I woke up on Sunday morning, actually excited about doing a sportive. And it’s been a while since that was the case. I don’t know why, I think it’s because I’ve had hints of form lately, my weekday rides had gone fairly well, and had kicked my PMA off a bit. With a lovely weather forecast, no kids at home, it really didn’t matter how long it took, I was going to get to spend a day around lovely scenery, riding my bike in the sun. That’s never a bad thing
So, the alarm went off, and ok, I won’t pretend I bounced out of bed, but I was up and at ‘em fairly easily, with the sun rising, blue skies overhead, and that general feeling of optimism about the day. The White Horse Challenge starts from Shrivenham, which is only an hour or so away, and this year was to be my third. 2008, 2013, and 2014. Numbers to conjure with, like 501 (very Levi’s), being my rider number, noted from the website beforehand, as instructed, so as to make registration easier. We would see…
As I arrived at HQ, I saw some of the ACG there already, walking towards the hall. Later than them, I was still early enough to be marshalled into a parking space just around the corner in the little tarmac car park there. Hard standing is always nice, easy walking distance from HQ is even better. I decided to go and register before gaffing for a change, what with it being so close. Registration numbers were organised in batches, and since I was in the 501+ group, finding me couldn’t have been easier, and with the usual spiel, “map and cable ties over there, help yourself to coffee”, my timing chip was stuck on the left hand side of my helmet, and I was done.
I spotted the ACG peloton lounging around the stage and joined them briefly, but I wasn’t up to their level conversationally today, let alone on the road, so I excused myself after a bit, and headed back to the car, via a slightly smug walk past the queueing gents to the Ladies – sometimes being a minority is great There were portable toilets outside, but if you don’t have to, why would you?
Back at the car I faffed. A little, not a lot. Sunny it may have been, but it was still pretty nippy. However since I was riding for Cyclosport, and I have Cyclosport kit, deciding what to wear had become a whole heap easier than it might otherwise have been. So, lightweight longs, short sleeve Cyclosport jersey, long sleeve heavier Cyclosport jersey, Cyclosport gilet, mitts, windproof overshoes, and a couple of buffs – neck and head. Which reminds me I still haven’t relocated one of them, I must have a better look at some point!
No sign of anyone ACG ish in the carpark, or at HQ where I loitered near the start with intent. At some point Guy walked past me and then back, at which point we did have a brief chat. The lads were up for trying for a sub 5 hour time, which was/is totally beyond me. Nice though it was of him to ask if I wanted to join them, what would be the point? I’d just get dropped, or let them down, so I excused myself once more. OK, yes, sure, I was a little sad about it, but hey, let’s be realistic. A little while later I spotted them all standing all ready and joined them for a bit to wait instead – that I could do.
At some point the relevant time came, and riders were allowed over the start line with very little fanfare. Well, none actually. I set off ahead of the others somehow, but it didn’t take long for them to pass me and head off into the sunrise. Probably somewhere around the first draggy hill which isn’t really a hill I guess but feels like it, as it’s only a mile or so in, and I was a long way from warmed up, unless feeling like death warmed up as I crawled up it counts!
After that things got a little easier. Things got warmer, including me, though the wind and air were still pretty nippy rushing past me. The first 25 miles or so are pretty flat, allowing you to get into your stride, so to speak, admire the scenery, and just enjoy being out there.
This is all familiar territory for me. My in-laws live just up the road. Well, soon to be ex-laws I supposed. Out-laws? To be honest, if I’d remembered that, this sportive might not have been on my list, but somehow I’d sort of forgotten, possibly because I’ve done so many sportives now that they do tend to blur into one a bit, and also because I did remember how beautiful this route is. Still, as I pootled my way through Purton and Wootton Bassett, sorry Royal Wooton Bassett, and the like, I did have to do a bit of mindfulness, and focus on the now not the then and the what was. However there was plenty to look at. Cricklade had its Town Crier yelling as we went past. The lady Mayor was out in Wooton Bassett, waving us by. Pretty villages, flowers, thatched cottages, and beautiful countryside, what’s not to love?
