White Horse Challenge 2017

This year seems, so far, to be one for going back to events that I’ve not done recently.  This time around, having been unable to attend & review it last year as I was doing the Tour of Pembrokeshire, it was the White Horse Challenge.  Which again, like the Mad March Hare, I’ve done a fair few times, and do like.  And, as it turns out, one of the BKVelo group who’d signed up to do it was unable to, which meant that Matt was able to join me for it too, even if I would have to call him Jon all day… 😉

So.  Welcome to Sunday 23rd April.  The day after eldest turned 19, which we celebrated on Friday in an attempt to be vaguely abstemious the actual night before.  And we took Saturday easy.  Four of us enjoyed some lovely weather, visited the beaches beyond Sand Bay, had the odd pint afterwards in the sun outside The Oakhouse in the Square with friends, and did the usual faffing and preparation.  It was a good day, albeit a slightly ouchy one, which bode well for the Sunday to follow.  

Saturday night however was not a good one…  Slightly ouchy became proper ouchy.  The heavy artillery came out.  Mentally I was pretty restless, as I get pretty nervous and stressed before events these days.  And thanks to that and the side effects of the zoladex that I’m on, the latest step in establishing the next steps (if any) to be taken in my treatment, I got f*ck all sleep.  Not the best foundation for a day ahead on the bike.  Marvellous. 

parked up

But waking up to sunny skies helped.  And at least I didn’t have to be trying to sleep any more.  HQ for the White Horse Challenge is at Shrivenham, about 1.5 hours from here, so the alarm (as if it were needed) kicked us into action at 5:00am.  Matt loaded up the car, we drank coffee, I forced down breakfast, because apparently food is considered to be a good idea, and we got away a bit after 6:00am as planned.  

registration ready to go

Matt drove, being my chauffeur extraordinaire as ever, while I tried, and failed, to get some sleep.  The sun shone, the wind did not blow, and we arrived where we supposed to be around 7:30am, to be marshalled onto the parking on the field near Shrivenham Village Hall.  Parking was already fairly full, and we were up at the end of what proved to be the penultimate row.  Several lines of cars were lined up and discharging expensive bikes and posh lycra.  Outside the nice warm car the weather was lovely, but distinctly chilly.  A short walk across the grass, trying not to get damp feet, got us and our helmets to HQ.  As usual there were queues for the few portable toilets outside, and, as usual, the toilets inside were queue free, and let’s face it, much nicer to use.  So I used those ones before rejoining ‘Jon’ at Registration.  BKVelo’s remaining representatives Martyn & James were already there, sitting on the stage looking laid back and taking it easy.  Well if I could ride like they do, I would too!  After a brief chat with them I joined my non existent queue to register.  Can you join a non-existent queue?  Hm.   Anyway…  Tables were set out by rider number batches and presumably all the others in my batch had already signed up.  Go 549!  Matt wasn’t quite so lucky, but it still didn’t take long.  While he waited his turn, I signed my name, had my timing sticker stuck on the LHS of my helmet, and was given my bike number.  Formalities done for both of us, we rejoined BKVelo for a bit of a catch up before they headed back to their cars to get ready.  Which was to be the last we saw of them…unsurprisingly considering the speed they go at!  Shortly afterwards, having picked up a map, cable ties, and a couple of free cups of tea, we followed suit.  

Much faffing ensued.  This early in the season, my sportive skills are still rusty.  Bikes to be reassembled, pockets to load up, and endless conversations about kit options.  Most around us seemed to think that shorts were a good idea, and also team kit.  Both of which were debatable…  With only one fairly long route option available, this event seemed to have attracted a more ‘pro’ crowd than usual – the average price of the bikes, and the kit on display, demonstrated that.  It was good to see quite a few woman around though, which is so often not the case.  

Shorts weren’t going to do it for me.  Do be serious.  It was cold, and I get cold.  Having had a good ride in similar conditions with Alan during the week, I was fairly sure that I had my outfit sorted, but that didn’t stop me worrying.  So…summer tights (long), s/s base layer, l/s winter jersey, l/s mid weight jacket. Mitts with over gloves.  Neckwarmer and head buff.  And gilet.  Yes, I know, it sounds like overkill, but I know, from painful experience, that I get cold.  And then stay cold.  And that’s on a good day.  When my ouchy is off on one, as it was, I get even colder.  Layers it is and was.  

