Back to school for the start

Chocolate Fig Kamikaze Mentality

Sometimes I feel I must have a little of a kamikaze mentality in me. Instead of taking the easier option for the Southern Sportive, I opted to go for the long 155km route. With no long distance in my legs since the Dragon Ride in June, I was sure I would get a spanking; would the long distance prove to be too much?

An early start saw the alarm go off at 5 am! Not even God himself is awake at that time. With a slight feeling of déjà vu, prompted by the Tour of Wessex, I opted for a cup of tea and a Chocolate Fig flavoured Mule Bar, which was all I could stomach at that time in the morning. As dawn broke, it looked like we had a fantastic day of riding ahead of us.

There are no hills down South!

This is often a phrase used by hardened Northerners used to climbing the Peaks and Dales who, when they see the profile of a sportive ‘down South’, write it off in the belief that there cannot so much climbing to be had. However, what the South lacks in height and length it more than makes up for in frequency. I knew the area of the ride a little and was fully aware that the hills would be plentiful and the views would be stunning.

On arrival I was pleased not to be greeted by a muddy field as the start/finish location was a school. This was a simple but great idea as, if you needed to ask a local, most people know where the school is (and for those who rode last year the start was at the same location) but as the signage was good there was no need to bother a local. As we arrived early we were lucky enough to get a good parking space in the school, (sorry to those later arrivals who ended up having to add an extra few kilometres onto the ride, but at least on the way back to the car it was downhill), which made ambling to sign on a breeze. The weather on the day was perfect, starting off at a pleasant temperature that slowly increased as the day went on.

The start was staggered to meet riders’ objectives with those aiming for Gold off first, followed by Silver then Bronze. Jon, Sarah and I opted for the Silver time; with a cut off of 6hrs19 this should be achievable as long as we didn’t get waylaid in the check point/feed areas. The first hour was blissful; everything was about as close to perfect as you get. We were averaging 28.5 kph, so hitting the Silver time slot looked like it would provide no major problems. The first climb came and left me unbothered but blissfully aware that this was not the worst that was to come.

A long Southern Sportive climb

In the shadow of the Dragon

Hitting the first feed and check point, it was lovely to see the always-smiling face of Rory from USE, one of the many local cycle industry folk who were giving up their potential Sunday rides to look after the riders. With a few words exchanged and the timing chip logged I was off again. I tried to stay with Jon and Sarah on the rolling section ahead but the shadow of the Dragon Ride appeared and my feet started to hurt. For some the talk of hot spots on the plates is somewhere close to an urban myth, but today I would have quite happily traded my feet for a new pair every hour or so to relieve the pain. I was slightly miffed that in the end my feet issues would cost me the Silver standard that I had set myself. Watching my companions ride off left me wondering should I carry an I-Pod shuffle for the long sections of solitary riding that lay before me.

Some challenge rides never seem able to encapsulate that flowing feeling which can go along way to making a great ride. Not the Southern Sportive. Never once did I feel that we were taking roads just to join things up. The road just flowed on and on - this was really great riding country. A route straddling the South Downs enabled the riders to crest them on numerous occasions between feed 1 and 2 with a notable mention for the A285. Although using a busy road, drivers on a whole were respectful and the views from the top were stunning, I know, as I had to stop to remove my shoes in a lay-by at the top of a climb. A quick top up at feed 2 and I was off. At this point I could still have made the Silver cut off, so I tried to battle on despite my feet and keep the average speed up to reach my objective.

The problem with feet

At somewhere around between Woodend and Walderton, editor RH caught up. We both told our stories of woe: mine my feet, his, a blow out caused by a flint cut to the sidewall of his back tyre that required booting. We rode together for a while, enjoying the day, until Richard rode off. I would catch up with him again briefly at the third and final feed. At this point I was happy to get my feet off again [how did you manage that?-Ed.] and tuck into the ginger biscuits. I had given up on trying to fill up with any energy drink, as the solution had been made so weak it rendered it useless. With 30 miles left the home stretch was in site and the challenge still could be met.

This section from feed 3 (Charlton) to West Meon had some fantastic roads, truly stunning with the descent down Old Winchester Hill a highlight. The descent seemed to go on forever and couldn’t fail to raise a smile on anybody’s face, although I am pleased to say that it wasn’t wet, as the debris of flints and stones would have played havoc if it had been. Coming into West Meon was the first point in the day when I encountered a set of missing signs. Luckily I had a laminated map in my pocket (thanks Sarah) so, checking the destination with the signposts, I was quickly back on my way. This was the point when I realised I was going to miss out on the Silver as trying to ride the remaining 10 plus miles in less than 12 minutes would prove difficult even for Bradley Wiggins.

Taking no prisoners

Petersfield at last

Finally the signs for Petersfield came into sight. At this point I was hoping that the organisers were going to take us through the town itself, as the short cut would have been most appreciated. But, being sensible, they kept the riders on a left handed circuit to limit the need for crossing over omcoming traffic. Finally I crossed the line, and all I could think of was getting my shoes off. Thoroughly disappointed not to have met my challenge, I’ll be back next year. Despite all my issues with my feet, this ironically was probably my favourite Sportive this year. The route was stunning and a real gem, organization was top notch and I can’t fault the Trail Break team at all (the two cups of tea and cake were most welcome at the end) as there were even showers for the riders at the end. I am sure that this ride will grow and grow and I hope that the Trail Break team add more road rides to their calendar, as I will definitely take part in more.

  • The 2008 Southern Sportive will take place on 14 September; registration opens 7 January