Everything you wanted to know about cycling the South Downs Way but were afraid to ask
The South Downs Way is one of the great off-road rides of England.
Stretching nearly a hundred miles along the spine of the South Downs, from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, it takes in breathtaking views, glorious countryside and picture-postcard villages. In a Cycling UK national survey of off-road cyclists in 2017, 20% of the cyclists questioned said they'd ridden the South Downs Way, while another 37% said it was on their wishlist.
Here at Bespoke Biking we love the South Downs Way ("SDW" to its friends). Living near one end, we often find ourselves riding on parts of it or crossing it as we cycle on the network of tracks that cover the hills in the South Downs National Park. And we love helping other people discover it, which is why we hire out mountain bikes and offer a "drop-off" service so you can collect your bike here in Winchester, ride the SDW and leave the bike at the other end. Even if you're not hiring a bike from us, drop in and see us at the Bike Hub and we'll be happy to chat about it.
If you're thinking of riding the SDW, there are some things you ought to know. Here's a list of the things that have surprised many of the people who have passed through our workshop.
Things you should know
It's not a specially-built cycle path.
If you've ridden on some of the nice, smooth, gravel or tarmac paths built by cycling charity Sustrans around the country, put those out of your mind. For much of its length it follows bridleways - tracks made for horses and walkers, not for bikes. It's proper off-road riding and the surface can be bumpy, with deep ruts, roots, sticks and stoned to negotiate. It's not dangerous and it's not very "technical" (a fancy mountain= biker word meaning "difficult") but it can be a challenge unless you're used to riding off-road regularly.
It can get a bit muddy.
In the valleys and woods the paths can be muddy. On the hilltops, the bare chalk has been worn into a smooth surface by feet and wheels over the centuries, and can become slippery when there's rain.
It can be exposed.
The weather in Southern England is usually mild, but it can be quite cold and windy up on the Downs even on summer days.
We may not have the biggest hills here in the South of England, but by heck we've got a lot of them. Don't be fooled by the name: the South Downs have Ups as well as Downs!
It stays away from towns and villages.
Like the National Park through which it runs, the SDW squeezes between some of the most populated areas of Britain but manages not to go too near any of them. This means you get a hundred miles of glorious English scenery, but it also means that you might have to detour a few miles off the route to find a bed for the night. Those few miles will almost always be downhill, so they'll be followed next morning by a few miles back up the hill to rejoin the route. The same if you want to find a pub for lunch (though there are a few pubs and cafes on the route). It's not too remote, though: in an emergency, you're never far from a house or a mobile phone signal.
So what does this mean for a first-time rider of the SDW?
Don't underestimate how long it will take.
If you usually do very little cycling, you may need a good 4 days to complete it. Have a backup plan in case it turns out to be harder than you thought.
If you're used to casual mountain-biking off-road on country tracks and bridleways, you should allow 3 days to compete the ride. You might do it in 2 days in good weather, but you'd find yourself stressed and rushing to keep on schedule if anything went wrong. We'd rather you took your time and appreciated the gorgeous countryside.
If you're a keen road cyclist, you'll probably know how many miles a day you can do on-road. Take that number and halve it. (So if you're comfortable doing 60 miles a day on-road for several days in a row, you should be able to do 30 miles a day offroad and finish the SDW in 3 days.)
If you're a keen, regular mountain biker who often takes on challenging MTB trails, you can probably do it in 2 days with no problem.
We know people who've done it in one day - and even ridden the whole thing twice, there and back again, in under 24 hours - but did they enjoy it? Did they stop to look at the scenery? We think not.
Allow for the weather and ground conditions.
On a dry, sunny day in late Spring, the SDW is a breeze. If it's wet, though, especially if it's been raining for a few days, you'll find yourself slowed by mud in the valleys and being more cautious on the smooth chalk of some downhill sections. This could knock as much as a third off your speed. Check the weather forecast and adjust your time predictions.
Plan your stops.
There are plenty of places to stay along the way, and many places to eat or buy food - but most of them are near the SDW, not on it. Have a look at the maps, estimate your mileage and make a note of the options. Especially in peak summer periods, book accommodation in advance.
Ride an appropriate bike.
The SDW isn't suitable for a road bike or a hybrid. We recommend (and hire out) hardtail mountain bikes. The big, grippy tyres and front suspension make them comfortable to ride and get you easily over most bumps and ruts. You could ride a full-suspension mountain bike, but while these are more comfortable on the trail they also tend to be heavier (unless you spend a lot of money) so they're more of a struggle to propel up the hills. Gravel bikes and cross bikes (road-style drop-bar bikes with wide, deep-tread tyres) are fine if you're used to riding them already.
