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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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1986 Raleigh Record Sprint – My new bike

Me on my red BMX

I’ve been a keen cyclist ever since I was a child. I started with a little red BMX, then went on to a GT Interceptor that I thrashed around the neighbourhood on – skidding the tyres to ribbons and slipping across frozen rivers (this was somewhere in Kansas), until it was stolen from outside Truesdell Middle School. Bastards.

We moved from Wichita to Uckfield, England. I remained bike-less for a while, borrowing my friend’s mum’s Raleigh Lizard mountain bike (thanks Birgit!) for occasional outings. Then, I rediscovered BMX, first with an old chrome Torker that I struggled to fit a Gyro to, then with a GT Performer.

Eventually age and practicality got the better of me, and I bought a Giant Rock SE (mountain bike). And we had such fun! We rode to work, through Buxted Park, over hills and across Ashdown Forest. I bunny-hopped up curbs and flew over mud humps. I completed the London to Brighton on her, in a relatively fast time (considering I was on a mountain bike). Then some git nicked her from outside our flat on Third Avenue, Hove.

Again, I remained bike-less for a while. Then, my thoughtful in-laws gave me a shiny pink mountain bike for my 30th. Although the bike developed some catastrophic faults, it rekindled my interest in cycling.

So I scoured Gumtree and found a Mongoose Rockadile. And what fun we’ve had! Together we’ve explored the South Downs, whizzed through city traffic and travelled to countless meetings.  But all this city riding has made me yearn for more speed, less friction and something sleeker.

Update: some bastard stole the Mongoose.

The Raleigh Record Sprint

Raleigh Record Sprint
So I wanted a road/racing bike, but they’re not cheap. And having never ridden a racing bike, I was reluctant to spend £500 on something I might not like. So I scoured eBay, looking for a clean old racing bike.

It’s not easy to find a reasonably-priced classic racing bike at the moment, because there is a trend for converting these old bikes into fixed-wheel rides. So the prices are higher than they should be.

Anyway, eventually I found her: a 1986 Raleigh Record Sprint, in pristine condition. She’s spent most of the past 23 years in a loft, protected from decay by a coat of grease.

When I collected the bike, the original owner was clearly sad to see her go. He actually said, “bye bike,” and watched us walk up the stairs to the train platform.

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Deodorising the Destitute

On a recent trip to Paris, I was touched by this scene of tenderness and cooperation:

A hoary, malodorous hobo bumbled into an upmarket perfumery in St Germaine. A haughty sales assistant marched toward him- presumably to turf him out.

But rather than nudging the homeless man out the door, the lady plucked a perfume from the immaculate glass shelves and liberally doused him with scent. The homeless man stood quite still, smiling serenely, enjoying the attention, the intimacy, the tendresse.

Adequately refreshed, he thanked the girl and left.

The lovely thing about this moment was the inferred routine – this man, possibly the best-smelling tramp in Europe, was clearly a regular.

(Picture courtesy of Pedro Simoes)

Cycling the South Downs Way – how not to do it

I recently attempted the South Downs Way Randonnee – a...
article post

1986 Raleigh Record Sprint – My new bike

I’ve been a keen cyclist ever since I was a child. I...
article post

Deodorising the Destitute

On a recent trip to Paris, I was touched by this scene of...
article post