Thursday 4 July 2013

Bikepacking the South Downs Way

Having done plenty of wekend walking trips - some with a tent, some with a bivvy - and the occasional mountain biking day out, the natural progression seemed to be to combine the two. I set out with my mate Duncan in an attempt at the South Downs Way: 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, almost entirely off-road, with a tarp and a bivvy bag.

It was a mixed weekend which ultimately ended in failure – for several reasons but, sadly, the biggest one being my own lack of fitness.

We were slightly later out of London than expected, meaning that we didn’t hit Winchester station until 10pm. A seriously terrible kebab later, we set out and peeled off into some woods a few miles (less than 5) outside of the town.

My mate had opted for his 1-man tent rather than a bivvy and pitched it in no time, settling in for his evening’s entertainment as I wrestled with the tarp. Progress was VERY slow as I attempted to work out, empirically, the best way to get the damn thing up. The rain started just as we camped and soon was chucking down. Trying to pitch in a nettlebed isn’t much fun but in the end – after an ordeal – I got up a lean-to by pegging in the long side to the ground, and using a wheel on one short side and the rest of the bike saddle-up at the other end. The rain hammered down and I lay awake for a while, partly ecstatic at the sound of raindrops on canvas – is there any sound that makes you feel triumphant at having braved the outdoors? – partly in trepidation for the whole thing collapsing on my face. It was well past midnight before I drifted off to sleep.

In the event, I had one of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in the outdoors for a while. I normally have problems breathing but this time I had a pretty sound rest. However, I woke at 6:30 with dappled sunlight on my face and a stunning dawn chorus in full swing. Since Radio 4’s “Tweet of the Day” started airing at 5:58 each morning I’ve suddenly been having a micro-craze for birds although aside from a few obvious ones I can barely identify any. This chorus was magnificent and it’s one of those moments where you feel a lot of emotions but high among them is the feeling that very, very few people ever get to share moments like this...even though they’re free. Waking up in the woods with the sun on your face and the birds singing? That’s one to add to anyone’s bucket list as far as I’m concerned.

My riding buddy didn’t emerge for another two hours – I had mixed feelings about whether to wake him or just enjoy some breakfast at my own pace and the birdsong. In the end, despite my early waking, we didn’t make a move until 10am which among other things was part of our downfall.

There was the ominous sound of what we assumed was a farmer’s tractor close by and we expected to have to wield some uncomfortable questions. As it turned out it was the sound of a tank! We were camping close by to some sort of red letter day centre and there were tanks and quad bikes all over the place.

Not having any specialist bikepacking gear, I was resigned to hauling most of the weight on my back. I used a couple of bottle cages for water, an 8 litre dry bag on the bars and a small 2 litre back strapped inelegantly to the saddle rails. My 32 litre rucksack still weighed nearly 7kg though – far from ideal.

As for the SDW itself, there isn’t a great deal to tell. It’s typical southern English countryside – pleasant but unspectacular and there isn’t much by way of highlights. We set ourselves a target of about 70 miles on the Saturday – ambitious, but would leave a comfortable Sunday and even a pub lunch. But we soon found out that it wasn’t as easy as all that.

Progress was slow. I was constantly behind and really puffing on the hills. There’s no sophisticated reason for this – my fitness just isn’t up to scratch. Rests became longer and ever more frequent. Climbs took longer. The GPS grimly infomed us our moving average wasn't much more than 6mph. There were a lot of miles still to be covered.

We lunched at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. We gave rather short shrift to a woman who waited until we'd unpacked everything and got the stove running before venturing to remark that she had booked the area and was waiting for her friends. Lunch wasn't one of our proudest moments - a particularly disgusting tinned meatball mixture. A lot of rice was needed to disguise the taste.

