Around The Outside Drop HandlebarTitanium Expedition Gravel Bike
Because It's ThereGreen Adventure Long Sleeve Cycling Jacket
Rough With The SmoothIntegrated Aluminium Gravel Bike
Streets AheadWomens Waterproof Commuter Jacket
Around The Outside Flat HandlebarTitanium Expedition Gravel Bike
Rough With The SmoothIntegrated Aluminium Gravel Frameset
SHIFT 105 Di2February Offer
Prepare to learn from Mattie's trip.
For those that don’t know, a racing cyclist’s off-season usually takes the form of a three to four week period without structured training immediately after the final race of the year. The aim being to come into the new season mentally refreshed and ready to build up race fitness again. For some, this leads to a year’s worth of missed nights out, alcohol and junk food being crammed into four weeks. While for others, they possess far too much energy to sit still entirely, and try their hand at other activities, such as running and hiking, or even other disciplines of cycling – in my case gravel.
I’ve been wanting to do a gravel bikepacking trip for a while now, but the nature of the racing season has meant that it never really quite fits in with training. I’d also definitely class myself as someone who finds it very difficult to spend four weeks without decent exercise, much to the annoyance of those around me – apparently, it’s like having an excitable puppy. As a result, I came up with the idea to ride down to Exeter off-road to stay the night with my cousin who recent started at the university.
You can find the route I took below, but it essentially involved taking Pearson’s own off-road route down to Brighton on day one. I then joined the South Downs Way and spent my second night in Winchester, before hopping on a part of the Old Chalk Way into rural Dorset on day three. The final day was largely on the road as I took on the final stretch to Exeter.
My weapon of choice was the Pearson On And On – their latest gravel bike, set up to handle whatever you throw at it with mounting points aplenty and integrated cables. I loaded it up with all my clothes and spare kit for the next four days, the bike tipping the scales at 16.5 kilograms.
The mere fact that it was more than double the weight of the bike I’m used to riding meant it took some getting used to. It felt rock solid though, and once I’d got over the initial difference in the way the bike rides, I found it to handle superbly over technical terrain.
As the last of Storm Ciarán blew over, I rolled out from our house, making morbid jokes about never being seen again to my now slightly concerned mother. The first part of the day involved dodging dogs and their respective owners along the towpath to Guildford. Perhaps a Saturday wasn’t the best choice to hurtle along a popular walking route, but alas, it was too late to change that now.
The first hurdle came just before Guildford itself, where the recent storm had dumped too much water for the river to handle, meaning the adjacent fields and paths took on the extra strain. In the parts where it was vaguely rideable, I combined a mixture of wading and riding, cleaning off the earlier mud that had gathered on my downtube at the same time. On the other parts, where there was no way through without a snorkel, I had no (sensible) choice other than to divert onto the road.
Post Guildford, it was onto the Downs Link. I made up ground lost after my earlier aquatic adventure by virtue of the flat, straight paths with very few obstacles – other than the odd tree that had fallen victim to Ciarán’s wrath.
The final part of the day took me up over the South Downs Ridge before dropping down into Lancing for fish and chips and the night’s hotel. The day’s final piece of entertainment was in the form of a massive pig farm as far as the eye could see. Of course, this provided the perfect opportunity to send my sister a photo telling her I found where she was born, it is the responsibility of an older brother after all…
This was the day I’d been looking forward to most before the trip. I’d heard great things about the South Downs Way, so I was really eager to experience it in person. After a short commute on the tarmac to the gravel, I was on the loose stuff for the majority of the rest of the day. As anyone who’s been down towards Brighton and Sussex will know, the scenery is superb. The rolling hills and now flooded fields reflected the October sun to my right, while the waves of the English Channel glinted to my left – the ridge providing a superb vantage point for both.
The surface was perhaps better suited for a mountain bike in many places, meaning for a bumpy few hours. When combined with the elevation of going up and down the ridge, it meant for slow going – not that that was a negative thing in those surroundings.
