South Downs Way
The South Downs Way is a classic mountain bike trail that provides a challenge for riders of all abilities. On this trip you will cycle along a chalk ridge from Winchester through the Hampshire and Sussex South Downs to the white cliffs of Eastbourne.
The difficulty of the terrain varies enormously throughout the year. Care should be taken when planning a trip to ensure distances each day are appropriate for the fitness and experience of the group. If you prefer to walk the trail see Walk the South Downs Way for information and advice.
- 96 miles / 155 kms
- 13,200 feet / 4000 metres
- 1-4 days
- Winchester - Eastbourne
Most people cycle from west to east, as the wind is usually behind you. However you can of course start in Eastbourne and finish in Winchester. The wind direction is very important. Cycling into a headwind is exhausting and may prevent you finishing the ride each day.
Winchester to Butser Hill
Shortly after leaving Winchester you climb the first hill on the South Downs Way to Cheesefoot Head with its fine views across the city and south to the coast. The next 6-7 miles are easy cycling to Beacon Hill high above the Meon Valley before you descend to the river and then climb again to the summit of Old Winchester Hill. After Meon Springs there is a stiff climb to Salt Hill and the Sustainability Centre before you reach the top of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way.
Bustser Hill to Bignor Hill
The hair-raising ride down the grassy slopes of Butser Hill is followed by a steady climb through Queen Elizabeth Country Park woodland. Above Buriton the trail levels out as you follow the ridge to Harting Down with its fine views to the north. After Harting the South Downs Way threads its way through more woodland before you drop to Cocking and then climb to Graffham Down. The views to the coast from Bignor Hill high above Arundel are magnificent on a clear day.
Bignor Hill to the Adur Valley
Bignor Hill to the Adur ValleyEnjoy fine views across the Arun Valley before you hurtle down Bury Hill to Houghton Bridge. It is a long steady climb out of Amberley before the trail levels out as you pass Storrington and then drop to the A24. Another climb follows, to the tree circle at Chanctonbury Ring. Push on across mostly flat terrain to Steyning Bowl and then descend through the pig farm at Annington Hill to the River Adur. Hotels and inns for the night can be found in nearby Steyning and Bramber.
Adur Valley to the Ouse Valley
A big breakfast is needed to tackle the first of many hills today. From the River Adur there is a long ascent to Truleigh Hill before the trail immediately drops and then climbs again to Devil's Dyke. Try to avoid stopping for a beer and instead push on to Pyecombe. Climb again to the windmills above Clayton before traversing the grassy slopes to Ditchling Beacon. More gentle cycling follows as you descend to the A27 outside of Lewes. The climb to the ridge above Kingston can bite but you are rewarded with more fine views.
Ouse Valley to Eastbourne
Enjoy a break at the Southease hostel cafe before tackling the climb to Firle Beacon. From here the trail descends to the pretty village of Alfriston. Walkers head to the coast but the cycling route is up and over Windover Hill, you pass the chalk Long Man on the way, to Jevington. One final grinding hill out of Jevington takes you to the cliffs at Beachy Head high above Eastbourne. Enjoy a beer in the pub or drop down to Eastbourne seafront for a much deserved ice cream.
We have carefully designed three itineraries for groups cycling the whole trail from Winchester to Eastbourne. The distances shown are a guide only and depend on the accommodation you choose each night. Large groups may need to use hotels and inns in towns nearby, Chichester, Arundel and Brighton for example.
Cycling the South Downs Way in two days is tough and requires very good weather conditions during the trip and in the days leading up to it. The second day is slightly shorter but the hills are longer. Plan to be on the bike for 10-12 hours each day.
Day 1 - Winchester to Storrington - 51 miles / 82 kms
Day 2 - Storrington to Eastbourne - 45.5 miles / 73 kms
Cycling the trail in three days is an enjoyable challenge and gives you time in the evening to enjoy a meal and a few drinks. There are overnight stops in the West Sussex Downs and Lewes. The shorter final day gives time for the return transfer back to Winchester.
Day 1 - Winchester to Cocking/Graffham - 35-38 miles / 56-61 kms
Day 2 - Cocking/Graffham to Lewes - 38-40 miles / 61-64 kms
Day 3 - Lewes to Eastbourne - 25 miles / 40 kms
With cycling distances each day of just over 25 miles and overnight stops in the market town of Petersfield, Amberley and Lewes this is a very pleasant trip to experience the South Downs.
Day 1 - Winchester to Petersfield - 26 miles / 42 kms
Day 2 - Petersfield to Amberley - 25 miles / 41 kms
Day 3 - Amberley to Lewes - 28 miles / 45 kms
Day 4 - Lewes to Eastbourne - 25 miles / 40 kms
Hotels & Inns
We have listed some of the better hotels and inns with links to TripAdvisor where you can read customer reviews and check prices and availability.
When booking accommodation ask if there is secure storage for your bikes and the time breakfast is served in the morning. All should be able to provide packed lunches. For those starting late or cycling long distances, check when evening meals end. If you plan to arrive mid afternoon check that the country inns are open as many close between 3 and 6 pm.
There is plenty of choice in Winchester for all budgets although prices tend to fluctuate throughout the year and rooms can be in short supply during public holidays. Some hotels allow you to leave your car in their car park during your trip.
Petersfield at approx. 26 miles from Winchester is 2.5 miles off the trail, follow the Shipwrights Way cycle path from Buriton. South Harting is at the bottom of Harting Down, 27 miles from Winchester.
Many cyclists riding over 3 days stop at Cocking, which is 34.5 miles from Winchester. Cocking has a pub and a tiny shop but little else. An easy 2.5 mile ride north along the busy Causeway (A286) takes you to the pleasant market town of Midhurst, which is worth considering as accommodation options in Cocking are limited. If you continue past Cocking there are country pubs with accommodation at Charlton and East Dean.
