DISTANCE 125 miles (200km)

MAIN CLIMB There?s plenty of uphills, but the Scorpion Sting and Stoner Hill were both a challenge

TOTAL CLIMB 3,000m

ACHTUNG! Watch out for gravel

So this was it, my first proper sportive. It had to happen sooner or later.Besides, I?d be crazy to tackle the Marmotte in a month?s time without having at least one sportive under my belt, and what better warm-up than the Highclere Castle Sportive? By all accounts, Highclere was sure to be a good test and perhaps with the exception of the classic Alpine stalwarts, the setting could not be more idyllic.

Just the drive to the car park took us through miles of Highclere Castle?s magnificent grounds, home to Lord and Lady Carnarvon, with 2,000 acres of spectacular parkland. This year?s course had been extended from the one used previously to increase the distance from 188 kilometres to the full 200 kilometres, and in the process it rounded up the total climbing to 3,000m. The route card promised just four kilometres of ?busy? tarmac in the entire loop, very rare indeed on today?s roads ?that was sure to be a treat as were

the stunning views of the Hampshire countryside.

So it was no wonder that ? with the sun shining and temperatures already well up by 7.30am ? there was such an eager, positive vibe around the start zone, despite the lack of sufficient Portaloos! That slight oversight aside, the organisation appeared to be well drilled, and deserving of its UCI accreditation.

Wacky races

Transponder chips were fitted to make sure there were no mix-ups over timing, and timing mats at controls along the route should catch out anyone fancying a Dick Dastardly-style sneaky shortcut. Now here?s one I had never heard before? a certain member of our team seemed in no particular hurry to cross the start timing mat, but it wasn?t until after that we discovered why. ?Obviously if you start behind your mates, but at the finish you all cross the line together, then on paper your time will be the fastest!? said the

crafty one.

Essentially the Highclere course is tackled in thirds; an opening block of 68 kilometres, followed by two equal chunks of 66 kilometres. Each sector has a couple of ?cols? to conquer, the first toughie coming early on, after just 16 kilometres, with the two-part climb up to Walbury Hill, known as the ?Scorpion Sting?. And it did sting too, at 25 per cent at its steepest it caught a few riders out and forced some dismounts even at this early stage. It was also the first opportunity to smile for our photographer as he sat smugly in the warm sunshine at the top.

The descent was steep and sometimes quite technical, and in the kilometres that followed it became obvious that shouting ?gravel? was going to get very repetitive, with almost every bend covered in the local flint aggregate. On the narrow roads there is not much room for error and there were a few casualties, their early excitement getting the better of them. Will they ever learn?

image

Our only problem with the gravel came in the form of punctures. I?d got mine in early, with my tyre going down in the back of the van between home and the start. Ben had an early one too, but Mike?s tubeless issue was the only one to cost us time. Let?s just say he ended up with more tyre sealant on him than in the tyre he was trying to seal.

We seemed to be up and down like a fiddler?s elbow for the next part, but more rolling than big climbs. With temperatures hotting up it was obvious to us that we would be seeing some of the early ?flyers? reversing back past us later in the day, so we shrewdly kept to a manageable pace, still accumulating several riders who proceeded to hang onto our wheels. We soon discovered a subtle, yet not insignificant increase in the pace, sorted that out; meant in the nicest possible way you understand.

At the first feed we weren?t about to make it a ?fly by? to save time, more a leisurely refuel with some of the tasty snacks on offer. The peanut butter and jam sarnies were a hit. High5 energy drink stations were also on hand to top up bottles.

The mid section rolled along nicely, adjacent to the M3 motorway and then crossing back, south eastwards towards Petersfield, the ridge of the South Downs and some more climbing. The most notable climb is the Old Winchester Hill, used in the circuit for the Havant Grand Prix Premier Calendar road race. Although fairly long, the gradient is manageable and it?s a good tempo climb, with an equally long descent to recover. It?s following this that the short section of main roads is unavoidable.

However, it passes by so quickly you barely notice it before you are back in the lanes and continuing on the new part of the course. Basically it continues to push you further east and there is a realisation of just how far you have travelled by this point, when you have gone beyond Petersfield. Here there is also the climb of Harting Hill and the next control in Steep, outside of Owens Cycles bike shop, with 134 kilometres covered.

Another great array of high-energy snacks were to be had here, this time including blocks of cheese, a nice savoury treat to counter all that sugar from cakes, energy bars and gels. At this point we thought Mike had pulled a fast one and pocketed his food and shot off to get a head start. Luckily for him, he hadn?t as he would have taken a verbal kicking for that cheeky move. He was merely topping up the tyre in Owens Cycles following the repair.

imageGetting competitive

It wouldn?t be the same if there wasn?t a big climb straight after a feed, and from here it?s straight up Stoner Hill. Our threesome were together over the top but it was then Mike?s turn to make the legs hurt, fuelled by Ben?s flippant comment at the feed about having ?towed us round? thus far. He was clearly out to make a point, pushing the pace and stringing us out into single file.

Thankfully this settled down in time to get a bit of steady pedalling in before the legs were needed again for the three-mile draggy ascent of Hannington Hill. Ben, who had been full of useful trivia on the way round, told us the funny story about a guy who once drove his car into the Hannington Mast, which supplies the TV signal to the surrounding area. This was a deliberate ploy to prevent his mates from staying in and watching the England v Germany footy match, apparently, and with car mangled he succeeded in stopping transmissions for the whole of the Reading area. Nice work!

Bright eyes

Once you are over this you have pretty much broken the back of the route, now well past the century mark with just the last little troubler, White Hill, to scale before a trip through Watership Down ? the inspiration for the novel ? before re-entering the castle grounds for the final few kilometres run-in.

This could have been a steady cool-down, but no such luck as my partners in riding decided to put the hammer down in a final flourish. My legs wanted no part of that after seven hours? pedalling so I was happy to let them play alone. The time standards are tough.

We only achieved silver, and although we had some delays the average speed we tapped round at was not shabby, showing that they don?t give away a gold lightly. In fact a bit of analysis showed that out of the many hundreds of riders that tackled the 200-kilometre route in our age group (30-39) there were only 20 that made it round in gold standard time. So you will have to go some to earn that around the Highclere course.

As far as the event organisation goes, it is top notch. The course marking was exceptional, and marshals and the police and ambulance staff were on hand at major junctions to stop traffic so we could speed on through. Feed stations were well stocked and well manned. The course design doesn?t lend itself well to riding in large groups as the narrow roads and gradients tended to split it up, but that?s all part of the challenge.

WANT TO RIDE IT?

If you would like further details about the Highclere Castle Victor Ludorum cycle-sportive visit the website at www.cyclegb.co.uk.

Photos by www.sportivephoto.com.