The first big climb of the day was upon us – at Broad Town. I know there’s a white horse on it, but with the sun rising behind the hill and casting it all into shadow, today I couldn’t see it. I’ve done this climb several times, and it’s one I like. I like it even more when it isn’t covered in snow, as it was last March! It wiggles up through trees, isn’t massively steep, and goes on long enough for my crawler gear to engage – all the boxes ticked for me really. Some others weren’t enjoying it so much, so some of the other hills later on were going to prove a real challenge for them, something I didn’t tell them, obviously!
Once up the hill we turned right, to ride across the top, with views, and fields of stunning yellow oil seed rape, and it was just a joy. The descent the other side wasn’t so much fun – it’s technical, shaded, with a lousy road surface, but came complete with warning signs and marshals. Once it settles down a bit though, I got a bit of what I do best, all the way from there to the first food stop, flying along, fast, flat, fun… Note to others sitting on my wheel – your shadows betrayed you…and it’s kinda unfair to take a ride for a few miles and then overtake me and head off! Oi – no fair!
Ah well, not the first time, won’t be the last. I didn’t really feel the need to stop but figured that it’s hard to review a ride properly without experiencing all of it, and I’m glad I did. Having grabbed a few photos and half a banana, someone called my name. It took a while to register since, if I’m doing a sportive on my own, I tend to presume I’m going to stay that way and tend to be off in my own little world. It turned out to be Alex, one of my twitter friends, who I’ve met before, albeit only briefly at last year’s aborted Endura Lionheart. It was nice to see a familiar face, and even nicer to be invited to join him and his mates to ride for a while.
Well, good plans and all that… We hung out for a while. Alex very chivalrously leant me his wheel to sit behind for a while. His mates mostly disappeared, and I predictably dropped like a stone as we crawled up the A4 past the next white horse at Cherhill, once again a place that holds a lot of no-longer pleasant memories for me. We weren’t massively popular with the traffic. All of us heading east, with a time trial going on going west, meant the cars were sort of picking their way through us, and I was glad it was still early in the day and not too busy. Once again it was a beautiful place to be on a day like this, there were some great jerseys to admire, and once the climbing is done, the flying stretch along the A4 towards Avebury is a blast, which is when I passed Alex and rather than picking him up as I’d meant, kind of accidentally dropped him. But I was having so much fun, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles, etc.
Avebury always seems to go too fast for somewhere that is so big. A couple of minutes, quick glimpses of standing stones, and you’re through and heading along the next lovely rolling section. It would be easy to overdo it here, but I knew the next white horse would be along shortly, so I kept it sensible and spent some time sitting behind an Ireland jersey and conserving my energy. Oddly for ages I couldn’t quite keep up with him, and then suddenly I’d gone past him and he fell away too. Well, maybe he’d been pushing it, maybe he didn’t want to sit on a girl’s wheel, unlike some
You can see the whole of the climb ahead of you from a long way off. Alex was back with me now, and thanks to his reminder I remembered that one of my favourite downhills comes afterwards, which made the climb far more enjoyable. It’s steeper than Broad Town though, at least initially, and bendier, but it’s more open so there’s plenty to enjoy visually on the way up, to distract you from how you’re feeling. There were a few walkers by now, to be negotiated carefully, as there were some cars going both ways, and a fair few other leisure riders hurtling down and grinning at us as we went up.
There were a few spectators at the top, complete with cowbells, and a red Ferrari. I commented on how nice a car it was, he said it was a nice hill, which seemed a little, well, random. Never mind, time to head for Marlborough. Man, that’s some fun riding. Fast, straight, clear…grins from ear to ear :D. By the time we reached Marlborough I’d somehow managed to lose Alex again, and nearly lost myself. There were no signs and the marshal who was supposed to be pointing us all to turn left on the high street was deep in conversation with a local, and nearly missed me as I nearly missed him! Luckily I saw him, just as he got with it enough to wave in the right direction, besides, I was pretty sure I knew roughly where I was going.