Riders were allowed to leave between 8:00am and 9:00am.  We could have rushed and gone over earlier, stood in the shade amongst all the milling riders, and headed off first thing but…that didn’t appeal.  And there’s no rush for such things is there?  It’s not a race, right? 😉  So by the time we were properly ready and happy to get going there weren’t many left hanging around at the Start Line.  One more trip to the facilities and at 8:13, IIRC, we were rolling over the start line, and on our way.  

Brrrr…..chilly!  But sunny.  PMA was doing ok, ish.  I know this ride, and I’ve done it lots, but for some reason the first 30 miles or so didn’t seem that familiar.  Weird.  Funny how the mind works…  Wherever I was going, it was however fairly flat.  Fairly easy.  Which is good for warming up.  Not that it was warming up!  It was SO pretty though. We were all set for a long day in the saddle, and prepared for that.  So we chatted, admired the scenery, stopped from time to time for whatever – bits in eyes, calls of nature, photo ops, or just to take a deep breath so as to keep calm and carry on.

yellow and signs wootton bassett

It still wasn’t getting much by way of warmer as the miles ticked by.  But gradually things started getting a lot more familiar.  The flat country lanes turned into villages and then Royal Wootton Bassett which I know well, from well before it becoming Royal, and which I also knew meant the first of the White Horse’s big hills was looming large ahead.  Well ok, it wasn’t, not visually anyway, but it was mentally.  I wasn’t worried about it from an ascent point of view.  The Broadtown climb is a long gradual one with the odd bend, steep enough but not too steep, and I’ve done it before so I know I can do it. I was more worried about how I’d feel doing it, as it was likely to set the tone for the rest of the ride.  We headed down the high street, admiring the old buildings , and then out towards said hill.  I wasn’t in any rush – it was time to eat, drink, gird my loins, and get ready.  Oh and try and spot the darned horse so I could immortalise it for blog purposes – easier said than done…but easier than sometimes since the weather was clear and I knew roughly where to look!  Feel free to see if you can spot it…

spot Broadtown if you can here comes the first climb

And it was as expected.  A long slow drag up.  It went ok, as these things go.  Hard work, but doable.  I even dropped Matt for a bit…although he’d caught me by the time we finally reached the top, where I could breathe a sigh of relief and get back to enjoying the scenery.  I’m going to say this a lot I expect, but man it was beautiful out there today.  Green trees, grass, hedges, crops, yellow oil seed rape, bluebells, blue skies…just lovely.  

it was all yellow trees before descent

Which is just as well  I’d been doing ok, but going up that hill kicked things up a level. Ouchy was getting worse.  Which was not great.  The scenery helped distract, make it all a little more tolerable.  And the descent a couple of miles later on was great.  A marshal was on hand to warn us to slow down a bit, which is necessary here as it’s wiggly and narrow near the top, the road surface ain’t great, and if a car is coming the other way, you can easily have had it.  We hadn’t, and so, as it opened up and straightened out, there was whole heaps of fun to be had 🙂

matt on top smiley selfie

After the fun came more flat.  Country lanes, quiet roads, the scent of leaking gas – there’s been a leak around here for years I reckon as I notice it every time!  The first food stop was ahead of us, but the time for my next dose of shiny pills came somewhat before that.  So we stopped, took a breather sat by the side of the road, and I lost it, and cried for while, and then resorted to the big guns again, having found a nifty way of carrying a couple of doses around with me.  Sat there, with round 30 miles done, screaming on the inside and dripping on the outside, I really couldn’t see how I was going to manage another 60 miles…and this is a route that has no easy bail out options.  Oh dear…  

first food stop fodder first food stop

Time to just carry on and see what happened then.  And another few miles got us to the food stop.  We were among the last there, and staff gossip had only a handful of riders behind us and the couple of gents who were also taking refreshment there.  Not that we cared.  Knowing that wasn’t going to make us suddenly go faster!  Time to top up bottles, grab some food, use the facilities in the hall, and sit in the sunshine getting it together for a bit.  Sat in the sun, out of the wind, I was practically warm for a bit.  I forced down one of the ham rolls that we’d brought with us as an antidote to the standard sweet fare, and tried not to worry too much about what lay ahead…  

