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Cycling the South Downs Way – how not to do it


Muddy Tire Tracks

I recently attempted the South Downs Way Randonnee – a mountain bike ride organised by the British Heart Foundation. It went rather badly. In the hope that you might learn from my failure, here is how and why I failed to complete the ride. 😉

First failure

I think my first mistake was to start late. The first riders were leaving Winchester at 5:00 AM. I left at 6:45. Leaving earlier gives you a bigger window of daylight to complete the ride. Given that anything can happen out on the Downs, it’s wise to have the biggest window of opportunity possible.

To avoid my first failure: start any ride as soon as you possibly can.

Second failure

When I got a puncture after about 2 hours on the ride, I realised that carrying only one spare tube was a stupid idea. Having used my spare, I would have no way of dealing with a puncture. So I was probably one fifth of the way through the journey, with no puncture repair options.

To avoid my second failure: take plenty of spares. Is one tube enough?

Third failure

After repairing my puncture and having a minor fall, I noticed my cleat was a little bit loose. Not only had I failed to check that my clipless shoe cleats were tight before the ride, I wasn’t carrying any allen keys, so I had no way to tighten them mid-ride. By the time I found a cyclist with allen keys, one of the cleat bolts had sheared off, leaving me with a cleat that was only attached to my shoe at one point.

Then I discovered that I couldn’t remove my shoe from the pedal. So I was stuck to my right pedal. No problem, I thought, I’ll just keep on cycling until I find a rest stop!

This was a stupid idea because the South Downs Way was a mudbath, having been deluged with rain over the preceding week. So there were stretches of path that were uncycleable, and there were also plenty of gates and steps to clamber over. When faced with these, I had to unstrap my foot from my right shoe, and slip and slide my way through the mud with one shoe and one sock.

This was not the fun bike ride I had imagined.

To avoid my third failure: carry basic tools.

Fourth failure

Just when I thought having my shoe stuck to the pedal was fairly miserable, it came unstuck. I felt a moment of joy at having my shoe back, until I realised how little grip my cleatless shoe had on the pedal! So I had one good foot/pedal combo, the other was a free-floating ice-skating mess. While I could just about nudge the pedal with my cleatless shoe, I could not grip the pedal or use it for support or balance. So careering round the muddy bogs and steep hills of the Downs was additionally dangerous.

During all of this I was sustained by the belief that the first rest stop was manned by a mechanic, who I imagined sitting next to a box full of allen keys and cleat bolts. So I trundled on, slip-sliding my way cautiously along.

Sadly, it took me so much time to reach the rest stop that the mechanic had moved on to the next rest area. Hearing this, I was so deflated, so disappointed, so mud-covered, scratched and dejected that I realised I was beat. The next rest stop was 15 miles away. 15 miles of boggy, slimy, slidy Downs. And me, with only one pedal.

While I could have done it (perhaps), I was losing too much time. At the rate I was going I would never reach Devil’s Dyke (my destination) before dusk. So I abandoned the ride, and caught a train home.

To avoid my fourth failure: don’t rely on external support. Aim for complete self-sufficiency. If you hear yourself thinking, “I’m sure someone else will have one of those,” realise the risk and make your own plans.


Despite all the problems, I’m looking forward to trying it again next year. And finishing.


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1 comment

  1. angela808

    well i should say you still have a good experience after having those problems :) keep going!


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