The Malvern Mad Hatter is a glorious tour of middle England with a hint of wild Wales around it. You ride in three glorious English counties, through countryside that inspired the music of Edward Elgar, the poetry of William Langland, and the imagination of JRR Tolkein. The landscape is warm and colourful, and the route is drawn around the handsome profile of the Malvern Ridgeway, with far-off glimpses of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons to the west. The seeds of Tolkein’s Mordor, perhaps?
I’ve asked two ladies to check out the route; experienced racers Margaret Herety, who as Margaret Swinnerton was part of a cycling dynasty and an international rider in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and Ruth Gamwell, mother of four and a former national time trial champion and a Three Peaks cyclo-cross winner. Gamwell still races, Herety doesn’t, but they both enjoy taking part in sportives.
“They suit me perfectly,” Herety says. “I didn’t touch my bike after I stopped racing in 1984, but once I started again I found that sportives are ideal for what I want from cycling now. I take part with a small group of friends, and sportives are always a good ride and always have a great atmosphere. Some people treat them as a challenge, and you can do that if you want to, but I don’t. I didn’t even know they published the times until I’d done a few.”
Three counties theme
The start and finish is at the Three Counties Showground just outside the quaint spa town of Malvern. All routes use the opening leg, a gentle roll-out to the flat floodplain of the River Severn, where it flows lazily south from Worcester and towards Gloucester. You then follow a Severn tributary, the River Teme, as the route tiptoes around the edges of the Suckley Hills.
There’s been nothing much to test your legs so far, but as Margaret Herety advises: “The thing about enjoying sportives is to start out at a pace you can maintain all the way through, whatever distance you choose. You want to make the same effort throughout, but it’s very easy to get drawn into starting too fast.”
The roads begin to undulate after the two river sections, and the first notable climb comes at 20 miles (32 kilometres) right after Suckley Village. Cider apple orchards abound here, on the borderland between Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Look ahead at the top and you just might glimpse the hazy silhouette of blue-grey Welsh mountains on the horizon.
All three routes take in the Malvern Mad Hatter’s big climb. The opening leg circles the northern edge of the Malvern Ridgeway, but now it’s time to storm the walls. The climb starts at Ham Green. It is three kilometres long and has a 144-metre height gain, so that’s a tad under five per cent average, but most of the gain comes in the final 500 metres, which is well over 10 per cent in places.
Don’t worry, there’s a breather at the top. A sharp right leads to a long, delightful flat stretch that runs parallel to the Malvern summit ridge, but well below it. You pass some of the springs that made Malvern famous. They are on your left, pipes spilling rock-filtered water into crystal-clear pools at just the right temperature for filling bottles on hot summer days. Look right and the Black Mountains, and behind them the Brecon Beacons, shimmer in the distance, sights snatched through tall spring-fed trees.
At Upper Wyche, a village nestling in a V-shaped split in the Malvern Ridgeway, we wait for traffic to clear at the junction when suddenly there’s a squeal of disc brakes, the noise of a clattering chain, and the 2006 Commonwealth Games mountain bike champion, and long-time Malvern resident, Liam Killeen dances his bike down a rocky descent onto the road.
A quick greeting and he heads off in the other direction. The Malvern Mad Hatter Epic and Standard routes go towards Ledbury now, with the Short route turning off to leave the Malvern Ridgeway in the opposite direction. The Epic and Standard then pass Eastnor Castle, which by coincidence with Killeen’s appearance is a famous mountain bike race venue, and go almost to the M50. We pass more orchards as the road gently undulates towards an area of flat meadows, where small rivers meander along obscure valleys. The Epic and Standard then part company at Dymock.
The Epic’s extra loop goes around Marcle Hill and up the testing Canwood Knoll climb to the second highest point of the route at 140 metres. From there you go left and along the edge of a wide valley, where the River Lugg joins the River Wye. Hereford is on the other side of this valley, about three kilometres away. You can see the Tolkien-esque mound of Dinedor Hill just to the south, and the Black Mountains behind the Cathedral city.
Turning away from Hereford three climbs come in quick succession, and they help make the Epic a demanding but rewarding challenge. “The roads are quite heavy too, which underlines what I said about pacing yourself,” Margaret Herety observes. “To do that, though, you need to use your gears well, but very often people new to cycling don’t know how to do that, but then why would they? I rode a sportive recently, and at one point I was riding with some triathletes. Then I noticed that one of was basically just using the same sprocket and shifting between his big and little chainring. He was new to cycling and just didn’t know how to use his gears. You don’t realise when you’ve been through club cycling, which we have, that if you aren’t in a club there aren’t many places where you can learn the basics really,” she adds
Back in Dymock we pick up the Standard route again, and the character changes. Hilly is replaced by rolling, and we’ve entered our third county, Gloucestershire. The route touches Newent, which is right on the northern edge of the Forest of Dean, then heads for home.
Things flatten out nicely over the River Leadon, and with less than 30 kilometres to go there are no more climbs before the finish. If you feel good and want to do a fast time you can really open the taps here. The views are still great, as they are throughout this route. This is probably the best section to appreciate the full majesty of the Malvern Ridgeway.
It is 680 million years old: a stubborn chain of rock running north to south with the Worcestershire Beacon its high point at 435 metres (1,395ft). Ten of the 21 undulating peaks along the ridgeline break the 1,000ft barrier. And as well as Elgar, who was a keen cyclist as well as a walker, and Langland, George Bernard Shaw loved to walk in the Malvern Hills, and so did CS Lewis.
So that’s the Malvern Mad Hatter. All routes have the challenge of the climb up the Malvern Ridgeway, the Standard has an easier second half so is ideal for anyone who has done the Short and would like to step up the distance. And the Epic has a challenging but delightful additional loop. There will be all the usual event support; full route marking, insurance, free energy drink and snacks, bike wash, emergency support and pick up wagons, on-site catering, post-ride massage and event photography.
Above all, the Malvern Mad Hatter is the epitome of what a sportive should be; a great day out with likeminded people on a challenging yet doable ride in glorious countryside. “The atmosphere at all the sportives I’ve done has been amazing, and I’m sure this one will be too,” says Margaret Herety.