CX Century worries
The CX Century is a must-do gravel event for every UK based gravellista*
*noun: a person who rides gravel. origin: I just made it up. notes: the CX Century is not to be confused with The Gravelista, an Australian round of the ’24 UCI Gravel World Series
The CX Century, it’s a beast. I’ve been doing it on and off for over thirty years! Although it’s not always been called the CX Century, the route is the same. It starts in one of Britain’s earliest capitals, Winchester and follows the 160Km South Downs Way to Eastbourne: handily I live there! The route flows over the South Downs hills, through gorgeous Hampshire and Sussex countryside. This time of year is always the best to visit the region, in all my years doing it, there’s only been one wet edition. Which is just as well, as chalk is a slippery nightmare to ride when it’s wet. On two attempts I had to DNF, suffering from heat-exhaustion: yeah, in the UK I know! Temperatures can reach the high 30s and with little cover on the trail, you are constantly being baked.
Is the CX Century a must-do?
So it’s long and hard, but what makes it a must-do for intrepid gravellistas? While many people choose to do it over two or three days – enjoying the views and many cafes on the way – the full route in a day is a doable in a day, tough but doable. The route is not technical and modern MTBs make it way too easy – can’t have that! On a gravel bike you will be properly challenged. I’m of the opinion that 160Km off-road can be tackled in a day without having to become a total slave to training. While you could go all out and try to beat Daniel Hughes’ record that he set in 2018 of 7′ 25″, most riders will come in around twelve hours. After a terrible litany of injuries and illness, I will not be looking to “do” a time: just finishing under ten hours is my priority.
While the event is called the CX Century, the organisers are happy for you to ride whatever you see fit. Although maybe leave the Brompton at home? I started, many years ago, on a hard-tail Kona Fire Mountain with cantilever brakes, and then a Cinder Cone, slightly lighter, but the same tech. Next up was a titanium Raleigh Dynatech: with front suspension! And we had progressed to V-brakes, so it took longer for my arm-pump to become unbearable!
With the CX name change in 2015, I started riding on my Handsling Bikes CXC. This was their first carbon-fibre cyclo-cross model and a bit of a rocket. Suddenly I was finishing a lot faster than on my 26″ wheeled mtbs: the only problem was I was taking a battering! With some TRP CX8.4 mini-V brakes the braking power had increased, but I was back riding fully rigid. After buying a Trek Procaliber 9.7, I thought I’d give that a go. Big wheels, big tyres, front suspension, disc brakes, carbon frame and a monstrous 52 tooth big cog, it was an off-road weapon. But it was slower overall. While I got PBs on all the downhill sections and arrived relatively fresh, it wasn’t as fast. Maybe I need to learn to ride MTB style?
What are you riding this year?
This year it’s time for another bike change. I’m going back to drop-bars and no suspension with the CEXevo, again from Handsling Bikes. This is an evolution of the original CXC and features wider clearances and disc-brakes, which means I could potentially run 650b wheels. And where I always used a 1x drive-train on the CX Century, this year I’m running 2x. I’ve been using this bike at some of the UCI Gravel World Series races and prefer the set-up.
Gearing on previous editions was a 48 tooth absoluteBlack chain-ring paired with a Sunrace 11-40 cassette. This year I’m on Shimano Di2 105, with 50×34 chain-rings and a 11-36 cassette. Which will give a slightly lower gear, good for those last climbs. And about those climbs, I interviewed Daniel Hughes after he set his record time and was surprised when he told me he walked a lot of the hills! It seems he rode the route a week before – all in the preparation eh? – and timed some of the steeper ascents. And on some he was quicker walk/running. A lot of the climbs are steep and loose and while you can climb them, they take a lot of effort. Effort that Daniel saved for other parts of the route. I’ll be trying to remember those words rather than trying to macho my way up the hills: ride smart!
