The South Downs was the training ground of UK cycling legend Sean Yates, the third UK rider to wear the Yellow Jersey. Now his son Liam Yates carries on the tradition and for this special trip, supported by Wahoo, he is joined by mates Neil Philips, Sophie Edmondson, and Anna Mcleod. In these strange times of isolation, this short film is a reminder to all of the simple joys of cycling with friends.
Enjoy George Marshall’s ace four-minute film below, and continue on for photos, and accounts from each of the South Downs Way bikepacking squad. Before we begin, a gentle reminder to please not travel to the South Downs during this period of lockdown – it is a beautiful ancient land and it isn’t going anywhere. Wahoo are releasing this short film now as a reflection on past adventures and an inspiration for adventures to come. Any questions, please do add them to the comments section below…
The South Downs National Park is steeped in history; for the past 8000 years the trail has served a number of purposes, but was namely a way of linking fortresses and settlements along the UK’s southernmost edge, with many serving as a first response to incoming invasions during wartime. Today the South Downs Way has protected National Trail status and is open to cyclists and hikers…
The South Downs Way is not epic. There’s no snow crested mountains, no vast desert, no spaghetti sea of S-bends, it doesn’t look like you’ve landed on the moon or ‘like riding on a Stars Wars set’, the typical crowns of the gravel universe. It’s not remote. You’re probably never more than 15 miles from a Tesco Extra and the constant traffic of the A27 hums in the distance. The flint tears your tyres to shreds and there’s a gate every 2 minutes. Its not big, The South Downs would be mere nameless lumps if in the alps. The highest peaks are little over 200m – no one needs to get an Etape style tattoo after riding here.
Yet there is beauty in the subtlety of the South Downs Way, a very English, very humble, very ancient and a very natural wonder to the landscape. With their bulging curves the Stelvio and Sa Calobra are more like overly enhanced porn stars where bigger is better compared to this english rose of a road.
The 100 mile track of chalk, mud and flint cuts through the garden of England from Winchester to Eastbourne. The shining blue sea sparkles in the sun on one side and the luscious green of the Sussex on the other. The vast chalk hills roll up down the coast sit like whales breaching in and out of the sea. A line stolen from poet Rudyard Kipling who wrote about the downs as a fantasy land. A fantasy land where the romanticised the English countryside still exists. A land where windmills turn on the crest of hills, sun drenched fields of long wheat shimmer in the wind, swans glide down the rivers, the hedge rows buzz with fox cubs, birds and badgers, the farmed land below the beacons stretches like a mosaic quilt as far as the eye can see.
If Im being unclear, I apologise and I’ll be blunt, I fucking love the South Downs Way. I’ll happily spend the rest of life in the area and get scattered from one of the beacons to boot.
I’ve been fortunate through my job as a photographer to travel the world. I’ve spent the last decade photographing ‘epic’ places, yet I can honestly say the South Downs is my favourite place to ride, providing the sun is out and chalk isn’t slipping. I moved nearby 2 years ago from London as a devote road cyclist of Essex’s training lanes. I quickly learnt a simple truth, riding off road is more fun. I love the space and colour of summer time on the downs, I love the chorus of wildlife, the safety of zero traffic, the absence of aggression. I love the pitch black of riding at night on the downs, the sunset take an age to fully fade, ferries light up the horizon bound for France and sheep dart across your headlights.
I made the recent film in attempt to capture South Downs Way as I see it. Please watch the film and please close the gate.
“I’ve been fortunate through my job as a photographer to travel the world … yet I can honestly say the South Downs is my favourite place to ride, providing the sun is out and chalk isn’t slipping…”
Living in the countryside my whole life means getting up and starting my ride by getting on the train is not something I do often, but this was one of those occasions. The destination was Winchester and the start of the South Downs Way – a 160km trail that runs along the South Downs ridge, parallel to the coast from Winchester to Eastbourne.
It’s been quite a few years since I stopped cycling road bikes seriously and I’ve been exploring my local area non stop since then. With the iconic chalk tracks of the South Downs right on my doorstep it’s been a place that has grabbed me from the start and I’ve not stopped going back since, each time finding a new trail, climb, or view to take in.
With train stations at the start and the finish, and ports that can have you in France in only a few hours, the South Downs Way (SDW) is easily accessible – if camping out along the route is not your thing there are a few hostels and B&Bs along the way too, or if you’re feeling strong you can tackle it all in one ride! Another handy point about the SDW is that drinking taps are dotted along the route, which on a Summer’s day become essential when out on the ridge; there is little shade for much of the route.
