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Ben James takes on Southern Divide

On Thursday 21st June, riders including RLSCC’s Benjamin James lined up at 0600hrs at Lands End to start the Southern Divide – Autumn Edition.

Around 670km of roads & mixed terrain trails with >10.000 metres of climbing, from one side of the country to the other. A Southern Divide from the Atlantic to the Kent Coast by road. When we say road, what we really mean is, ancient byways, mining trails, woodlands, coastal cliff tops, national trails and a bit of single-track, all joined together with a few bits of tarmac! Finishing in Rochester , Kent and passing through 5 checkpoints (the 5th checkpoint being the finish at Rochester castle). The only time constraint was that CP3 at Corfe Castle would not open till Friday at 1430hrs. The intention of this being to ensure riders got some rest. Ben had entered the "challenge pace" version meaning he had to complete the course in less than 86 hours.

Ben set off on a fully loaded Cyclocross bike, taking more kit than one usually would, owing to the foul weather and linear route, to travel to and from the start and finish as there is no bag drop.

Within 10m of the start, it was straight into the trails, and a very technical descent into St Just – but incredible views of the coast. Very soon, the rain started but had stopped by the time Ben reached CP1 at ~1245, in 2nd position. A quick meal of Sushi, Lucozade, and bottle top ups, it was back on the road to try and hit Exmouth for the evening and CP2. Disaster struck early when one of the rear drop outs fell off! Luckily, he was able to repair it on the side of the road. Continuing on crossing numerous hills up to Tavistock and straight into Dartmoor, and an incredible off-road climb up an old tramway up to Princetown. It was clear the 38/43mm Panaracer Gravelking SK tyres were already going to be a poor choice for the total route owing to the wet, muddy nature of the course. They were selected originally for the road sections with the assumption that the off-road trails would be quite ‘vanilla’. Arriving in Princetown, tarmac was greeted for the total of 100m before being diverted off to a boggy hike a bike section to Hexworthy. On paper it looks flat, but was very much stop start and required more time walking the bike than anticipated.

Exmouth was looking tricky to reach until late at night, and accommodation options very limited and expensive (not to mention being unlikely to arrive before check in closed). By now he was covered in mud, wet through, and with the temperature dipping, a tactical move to dive into a hotel at Bovey Tracey was made to shower, clean and repair the bike. He rested up and took advantage of the time CP3 would open the following day and have an earlier start.

Next morning it was on to CP2 and Starcross Ferry crossing. Being closed, a 25km detour around to Exmouth was in order and then it was onto CP3 – through the jagged jaws of the Jurassic Coast. If you’ve not cycled this section of the Jurassic Coast, hilly is an understatement…

A descent into Sidmouth saw the last of the front brake pads which were then replaced before Branscombe, Seaton, Lyme Regis, Charmouth and then an absolutely killer off-road section to West Bay. Relieved, finally, by some Tarmac for a short section before finding himself back again in the off-road sections across a beautiful area north of Weymouth which was flat and posed incredible views of the south coast.

By this point he had realised reaching CP3 on time for it’s opening was becoming unlikely and 50KM separated the top 5 riders with Ben being 5th. All riders found this section much harder than anticipated, Ben being large anyway and carrying more kit made things slower going. It was onwards to the final sections to CP3 – although 2KM from Corfe Castle going up a climb, Ben had a rear tubeless puncture. There was just enough pressure in them to get to CP3 where he then found that his (newish) bike pump wasn’t working correctly. Disaster.

Luckily, Ben put his engineering skills to good use and managed to get it to work somewhat. However every pump was more like a dying man’s last breath….

He continued on into the night leaving the CP around 6.30pm, in the direction of Wareham before the new Forrest and then the outskirts of Winchester. He then had to wait around in a church porch for a few hours until a local bike shop opened in order to get a replacement tube and pump. Tube and pump acquired, he made his way to the southern and northern downs. The loss of a few hours at the bike shop was worth the wait as another mechanical cross-country 10 miles from a shop with no hope of rescue would've resulted in withdrawing from the event.

On the morning of the 3rd day it was a 5am start after 3 hours sleep. He went off to McDonalds for an ‘ultra-athletes’ breakfast and sorted his kit before heading onto the South Downs. 20 miles from CP4 it was nearly all off-road to Petersfield and then again for the final 148KM stretch to Rochester in Kent.

The first 40KM was nearly all off-road and incredibly technical (for a roadie); the highlight being the walk down Devil’s Punchbowl in surrey (it was definitely more of a walk than cycle as another rider injured themselves trying to descend it) then apart from a quick Co-op stop, it was non-stop the whole day. Being quite tired at this point, he remembered meeting various people and trying to explain where he was going and where he had come from and assumed they only asked as he looked like he was in a bad shape! The bike held up however and the course was finished in Rochester just before 7pm local time. He completed it in 5th place (so likely only lost 1 place due to having to stop for a bike shop to open). An absolutely incredible achievement for any cyclist let alone a roadie.

Out of 29 who started (9 others didn’t reach the start), 18 finished and the remainder DNF'd for various reasons which demonstrates how difficult the course was. If you are interested in a small intimate event or giving this type of event a go, he'd recommend trying the Southern Divide. You can sign up from 29th October for next year's event starting 16th May 2024. One word of advice however...bring big tyres!


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