My phone rings on a balmy September evening. “Hi, this is Kevin from Great British Escapades,” says the voice at the end of the line. “We’ve just had someone drop out from next week’s race and I see you put yourself on the waiting list today. Are you serious about taking part?”
I had entered my first off-road race around the North and South Downs on a whim. But thanks to this late dropout, I find myself on the start line less than a week later.
I’m standing next to a mountain bike that I rebuilt less than six months ago. My experience of off-road riding spans a few years, but I’m still a relative newbie. Despite this, I have signed myself up for a 475-kilometre race around the North and South Downs, accompanied by 40 other riders.
True to form, I have really thrown myself in at the deep end with an ultra-minimalist setup. The entirety of my kit is stored in three small bags and comprises power banks, some snacks and a couple of lightweight extra layers. Sleeping kit has been completely forgotten, even though I expect to be pedalling through two nights.
The start is a beautiful farm just outside Canterbury. Around me, riders fiddle with a selection of gravel and mountain bikes. It looks to me as though most have gone for speed over comfort, which you might think would make sense in light of the dry September weather that we’re looking forward to. But with 8,000 metres of climbing – and therefore descending – ahead of us, I’m glad of my wide bars and fat Vittoria Mezcal tyres.
Soon, we’re off, rolling away at socially-distanced minute intervals into the dusky September evening. The 17:00 start means that we’re all ready to ride through the night, tackling much of the North Downs in darkness.
Before I even settle into a rhythm, I’m overtaken by a flying Neil Lauder. (Spoiler alert: he destroys the course to finish first in a breathtaking 29 and a half hours.) But after I watch him speed away, the race settles down. Over the next couple of hours, I’m passed by a few riders, but take more scalps thanks to numerous punctures.
The riding is beautiful and not overly technical, as we traverse the North Downs. There is a particularly spectacular section with views out towards the coast, which I reach just as sunset is approaching. Once darkness falls, the race becomes much more of a solo affair. I start to see riders much less frequently, but I’m enjoying racing along smooth bridleways through a tunnel of light in the night.
Midnight arrives and I’m feeling fresh still. But as the first and only checkpoint draws close, the real challenge of the North Downs Way emerges. Steep, unrideable ascents begin to disrupt my rhythm, accompanied by slithering sandy sections that test my balance.
Progress is slow for the next couple of hours, before I finally limp into the checkpoint at 160 kilometres. Kevin is there with a smile and some water for my bottles. But I soon press on into the night. The riding continues to be challenging, but it fortunately eases up a little. I can already feel cramps in my legs and I curse myself for forgetting to pack electrolytes.
The darkest and coldest hours of the night arrive as I begin to play cat and mouse with two riders ahead of me. Riding at roughly the same speed, we stay in and out of sight of one another as dawn approaches. I catch them on the short tarred section that I know precedes the start of the South Downs Way, stopped at the aptly named Lodsworth Larder. Unfortunately, whilst they are stuffing their faces, I’m beginning to feel quite nauseous – presumably from the lack of electrolytes.
I share my woes with my two companions and one of them, Cal, of Mason Cycles, sportingly offers me a rehydration sachet. Concerned that the alternative is spewing my breakfast across the South Downs Way, I hastily accept. It instantly begins to settle my stomach, but I’m still suffering after a hard night of riding.
Despite this, I set off ahead of the other two and find myself – to my total amazement – in second place. But before long, I have company in the shape of a very familiar face. Niel Copeland, whom I spent an entire night battling for second place on Race Around Rwanda, rolls around the corner.
He’s looking fresher than me, but after we begin to ride together, I realise that he may just have a better poker face. It’s great to have some company and we end up riding at a similar pace. As the rollercoaster that is the South Downs Way begins, I’m marginally faster uphill but his mountain biking background has him speeding away from me going downhill.
Progress along the Downs is gruelling but beautiful. It seems to take an eternity as we edge our way towards Eastbourne, battling a headwind the whole way. Of course, we slow ourselves down a little with an unhurried refuel at a lovely little cafe. Finally able to eat properly again, I’m happy to be able to cram down some calories.
But whilst we are gorging, Cal seizes the initiative and pushes on ahead of us. With the entire Mason Cycles crew turning out to cheer him on, he has plenty of motivation. However, our own cheerleader turns up in the form of Adrian O’Sullivan, whom I last saw when he was being bundled into a taxi after Two Volcano Sprint in 2019, verging on hypothermia. This time, he is all smiles in the sunshine.
Eventually, we descend off one final sadistic loop and soon find ourselves rolling along the smooth tarmac of the Cuckoo Trail, heading north. The second night is almost upon us though, so we stop at a supermarket to cram as many calories as possible into our stomachs and pockets.
At this point, Niel and I have been riding together so long that a truce has definitely established itself. Neither of us want to attack the other, given how broken we both feel. Instead, the focus becomes staying ahead of those behind us. And, to our surprise, Cal is now one of those, as his dot has stopped for some rest (I later learned that he unfortunately had some stomach problems of his own and he would undoubtedly have stayed ahead of us if he hadn’t).
As the sun disappears completely, we still have 150 kilometres of riding to go, although most of the climbing is behind us. Progress slows as a second night without sleep starts to weigh upon us.
Just after midnight, Niel finally cracks and says he’s going to nap. With no sleeping gear, I put on all my clothes and lie down on a bench. But shivering arrives before sleep, so I get up and decide to refuel in the shelter of a building whilst Niel sleeps. Half an hour later, we are moving again, although we’re getting slower and slower as the night drags on.
By this point, the conversation has naturally ceased, but we try to keep talking as a way to combat tiredness. I’m snacking on caffeine tablets to keep me sharp, which seems to be working. But in the early hours, Niel again needs to sleep and collapses onto a verge for a five-minute nap. Upon waking, he has slept so deeply that I have to reassure him that it was just five minutes.
Eventually, the sky begins to lighten and we arrive on the fringes on the North Downs again. It’s at this point, that sleep deprivation hits me hardest. For a while, my perception of time seems to be lost and I feel like we have been cycling down one bridleway for hours, when I’m sure it was just minutes.
Finally, we arrive at the Independent Pedaller Cafe – the finish – to find Kevin grinning and welcoming us back. We’ve cycled 475 kilometres and climbed over 8,000 metres in the past 39 hours. I haven’t slept for more than 50 hours and Niel is hardly much better off for his naps. But we’ve managed to finish joint second.
However, the greatest sense of satisfaction – far greater than finishing second – is when I yank off my dusty shoes and liberate my feet. My bruised soles revel in the softness of the warm grass after nearly 40 hours of pushing against the pedals.
*Main image courtesy of Rich Nicholls