Amberley in the Arun Valley at 46 miles from Winchester is a pretty village with a shop and two pubs. A little further along the South Downs Way you can descend to Storrington. This is a busy village with several restaurants, pubs and shops. At 51 miles from Winchester it is half way to Eastbourne. The descent and climb back up to the trail is steep but along a quiet, smooth surfaced country lane. Just before you cross the busy A24 you can follow a bridleway south for 2.5 miles to Findon Village.
Steyning is a pretty village at the foot of the hills. There are shops, pubs and restaurants but the accommodation options are limited. In the neighbouring village of Bramber, 60 miles from Winchester, there is the Old Tollgate Best Western Hotel. Further along the trail is Ditchling, which has two pubs, both with rooms. When you reach Ditchling Beacon if you drop off south you can spend the night in Brighton.
The historic town of Lewes is 3 miles off the trail (safe, easy riding along the Lewes to Brighton cycle path beside the A27) but worth the diversion. There are few other accommodation options in the neighbouring villages so most cyclists find themselves in the town for a night. The best hotels are Pelham House and The Shelleys but room prices for both are high - far too high really. The Dorset pub beside the Harveys Brewery is a popular choice and has a garage for bike storage.
Eastbourne has a huge choice of hotels for all budgets so unless there is a large convention in town you should have no problems finding a room. The View Hotel and the Cavendish Hotel are on the sea-front close to the pier and town centre.
We are often asked the following questions and hope that you will find the answers useful.
Most people cycle from west to east as the prevailing wind is usually - but not always - from behind and the views from the cliff tops at Beachy Head are a lovely end to your holiday. However you can of course start in Eastbourne and finish in Winchester.
The wind direction is very important. Cycling into a headwind is exhausting and may prevent you finishing the ride each day.
The south east of England has warmer temperatures throughout the year compared to all other areas of the UK. Perhaps the best time to visit is in spring and autumn. In April and May the meadows are awash with colour and in October and November the trees are very beautiful. There will be less competition for accommodation at these times too.
Spring, the months of March through to May, is generally a calm, cool and dry season. However, as the sun rises higher in the sky and the days grow longer, temperatures can rise relatively high but then tend to drop off again at night.
Summer, from June to August, is the warmest season and when there is least rainfall. Autumn lasts from September through to November. The season is notorious for being unsettled.
During the winter months of December, January and February the weather is generally cool, wet and windy. On a crisp clear winter morning the views can be terrific. However the days are much shorter.
The South Downs Way is very well signposted and the landscape is full of features so you are unlikely to use your compass.
The Harvey Map of the South Downs Way covers the whole trail on one convenient sheet. It's at a scale of 1:40000. It shows the trail very clearly but it does not cover a large area either side of the path. This means that you can miss many of the villages, places of interest and pubs that are just off the trail. It is also not much use should you become lost.
Ordnance Survey maps are very good but unfortunately you have to purchase lots of them to cover the whole South Downs Way. Landranger Maps are to a scale of 1:50000:
We like the South Downs Way Adventure Series book of maps which shows the route on Ordnance Survey Explorer map tiles (1:25000).
As cyclists cover the distance quite quickly a guidebook is not needed really, especially since so much information is available on the web. If you do want to take a book with you we recommend the South Downs Way Trailblazer guidebook. Although written for walkers it is still useful for cyclists.
There are drinking water taps approximately every 10-12 miles along the South Downs Way to refill water bottles. These are shown on the Harvey Map.
Those with sensitive stomachs may want to take purification tablets with them as the taps are usually on farms.
Most people will cycle the trail in 2-4 days - 3 days makes for a pleasant trip.
There are no official records for the fastest times the South Downs Way has been cycled. Completing the 100 miles in a single day is a fantastic achievement and only possible when conditions are perfect.
The very strongest of riders will cover the distance in less than 12 hours. Fit and confident cyclists can ride the trail in 2 days but it is gruelling - expect to be in the saddle for at least 10 hours each day. At the end most cyclists say that the ride was much harder than they had anticiapted.
Conditions make an enormous difference - a muddy trail makes the going really tough. During very wet periods exhausted cyclists often need transport at the end of the day because they have either ran out of energy or daylight (or both), and therefore are unable to reach their accommodation.
Organised events: during the summer there are several large events organised, endurance runs and charity walks for example. When planning your trip it is best to avoid the events as large groups on the path tend to hold you up.
Timings: if you are attempting to ride the South Downs Way over 2 days or less you need to be strict with time keeping as regular stops can add hours to each day. The larger the group the more frequent and longer the stops become. Use a stop watch to limit breaks. For example, stop every hour on the hour for no more than 5 minutes.
Breakfast: for cyclists riding against the clock, check with you accommodation provider the times of breakfast as a late start can prevent you finishing the ride.
Spare gear: there are few bicycle shops near the trail so take spares with you during the day and pay for your bags, spare tyres, repair tools and even a spare bike to be moved by us. Having the parts and equipment on hand may be the difference between finishing the trail or not.
Punctures: the flinty sections around the Hampshire / Sussex border often cause punctures although they can of course occur anywhere along the uneven bridleway. Consider using gel in your tyres and / or lining the tyres with puncture resistant tape. Better still, use the expensive puncture resistant tyres.
Travel light: cycle with as little extra weight on you as possible. The trail is really not suitable for cycling with panniers so either carry a tiny backpack or use a small handlebar bag or saddlebag that hug the bike's frame.
Off-road distances: cycling off-road in the South Downs is a challenge. In dry conditions the effort required to cover a distance is similar to double that on road. For example, cycling 25 miles along the South Downs Way is similar to riding 50 miles on road. In wet conditions it is closer to three or four times more strenuous.