Glorious Gravel South Downs X

A sweaty, slightly overweight middle-aged man takes on 60 km of off-road cycling in the beautiful South Downs National Park.

It’s not the strongest of looks: A slightly overweight 40-something screaming in terror as he descends a rocky single track on a glorified road bike. I’ve thrown myself into Gravel biking, a mix of road cycling and MTB in the '90s. It’s a massively expensive, time-consuming hobby with an ever-expanding array of accessories. Perfect for a midlife crisis.

This weekend, I did my first Gravel event, the Glorious Gravel’s South Downs X. 60 km of mixed-terrain riding across the stunning South Downs. Getting off to push up the first hill, it hit me: I had neither the skill nor fitness for an event like this. Still, I’d started now and reaching the top held its reward; the view was spectacular.

The ride continued like this: Climbing, sometimes having to push; beautiful, fast-flowing sections with incredible views; short, terrifying descents (I had to get off and push down one particularly hairy section); all interspersed by fast road sections.

A map showing the route of the South Downs X ride. Starting at Plumpton Race Course, we rode to Newhaven via Southease. Then north again across the South Downs National Park, back to Plumpton.

Then, 3 km before the halfway point, disaster struck. I suddenly couldn’t shift onto a smaller cog (is that “downshift” or “upshift”? I can never tell). Stuck on a massive chain ring, I peddled furiously to the rest area. Thankfully, a man serving sandwiches quickly identified that the cable had slipped deep inside the mechanism of my shifter. After a few moments of oily-fingered fiddling, my ride was saved.

After heading out of Newhaven and back onto the downs, I was treated to be best views of the ride.

Me, trying to not look knackered on the home stretch of the South Downs X 2024. You can see how much work my tyres are doing to smooth out the bumps, as my rear rim is almost touching the dirt.

The last 10 km was a struggle. It was rough as hell. I was coveting the few mountain bikes that jostled amongst the bevvy of Gravel bikes. Their suspension forks doing the work that my arms were doing in absorbing the impacts.

I was pleased to see the finish line. “I like your bike,” said the man who gave me my medal. Yeah, I like my bike too. It’s a Titanium Ribble CGR (the one with the 1x groupset that they don’t seem to do any more). I bought it in lockdown and it’s the best bike I’ve ever owned. It’s light, stiff and nimble. It makes me feel planted on whatever surface I care to ride it on.