The alarm goes off…..4am, Sunday
I can’t remember when I last had the rude awakening from an alarm, but I was expecting Martin to pick me up at 5am and I need to get some food inside me, it’s going to be a busy three days.
During a ride last year that I mentioned the new route to Martin and that I had read it could be done in three days. Three days is ideal as it is not always easy for people to get cycling days away from family.
To do it in three days though means 125km per day, off-road, but it’s June so at least it will be dry…..right?
Anyone who lives in England will know that summer just hasn’t happened this year, so by the time the day starts to break it’s overcast and about 110C.
Day 1 Winchester to Ogbourne St George
We arrive in Winchester at about 7:30am, park the car in Chisel car park and start to load the bikes. A bit of faffing and we are on the road by 8:30am in shorts but retaining the arm warmer as there is a chill in the air.
We navigated out of Winchester using the GPX files we had downloaded from the Cycling UK website and within 20 minutes we had left the bright lights behind and were already up to our knees in nettles and mud, weaving our way on byways, bridleways, and minor roads. It was so peaceful, and we could feel the buzz of what was to come.
The route took us along single track at the edge of muddy fields, down gravel tracks and through woodlands. At Old Sarum we turned north past the castle onward in the direction of Amesbury, passing close to, and over a very narrow River Avon. By the time we got to Amesbury we were ready for a snack, so a short stop, pop on the rain jacket to keep the cold out, then back on the road.
It’s easy to forget how slow progress can be on muddy trails and gravel tracks. It was only 53KM to Amesbury, but it had taken us 4:30 to get there. These were going to be long days. We stopped in town and picked up a couple of sausage rolls and a coffee, which was well timed as we were starting to flag a bit. It had been six hours since breakfast.
Once we passed Amesbury we started out on to Salisbury Plain, close to Imber where the village was evacuated during the war to enable the army to train for combat, but it was never reoccupied after the war was over. A lot of the route runs through the ranges and the tank training area. We passed several army tanks in a car park surrounded by soldiers as we headed out along the bridleway. Twenty minutes later we could hear the thunder of tanks and clouds of exhaust smoke in the distance. The sound became louder and more menacing as we continued along the trail, red flags to either side of us. Suddenly the tanks burst into view over a crest, and it sent shivers down your spine, just the thought of what it must be like to see/hear these things in combat. Terrifying!
Once off the plain the road became lumpier, and a big part of the day had passed by the time we dragged up the Oram Hill. On the off-road descent I looked back to notice Martin had stopped, so I spun around to investigate. The one thing you don’t want after this amount of time into a ride is a puncture on a tubeless tyre. We whipped the tyre off, check for thorns, fitted a tube and continued, about 20 minutes later.
The next landmark was Avebury, where the roads were all coned off just as we reached the fields containing the Great Henge, an amazing site and a reminder that it solstice weekend, hence the crowds.
Shortly after there was another “bang” and Martin’s back tyre was flat again. Not goods, but as the tube contained “Slime” it became obvious what we had missed the first time as there was green gloop leaking out of a slash next to one of the nobbles on the tyre. It was obvious that he had hit a piece of flint, cutting the nobble, which was why the tyre had deflated so quickly the first time. We applied a strip of duct tape on the inside of the tyre and a second tube and we were off, but we knew a new tyre would be needed if we were to be safe over the next two days and 250km.
I called the hotel at 18:30 to let them know we were 10km away at Barbury HIll, but as this 10km was off-road, we were still 45 minutes away. It’s at this point in the day, when you start to get tired, hungry and a little colder that the mood can drop. However, once over Barbury Hill, on The Ridgeway we rode along Smeathe’s Ridge looking down on a misty Ogbourne Down in a silver light of the low sun and your heart lifts and the reason you are doing the ride just hits you in the face. Life doesn’t get better than this.
We arrived at The Inn with the Well pub in Ogbourne St George, what a relief, food. We were welcomed like old friends, shown to our room and the storage container where the bike would reside. Next to the container was a much-needed hosepipe enabling us to get some of the mud off the bikes.
Total 124km and 1660m of climbing and 8 hours 30 minutes riding
Day 2 Ogbourne St George to Farnham
We had made the decision to get a new rear tyre for Martin from the bike shop in Marlborough, four miles off the trail. The lady from the hotel offered to drive him there, which was great for timing, however we found two other issues, one, the car keys had dropped out of Martin’s pocket, and two, he was unable to pay for the car park using the app on his phone. Thankfully, he got a spare set of keys forwarded to Farnham and a call to the car park people enabled him to pay over the phone.
By the time the tyre was changed, and the bikes packed it was 10:45, a late start for such a long day, let’s hope all goes OK and we have no other issues.
After a short warmup we hit The Ridgeway, notorious for its chalk trails, but also what became my nemesis in the wet; narrow mud tracks, about 200mm wide buried in a grass/mud wall, which meant you had to stay in the ridge, otherwise you hit the wall and your tyre was not going anywhere, and the likelihood was that you were going to be stepping off. The wet mud made staying in the rut tricky as you were sliding most of the time. Safe to say I had a few unscheduled stops. What was it Buzz Lightyear says “Falling with Style”.
We were making good progress, it was raining, but so far I had not needed a jacket and gloves. However, somewhere on Bury Down along one of the wide chalk roads I had a full “off”. The trail was corrugated length wise and really wet, so it was important to ride the crest of these ruts. However, being wet it was easy to miss when the rut narrowed and that is when my back wheel dropped off the crest and I travelled 10 metres along the track on my back and was white from head to foot.
