The South Downs Way is a 100-mile path running along the chalk hills of Hampshire and Sussex in South-East England. Due to the fact that the path is almost entirely offroad, has incredible views, and feels remote despite being not far from London, it is known as a fantastic long-distance trail to ride a mountain bike.
Unfortunately I don’t have a mountain bike, after my Trek Marlin was stolen. As I was getting more into road cycling at the time, I switched to riding a Trek Domane, a popular endurance road bike. Meaning it’s comfortable to ride, at the cost of being slower and heavier than traditional performance-oriented road bikes. According to Trek’s marketing, it is also suitable for use as a gravel bike and has up to 38mm official tyre clearance, wider than a typical road bike.
After I saw a deal on Panaracer GravelKing Semi-Slick 38mm tubeless tyres, I decided to put them on the wheels, take a week off work and give the South Downs Way a try! But, the South Downs Way is considered an MTB route with rough terrain, and I wasn’t even riding a “real” gravel bike which can typically run wider tyres from 40mm+ to cope with layers of sharp rocks. How would my Domane fare?
Lots of people bikepack the South Downs Way and either wildcamp or stay at B&Bs and hostels along the way. However, I preferred to take the train out from London early in the morning and finish off at a station to return back in the afternoon. This meant I could travel light and save money (not much given the price of train tickets!), and sleep in my own bed. This was harder to plan than when walking the North Downs Way just because there aren’t many stations near the South Downs Way, but there are enough to make it work.
I followed Komoot’s “A Southern off-road utopia” guide, which splits the journey into three sections. Apart from the start and end, the sections don’t connect to stations. So I made the following modifications using Komoot’s site:
- Day 1 (Winchester to South Harting): Delete waypoints after Queen Elizabeth Country Park and finish at Petersfield station. There is a good cycle route all the way to Petersfield.
- Day 2 (South Harting to Pyecombe): Start from Petersfield station and add waypoints that were deleted from Day 1 to get back on the route. Add Hassocks staton as a finishing point. Unfortunately the route to Hassocks station sucks, along Brighton Road you have to choose either a narrow overgrown pavement or a 50mph road, however it’s only for a short amount of time.
- Day 3 (Pyecombe to Eastbourne): Add Hassocks station as starting point. At the end, for some reason Komoot’s route diverges from the South Downs Way bridlepath and descends into Eastbourne via the main road instead, delete this and follow the path to finish at the official finish point by The Kiosk on Foyle’s Way.
There is a problem with Komoot’s itinerary, which is that Day 2 is significantly longer and harder than Days 1 and 3. My changes make the problem worse by moving some of Day 1 into Day 2. An alternative option is to split Day 2 into two sections at Amberley instead which has a station very close to the path.
Day 1: Winchester to Petersfield
I set off very early on a perfect June today for the first section, as you can see from the long shadows at Winchester Cathedral.
I had a mechanical issue not long after setting off, finding out that my newly installed tubeless rear tyre had a slow leak. This was beyond my capability to diagnose at the time, and I was lucky that the next person who came by was an experienced touring cyclist called James with an big repair kit and a decade of knowledge in fixing tubeless tyres. He eventually isolated the problem to a dodgy valve core and put in a spare one he had. Not only did he solve my immediate problem, but he also showed me how to be solve it myself in future. After that it was smooth sailing with a pit stop at the gorgeous Old Winchester Hill.
The last hill was Butser Hill, also the highest point on the South Downs. The view was stunning and descending it was fun due to the more forgiving grassy surface compared to the other hills.
I finished by taking a well-signposted cycle route from Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Petersfield station. Overall I had a great day and still felt like I had plenty left in the tank, which made me underestimate how tough the next day would be.
Day 2: Petersfield to Hassocks
This section started with a decent climb and after that point there was a long part where I really felt the unsuitability of my bike. There was miles and miles of a track between sheep fields that consisted of large loose rocks. Making progress through this in the summer sun was an ordeal and descents were particularly brutal as I had to cling onto the brakes, making my arms wobble as if I was operating heavy machinery and soon leading to numbness in several fingers. To top it off there was a moderate headwind when the guidebook said that going west to east you should get a tailwind 85% of the time.
After this painful experience I stopped at the conveniently located Cadence Club in Upwaltham and chatted with a friendly guy from Essex who was bikepacking the route and trying to stay positive but clearly struggling with the climbs with all the extra stuff he was carrying. I then chatted to a guy who was working from his phone while cycling the entire length of the country. Hardcore.
The second half of the section has two hills where you go all the way down to sea level and climb back up top again on steep inclines. I was doing okay until Truleigh Hill when I suddenly hit the wall. Whether it was the heat, dehydration, lack of food, or all of the above, I suddenly had no energy left with about 10 miles to go. I stopped for a while on that bench and hoped for a second wind to take me to the finish.
The last part mercifully had gentler surfaces and if the gradients were too steep I walked them rather than grinding away on my lowest gear as I had tried my best to do earlier. That’s another drawback of the fake gravel bike - although I was faster than the mountain bikers up most climbs, if the inclines were too steep I didn’t have gearing low enough and had to walk.
Despite the difficulties, this was once again a truly beautiful part of the world which made all the suffering worth it, and it was certainly interesting to experience what reaching my physical limit felt like. It made me want to get fitter and prepare better so that next time it’s a walk in the park.
On the rare occasions I was on tarmac I wanted to kiss it!
Day 3: Hassocks to Eastbourne
Learning my lesson from last time, I brought along more food and also memorised the locations of the water taps on the route on this final day. The route from Hassocks Station back to the South Downs Way was a bit nasty but once back on the path it was more of the same wonderful views.
Despite seeing the Litlington White Horse in the distance, I completely missed the intriguing Long Man of Wilmington which the way passes over. This is the sort of thing you will know to stop for as a walker but miss when cycling, but I was otherwise glad to be cycling not walking. Partly this was because there were two parts of this section where my bike finally excelled. Near a farm there was a well-maintained hard-packed gravel road that I felt like I was flying over. Elsewhere was a cracked paved track that was also fun.
Just when I was about to conclude that this section was overall the best for a gravel bike, I reached two of the toughest climbs of the whole South Downs Way. The one after Alfriston sticks in my mind as particularly brutal, with an extremely steep overgrown path made of loose bricks in some places. The only other cyclist I encountered round here was riding the fattest tyres I’ve ever seen.
Once I saw Eastbourne I knew I was very close to the end and I couldn’t wait to replenish some of those carbohydrates. At the same time I had to stop to admire the final view and the area round Beachy Head has a special feel to it.
Zooming down the parade was joyous. My conclusion is that though the South Downs Way is doable on a gravel bike, I don’t think I’d do it again. It was a brilliant experience but a mountain bike is a far more appropriate tool for the job. Possibly a proper gravel bike with much thicker tyres would work well enough too but I think front suspension would be nice.
I’ve come away with a better understanding of how tyre widths and pressures impact your ride. And I feel grateful to the years of history and work that people have put into maintaining the trail and making such an adventure possible so accessible from London.