DISTANCE 150km (93 miles)

MAIN CLIMB Tower Hill (aka ‘Turkey Hill’)

TOTAL CLIMB 2,015m

ACHTUNG! Leave a little in the tank for the final drag up to the finish!

Superb weather, gorgeous scenery, a tough but not outlandish course, and spot-on organisation. That was the inaugural Southern Sportive. I rode it myself, and the very next day I marked the date of the 2007 event in my diary, it was that good. Fast-forward a year, and I arrived on the start line eager for round two.

The ride is organised by Trailbreak, a small, friendly company that honed its chops on organised mtb rides and is now breaking into the sportive market. In fact, after tasting sportive success last September, this year Trailbreak ran a whole series of them, the Sunday Sportives. Aimed at riders looking for an enjoyable, rather than back-breaking ride, they were staged all over the south and were well received.

But back to the matter in hand. The Southern Sportive begins and ends in Petersfield, Hampshire, in the very pleasant surroundings of Churchers College in the town centre. Plenty of parking, good facilities (including the obligatory coffee to perk up the bleary-eyed) and swift, efficient registration took the stress out of proceedings so that we could all concentrate on the ride itself.

A late start

After a gold-medal ride the year before, I had relaxed and rested on my laurels somewhat for ’07. A three-week, non-cycling holiday, followed by two weeks all but off the bike was all my ‘preparation’ for the Southern Sportive (I was misguidedly confusing ‘enthusiasm’ with ‘training’). This was my first mistake. The other one was enjoying a lie-in.

I rode fewer events (especially time trials) in 2007 than I had for several years, and had come to savour the idea of sleeping to later than half-five in the morning. Suddenly, even rising at 7am at the weekend was a shock to the system and I found myself on the start line at Churchers College not long before 9am, in one of the latest groups to leave.

Compared to the previous year’s scorching hot day, the weather was not quite so kind this time around. It was warm-ish, but overcast skies and blustery winds threatened to take the sheen off the event. I left in a small group of riders but within two minutes I’d put myself at a disadvantage by taking a detour back to my car to retrieve the energy bars I’d carelessly left behind. Note to self: never, ever do this again.

I rejoined the route, head down and riding tempo in the misguided belief that I would soon catch up with the group I’d dropped out of. But anyone who has ridden a time trial will be familiar with the significant effort required to catch the rider a minute ahead, and my situation was compounded by the fact that my quarry had the advantage of numbers. As is the tendency at the start of a sportive, they were likely rolling along at a fair lick. Needless to say, I never saw them again.

The first climb, up and over to Buriton, proved hard going — some contrast to last year where in comparison I danced up it like Marco Pantani in his prime. There were a number of miles of blessed relief before the next big one, which hadn’t been used the previous year and climbed from the curiously named Turkey Island up to Tower Hill. This was a real grind; people were dismounting, unable to take the unrelenting gradient — I very nearly did myself. Most demoralising was the fact it was still early days — it didn’t bode well.

As it turned out, it was the hardest climb on the menu. Browsing Trailbreak’s website (www.trailbreak.co.uk), I found the route for the 2008 Southern Sportive, and I’m glad to see that the organisers, Martin and Phil, have kept ‘Turkey Hill’ in. It might be bloody hard, but it adds character, and if you can manage to look across without falling off, the views are great.

MGB envy attack

Though I had joined various groups of stragglers along the way so far, I now found myself on my own as I headed south towards Lavant.

Various curiosities complemented the pleasant scenery and surroundings along the way. An MGB rally, which seemed to be following the very route of the sportive, was one of them — a touch of chrome and retro style, not to mention a sedentary progress perfectly suited to dragging a cyclist or two along in the slipstream. I’m not the biggest fan of MGBs — perhaps it’s the bearded codger/I’ll-have-a-pint-of-mud-and-twigs image that’s off-putting, but towards the end of the ride I was beginning to feel pangs of jealousy; what I wouldn’t have given to swap one wind-in-the-hair experience for another — my burning legs and aching back for their comfortable seat and idyllic country cruise.

Duncton Hill, the killer from the previous year, was even more of a test this time. Other riders sailed past, twiddling off up the road with infuriatingly fit, effortless style. And who can blame them? I was being taught a lesson in preparation that I more than deserved.

A lesson hard learned

One of the high points (in terms of altitude that is, most definitely not morale) was the climb up to Goodwood Racecourse — an exposed, sun and wind-beaten ridge over which I clung onto the rear hub of the one rider in front of me like a man possessed, climbing all the way in the red and probably ensuring that the remainder of the ride would be even harder.

But no pain, no gain, and if I wanted to gain the coffee and cake at the end of the ride I was going to have to stick it out.

Finally, the last feed station arrived at the top of what felt like an almighty hill, not far south of Petersfield. I knew all that remained was the loop westward and then back into the town. “How far to go?” I pleaded through a mouthful of flapjack to the nearest person who would listen.

“Twelve K,” came the cheerful reply. I couldn’t believe it; he seemed to be actually enjoying himself. I made a solemn vow to train properly next time.

But 12 kilometres? Even I could do that. All the big hills were done with and I was on the final leg. My legs hurt, though it was my back that was bearing the brunt of the effort now. But as the miles ticked slowly-slowly by I consoled myself with the fact that I was nearly there. Twelve kilometres came and went with no sign of the finish, and the distance gradually crept up to 12 miles before Petersfield was finally reached.

At which point, the cruellest of cruel blows: with Churchers College, and tea and cake and a wonderful sit-down practically in sight, the route markers sent us off in a different direction again. I cursed under my breath and even wondered whether this could be correct. But the marker arrows were there, clear as day, pointing us away from the town.

It transpired that Trailbreak had sensibly decided it would be best if the 1,000-odd participants avoided the town centre, so we shortly looped back round to approach the finish from the opposite direction, with just one last upward grind to take us home.

My legs, backside and back had a quiet word with me that night, and as I mused over my disappointing finishing time, I promised them that in future I’d always remember that age-old army motto, the seven Ps: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.

ROUTE DETAILS

Petersfield, Buriton, East Harting, Turkey Island, Lavant, Heyshott, Duncton Hill, East Dean, Lavant, West Marden, Rowlands Castle, Chalton, West Meon, East Meon, Peterfield

ON THE SPORTIVE TRAIL

ENTRIES for the Southern Sportive 2008 on Sept 14 open online this coming Monday (January 7) at www.trailbreak.co.uk. The event is going from strength to strength and there are spaces for 1,500 riders this year. They sell fast though so it’s advisable to get in there as quick as you can.

Trailbreak is also running another season of Sunday Sportives in 2008, with the addition of accompanying mountain bike trail rides on the corresponding Saturdays, at the same venues. These will include two full 100km mtb enduros on May 10 and June 7.

2008 Sunday Sportive dates

April 27 Princes Risborough

May 11 Duncton, W. Sussex

June 8 Letcombe Regis, Oxon

July 6 Location TBA

Aug 17 Woodcote, Oxon

Oct 12 Bramley, Surrey

RELATED LINKS

CW’s 2008 British Cyclo-Sportive Calendar

CW’s Dummies’ Guide to Cyclo-Sportives