South England Mega-Grav: London to The Coast and Back (05/06/20-07/06/20)

It’s been quite a while since I last posted here! It seems I managed to have an entirely blog-free 2020.

Since I wrapped up my experience at last year’s Transcontinental Race, my life has been more-or-less the same throughout the year. The same probably can’t be said for the rest of the world…

I didn’t plan on having so little to report. I had a full summer lined up of two-wheeled adventures abroad, training for another ultra, visiting family in Denmark & the Faroe Islands, and gearing up for a big winter. I was supposed to be knackered by this time of year, having used up every drop of annual leave, and yet – here I am with very little to report. It’s been a long and strange summer for all of us.

Despite the anxiety and uncertainty that COVID-19 has delivered in 2020, my predominant emotion this year has been of feeling fortunate. Grateful that I have a stable job, am able to pay rent and that I was only slightly inconvenienced by the virus. Grateful that this hadn’t happened during my years cycling around the world 2015-2017, the year after that when I spent spring working as a bike courier, or last year when I had put so much time and effort into preparing for the TCR.

There’s even been parts of pandemic-life that I quite enjoy. I rather like working from home. It wasn’t much fun during the height of lockdown being stuck in a pokey little shared-flat in South London, but even that is better than commuting across town twice a day.

I made good use of the little extra free time I had (to begin with, at least). I assembled my old instruments and started playing that for the first time in years, I organised my old hard drives of photos and I reacquainted myself with my record collection. I did plenty of the textbook ‘did you even pandemic?’ activities, like trying to create exercise weights out of water bottles for home workouts, working on my green fingers by creating a herb garden on our fire escape (the only outdoor space we had) and cooking an ungodly amount of banana bread.

But best of all, I had a new bike to ride. Well, ‘kinda’ new…

You may recognise the above bike. It’s the very Dawes Super Galaxy I cycled around the world on. That same bike that my Dad picked up for me on Ebay, that somehow managed 50,000km.

When I arrived back from cycling around the world, the bike continued to serve me well as a courier for a little while. But it was falling apart, and I decided that that instead of spending a fortune bringing it back to speed, I’d buy a road bike instead so I could get my deliveries done faster. And so I bought a second hand Boardman Team Carbon off Ebay and developed a need-for-speed, culminating in a rather long ride across Europe last year for the TCR.

Only a few months after buying the road bike, I had enough cash to buy a MTB too and so developed a new love for touring exclusively off-road. Much like Woody in Toy Story, the Dawes was neglected and sat rusting in my Dad’s garden while these new, shiny bikes arrived in my life. I simply didn’t need it, nor did I really have room for it in my new place. But I always wanted to bring it back to life. That bike’s been through too much to simply sit around in pieces, but it needed some serious TLC.

This Easter I had a plan with my sister Lea (who cycled with me across a chuck of the US during my RTW), to tour the south of Spain off-road. I had the MTB which she could ride, all I needed to do was get the Dawes functioning and we’d be good to roll. So I set to work, sourcing the cheapest parts I could find, but components that would make the bike fun to ride on almost anything. I carried out a 650b conversion (pretty easy on a disc brake touring bike) by swapping the wheelset and squeezing in 2.1” x 27.5” tyres. I made the drive chain a 1×11, with a 42t at the front and a mega 46t cassette in the rear. I cycled around the world with a 3×10. I always hated it. I’ll never go back (but I won’t rule out a return to a double at the front).

When I say I did all this, what I really mean is that I bought the parts, assembled what I could before getting my local bike shop to complete the build. The frame also needed to be straightened, as somehow it had ended up bent during its years of abuse. That same shop also needed to burn out the seat post which had seized inside the frame.

And finally, the most fiddly thing was that I needed to get a new derailleur hanger welded on. Way back in Kyrgyzstan I stripped the thread in the hanger so had some Russians weld it on. It got me the rest of the way around the world, but only just. Autumn Frameworks cut it off and welded a new one on. 

Lea and I’s trip to Spain was obviously cancelled, but it meant I had a new tool for exploring with and it was perfect for the job. There is some amazing gravel riding just outside London in Kent, too boring for an MTB, but too rough for a road bike. I spent summer riding familiar areas, but on entirely new terrain. I loved it. Searching for new bridleways became just as exciting as the actual riding.

Over the last couple of summers, it’s become a tradition of sorts to cycle down to the coast, sometimes down and back in a day, at least once during the warmer months. This year, in lockdown, I spent quite a lot of time researching what routes I could link up to get down to the coast and then back up whilst staying off-road as much as possible. This became a fun project, and despite my long pre-amble, is why I’m writing this blog.

Here’s a link to the route. It’s 315km, with 3,366m of climbing.

The route begins in Peckham/East Dulwich, where I currently live and takes you south down through Bromley. The options out of town past New Addington are great, but you can also follow the Wandle Trail towards Croydon from SW London to join on.

After a cracking descent past Woldingham golf course, you join the North Downs Way – a long distance footpath – and ride Cycling UK’s rideable version all the way until Dorking.

From there you cut over on some small lanes to the Downs Link, an easy converted railway line that takes you straight down to the coast. It’s fast riding on a well graded track – you could ride it on a road bike if the conditions are dry.

My route takes you down to the seaside, for fish ‘n’ chips in Shoreham-by-Sea/Lancing before beginning the long slog up to the South Downs Way. The SDW was one of the first MTB rides I did, and the section heading East to Petersfield is probably the best section of the entire trail. The views are cracking and if you’re camping – look no further than Chanctonbury Ring for a discreet spot. Up there you’ll be treated to a wonderful sunrise and sunset if the weather is good.

From Petersfield you leave the SDW and follow Shipwright’s Way back north on a mixture of road and tracks. Eventually you re-join the NDW near Farnham and follow this back past Guilford. From there, the route is a mixture of paths through the commons SW of London, concluding with sections through along the Kingston, Wimbledon and Putney before finishing at the Thames in Wandsworth.

I shared a shorter version of this route (the ‘Downs Overnighter‘) a while ago via Bikepacking.com for their route library, but this is the real challenge for a big weekend. I wanted to make a route that is doable, but a real test of endurance if you do it quick. Knock it out over two days if you are fit, or take 3-4 and do it at a leisurely pace.

It’s great to see that so many people have ridding the ‘Downs Overnighter’, so if you do give this one a go… please let me know how you get on!


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