Cherhill Avebury

Time waits for no-woman, and the broom wagon was lurking around.  I wasn’t quite ready to suffer that ignominy.  Bailing after 30 miles?  That’s just a training ride, right?  Besides I knew that some of the best bits were ahead.  Cherhill, Avebury, Hackpen Hill, the Marlborough Downs…  So it was time to zip the layers back on and up and to head out again.  The broom wagon may have been removing the odd sign on its way – it passed us going in the opposite direction heading toward the food station – as one of the next roundabouts was distinctly lacking in signage, but I pretty much knew where I was going, so it wasn’t a problem.  And where we were going was the long A4 drag past the white horse & monument on Cherhill, up the appropriately named “labour in vain hill”.  Well our labour wasn’t in vain as, although we laboured on for quite some time, (and over-laboured the re-use of the word labour), we made it to the top without incident; easier said than done with the sunny Sunday traffic flying by in both directions.  From there we flew down to the roundabout for the left turn to Avebury.  A little up and down, clinging to the curb so as not to get in the way of the ambulance that clearly had somewhere very urgent to be, and we were passing the famous standing stones, which is always kinda cool.  Given the weather, plenty of tourists were out and about and enjoying them too, which looked enjoyable, but it always feels kinda cooler to be flying past the stones our way 🙂


Out the other side, where the road gets wider, and swoopy, and kinda fun mostly, apart from when it’s busy, which is frequently.  It’s a case of getting the next few miles over and done with, as the Downs line the horizon, and slowly in the distance, Hackpen Hill gets larger…  Time for another break first.  It was definitely one of those days…  Well like I said earlier, we’d known it probably would be, a long day riding our bikes in the sun – a day out, not an event.  I needed a comfort break, and a gel, and a hug, and so after we’d turned off the main road, we took a short time-out for all the above.  We were just past the half way mark, the passing of which had helped add a little PMA, so I managed to take a break without blubbering this time.  The fact that the drugs were mostly working may have had something to do with that too 😉

here comes hackpen hackpen  

All comfortable again, time for Hackpen Hill.  Another long drag with hairpins and plenty of up to it.  You can see it from afar, wiggling up the hill, but again done it before, and did it again.  Go me!  Matt struggled rather more than me – I think it definitely helps to know your enemy when fighting your way up it.  Familiarity but not contempt though.  The views going up and from the top were amazing, and made it all worthwhile.  I like hills like this one.  I may be rubbish at hills, even worse than I ever was, but that doesn’t stop me kinda liking them sometimes.  Hey, I just have longer to appreciate them than you do 😉  I’m not sure Matt appreciated it at all…  

Matt on Hackpen Hill ready for the Downs

Welcome to the top of the Marlborough Downs.  Having done the up, I’d earned the Downs, and the down from here to Marlborough is one of my favourite stretches of road anyway.  It’s about 15 minutes of mostly down, with a bit up up towards the end to get to the town itself.  Now that I can both do AND enjoy.  And I did.  Muchly.  After losing some of his lunch, Matt got to see why I love this bit too, and a little while later we finally reached Marlborough high street where a couple of marshals spotted us coming and pointed us in the right direction.  Well, the left direction anyway.  They were looking a little demob happy, probably because their work here was nearly done…lucky them!

chopping knife lane matt in the forest

Before we left town we stopped at a petrol station for manna from heaven.  AKA fizzy orange.  It’s my pick me up, and I needed one.  It turned out to be a funny old place, half empty, with a small girl hurtling round the place on a scooter, while her mother (presumably) served me, and asked me what all these cyclists were doing going past her place today.  I explained, and she did the usual normal person’s double take, you’re all mad type thing.  Which oddly made me feel a little better.  Sure, I was doing, and feeling, rubbish, but we were still doing something way more impressive than sitting on the sofa, right?  Thanks to fizzy orange and drugs and the miles counting down now I was definitely feeling a bit better, but Matt was suffering a bit now – this was hopefully going to be his longest road ride ever – and from hereon in he did have a tendency to be a little slower than me, and behind me on the ups.  I don’t have speed, but apparently I still have stamina, which is good to know!