Out of Marlborough, left past the marshals with wine gums and cheery chat, to negotiate the country lanes along the valley that we did on my 40th birthday ride last year. Last year I was in agony, this year I wasn’t, and it was definitely better this way! There were some lumpy bits and one really steep one that somehow I’d managed to completely forget, no idea how, and it was quite a challenge – proper steep too, or at least it seemed that way to me. But I’m ok with hills now, I know I can get up them, and this one was no exception. Hard work, but doable.
Time for the second food stop. I took photos, stashed my gilet, and grabbed corn chips, a savoury snack that went down really well. There was one portable toilet, and one growing queue. Alex arrived behind me, didn’t really stop, just exchanged a few words before heading straight off. It took me longer to catch him than I thought. Not queueing was not a wise move, as my bladder decided I should have stopped, and got fairly insistent about it. The roads just seemed to be dragging now, with wind, and nowhere to stop, and a body totally distracted and not riding well. Finally, and a little ironically maybe, I came across an industrial warehouse place, called WHS Logistics or some such, and a quiet corner down the side where I disturbed some very cute bunny rabbits before sorting out my logistics. I took the opportunity to eat and take a gel before setting off again. And found Alex.
This was the hardest stretch. Which we did together for a while. Slow grind, more of the same old countryside, average speed dropping, head drooping, brain zoning out in the patterns on the road…that gel hadn’t come soon enough, but at least I had taken it. At some point we parted company – again – I think I’d zoned out too far. I just had to do the pace my legs were doing, not faster or slower, and it just kinda worked out that way. After a while I started to feel better, helped by the fact that nonetheless the miles were being eaten up, and the end was getting nearer. I may have felt better but I knew that the last big hill of the day was still ahead of me, the timed KOTH, gratuitous detour, that is Uffington. Another one where you know the white horse is there but never see it!
And, surreally enough, I enjoyed it. Done it before, know I can do it, and this time I seemed to be suffering or struggling less. I just sat back and got on with it. Took photos for the first time, chatted to the odd bystander and the inevitable photographer, grinned to myself, and yes, enjoyed it. Mad :).
I must have been worrying about it more than I thought I was though, because even though there was a bit more up and down afterwards, I was feeling infinitely better, and was on the finishing straight, mentally and physically. I chatted to another rider, who was local, for a bit, and at the 5km to go sign, we pushed off and headed for home. I sat on his wheel, apologetically but he didn’t mind, the entire way in, at proper speed, and loved every minute of the sprint for home.
And just to round things off perfectly, I arrived back at HQ to roll over the timing mat, the much faster, beat me by about an hour, ACG posse were waiting there and cheered me over the line, absolutely and totally making my day Having set off, knowing my recent history and form, and last year’s time, I’d been thinking maybe 7 hrs. However my official time was seconds over 6 hours. My ride time was 5:49:09, one second different, and slower, than last year. I did the hills a little faster, faffed at stops less, and was on my own this year so must have been a little slower where group riding would have helped, and I was just over the moon with it. Big grin. And so nice to have friendly faces around me for the après ride, even if I probably did come across as a bit mental *grin*. I was just so pleased; my longest ride of the year so far and it was so much better than I’d expected. Yep, I was feeling good :).
There wasn’t much to hang around for now, the ACG having been there forever already were off, and I didn’t fancy sitting on the grass and chilling out by myself – not when I could be heading for home and a pint of lager somewhere. We all headed our separate ways, and me and my happy face and silly sunburn marked hands headed back to the car park. White Horse Challenge – done. Again!
Cycling time: 5:45 – SILVER
Distance: 89.6 miles
Avg: 15.6 mph
ODO: 4279.9 miles
PS – sorry Alex!