The afternoon was a long slog. I stacked it on a fast descent - I was being forced to the left of the track by a nasty rut nearly a foot deep. Soon my ribbon of track started to disappear into the bushes. Knowing that my options were to crash into the bushes or have a go at the rut, I made an effort at taking on the rut but went flying over the handlebars, hitting my head pretty hard. No permanent damage to either rider or bike fortunately! I was rather more circumspect on subsequent descents but about 20 minutes later I found myself losing control at the bottom of another fast one. With no run-off the natural path went straight into a deep hollow full of water. Seeing soft grass behind and knowing another stack was inevitable I relaxed and let myself go. I charged straight into the hollow which had a steep rise the other side, found myself about 2 feet airborne and somehow managed to make a perfect landing as if nothing had happened - albeit rather shaken.

By this point the remote lockout on my fork had broken, meaning that smoother climbs were even harder work. Duncan meanwhile was struggling with tyre pressures and balance issues with all the weight behind the saddle. Other than that we plodded on. But my body was screaming.

Each climb a struggle. It's a mental thing as much as physical - I give in too easily, firstly by giving in to the temptation to move to the small chain ring, then by looking up and instantly giving in. Duncan stolidly pulling up each hill and waiting at the top. He did his best to make excuses for me, kindly and untruthfully blaming everything from my remote lockout to the weight on my back. But my climbing was getting worse. Gasping, screaming, mutters of "get a fucking grip Eoghan", tears, inadequacy, a sudden burst of concentration, look down, weight forward, smooth legs - don't create too much torque! - screaming again, move up the gears, the small chain ring, moving up into bottom gear, a sudden thought that walking would be no slower, a fading attempt to banish such thoughts, irregular breathing, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, I can't do this, I can't do this, my fitness is terrible, we're falling behind and it's all my fault, why is everything always my bloody fault, more inadequacy, more tears, shameful, is there ever anything I'm good at, failure, why does it always rain on me, self-pity, another look up to face the fact I've made almost no progress, a sudden despondent slump and my foot touches the ground. Shit. Shit, shit, SHIT. A vain attempt to get started again - in bottom gear, on a steep gravelly hill? No chance - and it's hike-a-bike to the top, a muttered apology but I can't look him in the eye.

Rinse and repeat. As my exhaustion grows I start to realise that I'm losing concentration on the descents. This is becoming dangerous.

A while later in a fit of desperation I extract an old packet of Kendal mint cake and devour half of it, body gasping for sugar and oxygen. I'd never tried KMC before and it's actually not half bad. It works wonders for my energy levels and I make efforts to increase my sugar levels with fig rolls and chocolate at every opportunity.

The light starts to fade - we've made pitiful progress and it becomes apparent that we're not going to manage this in two days, not 70 miles on the first day anyhow. The view down to Amberley and the River Arun is delightful but there wasn't time to enjoy it, just push on.

The post-meltdown Kendal mint cake and regular refuellings help me but the effects are temporary and not long after crossing the A24 I collapse one more time, haul the bike up to the top and declare with what breath I have left "I'm spent. I can't manage any more climbs like that tonight." Duncan generously counters "me too" but his words ring hollow. Fortunately the light had gone by this point and after a few false starts we managed to find a wooded spot somewhere before Steyning.

This spot was a little more cramped and the ground was dusty and stony - horrible to pitch into. Combined with the dark and my exhausted lack of co-ordination, I was even slower at pitching the tarp than the previous night. When it was suggested to me that it would make life a lot easier if I just used the trees to pitch the tarp rather than the bike, I nearly snapped; "I. Have. Come. To. Pitch. The. Tarp. Using. The. Bike. And. It. Will. Take. As. Long. As. It. Takes."

In the interests of efficiency and weight-saving I elected not to take a head torch, rather using a helmet mount for my front bike light around camp. This was a mistake - of course I had to wear the bloody helmet all evening! Quite aside from the irritation, the helmet mount kept catching against the low branches of the hawthorn, meaning that my frustration just boiled over further. Plunging the guylines into 2-foot deep nettles and brambles was the icing on the cake, but by this point my body was too tired to care.

This time my sleep was very uncomfortable - no particular reason, I think it was a combination of aching muscles, needing the toilet, a slope and also a leaky inflatable mat. Unfortunately the wheel at one end of the pitch had collapsed but other than that, it was actually a pretty tight pitch. A bit of practice pitching in a park, some line locks and a bit more confidence, and it'll be much happier. I made a minor change the second night by using the bike upturned on its saddle which made a lot more sense, although I think it would have been better to have my head at that end (more secure, plus more space). Also I must admit that using the trees would of course have made life simpler, although I was determined to use the bike for pitching this time around and glad I did.

