South Downs Way, take two.

August 2016 – Originally posted on the Brooks England blog 

About a year ago, as hundreds of glittery sandals and Hawaiian shirts headed to a festival in a park behind my flat, I boarded a south west train to Winchester.

I don’t really like crowds. So I set off alone, around 4pm on a rainy day, to conquer the South Downs way. My plan was simply insane, in that weather. I didn’t know any better. And when I don’t know, I’m not scared.

I came back defeated, bleeding, kit ripped everywhere, covered in bruises — some of which stayed with me for weeks — soaking wet, in the middle of the night, in a train, cracked helmet on my lap and a heart beating hard in my chest.

Since that day, the South Downs Way has always been in the back of my mind.

We had unfinished business. I had to go back.

A fog waited for us at the top of the first hill. Windy and mysterious. Salty little drops refreshing our already burning-hot cheeks.

The trail’s very bumpy so Simmo and I let a bit of air out of our tyres, thinking it’ll absorb a some of the shocks. Mistake. While Andy and Matt carelessly roll over everything, we spent the rest of the ride helpless, seeing our tyres go flat, 4 at a time. We stopped counting at 12, used all our patches, all our inner tubes and all our flat-related jokes. But we kept on pedalling.

The South Downs are sharp. Riding your loaded bike up those hills is exhausting. But descending seems to be even harder. I wish I could go back to that stage of blissful ignorance, where rocky trails could only ever be bombed down.

Instead, I’m jamming my brakes constantly, even slower going down than going up. Jaw clamped, arms rigid, terrified. All I can think of is my head impacting the ground. My cracked helmet on the train back last year.

Simmo blasts past me

“Go on Ads ! What’s up with you today ?!”

“Don’t look straight down. Focus on what is one bike length in front of you.” suggests Andy.

“And sing any national anthem out loud !”

Shouts Matt from the top of his MTB. And he drops downhill like a cannonball, singing with all his heart.

I put my sunglasses on the back of my head, take one deep breath and drop.

“Pays d’honneur ô Belgique et ô Patrie !

Pour t’aimer tous nos cœurs sont unis.

À toi nos bras nos efforts et notre vie.

C’est ton nom qu’on chante et qu’on bénit.

Tu vivras toujours fière et belle,

Plus grande en ta forte unité

Gardant pour devise immortelle :

Le Roi, la Loi, la Liberté !

Le Roi, la Loi, la Liberté !

Le Roi, la Loi, la Liberté !”

Breathtaking landscapes and pure happiness distract me from fuelling. By the time we get to Brighton, I’ve been hangry for 15km. It isn’t long before we eat what feels like the best fish and chips this world has to offer. We wash it down with both coca cola and beer, and jump back on the saddle en route to find a cosy hilltop to establish camp.

Everyone’s face is sun-kissed and dusty. Our tan-lines that bit sharper, one or two new wrinkles at corners of our eyes highlighted under the dirt. We laugh a lot and I feel that genuine bliss you only get when you’ve exhausted yourself doing something you really really really like.

The night will be clear, but we put the tarp up because we can. At the end of the day, we’re nothing but 4 kids outside on an adventure. We snuggle up between a hand-full of trees.

In the morning, we’ll make coffee and swim in the sea.

Did you ever spend so much time smiling so wide that your face cramps?

It was that kind of ride. The memory of my lonesome painful crash has been replaced by some dusty, laughing and mildly sunburnt friends. I think we’re good now, the South Downs Way and I.

Thanks for a wonderful weekend to Matt, Andy and Simmo.

Lovely pictures by Andy Matthews — andymatthewsphoto.com