By now it was getting wetter and colder so gloves on and we headed further down The Ridgeway, taking it easy on both the flat and the descents.
We dropped off The Ridgeway just before Streatly and rode into town, stopping on the bridge over the Thames, under some trees to shelter from the rain. I put on the rain jacket as I was starting to shiver, and we were only 55km into the day. We had got the hotel to make us some sandwiches for lunch and right now it was just what we needed, more for morale that the food. we rolled around into Goring, dived into a Tesco and bought a couple of hot chocolates. This was probably the best thing we could have done, and energy levels ramped up straight out of the blocks.
Just out of Goring we jumped on to a riverside trail, which was a real highlight of the day, just stunning, but there was a sting in the tail. The exit was an almost vertical climb out into Whitchurch, impossible to ride due to the steps.
Once we hit Purley we started to ride along the edge of the Thames and despite the increased urbanisation, this part of the ride was really nice and quiet with stunning views. The cycle paths through Reading were perfect and it was hard to believe that we were in such a busy town. Once off the Thames we took to woodland trails heading south, side-by-side with the A33. In nice weather these trails would be great, but the rain had turned them into mush, so riding in a straight line became a novelty.
A mixture of small roads and woodland trails now followed, through Hazely Heath RSPB reserve, Odiham Common and then on to small, picturesque roads, through “picture postcard” villages down along the river side.
The descent into Farnham was a striking 2km at 12%, so head down and make for the hotel. We had picked the Mercure in Farnham but thought they may be a little rattled by two jaded cyclists appearing wet through, one of them white from head to foot, but they were awesome. The showed us the hosepipe to wash the bikes, the warm office we could store the bikes overnight and offered us the room service menu. You could not have asked for more.
We had not even had chance to shower by the time the hot lasagne arrived and not a minute to soon. I dived into bed at 22:30 leaving Martin watching the Euro football, but when I woke up at 12:30 all the lights and TV on and snoring coming from his side of the room. The weather today had wiped both of us out.
Total 124km and 1150m of climbing and 8 hours riding
Day 3 Farnham to Winchester
Despite and early breakfast we struggled to get away by 09:30, but we had all day and no hotel stress as it was back to the car today.
We knew today was going to be a tough one with lots of off-road climbing, but at least it was warmer and dry as we started south down the Greensand Way.
The terrain from the start was a real mix of woodland, small, beautiful villages, and MoD training areas. I rode up a steep hill just before Thursley and as I popped over the top I looked to the left and the woodland was full of army “tarp” camping, which struck me as odd, then these soldiers’ heads popped out. I hadn’t realised we were in the training area. Around the next corner twenty plus squaddies, with full kit and riffles were marching either side of the road towards us. A very odd feeling after the peace and quiet so far.
After three and a half hours we stopped to eat the sandwiches that we had acquired from the hotel. We picked a spot overlooking the Devil’s Punchbowl on Hindhead Common. What a spot!
Shortly after Hindhead we pick up the “Shipwrights Way” Sustrans route, which is a beautiful stretch, relaxing, smooth, and picturesque and led us through to Liss, where we stopped at a shop to pick up some provisions.
We then picked up the Sussex Border Path, followed by minor roads until we picked up the South Downs Way at South Harting and started our journey east, back in the direction of Winchester. The day had been much slower than the previous two, due to very heavy wet ground, twisty woodland trails, and a fair chunk of climbing, although we knew the bulk of the climbing was yet to come.
As soon as you hit the SDW we start to climb, 100m in the next 10km, all on chalky, loose, and lumpy surfaces. It’s steady progress, but at least it’s progress. Suddenly we lose the 80m elevation into Queen Elizabeth Country Park and I know that we now must tackle Buster Hill, 145m and up to 25% on mud. I know that I am going to have to get off here as there is not enough traction and with a 30 x 32 drive, there is no way I will get up here. That said I have been pleased that this is the only true trail section that has been too steep to ride (the section in Goring was not meant for riding as it was steps).
Once on the top, the sun is starting to come out and we stop to top up with food and take in the view out sea and the Isle of Wight. The next 50km will see us lose elevation, but there was still a couple of good climbs up to Old Winchester Hill Nature Reserve and on the last leg of the SDW.
Once off the SDW we take on the final climb to Cheesefoot Head before we drop on to Twyford Down and enter the stunning grounds of St Catherine’s Castle in Winchester. This is a really nice descent and knowing that it is almost the end of the journey makes it feel like a real achievement.
Back at the car we find the car keys work, result, but there is a parking ticket which will need to be resolved considering they have taken the money for both days.
Total 113km and 1830m of climbing and 9 hours riding
All in all a great adventure with lots of tales to tell and memories made.
You need the GPS files to ride this route as it is not signposted, the only signs you see are for byways, bridleways or Sustrans routes.
Pack light: I had a change of cycling shorts and socks, a long sleeve base layer just in case, plus arm and leg warmers and gloves, all of which got used. The shorts and socks were washed on the first evening and ready for the third day. Off-bike wear was a t-shirt, cargo’s with zip-off legs and I used the above base layer as an outer layer in an evening. My total kit was only 4kg and to be honest I hardly noticed it was there when it came to climbing and handling. The Restrap seat bag was awesome, just unclipping the dry sack and straight into the hotel.