Highclere Sportive ride report - Road Cycling UK

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Highclere Sportive ride report

Misty conditions at the start

A bunch tackles Walbury Hill

El Moto puts in an attack

‘The Pheasant’ gives chase

The welcome feed at Sparsholt

Picture-postcard scenery

Another group, another hill

Pictures courtesy of Dennis Sackett

What a difference the weather makes. Just two weeks after rain made life hell for riders in the Tour of Wessex, bright sunshine mixed with plenty of fluffy cloud had exactly the opposite effect on participants in the UCI-accredited Highclere Castle sportive. In its second year of running, this 115 mile jaunt around Berkshire and Hampshire had finishers reaching for superlatives to describe their enjoyment of its beautiful scenery, mostly quiet roads and endless succession of undulations.

Even before the start in the handsome grounds of the castle itself, the air was one of eager anticipation. Early mist was slowly clearing, the mobile café was doing a seady trade in coffees and groups were meeting up before heading to the start line for the off. RCUK joined a couple of other journalists for a later start, which proved to be the right idea. Those hoping to be first back may be well-advised to start as early as possible, but if you simply want either a fast time or a companionable ride – or both – then starting later makes perfect sense. There is always another group to either catch or drop back to, and the transponder timing system ensures that the faster finishers get due credit.

The two sportives organised by Britain by Bicycle – the Highclere Castle and the Victor Ludorum, at the end of September – both feature comprehensive finishing lists with placings determined on time inside the relevant standard, with individual and team awards and age categories. A fast finish was clearly the main priority of Paul ‘El Moto’ Vincent, who spent most of the first 25km on the drops on the front of our group before launching a full-on attack up Walbury Hill. This served mainly to drop almost the entire group, with only RCUK’s editor managing to stay in touch. Several others managed to regain contact on the long, gentle descent to Hurstbourne Tarrant that followed, and the pattern of the ride was set.
Until, that is, we reached the first feed stop, which El Moto ignored. Trouble is, nobody noticed until it was too late, leaving RCUK’s editor with a long ride alone. No worries; the countryside around these parts is picture-postcard southern England, with short, sharp climbs leaving behind gentle chalk streams, each valley populated with flint-walled thatched cottages of almost surreal prettiness.

The riding is not easy, but nor is it especially hard, making pace judgement somewhat tricky. Leaving the delightful town of Stockbridge on the River Test, there is a long drag that took many by surprise. It was followed by several more such drags, and the look of relief on the faces of riders reaching the feed at Sparsholt said everything about the previous 30km.

Beyond the feed lay a long climb and descent to Twyford, and the only part of the route that could be described as anything less than stunning. Once beyond the built-up corridor between Winchester and Southampton we were back on rolling Hampshire downland, dropping into West Meon for another feed station. The ride boasts 2500m of climbing, which will surprise none of those toiling out of the Meon Valley that hot early June day.

The next leg to the aptly-named Steep is pure cycle touring country, with meandering lanes, sleepy villages and the ever-present bulk of the South Downs and Butser Hill to the south. At Steep, however, the route turns north again into terrain that, while picturesque enough, is both a little monotonous and amazingly hard graft. Steep itself lies at the foot of the only other real climb of the day apart from Walbury Hill, and the village bike shop, Owens Cycles, hosted a feed station. This excellent idea meant that anyone with a severe ‘mechanical’, such as the Baines ‘Flying gate’ rider who lost his seat post cradle, could get a proper repair.

The endless series of small lumps between the top of Steep hill and White Hill, close to the finish, is exactly what a tired ‘cyclo’ doesn’t want at this late stage in the ride, and there were some very slow-moving groups on the road. It was while passing one such that the ed. broke a spoke in his rear Ksyrium Elite. The rim immediately went so far out of true that the rear brake had to be slackened right off. With the wheel’s reliability now suspect, there was nothing for it but to ease back for the last few climbs. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh? At the White Hill feed there were just 15km to go, most of them downhill, but at the entrance to the Highclere estate we were directed straight past. The subsequent detour may only have added five minutes’ riding time, but it was a bit of a low blow from route deviser Ken Robson. The finish line, as always, was a truly welcome sight after 6hr 22 of surprisingly stiff going. The 2007 edition went anti-clockwise, in the opposite direction to last year, and the general reaction of those who had ridden both was very favourable. Which way will the ride go next year?

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