When I was invited to join this all female group of cyclists on their weekend mission to ride part of the South Downs Way there was no hesitation. Yep. I’m in! A bit naively I thought it can’t be that tough.. can it? Last weekend, I got to find out just how challenging riding nearly 75km off road really is. I can tell you now the saddle sore is still feeling very real!
My level of riding experience is fairly limited. I go for the odd family bike ride and I’ve done a few longer road events over the years – but my off-road experience amounts to a few laps of the Bedgebury single track. I’m happy to bounce around all kinds of terrain on my MTB, but distance and technical terrain combined is a whole new game.
Reilly Wild Women has been put together by Anna Kieran of Reilly Cycleworks and Elaine Burroughs (Reilly Ambassador), keen to run an event that would give women the opportunity to try off road cycling in a safe and supportive environment. This was their first event which saw 15 women come together for 2 days of cycling across the middle section of the South Downs Way. Our group shared a wide range of cycling experience. About half of the group were bike enthusiasts wanting to try a challenging terrain, while others were completely new to the concept of riding off road. I was very much in the novice group (nicknamed the Back-of-the Bus!)
Reilly Cycleworks hand build a range of titanium gravel, adventure and road bikes. Their customised frame builds are renowned for their quality, comfort and style. Lucky for us the Reilly team offered a number of bikes for test riding at the event, offering the chance to sample some of their first class designs for ourselves. I was thrilled to be invited to test one of their signature builds, the Spectre. The Spectre is an All Road model perfect for riding both on the road and on rougher terrain. I couldn’t believe how light it was to lift! An absolute dream to ride on the roads but equally tough enough to take a beating on the downhills. Others in the group tried the Gradient perfect for trail riding and bike packing – in fact they liked them so much them bought the bikes at the end of the weekend! Says it all really…
Route: Washington – Upwaltham (via Findon and Burpham)
We met on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning at the Spring Farm Gardens Farm shop in Washington in West Sussex. After introductions, coffee, bike checks and route briefing we were off! We covered chalk trails, steep craggy hills, farm tracks and grassy pastures. Took in breath-taking views at Chanctonbury Ring and Glatting Beacon. Spotted badgers, soaring kites and wild deer. Even the most hardened of riders in the group found some of the uphill stints challenging. There was no judgement in pushing up some of the climbs. I was surprised at how hard I found the downhill too! The level of concentration needed to make sure you stay on the right bit of track avoiding holes, bumps and sticks is full on! Overall the day was incredible. I loved the feeling of being off the beaten track. That sense of seeing a side of the landscape that you’ve really worked to reach. We rocked up at Littleton Farm Campsite around 4:30pm with aching legs but smiles spread right across our chops.
Littleton Farm Campsite, Upwaltham, Petworth
Littleton Farm is utterly idyllic. Surrounded by the undulating Downs in a lush, green valley on a working farm our pitstop for the night ticked all the boxes. We set up camp, relieved to be out of the saddle before freshening up and heading out for a feed at the local pub. Most of the group headed back out on their bikes. A few of us just couldn’t face another stretch of riding so hitched a lift with the awesome Chris AKA Reilly Taxis. The evening was rounded off with a session around the campfire. I don’t think any of us made up past 11pm. I was certainly tucked up in my cosy sleeping bag before ten. No need for counting sheep tonight, I was asleep as soon as my head touched my pillow.
Route: Upwaltham – Washington (via Slindon Estate and Amberley)
We started the day with a much needed pit stop at the Upwaltham Cadence Clubhouse Cafe. This cycle focused pop up is located right at the entrance of the campsite with a wholesome menu offering the likes of porridge, soda bread delights and coffee to die for. We decided the group would split today to suit everyone’s preferred pace. I stuck loyally with the Back-of-the Bus crew dead set on just getting to our destination in one piece rather than pushing for any kind of personal best.
I found the second day’s riding really hard. The first 10k were okay but then the saddle sore started to really bite. My knees were feeling every incline and I was very aware I was starting to hold up the group. I was gutted that my fatigue meant I couldn’t fully appreciate the stunning surroundings our route was taking us through – bluebell woodland, winding lanes and sweeping views all passed me in a blur.
With 6 miles still to go we decided we’d finish the last stretch on road. As much as it felt like I was the only one finding today’s ride hard the group consensus was that we were all feeling pretty done in by this point. The constant down hill bumps and uphill cardio was too much. We needed a fix of smooth road to see us home.
It was the right decision. We bombed through the last stretch making good time on the last 10k. It felt so good to reach the Spring Farm Gardens Farm shop – we even got a round of applause! We were rewarded with an incredible spread put on by the farm shop and endless cups of tea. A hard slog but hugely rewarding with new friendships made along the way.
Despite the challenges this weekend threw at me I genuinely loved every minute. The sense of comradery between us as a group was so uplifting. These women, most of whom hadn’t met each other before, were encouraging, supporting and cheerleading each other relentlessly throughout the weekend. It was also a joy to be greeted with beaming smiles and comments from passers by on how refreshing it was to see a large group of women cycling together. An all female groups of off-road cyclists is clearly something that’s not a common sight, especially across the Downs. I’m happy to say the saddle sore has faded much faster than the memories, so much so I’m hanging out for the next Reilly Cycleworks event… do you fancy joining us?
You can read the latest updates and news from Reilly Cycleworks here. Thanks to Anna, Chris and Elaine for putting together such an inspiring event.