top of page
Search
  • olly evans

Our guide to riding the South Downs Way


Riding up Harting Hill at South Harting on the South Downs Way

The South Downs Way can be ridden in various ways to suit anyone that can ride a bike and has a reasonable level of fitness, whether you want to take it easy or take on a serious challenge.


Though I had ridden hundreds of miles on the SDW, I had never done it end to end and hadn't ridden every section. After finally getting around to riding the whole SDW, I found a shortage of good information so it was time to write my own guide based on my own experience and that of many Southern eBike Rentals customers. You will find more information and tips in my ride report.


BIKE CHOICE AND SETUP

Gravel bikes now seem to outnumber mountain bikes on the SDW – and I can’t help but feel that this will turn out to be a passing fad (at least until gravel bikes complete their gradual metamorphosis into hardtail lightweight mountain bikes). Admittedly the 24 miles west of Butser Hill probably lend themselves to gravel bikes, but the other 75% of the route is characterised by steep, chalk and flint trails that are a lot more enjoyable (and considerably safer) with a mountain bike - easier gearing, slacker geometry, a suspension fork, 29” wheels and bigger tyres. At our centre at QECP, we see forlorn looking gravel riders on a daily basis with wheels, tyres and hearts all broken by the South Downs Way.


“Unless you really like walking down flinty gullies in cleats or are an extremely good bike handler looking to go sub-8 hours, our advice is to leave the gravel bike at home - a short travel or hardtail mountain bike is the best tool for this job”


an image of the Whyte 529, the  ideal bike to ride the SouthDowns Way in  day
I had hoped to ride my Pivot 429 until some scumbag nicked it. My winter bike, a Whyte 529 hardtail MTB proved to be a brilliant SDW bike (for a fraction of the price) with both capability and simplicity.

One other consideration is bottle mounts and some full-sus bikes only have space for a 500ml bottle (or none at all).


As for the setup, SPDs and tubeless tyres are no-brainers for a long ride where efficiency is key. Fast rolling, lightweight tyres are nice, but you’ll need to be a good bike handler to avoid puncturing on the flinty descents, especially once the legs don’t feel so fresh.


I took Paul’s advice to move weight from me to the bike and had tubeless repair kit, spare tube and gels on the frame, enabling me to ride with just a hip pack with tools and food – all of which worked a treat.


Get your bike serviced by someone that knows how. I’m not sharing a comprehensive checklist because if you don’t know how, this is not the time to learn DIY maintenance. Brake pads should be nearly new, tyre sealant topped up, cleats on shoes checked (easy to forget) and you should ride your bike after the service but before heading to the start.


EBIKES FOR THE SOUTH DOWNS WAY

Doing it in a day is out of the question unless you’re a flyweight with a huge battery – and if you’re the type to ride it in a day, you’re unlikely to be on an e-bike anyway.


A two-day SDW is definitely achievable on an e-bike for many, though riders weighing over 80kg are going to have to be sparing with the battery and/or find a place to charge en route. This is possible but keep in mind that charging mid-ride is no panacea you because it takes a long time to add off-road miles so you are going to have to have a very long lunch if you want to get out of Eco.


Riding the route over three days is comfortably achievable on an e-bike and the best option for anyone that is hoping for the bike to do a lot of the heavy lifting.


The Bosch range calculator is a good tool to work out how far you can go on a charge and is fairly accurate (if slightly optimistic) in our experience.


CHARGING E-BIKES ON THE SDW

Overnight charging is fine – most B&Bs and hotels are getting accustomed to this. Charging during the day is more complicated. Charging is slow (even fast chargers take hours to add a meaningful number to your range). That said, while planning to charge over lunch is not infallible, it might just add the 5 miles that get you to your destination without pedalling a 23kg bike with a dead battery!


For now, charging facilities on the route are largely informal – there are certain cafes and pubs that are happy for you to plug in while you spend money on their lunch, coffee or cakes, but these depend on being able to get your bike close enough to a plug socket and on the goodwill of the person in charge on the day. As the number of e-bikers grows and until the infrastructure catches up, this might put strain on both the installations and tolerance of the owners and managers. Our advice is to use your battery sparingly, don’t assume, ask nicely, buy lots of goodies and tip generously!


WHEN TO DO IT, HOW MANY DAYS, WHICH DIRECTION?

The Downs are chalky, muddy and flinty making this a particularly tough ride in winter. Places likes Wales and Scotland (where rockier terrain drains better and offers more grip) are better in winter. May to September offer drier, faster rolling conditions but of course, this is England so you never really know!