If I take it back a few years to when I first started cycling and my first ever actual wild camp with my dad on the South Downs. It was part of his “SAS Training Day” that he put together for me when starting to get me in shape, with the plan for me to do it once a week. It involved a five-hour road ride with him in the morning, hanging on to his wheel out in the Sussex lanes, then back home far a beetroot salad lunch before we drove down to Preston Park Velodrome in Brighton. On the velodrome I would do different efforts on the track bike while he stood recording on the new stopwatch hanging from his neck. After we had wrapped it up at the track, we headed home and packed the car for Phase Three – this involved us driving up to Firle Beacon on the South Downs, where we parked and pulled out the loaded backpacks to head off on a walk along the ridge as the sun was setting. Head torches on, we meant business. After a couple of hours of getting lost in the dark we, set up the tent to get some sleep – typically on uneven, uncomfy fields. Ideal.
The 6am alarm racket meant Dad had the stove going and it was beans for breakfast, before the dreaded walk back to the car. On the way home, he drops me off at my bike shop job … and just like that my introduction to the South Downs was complete.
Anyway, back to last Summer and another South Downs memory has been made – riding the SDW with these four friends for Wahoo was a great experience that had everything: rain and sun; punctures and crashes; plenty of laughter; bombing down hills and walking up others; a night under the stars; a sunrise to wake us up; and even some frisbee!
The South Downs Way gets under your skin. I think about it often. Although you’re never really that far from civilisation, it can really feel like you’re out in the wilderness. If you have to bail and head for home, it’s going to take you a long time to get back.
I still count the SDWD (South Downs Way Double) in my top three hardest bike experiences. One minute you’re flying down a chalky ridge, tyres scrabbling for grip, with a huge grin on your face. The next minute, it’s your shoes that are trying to grip the ground as you push your bike up an impossible climb, the hot sun beating back off the chalk into your salty face.
Of course, it’s who you experience it with that makes it: filming with Wahoo was a lot of larking around in fields with the guys, checking we’d not got ticks on us, or chucking a frisbee around for Liam. That’s what made this trip special and I can’t wait to head back. There is no better feeling than after a long couple of days on the bike, finally seeing the end of the ridge, and Eastbourne, and all its fish and chip shops, beneath you. Mushy peas for me please.
The South Downs Way has always been on my radar and one of those rides I have never got around to doing. Always a hot topic with chat of doing the double and attempting the record. For the racer in me this has always been a draw, but understood that there was more there than records and the suffering that went with it. So when the chance came up to scope it and enjoy the beauty of it with friends, I was never going to say no.
The southern of two Chalk ridges dating back to the tropical waters that once covered the south of England 60million years ago, provide bright white cliffs and white worn trails in the hills, and views of the English Channel to the south and the low eroded land of Sussex and Kent (Garden of England) to the north. The beauty and nerdiness of the geology and landscape have helped to create a special route. This geology and the folding/uplift that created it present you with unique challenges; steep climbs, dusty in the dry, like an ice rink in the wet and flints everywhere. There is a reason why stone aged man used the flints for knifes and arrows, when broken they are razor sharp, slicing through rubber like a hot knife in butter. All of this doesn’t make for an easy ride and something I think we all experienced over the weekend.
As mentioned the topography rising above the land surrounding it, presented the best dawn that I have experienced. Sleeping high up above Plumpstead on the North face of the ridge, at 0430 the valley was filled with low cloud, the occasional tree or church spire rising above it, all lit with an orange hue and purple sky. Detouring via Lewes for British fry up, well a slightly more refined version than the normal greasy spoon, we rode up and down, along ridges until we hit Eastbourne late in the afternoon. The sun had gone in to hiding but a trip to the sea at the end of a ride wouldn’t be complete without a beer, fish & chips and a dip to wash away two days of dust and grime…
Signing up to the South Downs Way, I immediately wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Whilst I feel versed bikepacking, this was the first time using swapping out dropped bars for a dropper post. The SDW is one of those routes you hear about both in the cycling community and also amongst walkers and runners. After seeing a few photos it goes straight on the bucket list: green ridge lines and beautiful British coastal views. I couldn’t wait.
One thing I hadn’t appreciated was just how commutable it is from London – heading out on a train after work one weeknight and within a few hours you can’t imagine ever being back in a city again. There’s also something great setting off knowing you’re going to have to complete the route. No need to check options, just follow the way finding in whichever direction you opt for and relax knowing the GPS will kick if it needs. I enjoyed passing through the many many gates, the little water taps, the quirky old villages and their pub signs. I liked the rolling paths and the never-ending views. Moving across the land in our group felt great – no egos and just this sense of pure freedom to enjoy the adventure that we were amongst. A complete luxury. There are too many funny moments to count, so I’ll just leave it there knowing the smiles from that trip are etched in the memories for good…
Film & Photos
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