This is the first of four posts, one about each day of the ride and one about what I’d do differently or the same for any budding imbeciles who want to do it the way I did.
6:55AM and I’m rolling down the hill, tyres quietly humming on the tarmac, temperature perfect for a t-shirt and shorts and the sun beginning to peak through the haze. What a beautiful morning, legs barely registering the pedals as I get to the meeting point half an mile from the house. Rolling up, the other guys are there, all smiles, bikes loaded and ready to go, a quick starting photo and off we went, chatting as we wound our way up to Ewshot. Day 1 underway.
It had started as a somewhat desperate attempt to get out of the house, to have a break from work and to change the constant backing track that was spiralling around my mind. It was no different to anyone else in lockdown, the feeling of the four walls just getting closer continually whilst friendships were tested. Go for a ride, camp overnight, experience the outdoors and then return refreshed with a new sense of vigour.
That was the seed, once planted it grew. King Alfred’s trail almost passes the front door, I should hop onto that and get myself to Winchester, enjoy the scenery and conveniently it’s on the trainline home. Box ticked. But what if I did a little extra, what if I did two days? How about a long weekend, self sufficient…..surely I’d feel cheated if I didn’t do the whole thing. So there we have it, a simple one day bike ride turned into a backpacking 3 day 350km off-road trek.
Biting off more than we can chew
Over the course of the weekend King Alfred adopted many new nicknames, mostly unpublishable but for the sake of readability I’ll stick with KAW for now. His ‘way’ apparently was to have a 350km loop around the south of our fair isle. The reality is an enterprising chap linked together a number of existing trails and started and finished the loop at the site of his burial in Winchester. Personally I’d like think if Alfred had a bean of common sense he’d have stuck to much more forgiving terrain and possibly been a little clearer on exactly what type of bike and kit I should have taken. I’m guessing in those days hard tail, full bouncer or mud plugger would have been choices you made in Tiffanys in Aldershot an an altogether different type of bike.
The preparation had consisted of 2 weeks of ordering anything remotely bikepacking related from everyones favourite online retailer, panicking about the heat/rain and buying a second tent, sending things back and generally procrastinating about what was the best suited bike.
I finally settled on stealing my sons hardtail, installing some puncture proof semi touring tyres and loading it up with a tent, sleeping duvet and enough stuff to ensure I wasn’t completely uncomfortable every night. I’m not a big camping person but I committed that this was a push, find some limits, see what I could truly do. After all, I used to be quite fit and can do a 50km road cycle once a week and a few peloton sessions without too much issue…..it’s at this point you recognise I’m a delusional idiot. If you want the full details of what I took and how I packed it up and some basic pointers on exactly what not to do, keep an eye out for the follow up post on kit and knickers.
Day 1 – Fleet to Winchester 78 miles (The Hard Way)
Having rolled down hill the the start the realisation came that the first mile or so was uphill. It’s not like it was an undiscovered road, I’ve run and ridden up and down it hundreds of times, but the after a tarmac hill warm up the gravel unmade slog to the top of beacon hill through the back end of Ewshot was a wake up call. Having an extra few kg’s on the bike sapped the speed as soon as we hit any incline.
At this point I should outline the three of us are very different riders. Uphill Martin rides off the front, burying himself at low cadence and a heart rate of 180+ to get the pain over, I find a gear and stick to it, no speaking, nothing apart from the 2 foot in front of the front wheel and Rix will ride his own pace no matter what, but will never ever stop, like a 50 year old mark 1 Terminator with a slightly less intimidating conversation style. Downhill I’m stupid, I’ll just ride well outside my ability, Martin is more controlled but still quick and Rix will….well Rix will ride his own pace no matter what and you can never guess if that’s going to be like a greased ferret in a waterslide or a hyper inquisitive Labrador investigating every bush with an over friendly outlook and a smile wider than the banana he keeps secreted in various states of decay about his person.
Wake up call over and bikes remounted we topped out Ceasers Camp and took a breath, one hill had reminded us we had a long way to go. Rolling down through Farnham, skirting the A30 and over toward Tilford was beautiful, a mix of road and trail until hitting the Frensham area and the dreaded sands. This was the first point I questioned my tyre choice as the front wheel washed around so much on the sand it was exhausting concentrating whilst wrestling the weight of the bike to stay upright. That said, the sun beat down, the rolling hills were manageable and not for the first time over the weekend we were in awe at how well the track had been planned so that you barely saw a town or village.
The course wound on through the Hampshire countryside, skirting Thursley and around the Devils Punchbowl, a vast countryside vista with a whopping great big dip in it, caused by a disagreement between old Satan and Thor apparently, I can’t wait for that Marvel New Testament crossover. Our first scheduled stop was in Hindhead as we ran down out of the country park and a convenient cafe stop (Cafe Twenty5). They stocked inner tubes which handily topped Rix back up (as he does love a puncture) and a fine line in coffee and hot baguettes as well as topping up all our water sacks, bottles and bags. A really nice vibe and well worth dropping in as you pass the front door.
Onwards through Queen Elizabeth park on the way to the second peak of the day, the beautiful Butser Hill. To warm up the legs ready for the climb we sped through the down hills on a mix of loose trail and washed over rocks until I discovered a reason why thinner tyres were probably a bad choice. Careering down hill my front tyre slipped into a channel, the weight on the front and tyre width stopping me from quickly popping it out and it came to a dead halt at the end of the rut. Like an Olympic gymnast I pulled off a perfect handlbar dismount, feet clipped and spinning the bike in a full overhead before planting my helmet and back into the trail. The recollection of Martin exclaiming ‘oh shit’ and later telling me he’d expected the worst and had his gloves on ready to scoop my brains back into my skull.
Garmin smashed, confidence battered we rolled to the trail cafe and gathered thoughts. The bike was fine, the ego slightly tarnished, and the rest of me…..skin seemed to be holding whatever had damaged inside for now so we rode on, straight into the foot of Butser Hill.
Full disclosure, the fall was a bit of a wake up call and could have been a lot worse. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, I remember chunks of itbut predominantly the painful ones. Riding over the golf course into Winchester and the false dawn of believing we had made it before a quick check told us we had another few miles before the camp site.
Winding through the town center with a quick picture of Alfred himself before some poor route planning led us down a little used trail to within a mile of the site. The only issue, by little used I mean, it was completely overgrown with brambles and nettles and looked more like an animal track than a trail. Patience waning and desperation kicking in Martin barrelled into the path tearing through the undergrowth. This may have been the worst km of the trip, nobody came out unscathed, torn arms, stung legs and an entirely miserable end to day one, but end it was. We rolled into the campsite, set up tent, showered and caught a cab into town for a well earned pub dinner.
Thankfully the rain held off until we were all tucked up and we were treated to a full gas thunder and lightning show to ensure minimal sleep and a damp morning for day 2.