first day, the weather was forecast was perfect, I had some nervous porridge and coffee and packed my bike. The tyres were inflated and my trusty Wahoo blinking with excitement showing me the directions of my first ever bikepacking adventure. 

Guildford Bypass Road. Samuel-James Wilson

Leaving the comfort of my home and heading south I was continually surprised by the route. I soon left the busy roads behind me and I was following bridleways and forest routes dodging nettles and thorns like a bike rider from the film The Matrix. It was fun! This is the kind of riding I have been wanting to do, this is an adventure.  

The highlight of the day was cycling through The Alice Holt Forest in Hampshire. The beauty of the place was something to behold. Tress as tall as towers, the orchestral sounds of birds were the only thing to fill the air. I was in my element. I will be returning one day, on this occasion however I have a target to hit. I wanted to get around 10/15 miles away from Winchester and set up camp. 

I pushed on and after 67 miles and 6.5 hours on the bike I set up camp, very stealth-like in the corner of a field. I soon fell asleep following a camp meal and a cup of tea to the beautiful sunset at my tent door. 

View the ride.

Strava

Komoot

Alice Holt Forest. Samuel James Wilson

The next morning, awake and eagerly making porridge at 4 am, the sky changed from blue to pink to red with the sunrise, I was excited. Today I was going to hit the route, I was ready to take on The South Downs Way. 

Leaving Winchester, you are greeted with miles of eye-watering, 360-degree vistas. Concentrating on the trails, not running people over or falling off comes in a close second to what these have to offer. 

The unrelenting gravel trails both up and downhill take no prisoners. The steep gravel ascents spin the tyres out leaving you with the only option to keep on pushing the pedals and on the odd occasion to get off and push the bike. The (what seemed like) steeper gravel descents punished the body to its limit. Navigating a fully loaded gravel bike with no suspension down the flint and chalk downs, all you can do is hold on the brakes and avoid ‘the big ones’. 

Cyling.co.uk

As I reached closer to Brighton the trails became less brutal offering slight relief after a long day in the saddle. 

My aim for the day was to reach approximately 10/15 miles away from Brighton, I reached my target after 8.5 hours riding, 7,884ft of climbing and covering just over 76 miles. 

However, I would say the descents took most of my fatigue on the day. 

As the sun was setting I set up camp, made some food and a cup of green tea and was flat out. 

View the ride.

Strava

Komoot

Like clockwork, I was again awake at 4 am and following a double porridge and caffeine dosage, I packed up camp and hit the trails. I was greeted by the most spectacular sunrise over the downs. To my left, London. Directly in front, the sunrise and to my right, Brighton. 

I made a point of putting some extra miles on my day by visiting The Devil’s Dyke, noted for its beauty it did not disappoint. My last hours on the SDW were stunning and will not be forgotten, I descended the Devil’s Dyke through the mountain bike tracks and winding trails to finally join up to a London gravel route heading home. 

Binstead. Samuel James Wilson

The route home was a welcomed relief following the ups and downs of the day before. The relatively smooth and flat gravel paths over old railway lines and scenic towpaths took me back to Hampton. 

My only aim of the day, to get home for a pizza and beer. This was accomplished. I reached my target after 5.5 hours riding and covering just over 63 miles. 

View the ride.

Strava

Komoot

In conclusion, in these uncertain times we all must find and focus on something that makes us happy, something that when you think about it, it makes you smile. To me, that’s being on my bike. My mind is clear, my worries escape me and leave me with the wonders of the passing world and the kindness of passing strangers always willing to say good morning and ask why you have so much stuff strapped to a bike. I think I have found my niche. It makes me smile. 

Heading into the unknown is thrilling, each day brings a new challenge and that is why Bikepacking and I will be good friends for many years to come. I am now planning my next trip with my eyes firmly set on Wales and the Brecon Beacons. My plan, to do a few multi-day trips and then who knows, maybe I will enter a race. 

Ride by the numbers

217 Miles

19.50 Hours of Riding

13,353 ft Elevation

7,790 Calories

If you have any questions, leave a comment below.

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Published by Samuel-James Wilson

👨‍🎓Studying Historic Building Conservation 🚵‍♂️ Bikepacking & Gravel Adventure Blogger 🙏 Kindness is Magic

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