Having called ahead to the night’s hotel earlier in the day, I knew there wasn’t going to be anywhere for me to clean the day’s grime off my bike. Of course, as common sense would suggest, the only other viable option was to stand in the waist-deep water of the River Itchen that runs through Winchester and clean the bike “the old fashioned-way”. This was my second bout of being waist-deep in water that day after an earlier diversion saw me trudging across an overloaded stream with the bike on my back. The sole downside to be genius cleaning plan was the fact that all my chargers got waterlogged, the journey to search for replacements taking me past an abundance of hoses at the car wash nearby…
While I hadn’t initially earmarked the third day for something spectacular, I can say with some certainty that it was one of the nicest days I’ve spent on a bike. It started out with a beautiful autumnal morning, with the orange morning sun illuminating the road ahead as I headed further west out of Winchester. It only got better from there.
After a short stretch on the road, I was on gravel for large parts of the day, which by now was mostly dry after the previous week’s rain had evaporated. The best sector of which came just after Wilton, where I had had my first stop. It came in the form of a fairly straight stretch of loose, smooth gravel that continued for over fifteen kilometres without a single interruption from tarmac or cars. Dragging up to around 270 metres above sea level, it gave superb views of Wiltshire on both sides.
As the sun started to sink over the horizon ahead of me, it tinged the entire Dorset countryside with a golden glow. A puncture a few kilometres away from home was perhaps one of the best things that could have happened (you had to see it yourself to fully understand that seemingly bizarre oxymoron). As I sat there changing it, a few inquisitive cows came to see what was going on and I took in this superb part of the UK that I’d never seen before.
It would, of course, have been far too simple to get to my B&B, eat and go straight to sleep. Oh no, that’s not the Mattie Dodd way. Upon arrival, I cleaned my bike (with a hose this time), and turned my attention to looking for lunch – yes, lunch at 5pm. The owner of the B&B being out, the next best source of information available, Apple Maps, told me that the nearest supermarket was 3.5 miles away. In my infinite wisdom, I decided the best choice of footwear to ride there was flip-flops, and when I got to the supposed location of this supermarket, I found myself staring at someone’s front porch and with no food in sight.
Turning around to head for home, I accidentally collided with a stubborn concrete curb, which in turn projected most of my being into deep mud. Ego severely bruised, I finally turned up at the door of a nearby pub, after trudging through wet fields to get there. Food at last!
The evening’s adventures didn’t take away from what was a superb day, the one which was, without doubt, the highlight of the trip.
The final day was set to be the most tarmac-heavy of the four rides. The plan was to do the first fifty kilometres off-road, before jumping back onto the asphalt north of Lyme Regis and heading across to Exeter. At least, that was the plan.
After the first hour, I’d got lost multiple times, spent more time walking through ankle-deep mud than riding and covered eight kilometres. The rain that had fallen over Dorset the previous night meant that, at that current rate, it would have taken me fourteen hours to reach Exeter. Once I’d figured out that the gravel (or mud, rather) conditions weren’t improving, I decided it was best to hop onto the road.
That didn’t subtract from the day though, it was another superb ride that took me on roads I’d never been near before. Dorset is somewhere I’d be keen to return to with a road bike. The roads were quiet, the scenery was superb, and the climbs steep and plentiful.
I rolled into Exeter as the sun started to set, slightly out of it, having realised that a sausage roll doesn't really match up to the fuel gels and energy bars provide. I was tinged with a sense of sadness, the bikepacking was something I’d enjoyed and would love to do more of in the future when I can fit it in around racing. I enjoyed the whole trip – it had been the perfect way to explore new places and break up the off-season.
For future trips the first learning would be to camp each evening. I had deliberately chosen not to do that on my first time, given the hotels gave me a bit of a backstop if something, or I, broke.
The On And On was outstanding, it survived everything I threw at. Whether that was mud, overly technical descents, river crossings (and washing), and well, me. It handled superbly and carried much more speed over the gravel than I was expecting it to when fully loaded. The bike I used, as well as many others in different sizes, are all available for test rides in Pearson – I highly recommend taking one out for a spin to discover what I’m talking about.
This trip served as the perfect calendar interval. It's now back into training for the road season, the gravel bike put away for now. I’ll be looking forward to the next chance I have to do another adventure, which I can highly recommend to anybody reading. A simple starter for London-based riders being to do the entirety of the South Downs Way in two days, a timeframe which gives plenty of opportunity to take in the surroundings, and a route that is nearly all off-road with brilliant scenery.
I want to say a massive thanks to Pearson for the bike, and for trusting me to return it in one piece, and to a plethora of gravel aficionados working in the shop who helped me make it a great trip and are more than happy to do the same for others.
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