You'll enjoy the ride most if you're not carrying too much weight. While you should have enough kit to cope with the weather (see below) try not to overdo it. For this kind of offroad riding we don't recommend rear racks and pannier bags, as they affect the handling of the bike on rough terrain. Instead carry a rucksack or look at "bikepacking" luggage, which is designed to strap tightly to the bike so it doesn't sag or swing around as you ride.
Be ruthless with your packing. Leave the hairdryer at home.
Even on sunny dry days the wind can be cold on exposed hills, so have an extra layer of clothing handy. Carry a rain jacket: even if the weather's nice when you set out, it might be completely different two days later.
Even if you're planning on stopping at pubs for meals, take enough snacks to see you through the day, and stock up with water. There are public drinking water taps at various points along the route - here's a list of them (PDF).
Take a basic puncture-repair kit, pump and spare inner tube suitable for your bike, and maybe a small multi-tool. Even if you don't know how to use them, a passing cyclist may stop and help. A small first aid kit is also a good idea.
Other trails are also available
Here in Winchester, we're lucky to be surrounded by beautiful countryside in every direction - much of it accessible on bike via bridleways, byways and quiet lanes. If you haven't got time for the whole SDW - or you'd rather do a circular ride that ends up back where you started - we can recommend some great circular routes that combine parts of the SDW with other trails. You could also head west to the Test Valley and the downs beyond it. We've had people hire our bikes to do a multi-day circular ride taking in parts of the South Downs, the Isle of Wight and the New Forest National Park. Talk to us.
Whatever you decide to do, wherever you cycle, we hope you'll enjoy it. Central southern England is a great area to explore by bike, so get out there!
More about the South Downs Way
The official National Trails website is a mine of useful information on routes, accommodation, bike shops and refreshments stops along the way.
The South Downs National Park Discovery Map has lots more information about the national park as a whole, not just the SDW. It also shows the locations of railway stations, which can be useful if you want to cycle just part of the SDW then catch a train back to your start point. Talking of which...
Travelling by train
There are railway stations at both ends of the South Downs Way, at Winchester and Eastbourne. There are also several other stations within a few miles of the Way's route. If you want to do the whole SDW end-to-end then catch a train back to the start, the train journey will take somewhere around 3 hours and you'll have to change trains at least once. You'll be using trains run by Southern Rail and South Western Railway. There are restrictions on some trains in peak hours, and some trains require you to book a space for your bike in advance. The most common rail routes are either
- (a) via London: Eastbourne to Clapham Junction, Clapham Junction to Winchester; or
- (b) along the south coast: Eastbourne to Brighton, Brighton to Southampton, Southampton to Winchester.
Bikes can only be carried in certain coaches: these are usually marked with a bicycle symbol by the door. Station platform staff can often tell you where to stand to be near the bike storage when the train arrives.
For more details see:
Bike hire for the South Downs Way
What we offer
Bespoke Biking has a fleet of good-quality Trek hardtail mountain bikes for hire at our Bike Hub in the centre of Winchester, just moments away from the start of the South Downs Way. We're in easy walking distance of Winchester railway station. The mountain bikes don't have luggage racks, but they do come with a basic repair kit.
Our e-bikes and hybrid bikes are not suitable for serious off-road use so we can't hire those out for the South Downs Way.
We have a drop-off arrangement with a bike hire company at Eastbourne, at the far end of the trail, so you can pick your bikes up here and leave them there. We do have to charge for this service, as it costs us money to send someone down to Eastbourne to collect the bikes later.
Currently the surcharge is £180 per trip - that's on top of the normal bike hire fees. This is a flat fee covering a party of up to four bikes. (So if you rent one bike off us and want to drop it off at Eastbourne, we'll charge a £180 surcharge. If you rent three bikes, the surcharge will still be just £180.)
Sorry, we don't have arrangements to drop a bike off anywhere else along the way - just Eastbourne. If you have to finish your journey anywhere other than Eastbourne. it's your responsibility to get the bike back to us.
If you've booked to drop the bike off in Eastbourne but then change your mind and bring it back to us, we may still retain part of the surcharge as we'll already have made arrangements for someone to receive the bike in Eastbourne and someone else to go and collect it.
For details of bike rental charges see our bike hire page.
Page header image copyright SDNPA/Sam Moore