We’re taking our inspiration this month from cyclo-cross.
An opportunity to the Salisbury Saxon CX Sportive with organisers, Southern Sportive, as they made fine adjustments to a section of the route from the start-finish area at Salisbury Racecourse, was too good to miss.
Three routes will be available on the day (40km, 60km, and 80km), each offering a mix of terrain as they criss cross the Chalke Valley, taking in fire roads, bridleways, metaled roads, and, in places, singletrack trails and puddles of sufficient size to be classified as water features. The majority of the route is on surfaced roads of variable quality, but our advice is to choose a machine equal to the greatest of its varied challenges, rather than the least.
I was uncertain which bike to pack for the occasion. (Southern Sportive recommend road, ‘cross, or single speed, geared, 29-er or standard mtb, but warn against bringing your cherished carbon road bike). In the end, I opted for my hard tail mountain bike and within minutes of starting the ride, leaving the tarmac-ed entrance to Salisbury Race Course behind me, I was glad I had. A series of puddles, some of a depth sufficient to cover my hubs, greeted our small group. The stability offered by its upright position and 1.95 tyres allowed me to flash through the water hazards with confidence, but I imagined a lively start for those who will tackle the event on narrower rubber.
Organisers, Southern Sportive, say the area could have been made for the event, and within no time we were grinding our way up a short, steep climb to the top of the vale, a geological feature the organisers describe as a “natural amphitheatre”. The views are sufficient reward for the climb, one completed by three of my companions on single-speed mountain bikes. The network of paths that cover this country were once used as drove roads: routes by which livestock was shepherded to market. They are narrow, time-honoured routes, whose usage dates back centuries; easily traversable by mountain bike and, I imagine, without difficulty by ‘cross bike.
We strike out across from the top of the ridge, surveying potential routes, before joining the one used in last year’s event, plunging along a path surrounded by a light woodland, gaining speed on the descent of a low gradient that drops at an increasing rate, providing a thrilling end to an exhilarating section of the route.
We turn onto a narrow, tarmac-ed road that undulates with truly challenging gradients, and I joke with the single-speeders that bikes with gears are certain to catch on. Traffic is light to put it mildly, and most of the few vehicles that pass are horse boxes, their frequency explained by the proximity of route to race course.
Before long we turn on to a fire road, a broad, gravel track, easily wide enough for vehicles, that leads us back onto a separate network of trails and another superb descent, punctuated after days of heavy rain by the need to slalom around a series of large puddles. It’s another challenge that. while enjoyable on a mountain bike (riding the ‘bank’ at the outer edge of some of the larger puddles especially), I imagine to be exhilarating on a cross bike.
A brief stop to regroup offers a chance to survey the minor infrastructure: pretty houses and narrow roads lined with high hedgerows, surrounded by glorious countryside. It’s not long before we’re leaving the metal-ed roads again, and plunging back onto the softer, but slower carpet of woodland soil. A walker warns of thick mud ahead, but as the cars are parked in the direction of his warning, we plough ahead, steeled for the prospect of more grime to add to the thick cake that already coats the bikes.
The final few kilometres pass uneventfully for all but one of our number, who falls off in one of the deeper puddles (sadly, unseen by the rest of the group) but who pedals manfully to the finish.
For riders who’ve spent a season on smooth tarmac, the Saxon CX will provide an interesting challenge, particularly those who take embrace the spirit of the event and tackle it from the saddle of a cyclo-cross bike. The organisers have been determined to design a route with ‘tempo’, providing a fast flowing series of challenges, making this CX sportive a distinct challenge from its road-oriented brethren. We wouldn’t feel at all embarrassed to tackle it on a mountain bike, but a more exhilarating experience is likely to come aboard a cyclo-cross bike.
The Salisbury Saxon CX Sportive will be held on Sunday November 11. Entry costs £15 for the 40km ‘CX Sprinter’ route, and £19 for the 60km and 80km routes, and includes electronic timing, hot and cold food, feed stations, support stations, drinks and snacks, and a free Torq energy drink.