Queen Elizabeth Country Park, South Downs
Along drive to the south-east of England in the middle of winter to go mountain biking was never the most appealing of propositions, and the crawling traffic and pea-soup fog aren’t making it any more enticing. Despite cars sliding off the road in front of us, we eventually arrive at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park car park, which is so dark we could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve shown up for a night ride.
Fellow riders Derek and Ben – local boys who work and shop, respectively, at Cycleworks in Petersfield – are there waiting for us in the darkness. We decide it’s still far too cold and dark to go cycling, so we head for the cafe instead to order a round of bacon sandwiches and cappuccinos, accompanied by a large side dish of bike talk.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park is a popular destination with cyclists, and it’s about to get even better with the addition of a blue graded route to accompany the existing red trail and purple family route. Despite the limited height gain available, the QECP Trail Build Collective – a dedicated group of volunteers – have made a superb job of getting the most from the area. Although the routes are short, there’s something for all abilities, and they do their job well, with tons of natural riding all around to link in. The blue route is a mostly singletrack, all-weather trail with berms and rollers, while the red route is a much more natural feeling affair with off-camber dirt singletrack and lots of exposed roots.
With our plates and mugs empty, we decide to set off and are immediately rewarded with a stunning view, as the morning sunlight has finally managed to pierce through the fog and great shafts of light now shine down between the trees. Our mood is buoyed by this sight as we realise this could become a great day, and possibly the last sunny, dry ride for a while. Even the slippery, rooty, off-camber climb can’t dampen our spirits – although we’re all secretly pleased that the hills aren’t too big around here.
Dropping back down, we traverse the hillside beside the roaring A3 road, on a fun dirt trail with slippery roots and soft ground that has us drifting, sliding and giggling. Everyone’s tyres are being tested to the max, and even when we wipe out, we can’t stop grinning about this entertaining old-school riding. The next climb brings us to a superb, fast, rollercoaster trail with berms and jumps that urge us on, while the thick layer of fallen leaves that covers the trail does its very best to make us slide out.
We follow the trail through the woods until we come to a dizzying zigzag descent where the famous South Downs chalk creates the most amazingly slippery corners. We have to use every inch of every berm to get us down safely and it’s so much fun we decide to get a few more runs in until someone cops it. After Derek takes the honours, we decide it’s time to leave the red route and join the South Downs Way – while we still can – in search of some more natural trails.
As we drop down the hill, the temperature plummets and it’s so cold and gloomy at the bottom that we’re all unusually keen to attack the climb and get up on to the ridgetop as soon as possible. Ben shows he’s keener (or is it colder?) than most as he shoots on ahead. We follow suit, and with our heads down we quickly cover the ground to arrive at Harting Down.
Breaking out of the trees, we’re soaked in glorious bright, warm sunshine and greeted by the most amazing view, which stops us dead in our tracks. Dense fog covers the world below as far as we can see, making it feel as if we’re on a mountaintop, high above the clouds, looking down on the world. It’s absolutely stunning, and we feel sorry for all the people below, who’ve probably stayed inside because it looks so vile outside.
After tearing ourselves from the view, we skirt Beacon Hill and then scream down a super-fast, and rather squelchy, grassy descent, before gravitating to the other end of the speed spectrum and grinding up a steep hill. At the top, we’re not the only ones with blood rushing to our heads – we startle a deer, which decides to make a bolt to our left, straight into a deer-fence.
It doesn’t give up trying to clear the enormous fence, despite our best efforts to promote the easier option, and eventually manages to leap over. But it catches its hind leg and is left hanging by its ankle, thrashing around and barking wildly. The deer eventually calms down enough that we can get in close enough to untangle it, and finally we free it and watch it bound off through the woods. Russell curses, realising that he’s just missed a unique photo opportunity.
With our good deed of the day done (conveniently forgetting that we caused the problem in the first place), we decide to drop down to Compton and treat ourselves to some mid-ride coffee and cake at the tea shop. With karma, sugar and caffeine levels all restored, talk turns to the blue and red downhill trails in Stoughton, just a few miles south-east of us, despite them being beyond our ride radar today. Suddenly we realise that the sun is quickly disappearing behind the hills, taking the temperature with it, so an escape plan is hatched and we get on our way as quickly as possible.
The tree-lined track past Cowdown Farm is firm, fast and fun. Fuelled with sugar and caffeine we make quick work of it and then pick up the road through Charlton, before heading back off-road and on to Charlton Down. We’ve managed to stay incredibly clean until now, but this thin slither of singletrack is as slippery as hell and slimy lumps of mud are quickly plastering both bodies and bikes. The slippery surface is great fun to snake and slide along though, and we arrive back at Queen Elizabeth Country Park with wide grins, looking like we’ve just ridden for 24 hours solo at Mountain Mayhem.
Being back down in the valley again, we’re gutted that there isn’t enough light (or heat) left for us to risk riding the last, fun zigzag descent of the red route, so we head back to the car park, which is as dark as it was when we arrived this morning. It’s been an amazing day, and has reminded us just how much fun winter riding can be. Looking at the stationary line of cars on the A3 though, we get the feeling we won’t be able to say the same for the journey home...