The South Downs Sting is an eighty kilometre ride around the South Downs National Park and is perfect for a ‘cross bike. The route uses road, tracks and bridle paths, so you are constantly adjusting your riding style to suit the terrain and surface. Bike and tyre choice can play an important part if you are after a fast time, or you could ignore all that competitive stuff and enjoy a great ride in the beautiful Sussex countryside.
I hadn’t ridden the South Downs Sting before, Peter had that pleasure last year (read it here), so I was keen to see what the riding was like over this side of the Downs. I live in Eastbourne, which is at the eastern end of the Downs and expected the trails to be similar to what I normally ride. And generally they were; that is there were steep chalky tracks taking you up onto easy rolling grass hilltops, which tend to stay dry as they drain so quickly. Around the foot of the Downs though you get stretches of sodden, sunken lanes that are a pain/joy to ride!
Where the South Downs Sting differed was in areas of fine sand, something we don’t have at the eastern end of the National Park. Although this only came in small sections, it required a whole different style of riding and was one of the areas where the fat tyred MTBs could pull away. Their tyres greater volume allowed them to ‘float’ over the sand, where the thinner, higher pressured ‘cross tyres sank in. The crossing of these sandy areas was accompanied by that most wonderful of sounds, the grinding of sand in your bike’s drivetrain!
The good thing about a CX Sportive is that you are never on one type of terrain for too long. So no sooner are you tired of the tarmac; annoyed of the grinding sand; or too tired for mud, it all changes and you are onto a different surface. Boredom is not an option.
Today’s start was from the village of Duncton and was pretty chilly. We spent some time fussing over what to wear, but with the Beeb promising sun I went with some lightweight layers and was pleased to get it right for once! We opted to set off in the first wave, which had around twenty riders, most of whom were on cyclo-cross bikes.
While the South Downs may not have anything that could be called even remotely Alpine, what they do have is plenty of steep climbs. The first one on the South Downs Sting is the road climb of Bignor Hill. At 2.7 kilometres long and with pitches of 20%, it’s tough and coming fairly early on, I was happy to take my time and ‘enjoy’ the climb.
The three route options stayed together until East Dean, where the short route takes a direct path to the feed station, while the full and medium route loop out to the South. It was here I joined a small group of riders that seemed well matched, always nice when it happens. We kept together through the feed at Charlton – flapjacks, Wiggle bars, jelly beans, biscuits, bananas and drink – with a brief stop for a bit of bike fettling and climbed up Knights Hill; with the grandstand at Goodwood peeking over the Downs to our left, like some crazy circus tent on steroids.
The full route now loops around before returning to Charlton and a second handful of sweety goodness. While riding along a fairly innocuous trail I managed to not see a large log in the middle of the path. The ensuing sky, ground, sky moment left me lying in the middle of the trail wondering what had just happened! A quick check of all my bits confirmed that they were still attached, but I had the wind knocked out of me.
The small group I was with tried to get me to take it easy for a while, but I was in crash mode and after confirming that both the bike and me were ok, I was back on it. The timings for a Gold time on CX Sportive events aren’t easy and I knew I couldn’t relax too much, so back on and off we go!
After rolling back through Charlton it was time for another long hard climb through Charlton Forest, oh goody! I’ve just got time to choke down some flapjack before tackling this monster and at almost five kilometres, it takes some taming. Looking at my Strava record after I was surprised to see I had the Kom for this climb, my pride was short-lived though. On closer inspection my top speed while climbing was 64Kph. Now I had been feeling good today, but even on top form I’d have problem going that fast downhill, let alone uphill, off-road!
With my ribs and knees beginning to ache from my earlier off, I was glad of the chance to take it a bit easier on the tarmac sections, where we continued to share the work. One of our gang of three was on an Mtb and it was interesting to see how the different bikes handled the course. While the mountain bike easily dropped our ‘cross bikes on steep, rough descents and over soft sand; our ‘cross bikes climbed better and made the road sections easier. It all helped to keep us together, although I was cursing him under my breath as I tried to keep contact on the downhills!
With time ticking away and another 20 kilometres to cover, it was looking tight for that Gold time, but after rolling through some pretty back lanes around Graffham, the younger member of our party put in a couple of hard digs and managed to drop us oldies! Hitting the junction of the A285 there was a moment of confusion as the GPS said left, but some very prominent signs said right. Figuring the organisers knew best we turned right and realised we were only a few hundred metres from the finish, hurrah! That Gold time was on.
It seems that on the pre-ride the organisers had spotted some works going on, on the last part of the route and rather than make everyone climb up a churned up lane, had cut some of the route; my legs appreciated their concern as they started to cramp climbing up the short ramp to the finish!
So that’s my South Downs Sting done, I managed a Gold time of 3hrs 19min; which was satisfying and got to ride in some beautiful countryside, over new trails that I hadn’t ridden before. The event organisation was spot on, as usual with quick and easy registration, energy drinks for the ride available at the start, as were hot drinks and food. The long route passed the feed station twice, while the mid and short only went by once. Wiggle had a tent at the start where you could buy last minute spares, or just relieve your wallet because you wanted to! Finishing times and medals were ready as soon as you rolled over the line, which is always nice.
If you haven’t tried one of the Wiggle CX Sportives before I can thoroughly recommend them. Great rides in some beautiful parts of the country; with the added fun of constantly changing roads and trails to test your skills as well as your fitness, it makes for a fun day, whether you’re riding for a fast time or just to see a different part of the country. Results are on the CX Sportive website and photos are available from robbarkerimages.com
For today’s ride I was using my Handsling CXC, which I have just fitted absoluteBLACK’s Oval CX chainring to. I’ll be reviewing these to see if they really do help climbing off-road, keep an eye out on CycleTechReview for my review. I was running Pro-Lite Bortola A21W wheels shod with Schwalbe’s X-One tubeless tyre.
I must admit that I used to be nervous about taking carbon frames off-road, but after a year of thrashing my Handsling CXC over some pretty tough tracks and taking some big hits, I no longer worry. The CXC is such a fast, lively frame that these kind of events are a pleasure and it’s yet to let me down. Another revelation has been tubeless tyres.
I tried out my first DIY tubeless set up on last year’s Surrey Gravelcross ride and was impressed by the quality of the ride. Now I run Pro-Lite’s Bortolas, they took some mighty hits on the South Downs Sting, but are still running straight and true. Schwalbe’s X-One is intended as a tyre for muddy conditions, I probably could have got away with their G-One, which comes in a 38mm width that would have helped take some of the sting out of the ride and help on the sand sections.
AbsolutBLACK’s Oval CX Traction chainring uses thick, thin teeth to keep the chain in place without the need for any chain keeper devices. I can confirm this works after my crash and some pretty hairy descents, the chain did not budge. But the main focus of their chainring is improved traction and climbing, I’ll let you know how it performed in my review, but for a first ride it did seem to be helping.
The next event is the Surrey Gravelcross which I rode last year and was a great route around the Surrey Hills. These rides are part of my build up to the CX Century, which is a 100 mile epic along the whole of the South Downs Way, a real corker of a ride and something every ‘cross or gravel rider should try at least once.
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