Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel – South Downs, UK

Posted By Gravel Union On 24 September 2020

Does riding a CX bike with friends at sunrise in the UK’s South Downs count as a gravel ride? Olly looks into this potentially awkward issue.

Can you remember a time before gravel riding was a “thing”? Obviously from a geological point of view, gravel has existed for millions of years (and is constantly being created, even as I type this). But from a cycling ‘pigeon hole’, what we now all recognise and love as gravel riding was known by a multitude of nom de plume for years before ‘proper’ gravel riding came and took over our lives. If you were riding gravelly trails, but on a cyclocross bike fitted with 33mm tyres, did that still count as gravel riding? My (perhaps slightly contentious) view on it is that if you’re riding an inappropriate bike off-road and most importantly, you are having fun while doing it, then you are definitely gravelling.

For anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to ride there, the South Downs are the range of hills in the UK that lie immediately to the north of the English Channel. What they lack in stature (they’re only 270m above sea level at their highest point), they make up for in the sheer abundance of beautiful trails to ride. For those of you keen on a challenge, the South Downs Way is a 160km route which takes in the entire length of the hills and manages to pack in an impressive 4150m of ascent. In recent years records have been set for the fastest end-to-end, the South Downs Way double and even a South Downs Way triple, although most of these record attempts have been made on a lightweight XC MTB rather than a gravel bike.

For anyone in the know, the advice is actually to avoid the SDW in the main and seek out the quieter, more scenic, ‘locals only’ trails. The problem with local’s only trails is that finding them is not always simple. Which is why one summer morning at stupid o’clock, I was part of a small, somewhat sleep deprived gaggle of riders who had decided to take on a dawn raid on the finest of the South Down’s gravel trails. With half the group being local enough to be able to see the Downs from their houses, the cumulative trail knowledge meant we were in for a treat. We’d hoped that by hitting the trails at sunrise we would have a few hours of tranquillity before the day trippers arrived, but also, we would get the magic early light, dawn chorus and gentle sense of smugness that rewards anyone keen/mad enough to get up in the dark and go and ride their bike.

As with all the best gravel rides, we rode from the front door and took in a plethora of dog walkers’ paths, back lanes, minor bits of broken tarmac, as well as my favourite – a carefully selected batch of ‘twittens’ (local-speak for tiny alleyways and urban cut throughs, which are designed to ridden as close to flat out as you dare) en-route to the hills proper. As we climbed away from urbanville, it was incredible how quickly the landscape changed and rural peacefulness overtook urban hustle. The sound of skylarks chirruping and the chunter of a distant tractor heading to the fields to start work mixed with the rumble of tyres on chalky trails. As the sun burst over the horizon and lit the landscape in shades of golden light, our internal buzz grew rapidly.

Our route had been carefully selected to include a mix of vehicle width farm tracks and some of the narrower flowing singletrack found on both the north and south escarpments of the hills. What the Downs lack in vertical impressiveness, they make up for in short, sharp challenges instead – narrow CX tyres scrabbled for grip on the some of the steeper sections – razor-sharp flints were spat backwards under our wheels as we passed by. Our route traced a wave-like course along the length of the Downs, heading gently eastwards. One minute we were grunting and hauling ourselves upwards, the next whooping with joy as the trail chased the contours and then headed down to the base of the hills at imprudent speeds – our tightly packed group practically buzzing the back tyre of the rider in front.

In the constant state of war between tyre sidewall and puncture inflicting geology, at one point the rocks won and we stopped to patch up an ego-deflating punctured inner tube (this was back in days where tubeless technology was still in its infancy). With the sun on our backs, birds twittering and summer scents wafting on the gentle breeze, it was one of those occasions where a puncture induced stop was a pleasant pause in proceedings, rather than the normal irritation. Once mended, we headed on our way – we were Hove bound for outstanding Italian gelato on the seafront, but first had a series of eye-wateringly good woodland singletrack trails to tackle.

The trails of Stanmer Park are normally home to the area’s legion of XC MTB riders and years of genre-defining races there had left both a physical legacy of flowing, hardpacked trails but also kitted us with the insider knowledge of which ones to ride and in what order to tackle them to get the most flow out of our route. The combination of 33mm tyres pumped up hard to avoid pinch flats and smoothly polished roots, interbedded with sections of flint and chert, made the trails even more interesting than normal. A game of high speed follow-the-leader through tight twisty singletrack is always fun, but today with enthusiasm levels pushed to max, we seemed to be right on the limit of fast and f***ed. Eyes strained to spot where the trail went next. Muscles tensed and relaxed as we tackled some of the natural obstacles that mother nature had seen fit to strew across the trails.

We flew down the final descent, swerving around trail obstacles, clouds of chalky dust kicking up off our wheels. With a final triumphant whoomph, we popped out back into urban civilisation. The shock of our worlds changing so dramatically in a matter of seconds was initially quite hard to comprehend and we must have had a slightly shell-shocked look on our faces. Luckily a quick spin along the seashore bike lane dropped us at the front door of gelato heaven. Italian ice-cream is a well known antidote to post-ride culture shock after all.

The perfect way to finish the perfect is it/isn’t it gravelly ride.

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