We get Rob Hoyles, Cycling Weekly sub editor's, take on riding the epic route of the Wiltshire Wildcat - the season opener of the Cycling Weekly Sportive Series.
Driving west towards Salisbury, ‘apprehensive’ is the only word to accurately describe my mood. ‘Nervous’ would be a bad choice, as would ‘worried’. Sure, I’d completed plenty of harder, longer rides than this before, but they had always been off the back of a decent block of training or at least during an uninterrupted period of riding: at a point when my weight and fitness intersected at a tangent I’d like to call ‘not bad for an old bloke’. I try to ignore the anxiety and look forward to a good day in the saddle; after all, history says this ride shouldn’t be a problem.
Today, though, feels different and I really don’t feel assured by any past triumphs, if indeed they merit the name. While I’m still knocking out around 80 miles per week commuting to work, long weekend rides have been replaced with learning new skills — having recently rediscovered mountain biking after moving from the flatlands of the Fens to just down the road from the Surrey Hills. This, together with the inevitable injuries brought about by an abundance of enthusiasm matched to what can only be described as a seriously insufficient amount of talent had led to time off the bike, several creaking joints and the introduction of some notable midriff ‘padding’ — handy perhaps for my new second hobby of falling on my backside, less so for winching myself up steep tarmac climbs.
But these are only the start of my problems. Similarly-aged (and padded) forty-somethings who are, like me, free to ride in the week without fear of reprisals or demands from the family
unit are scarce. Friends from my old world of motorcycle racing, however, seem to be able to escape work at will. So having noticed on Strava the progress of one of my old — albeit very young — race circuit rivals, a date was set and pretty much forgotten about. Until now.
Jesse Trayler is a 23-year-old motorcycle racer from Essex. He’s six feet tall and weighs 63kg. I raced him some seven years ago when he was a 16-year-old lad. Experience had the upper hand back then. Now, I’ve a feeling I’m in for a bit of payback.
The tortoise and the hare
The Wiltshire Wildcat comes early in the season, so my lack of form should help me to empathise with the many for whom this will be a first test of the legs after a winter confined to short rides and turbo sessions. It’s a theory, at least.
We head out of Salisbury Racecourse just after 10am. It’s a warm August day and the sky is blue. It might not be quite so pleasant at 8am in March, I imagine. As we swing left, hitting and holding 20mph before plummeting down towards Stratford Tony, the Garmin can’t quite keep up and takes a while to send us on our way towards Broad Chalke. I’m already regretting trusting modern tech over an old-school note taped to the stem.
We press on, the pace still high, and my gentle reminders to Jesse about the length and lumpiness of this ride are clearly falling on deaf ears. Through Bishopstone, the roads are unremarkable, the rural landscapes a refreshing change from urban south London but ultimately characterless. Pubs seem pretty limited round here, so we’re happy to see the White Hart, even if it is closed.
The drag of the road starts to tell as we climb towards Berwick St John. Jesse has gone from half-wheeling to disappearing up the road. I reassure myself, unconvincingly, that I just take a long time to warm up.
As we turn left, just before the A30, on to a tiny unsigned lane, the whole character of the ride changes. Lined with thick hedgerows, and not much wider than a Range Rover, it’s a welcome reprieve from the faster roads we’ve just ridden, which, though not exactly busy, today appear to contain an unhappy mix of tractors and boy racers.
The bends are blind, the lofty vegetation obscuring any chance of a view through each turn, so we err on the side of caution, feathering the brakes on the descent. Come March, visibility should be much better through the skeletal trees. The tree cover further down the road provides welcome shade from the mid-August sunshine, though it may provide the perfect hiding place for damp or icy patches in the spring — discretion could well be the better part of valour here.
The first real test arrives abruptly. Sure, the long drag from Stratford Tony to Berwick St John has served well to get the heart rate going but Donhead Hollow quite literally ramps things up a notch.
The road rises, steadily at first at a gradient of around seven per cent, which encourages you to settle into a rhythm. Jesse’s rhythm happens to be rather brisk.