Where you start (Eastbourne or Winchester) doesn’t matter too much and my advice is to take wind direction and what works for your travel logistics into account if possible.


The hills are fairly evenly spread over most of the route though the first 20 miles from Winchester have less elevation and more tarmac. Some people like to warm up on the easier Winchester section and finish with the more spectacular, hillier section near Eastbourne.


Knowing the western half well, I decided to start in Eastbourne so that I was fresh to appreciate the scenery of the less familiar section and to tackle the bigger hills. As fatigue set in, knowing what was coming and being able to dwell less on navigation enabled me to switch to autopilot and the last 20 miles felt pretty easy after I had conquered Butser Hill.


HOW DIFFICULT IS IT AND HOW FIT DO I NEED TO BE?

100 miles is a long bike ride and 100 miles off-road is a very long bike ride. The South Downs might not be very high, but the trail never stays flat for long, with around 11,000 feet of climbing to do (I had read 12,000 feet but my Garmin suggested less). Conditions play a big part in how hard it is too – it gets muddy in winter, very slippery (chalk) when damp and a headwind or tailwind will have a significant impact.


A ride this long is more about energy conservation more than riding speed and success required a lot of fitness or a lot of mental strength or a bit of both.


One day is for pretty serious cyclists only and most will need to ride during BST hours to have enough daylight to avoid riding in the dark. Two days is achievable by most regular recreational mountain bikers with a bit of training and determination. Three days remains a good challenge for anyone who doesn’t have a decent foundation of riding fitness, while four days is pretty relaxed for most.


In terms of the technicality, the South Downs Way has a bit of everything from tarmac lanes to steep, flinty singletrack. Chalk and flint farm tracks and downland are the most common road surfaces and are manageable by any reasonably confident cyclist. However, there are enough treacherous steep sections of loose & lumpy flint, greasy roots and off-camber chalk ruts to make some mountain biking experience and skill essential.


WHO TO RIDE WITH?

I had hoped to persuade a friend or two to join, but my last-minute decision to ride put paid to this. In hindsight, there are pros and cons of riding with others and I concluded that riding solo is best for the One Day option but it would be nice to ride with one or two others for a multi-day ride. Similar fitness levels (or ebikes to even things out) are important and I think more than three would result in unsynchronised coffee breaks, mechanicals, punctures and soon become very frustrating for someone as impatient as me! I wasn’t worried about being alone from a safety perspective as there is no shortage of other riders and walkers on the SDW so if you did run into trouble it wouldn’t take long before help was at hand.


The main downside of riding solo was having to deal with the endless gates – a buddy or two to take turns opening and closing them would make the ride flow better.


LOGISTICS

Provided the trains are working (not on strike), train is the obvious way to get to and from the ends, both of which are close to mainline stations. Some taxi companies in Winchester and Eastbourne also offer minibus transfers for riders and bikes. Southern eBike Rentals offers delivery and collection of rental bikes, but is not licenced to transport people.


For overnight stops, Amberley is lovely and the obvious halfway point for two day rides. The South Downs Bunkhouse is a good budget option while the Black Horse offers a bit more luxury. If you want to do it over three days (or one and a half), Steyning/Bramber and Buriton are close to the route with plenty places to stay.


PREPARATION AND PACKING

  • Completing this ride is about energy conservation over speed. Train to conserve energy by riding up hills in zone 2/3

  • Tapering does not mean stopping riding altogether for a week before – keep riding in the last few days but reduce intensity and length

  • Put weight on the bike instead of in your pack - 100 miles amplifies everything and a chafing rucksack strap will become agony

  • Wear lycra – for both comfort and reduced wind resistance

  • Use a hip pack and a cycling jersey with rear pockets. This avoids a sweaty back, chafing straps and enables you to get your snacks and phone out without stopping all the time

  • Don’t let your electrolyte tablets rattle in a tube –wrapping them in a paper napkin in a ziplock bag worked perfectly for me

  • Take lights, especially for a one-day attempt. You might be reluctant to add weight but you don’t want to be riding around Winchester or Eastbourne without them in failing light

an image of the route plan for then South Downs Way taped to the crossbar of a Whyte 529
  • Take a list of all the food and water stops – update it, print it and tape it to your top tube (covered in sellotape so sweat doesn’t turn it to mush) and stop when you feel the need rather than based on a schedule.

