I woke earlier than usual and after wolfing down another full English breakfast I was on the bike and ready to go not long after 8:30 a.m. This left me with nine hours to cover the 82 kilometres and near 1,300 metres of climbing between Hindhead and Winchester before the bike rental store closed. With this in mind, I was expecting a tough day ahead and had already taken some precautionary ibuprofen to help get me through it.
As I was outside the hotel getting ready to leave, another bikepacker passed by, and we exchanged quick waves before he flew off into the distance. I was soon on the bike and flying down the busy main road out of Hindhead not too far behind him. I was surrounded by busy commuter traffic here, which flew by with little space to spare. Again, I was surprised at just how bad the driving was in this part of England, I guess the largest factor being the density of the population around here.
I escaped from the racing commuters onto a quiet backroad and almost immediately my GPS track sent me into a small forest. The bikepacker who had passed me a few minutes earlier had missed the sharp turn and I met him coming towards me as he backtracked to the forest entrance.
The timing was perfect and we cycled into the forest side by side, striking up a conversation as we went. Rob, as it turned out, was on an extended two-month bikepacking trip around the south of England. He was riding a Rohloff-equipped Surly which was carefully loaded with all kinds of bikepacking bags, with every inch of available space expertly utilised. It was clear that a lot of planning and work that had gone into his setup. Therefore, it was no surprise to me when Rob mentioned that he had actually planned to start a round the world cycle on this bike until the global pandemic put his plans on hold.
As we cycled along side by side we chatted about our various cycling adventures and I enjoyed hearing about his planned route around the world. These conversations meant that my saddle sores and back pain were easily ignored, despite the fact my pace had increased significantly to match Rob’s speed.
We continued together for the next thirty kilometres to South Harting, with me going ahead at one point while Rob stopped for water and food supplies, knowing well that he would easily catch me up. Thanks to this company, the time flew as we negotiated the mixture of back lanes, fields and forests which made up this part of the King Alfred’s Way.
Just past South Harting we joined the South Downs Way, a 160-kilometre trail running the length of the South Downs from Eastbourne to Winchester. The King Alfred’s Way follows the majority of the final fifty kilometres of this route all the way to its finish in Winchester.
The first section of the South Downs Way didn’t disappoint as we fought our way up some steep woodland tracks to the top of a steep, heavily forested hillside which makes up part of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. At this point the trail turned downhill and we enjoyed some beautiful, flowy singletrack as we glided over roots and flew around the sweeping corners.
I was having so much fun that at one point I must have taken a wrong turn off the official route and found myself on a proper mountain biking trail with massive berms and table tops. In the end I was glad of my mistake as I had great fun guiding my loaded bike down this challenging trail.
This mountain bike track culminated in a steep, but rollable root covered drop preceded by a skull and crossbones warning sign. I slowly rolled into the drop, put as much weight as I could behind the saddle (considering the seatpack was blocking me from getting too low) and let go of the brakes. I made it down without crashing and waited at the bottom to see how Rob got on. He also made it down successfully, cruising down it without any fear, ending a magnificent section of trail.
After this excitement we stopped for some much needed food outside the country park’s café. With a few more pain au chocolats down me, we were ready to tackle Butser Hill, the highest point of the South Downs Way at 270 metres.
As we approached the grassy slopes of Butser Hill, I could not believe how steeply the trail ramped up. The bottom slopes were more relaxed, almost lulling you into a false sense of security, but as your legs burned and your breathing grew more ragged, the trail ramped up further and further as if attempting to finish you off.
For some reason though, I do love these challenging climbs, so I fought on as the gradient hit what must have been 20% or more. In the end I barely made it, almost losing grip and spinning out on multiple occasions. But somehow, my tyres managed to find just enough grip, and my lungs just enough air as I reached the gate at the top of the climb, hyperventilating from the effort.
From here myself and Rob continued climbing and descending along the steep hills of the South Down’s Way. There were some monstrous climbs on this route, but thanks to the good company I was able to ignore the pain and fatigue of four continuous days of cycling on an unprepared body. Due to this, we flew along this last section of the South Downs Way into Winchester, enjoying some gorgeous rocky descents through the pleasant rolling hills.
Two rear punctures weren’t even enough to dampen my mood. In fact, as it turned out fate was on my side with these punctures. Upon attempting to remove the tyre from the rim while repairing the first puncture, one of my two tyre levers snapped in two due to the strength of the mountain bike tyre I was trying to pry off. I only had one plastic tyre lever left and was wondering how I was now going to get this stiff tyre off the rim, when Rob intervened. He opened his toolkit and handed me a steel-backed tyre lever which allowed me to remove the tyre in seconds.
If I hadn’t bumped into Rob this morning, I most likely would have been in a bit of trouble here, having to make some sort of makeshift metal lever to get the resistant tyre off the rim. So it was a massive turn of luck that he had missed his turn earlier in the morning, allowing us to cross paths.
We flew along the last section into Winchester, coasting through pleasant farmland and ending the day with a fast, grassy descent down by St.Catherine’s Hill into Winchester itself. Here we arrived at the King Alfred’s statue with a whole hour to spare until the bike rental shop closed, in spite of the two punctures. That morning I was worrying whether I would even make it considering how much my body was struggling with these continuous days in the saddle, but it’s amazing what some ibuprofen and good company can do.
Myself and Rob parted ways at the statue as he prepared for the next leg of his two month bikepacking tour around southern England. All going well, this global pandemic will subside and he will be able to complete his round the world cycle. But in the meantime I invited him to Ireland if he needs some more bikepacking adventures to sustain him until then.
With the King Alfred’s Way now somehow completed, I dropped the bike back to the bike rental shop and returned to Elana’s home covered in sweat and dust.
Overall, I couldn’t have been happier with how the four days had gone. I hadn’t been out of Ireland in eighteen months, since the whole pandemic began. And on top of that, I had barely been on the bike or able to do any outdoor activities in the previous eight months due to my back injury. Thanks to both these factors, I had been feeling badly starved of adventure in that time. So, it felt so good to set off on a bicycle with just camping gear and some small possessions strapped to it, into the English countryside.
The route that Cycling UK have created here is truly magnificent and makes for a surprising adventure in the midst of one of the most populated regions of Britain. I had truly enjoyed and savoured this wonderfully peaceful, yet challenging off-road route over the previous four days, and felt fulfilled to have completed it all as planned. This was exactly what I had needed after so much time away from this world of adventure. And even better, I had enjoyed my first attempt at bikepacking so much, that I knew this was something I would be doing a lot more of in the future.