And of course, what tyres? Well my bike came with a beautiful set of Ian Lynch’s hand-built Handsling wheels. These 40mm carbon hoops feel incredibly fast and have survived gravel races in the Netherlands and Scotland. These are shod with a pair of 44mm Vittoria Mezcal tyres, with their tougher enduro casing. The South Downs Way is covered in chalk and flint, while the former will hammer you, the latter will try and rip your tyres. So far, the Mezcals have proved more than up to the challenge and with the extra volume of air, the ride is a bit softer.
One thing that I haven’t used before, but am considering this year is a tyre insert. I can run my tyres around mid-20psi, which is great for comfort and traction, but you get some pretty scary dings off the hidden rocks on the route: so I run them at 30psi. With a tyre insert I figure I can go lower without risking my rims.
Handlebars, gloves and bar-tape
So what about your front contact points? I’ve always used standard aluminium bars and stems off-road, it’s a confidence thing. And I’ve yet to used flared gravel bars, I don’t have any issues descending in the drops and prefer the look. I have used two layers of bar-tape or Pro Handlebar Gel Pads to alleviate some of the hammering dished out. And of course you’ll be using gloves? I have generally gone for full-finger gloves as the brambles and nettles love to reach out and leave you with a little memento. My recommendation would be a pair like GripGrab’s Race gloves, which I got a good six years of use out of!
What tools to take on your ride? Me, I carry everything and pray I don’t need it and so far, I’ve only had one puncture. But I like to cover all the bases. Most of my tools are in a saddle-bag and wil include the following:
- Inner tubes x2, I’m running tubeless, but better safe than sorry
- tyre levers
- CO2 pump and cannisters
- Spare Presta valve, why? Don’t know but I do
- Small tube of chain-lube. Chalk can suck up you lube and leave your chain a squealing nightmare
I’ve also replaced my bar-ends with a set of tyre-plug tools, one less thing to stuff in my bulging saddle-bag. And I might carry a can of Mucoff’s BAM tyre inflator and sealant, probably overkill. I’ll also take a mini-pump along, as I’ve experienced CO2 cannisters just venting into the atmosphere rather than the tyre: which is not great. Most years I also take a basic first aid kit, stuff to deal with gravel-rash and small cuts. While the South Downs are hardly a wilderness area, you’re often riding through villages, sometimes you can be an hour away from help. So it’s better to be able to sort yourself or another rider out straight away if you can.
While the organisers provide food and drink at the compulsory checkpoints, I always take my own, just topping up my water and grabbing something quick. With the conditions generally being hot and fast I’ve found I can really suffer if I just use gels and energy drinks. What I take now is two bottles, 650ml, anything bigger and you risk it flying out on the descents. One has an energy drink and the other is just water. It’s easy on your stomach and can be used for cooling yourself. For food I take a pocketful of boiled potatoes (science bit), rolled in parmesan and salt, a small bannana and honey sandwich and five or six gels. No science there, just what I can carry and like and as I say the checkpoints have supplies if it gets really bad: the curly, sun-dried cheese and Marmite sandwiches at the Trueleigh Hill stop are heaven!
And if it does get really hot, there are water taps on the South Downs Way for anyone to use. The best one is the horse tough at Botolphs, which is perfect for cooling hot feet! You can download a map from the National Trail’s website or go to the South Downs Double website: yes people choose to do the double, they often time it to meet up with the CX Century riders, which is humbling. Don’t rely on these as they are occasionally out of action.
So there you go the CX Century, it is a gravellista’s must-do. It will take a hell of an effort to deal with the terrain – all the big climbs are backloaded – and in the summer the ground can be hard as concrete. But the views off the Downs in Hampshire, or your first sight of the sea are amazing. And once you hit the eastern end of the Downs you will be constantly serenaded by Skylarks high above, magic.
I’ll be heading to Winchester the night before, it’s an early start. I have taken the train from London before, the organisers will wait for the first train to get in if you let them know. The nice thing about starting half an hour or so behind is you constantly have wheels to follow! So go on enter today, become one of us!