The following morning we elected to go a while further before finding a suitable place to turn off and head for a train station, most likely Brighton. In the event despite a night's sleep my body gave up on me before too long, on the climb up to Tottington Barn so we turned off immediately and had a fun descent into Southwick, where we took the sea road through Hove and into Brighton. Where our problems began.

We had neglected to note that this was London to Brighton day! The city was full of thousands of tired-but-happy cyclists, and a sign at Brighton station saying no bikes would be carried from that station today. Fair enough, we thought, and rode to London Road (Brighton is surprisingly hilly if you're already knackered!). Same story there. We checked the website, and the full horror of the situation became apparent: no stations within 30 miles of Brighton were accepting bikes. Pleading got us short shrift and we were advised that while we might get lucky at a smaller/more lenient station, the conductors would throw us off in any event. The nearest station was Horley, the other side of Gatwick. With knobbly tyres, no lockout on the suspension, broken bodies and carrying a load of kit, a 30 mile ride was, by this point, out of the question. It's worth noting that had we got all the way to Eastbourne, we'd have had the same problem as it was within the "no bikes" zone!

In the end we made our way down to the finish line where the British HEart Foundation were running buses (with bikes in the lorry) - pleading with the BHF guys got us nowhere but fortunately a bloke overheard me and had a couple of bus tickets going spare and sold them to us. If I ever meet Tony again I owe him a pint, especially as we didn't have enough cash to cover the face value but he accepted anyway!

From then on the journey was painless. Most amusing moment came as we stopped at a traffic lights when a bloke knocked on the door of the coach, demanding to be let on. The driver opened up and it was Chris Eubank! He was just curious to know why there were loads of people in sportswear. He made a little speech and then hopped off again.

Verdict: my first bikepacking trip was brilliant, at least the combination of cycling and bivvying is a real winner, but the weekend itself wasn't much fun. With better fitness, less weight on the back, better tarp pitching skills, an earlier start, and a slightly shorter/easier route it would have been perfect. There's still no feeling in the world better than waking up with your face in the outdoors - it beats a tent hands down.


  • Alpkit Airlok Xtra (8 litres) strapped to handlebars with sleeping bag (my crap 3-season, it was too warm to take the 4-season!) plus other bits (initially bivvy bag, then first aid kit)
  • Alpkit Airlok drybag (2 litres) clipped to saddle rail and (badly) strapped to seatpost
  • 2 x bottle cages
  • 32 litre rucksack (Osprey Hornet) containing
    • Clothes: merino long sleeved base layer (handy at night, but otherwise unnecessary), long johns (lightest way of getting evening warmth, but also unnecessary in the end), spare socks & boxers, midlayer (my trusty old Icebreaker 320-weight), waterproof jacket
    • Tarp (Terra Nova Competition 1) plus pegs, and spare cord
    • Bivvy bag (Rab Alpine)
    • Maps x 2 (covering about 80% of the SDW route) plus compass. Duncan carried a GPS but I don't believe in such nonsense
    • First aid kit
    • Multitool & spare tubes
    • Camera (definitely worth the extra weight, although it would be nice to have it handy in a "fuel tank" style top tube bag
    • Food: hot ready meals plus snacks. Pretty happy with the combinations, although I'd up the Kendal mint cake/chocolate content
The main investments I need are suitable bags: the drybag strapped to the handlebars worked fine and I won't be rushing to buy a fancy system, but I'd previously tried strapping an 8l bag to the seatpost senza harness and it would be a bit dodgy over the course of a day. The good folks at Bear Bones all swear by the Wildcat Tiger, although I wouldn't mind something a bit more capacious - I'll keep an eye open on what Alpkit are doing with their new bits and pieces. A frame bag becomes less essential if bottle cages take up most of the space, but a top tube bag seems to be very important (for camera, phone, multitool) and it would be nice to have snacks and water at hand in feed bags. 

Photos to be inserted shortly...

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