The Thrill of the Trail – Challenging the South Downs Way fully loaded
Cycling the South Downs Way on a loaded touring bicycle is that crazy?
Reverse cultural shock is the word to describe our feelings once we arrived in Brighton. After 2 years of traveling in Asia and 18 months living in China, the impact with western culture is stunning.
We found ourselves staring at the people like we were old Chinese farmers abroad for the first time… “look all those tattoos!”, “that girl has purple hair!” and so on… Besides that we were quite jet-lagged, wish I’d tried these tips.
By the way, we are here to start a new bike trip around Europe, we’ll pick up our brand new Stanforth Kibo and hit the road. As a first test for us (totally out of fit), the bikes, and the new gear, we decide to attempt something most have advised against, riding the South Downs Way fully loaded.
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Brighton is a lovely city, just one hour away from London. It is really worth exploring its city center and the lovely beaches, beware of the huge seagulls though, they are very nasty (and the biggest we’ve ever seen).
A great hike around Brighton is the Seven Sisters Hike. If you have one day to spare you should definitely do it, spectacular white sandstone cliffs towering over the blue sea.
The South Downs Way
The South Down Way is a 160 km (100 miles) trail connecting Eastbourne (a town along the coast, south of London) with Winchester.
It cuts the steep and gorgeous hills of the South Downs National Park, a protected area of farmed landscape and National Park in southern England. The trail is mostly meant for hikers and horse riders, but it is also popular among bikers.
When we were looking for a route across England and Wales, heading towards Fishguard to cross into Ireland, we found out about Sustrans, a network of cycling and hiking trails that covers most of Great Britain, it is here that we discovered about the existence of the South Downs.
Asking around the online bike touring communities, everyone said something similar: “stunning route, do not even think about it if fully loaded”. So, since we tent to be “Bastian contrary” we decided to give it a go.
Our attempt of cycling the South Downs
So we leave Brighton and cycle towards the nearest entrance of the trail, at Devil’s Dyke; Simon, the designer of our new Stanforth Bikes, rides with us up there. It’s already a steep climb out of Brighton, across a wealthy and cozy neighborhood.
Devil’s Dyke is on a hilltop, from here the trail starts, already with a scenic view. The white track cuts the grass-covered hills. And it is immediately bumpy.
We manage to cycle the first three hills, up and down in a steep fashion but not too rough, maybe the first 2 miles or so we almost do not get down the bike (almost).
Then there are a few flat bits which are basically on the grass, the track is buried below, still rideable but we get the first few heavy hits since the potholes are hidden.
Things get rough
Simon said the first 5 miles are the worst so we are still optimistic, but after climbing up a hill and meeting a peculiar and smelly pig farm, things start to get really nasty.
There isn’t any grassland anymore, just farms and fields all around us, the track gets very narrow and there’s a downhill we can’t help but walk… followed by an equally terrible climb.
The trail crosses the tarmac roads quite a few times and we begin to wonder if we should give up… but we don’t, at least for today, we want to stay on the trail and find a cool and quiet camping spot.
It’s 6 pm and we are already exhausted, even though there’s light until about 10 pm (tomorrow will be the Summer Solstice), we can’t go any further, it is also our first fully loaded cycling day in almost 2 years so we are not exactly super-fit.
After the umpteenth bumpy single-track-downhill, a mirage appears: a sweet and soft hill with a small grove at its top, just perfect. We’ll find out later that it was the Cissbury Ring, an important Neolithic site (we didn’t even notice… too tired).
We pitch our tent and cook a pasta, we are seriously worn out but happy, it has been an amazing day, but we managed only 15km on the trail.
The Second Day
We wake up surrounded by a thick mist, visibility is about 10 meters, the tent is wet. We start riding and see how it goes, the first mile is doable, but then the hell unleashes, vertical up and downs on single tracks, tall grass, big rocks… we push 80% of the time.
After another very bumpy slope, we really feel like we had enough, we cross a paved country road and decide to go for it, saying goodbye to the South Down Way. We rode a total of 22km (GPX track will come, stay tuned).
So, is it possible to ride the South Downs on a fully loaded touring bike? Well, if by riding you mean staying on the saddle for at least 50% of the time, then the answer is NO.
Is it worth trying? I think there are some manageable bits that are worth the effort, overall we are pretty happy with what we did, one day makes for a good experience!
Is it doable on a bike without suspensions? I think it is possible to tackle the whole route on a sturdy touring bike, there are quite a few sections though that you’ll want to push, for the well being of your bike.