This summer, cyclocross racer Miles Thomas returned to the legendary trail that almost broke him some 13 years ago - the punishing 100-mile South Downs Way. This time around - riding the tough, lightweight Handsling CEXevo - he had a memorable experience for the right reasons, finishing a brilliant 6th place in the South Downs Century race. Here he describes a physical and technical challenge that's on the bucket list of off-roaders throughout the country.
Back in 2008, as a relative newcomer to cycling, I set out to conquer the South Downs trail - 100 miles of challenging off-road track from Winchester to Eastbourne. Sadly, naive choices in tyres, clothing, nutrition and hydration, resulted in a tortuous two and half days, peppered with a range of technical failures and minor personal injuries.
Thirteen years later, I returned as an entrant in the Trail Break CX Century, significantly better prepared for the challenge ahead and riding my Handsling CEXevo.
With the objective of completing the ride in under 10 hours, my set up was more carefully considered this time around. A SRAM Force 1x drivetrain provided all the gearing I needed for the varied terrain and 8,500m of climb, while reducing potential mechanical issues with the front derailleur omitted.
Advice from former participants suggested running up the hills was tactically superior so a lightweight rig offers a significant benefit. The CEXevo is a pleasure to shoulder, weighing in at just 8kg on a 52 inch frame, married with Handsling's strong and lightweight hookless tubeless carbon rims.
Given the punishing nature of some of the South Downs sections, particularly the chalky rutted descents where it can be hard to scrub off speed, I rode on 40mm Continental Terra Speed tyres, providing essential stability and resilience while retaining an impressive rolling speed for the few stretches of tarmac that appear on the route.
The ride was incredible. I had forgotten just how diverse the South Downs route is with speedy gravel sections, short, sharp and technical climbs, and super descents that leave you screeching to a halt inches from the next boundary gate. And then of course there are the views: miles of rolling countryside stretching out either side of you as the ridgeway ahead waxes and wanes with a warning of what’s to come.
The CEXevo provided the perfect perch from which to take in the scenery whilst maintaining a competitive speed throughout. By the time I reached Beachy Head and crossed the finish I had been rained on at least four times, ridden at pace in almost zero visibility due to sea mist and hit a top speed of over 40mph off road.
The bike took it all in it stride and delivered mile after mile. After just under 8.5 hours it was over. I was super tired, but relaxed and happily free from injury.
It's fair to say that riders on suspended mountain bikes probably found sitting down the day after more comfortable than I did. But the enjoyment of the physical challenge and the personal sense of achievement from riding a CX bike over this iconic route will surely last a lifetime.