It’s the beginning of September 2020 and I have been very fortunate throughout the global pandemic. I have been able to continue working, almost seamlessly transitioning to full-time working from home. Having built an garden office some 10 years earlier, I at least had a space to work and also to put the turbo trainer for indoor cycling. The rest of the family have also been able to transition to home/remote work & school and our overall health has been good to this point (and has continued to be so since). We have been blessed.
Yet after 6 months of no commute, no travel and like many others having our plans turned upside down, (I had no fewer than 20 business, church & leisure related trips cancelled in the first three months of the pandemic), I was feeling quite hemmed in, slightly stir crazy and just a little exhausted from the constant virtual world. I needed to switch off for a couple of days and do something different.
With a degree albeit small degree of normality creeping in-between lockdowns I snatched at the opportunity to do something different. I had been grateful that I had been able to ride my road bike but riding the same roads over and over was even starting to become a little dull. At the end of August a friend of mine had sent me a link on WhatsApp to a new multi-day mainly off-road cycling route devised by Cycling UK that started and ended in Winchester, just 10 miles from my home. Since getting back into cycling 6 years ago, I had focused on riding on the road, my travels for work in the last four years kept this very fresh as I would take my bike with me on my travels.
So an off-road bike route was something quite different for me. With the addition of a new gravel bike, painstakingly researched over many months but hastily purchased due to dwindling stock and resupply challenges and a need to take unused annual leave from work, I made the snap decision to go ride the King Alfreds way.
My naive plan was to ride the 350km in two days. Having previously ridden the Vatternrunden and Mallorca 312 , both 300km+ rides in a single day and just 6 weeks earlier ridden 225km around Hampshire in a few hours, I figured a target of 180km per day should be reachable for me. I was so confident I booked a hotel half way around for my target. This is a typical roadie to gravel riding rookie mistake. It is a lot lot slower off road. This was so very evident for me when it was approaching dusk on day 1 with only 110km of the route completed due to 4 punctures + 3 failed repairs exhausting all my spares and repair kit with 75km of the ridgeway to go. I needed to make an alternate plan and a swift detour to Swindon was in order for a restock and new plan.
My new stead for this challenge was a stock build 2020 Bombtrack EXT-C gravel bike. This had been top of my shortlist of bikes to go for. I had wanted a bike that would enable different cycling experiences to my road bike, capable of fast gravel tracks but also enabled for loading up with bike bags for a multi day bikepacking trip. This trip would not be a camping trip, as I wanted to get to grips with the bike first before starting on all the bike-packing gear. Others on my list had included the Santa Cruz Stigmata, Open Up & Ibis Hakka MX. In the end the versatility and availability of the Bombtrack won out. (I managed to find one in my size in stock)
Day 1, started from home early and I picked up the route at Kings Somborne where the route intersects the Test Way. The route officially starts in Winchester and the first section passes through Kings Somborne on the way to Old Sarum outside of Salisbury. At the point where I joined the route it runs along a bridleway out of Horsebridge it was here on the first 2km of off-road section that I had an encounter with an unusually brave grouse that ran towards me. In an attempt to avoid it I ended up in the hedge cutting my nose on the brambles. As the route left Broughton it went up a wickedly steep incline on loose gravel and mud so all in all a cautionary introduction to off road trails within less than 10 miles (16km) of leaving my doorstep.
Things settled down or at least I settled down and made good pace along the rest of the 40km first stretch to Old Sarum. From here the route heads northwest towards Amesbury and Stonehenge crossing Salisbury plains. It was on this section that I picked up my first of the many punctures that put paid to all the good progress on day 1. At first it appeared to be a slow puncture and I nursed the bike to my planned lunch stop at the very good Kings Arms pub in All Cannings (recommended). I replaced the tube whilst waiting for my food and then headed out. In the next 4 hours I covered just 20km and aborted the route at Avebury to pick up spares in Swindon. By the end of the day when I discovered another puncture in the rear tyre in my hotel, I had made the decision that once I had finished the ride it would be head to the bike shop and make the switch to tubeless.
Day 2 I picked up the route again at Avebury and made my way onto the Ridgeway a 65km continuous off road section to Streatley near Reading. It had been the right decision to not attempt the Ridgeway at the end of day 1 with no spares and a slow puncture as it would have been a long walk to get to back to the hotel.
Stocked with spares and with the wind behind me I made good progress across the Ridgeway without any mechanicals, giving a knowing nod to any rider coming the other way as they faced the wind. This is one of the main reasons to do the King Alfreds way clockwise with the south westerly prevailing wind blowing you along. Upon reaching Streatley there is a short section of road before getting back on an undulating track alongside the Thames. There is a small section of hike a bike up a steep stepped incline before the route pops out in the centre of Reading.
The rest of the days route contained a higher proportion of road as the route meandered its way eastwards taking in the Basingstoke canal and Bracknell Forest before hitting the sandy trails of Frensham common, finishing in the sunset lit devil’s punch bowl. Totals for the day 172km, 9 hours and 2000m of climbing.
Day 3 The contingency day, 90km left from Haslemere south through Liss forest on to the South Downs Way (SDW) at South Harting turning west to head back to Winchester. Shortly after getting onto the SDW, the route dropped into the Queen Elizabeth Country Park a perfect spot for a short lunch stop before climbing back onto the ridge at the highest point in Hampshire on Butser Hill. The South Downs Way is a well known and documented route and was fairly busy with walkers, runners and other riders taking advantage of the weather and ability to get outside before future lockdowns came into play. The King Alfreds Way official route diverts off just before the end of the SDW before reaching Winchester to pick up a bit of the Pilgrims Trail dropping around St Catherine’s Hill to enter Winchester along the Itchen Navigation bike path. For me the ride wasn’t quite over as I needed to keep going for a few more kilometres to finish the loop at the point where I joined in Kings Somborne. I got the last puncture of the trip out of the way as I approached Kings Somborne and turned off the route onto the Test Way to cycle back to Romsey and enjoy some food in the market place sat outside the cafe in the sun. Total distance for Day 3 was 116km making a grand total of 412km, 5275m of elevation gain and 21 hours of riding.
This was a great introduction to multi-day off road riding and also provided me with a little bit of a challenge to sink my teeth into and my kilometres contributed to the Colt Charity Challenge which we devised in order to replace the cancelled Colt Bike Ride. The Charity Challenge raised over 150,000 Euros for our charity partners and I was able to break away from the monotony of virtual meetings & the same desk. Win-Win…. plus it has given me ideas for all sorts of new challenges…. AMR anyone….