bluebells the hill with no name

We headed out of town and took the left turn down my other favouritely named road – Chopping Knife Lane.  Our is not to wonder why…  The stretch after this is lovely and quiet, down what is more of a track than a lane, along the side of a wide valley.  This is followed by country lanes, cute villages, forest climbs…all beautifully quiet, and the perfect place for carpets of bluebells to flourish.  I love bluebells 🙂  And then there’s THAT hill.  The one I always forget is there that suddenly, after a right turn over a river, is the road ahead of you.  It’s steep.  With a nastily wiggle in the middle, and it goes on for longer than you think it’s going to, or want it to.  Ramsbury Hill I think.  Up which I plodded as ever.  I did my own share of wiggling to reduce the gradient a little, and it was proper hard work.  I very gradually made my way up, ahead of Matt, having got the jump on him at the start since I knew it was there, and then it was done.  Another tough hill under my non-existent belt – I was wearing bibs 😉

middle of nowhere Froxfield food stop

After recovering, and a fair few miles of swoopy in the middle of nowhere roads, admiring the rolling scenery, we made it to the second food stop at Froxfield Memorial Hall.  Where they were quite literally packing up around us.  Not that this stopped them being friendly, or meant that they didn’t have provision enough for us.  We took a little time to stock up on gels and fluids, as well as to get rid of some of the latter – food stops at village halls are the only way to go 🙂  

timed Uffington climb amazing Uffington views

So, two thirds done, or thereabouts, and one third to go.  The home straight then?  Well, kinda.  A chunk more miles, but only one real climb left apparently.  One hell of a hill at that.  The timed climb challenge that is Uffington.  The foodstop staff conveniently forgot to mention the other two fairly substantial ups we had to get over on the way there.  With ups come downs though…so it wasn’t all bad 😉  Still, they weren’t hills in the way that Uffington is.  Knowing the route as I do, it was really tempting just to miss that out completely – as it’s just a little loop of the main road.  But to have made it this far and then bail on it?  I couldn’t bring myself to do it, even if I was worried about how much it was going to hurt and if I’d make it up there again.  Nope.  Up we go.  Well, after a brief chat with the marshals at the bottom first, one of whom had made his way here from that first food stop I think.  The ride was definitely closing up behind us!  Off we went and, somewhat oddly, it wasn’t quite as hard as I remember it??!  Maybe because we had it to ourselves and I wasn’t having to dodge other riders, or feel the pressure of spectators watching to see how I was doing.  (Having set off late, we did most of today completely on our own).  Whatever the reason I think I actually enjoyed most of it.  Not the first steepest bit but yes, after that, with Matt leading the way for a change.  I sat back and took time to look at the views, and maybe to give myself a little pat on the back.  

finally relaxing rider

And that was that really.  Time for just a few miles more, down and then along, at a fair pace if not a sprint, to get us back to HQ.  Where we were, as expected, nearly the last ones back.  Not only was the actual ride time rather worse than usual, but what with all the stopping, we’d been out on the road for considerably longer than that!  Not that we cared.  We’d done it 🙂  Matt had done his longest ride ever, on pretty much sod all training, whilst having to look after me.  I’d done my longest ride in a very long time, in lots of pain, and on shed loads of painkillers.  All things considered, we both rock 🙂 White Horse Challenge done!

Cycling time: 6:26
Distance: 90.0 miles
Avs: 14.0 mph

OK, so we didn’t break any records, and I’ve had better days but…pain not withstanding, I did kind of enjoy myself.  I still like this event.  It’s small but perfectly formed. It’s well run, the scenery is amazing, and the hills are challenging but nicely spaced out.  I may have to do it again.  Again 🙂

empty timing tents empty car park