And then it kicks. The gradient shifts to a less comfortable 10-11 per cent for around a quarter of a mile before easing off to a more bearable three per cent as it delivers its victims to the top. Sure, it’s hardly alpine, but it’s enough to make me grateful for the generous gearing on my borrowed Scott Solace 10. Despite dancing up it effortlessly like a leggy Tommy Voeckler, Jesse describes the climb as a “bleedin’ monster”. As the majority of his riding has been around Essex, and I can’t summon the energy to respond, I just nod in agreement and quietly wonder what he’d make of a trip to the Alps.
While the views of ploughed fields and heavily farmed pasture offered by the lower-lying roads held little in the way of poetry, the plateau high above Cranborne Chase reveals the true beauty of this rolling landscape. We’re at the highest point of the ride now and the views over the hedgerows are stunning — even better if you’re as tall as Jesse. As we cruise past Compton Abbas airfield, we admire the row of immaculate prop planes and cast envious glances towards the equally pristine Porsches and Jaguars that fill the car park.
We turn left on to Boyne’s Lane and enjoy the blast downhill, my extra weight finally becoming an advantage as I draft Jesse and overtake, elbows pressed into my ribs, neck contorted as I pull my head as low as possible.
The Garmin still hates me. We fly past Mill Street, slipstreaming each other like a pair of teenagers on the last lap of a 125cc race. ‘Off course’ flashes up on the screen with a great sense of urgency but offering little in the way of directions. I dig out the map that has long since become sodden with sweat and is now barely readable.
Mill Street takes us hurtling down into Fontmell Magna, the location of the first feed stop. This steep descent reaches over 14 per cent in places. The surface isn’t the smoothest, and the fast left-hander near the bottom is peppered with gravel, just to add to the excitement. We reach the bottom, grinning like a pair of Wiltshire Wildcats. With our nutrition about as well planned as our navigation, we make do with a bruised banana and a bottle of water each and enjoy the ignorance of wondering what’s to come.
We split away from the standard route and head on to the loop that adds an extra 17 miles and a shade under 700ft of climbing to the epic route.
We wind our way out of Fontmell along narrow lanes with hedgerows so high that it’s almost claustrophobic. There’s little chance of riding two abreast today — it seems the locals have been busy with their online shopping as one delivery van after another squeezes past, making us breathe in. The drivers — some apologetic, some apoplectic — scrape along the foliage, door mirrors worryingly close to our heads.
The green tunnel opens out as we cross a bridge running over a stream beautifully framed by a willow, its branches draped across the road to
form an archway. The scenery here is stunning, thatched cottages completing the chocolate box cliché of rural life.
We attack the short but steep approach to Hartgrove and reach a crossroads. None of the place names are familiar and the Garmin is remaining tight-lipped as to our whereabouts. Jesse throws me a look bordering on pity. I’m supposed to be the professional here, and while he’s been polite enough not to give me a ribbing about my apparent lack of planning, I can sense his disappointment. With four turn options, I have a 25 per cent chance of guessing right — around 100m down the road, the Garmin helpfully confirms I’ve beaten the four-to-one odds by excitedly announcing ‘course found’.
We speed along the B3091 for around half a mile before swooping left on to Green Lane, where once more the roads narrow and the hedgerows rise like triffids.
While climbs are few and far between on this westward loop, the terrain is undulating, the road surface grippy and lumpy, the demands on our legs constantly changing. With the traffic now scarce, we get disciplined and are soon riding through-and-off, dispensing with the miles with rhythmic ease, cadences in sync, our movements choreographed by fatigue as we take it in turns to push and recover, over and over.
Happily the Garmin has decided that it likes being a navigational device after all. Since having ‘found the course’, it’s been spot-on. This time its enthusiasm for turning left has been well warranted. The signs for Fontmell Magna appear, signalling an end to the loop and bringing us back towards the rolling West Wiltshire Downs. Our efforts haven’t exactly been steady and, now banana-less, we roll past the site of the feed station, daydreaming of flapjacks and energy drinks.