  • If you are lucky enough to live close to the route or have a good friend that does, a food stash is amazing for morale! Just plan for the packaging so that you don’t litter

  • Get organised several days before – buying train (and car park) tickets, prepping your pack and loading your route to your bike computer

  • Don’t leave charging/replacing your batteries (bike computer, heart rate monitor, power pack, phone, lights) until the night before your ride, just in case they don’t charge

  • Cut your toenails before the ride

  • Get an early night – the anticipation (and worrying about what I had forgotten – see above) meant it took me ages to get to sleep

  • My preparation and kit list was based on a one-day ride with a hot, dry forecast. If needing extra kit for overnight or wet weather, I would still advise minimalist packing but also taking a frame bag and avoid wearing a backpack if possible.

SDW Taps and Food
.xlsx
Download XLSX • 6KB

THE ROUTE





The SDW looks like a straight line on the map, but the reality is pretty different and there are many turns and forks. Although the signposting is excellent, it’s easy to miss a sign and a bike computer is a huge asset for navigation.


Winchester and Eastbourne have official start/end points which are great photo opportunities and mark the “official route”.


Don’t be fooled into thinking that the SDW is a ridgeline to follow. Every road and river crossing is a descent to sea level (with a climb back up to follow). Garmin reckons there are 20 hills to climb in total, but there are a few more bumps that looked like hills to me!


BIKE COMPUTER

It is hard to overstate how big a part my Garmin Edge 530 played – I used it in multiple ways and consider a bike computer with navigation to be essential:

  • Navigation - on a ride this long, you really don’t want to go off-course and add extra miles. I went off course twice, but the Garmin re-routed me quickly and without having to go back up to the turn-offs I had gone sailing past. Garmin navigation isn’t perfect, especially once you go wrong, but it’s good enough for the SDW and the battery life is way better than an iphone

  • Climb Pro - enabled me to see the number and size of the hills coming. Not essential but nice to have for managing my expectations

  • I customised my main data screen for the ride and chose to display the following fields (in order of importance:

  • Distance (obviously to track overall progress, but just as importantly to be ready to look out for the food and water stops),

  • Heart rate and % max heart rate – every time I was tempted to try to push or maintain my average speed, I looked at this and reminded myself to back off

  • Ascent remaining seemed a better measure of progress than distance and it was nice to know that half the climbing was out of the way 5-10 miles before I reached halfway

  • Time of day

  • I also enabled LiveTrack and Incident Detection to enable my wife and Paul to track my progress. These are brilliant features for a solo rider and those who are supporting / worrying about them.


RIDING

  • Never pass a tap without filling up, even if you’ve got ¾ of a bottle. You might miss the next one or it might not be working

  • Go easy on the caffeine (coffee and gels) - save it for when you need it

  • Don’t underestimate stoppage time. I had two long stops when I was overheating. The first one felt like 20 minutes, but looking back at my data, it was actually 40

  • Take the descents steady on the last 25 miles – when fatigue sets in, concentration fails. At best this can mean a puncture through poor line choice, at worst a crash.

  • Success comes down to mental strength more than fitness. However fit you are, this will be hard.


HOT WEATHER TIPS

  • Apply (and reapply) suncream to the back of your neck

  • Wear a white jersey and white armwarmers. This might sound ridiculous but they were great protection from the sun and cooled me down after being soaked in cold water at every tap.

  • The Western end (especially between Butser Hill and Winchester) is much shadier than the Eastern part, so better in the heat of the day

  • Eat salty food (but pistachios are really hard to shell when mountain biking).


KIT LIST

Garmin Edge 530

Water bottle (min 750ml)

Spare gear cable

Tyre levers

Tyre plugs

CO2 canisters

Mini pump

Multi tool with pliers

Quick chain links

Chain tool

Old inner tube (as tyre boot)

Zip ties

Bandage, steri strips, wipes, paracetamol

Suncream

Battery charger and cable

Credit card and cash

Earphones

Lights


NUTRITION

Flapjacks

Cashews and pistachios (shelled and decanted into ziplock bag!)

Gels (taped to top tube)

Electrolyte tablets

Mini Soreen bars

Banana


USEFUL LINKS

The SDW Double - one of the better information sources online



an image of Souther E Bike rentals base at Queen Elizabeth Country Park in Hampshire
SeBR's base at QECP

Southern eBike Rentals regularly supplies ebikes for South Downs Way rides and can help you plan your ride.


367 views0 comments
bottom of page