If ignorance is bliss, then the realisation that we’ve got to pedal back up Mill Street is anything but. It’s a cruel devil of a climb that, after 40 miles of brisk riding, bites hard — especially when your defiant ego has resisted asking your much younger riding companion to steady it up a bit. Jesse makes it look easy, gleefully grinning back at me while I wheeze my way up in first gear, the first signs of hunger knock hitting just as the gradient eases to save my blushes. Getting something to eat is now a priority.
What goes up must come down, and we return to the same road we’d raced down an hour or so earlier with a similar level of enthusiasm for flat-out slipstreaming — so much so that we miss the left turn towards Tarrant Gunville.
A sign for a farm shop and cafe appears like a mirage. We make a quick detour and end up on a road fit for Paris-Roubaix, riding out of the saddle, bouncing our way over the broken tarmac and into the oasis that is the car park of Home Farm Shop and Tea Rooms.
I’ve got to do something to slow Jesse down. I can feel my legs starting to cramp and, having gone the wrong way early in the ride, we’ve still got another 40 miles to ride — we’re only just past the halfway point.
“The bacon and brie jacket spud sounds nice. Do you reckon that’d be alright?” asks Jesse, quizzically looking to me for approval. I briefly consider what a huge lump of cheese and an even larger potato smothered in butter and topped with thick slices of fatty bacon would do for my performance. “Yeah, knock yourself out. Have a bit of cake too if you like,” I answer, feeling only a tiny bit bad for sending his digestive system into overdrive.
We feast well and, satiated and bottles refilled, press on for the second half of our ride.
Like the B-side of any epic album, the tempo changes as the road winds its way through villages that take their name from the Tarrant river which meanders its way south. We pass through four of the Tarrants not quite making it to the last three before a sharp hairpin left that ramps steeply away from Tarrant Rawston.
Jesse scampers up the climb, seemingly unaffected by his heavy lunch. I feel cheated as I grind the granny ring and crawl into the final 30 miles.
King of pain
With the bulk of the climbing out of the way, the stretch from Witchampton through Farnham and on to Sixpenny Handley is best described as lumpy. It’s the kind of terrain I love — flat sections interspersed with short, hard efforts. Smash the climb, catch a breath or two on the descent and then get back into a big gear to motor on to the next set of lumps. Jesse’sweight advantage means nothing here, where power is king.
The pace isn’t particularly high but we’re not hanging about either. We revert to what by now has become a well drilled two-up through-and-off. Jesse’s looking strong on the front, doing more
than his fair share of the work, but I, having been humiliated on every climb, decide not to mention it.
We’ve two decent climbs left to face. As we head away from the flatter lowlands around Cranborne and back towards the racecourse, the first comes just after Rockbourne. Jesse’s form is starting to lapse. His shoulders are now bobbing about and he’s doing that chicken thing that people do with their head. I’m sure it’s all those hard, flat-out efforts he’s been putting in on every climb, but deep down I hope it’s the potato.
The chattiness and laughter from earlier has ebbed away, and for the first time all ride I can match Jesse on a climb — probably because we’re going so slowly, the misery of fatigue now etched all over Jesse’s face. To his credit, he still manages the odd smile but he looks broken.
A kinder man would probably do something completely different. But as we descend at speed towards Coombe Bissett, and into the final two miles of the ride, I can sniff a win. Had this been an actual race, Jesse wouldn’t have waited for me at the top of the first three climbs, nor would he have tucked away a massive cheese-laden potato along with a slice of cake large enough to wedge open a barn door. But he did, and he has, so it’s fair game.
The sound of Jesse’s breathing becoming more laboured spurs me on to push harder. I focus on a solid minute of hard, seated effort and turn round to see the invisible elastic finally broken. I crest the hill arms aloft in mock celebration.
My old rival Jesse draws alongside as we cruise back into the racecourse. “You just couldn’t let me win, could you?” he says with a grin. “I didn’t do anything,” I reply, laughing. “It was you that let me win.”
The Wiltshire Wildcat takes place on March 12, 2016 and is based at Salisbury Racecourse. For more information on the Wiltshire Wildcat Sportive click here.