Wiltshire Wildcat Sportive

The 2013 Cycling Weekly Sportive Series kicked off in fine style with former world champion, Olympic champion, Tour de France stage winner and all-round cycling legend Chris Boardman MBE cutting the red ribbon to let loose the first set of riders in the Wiltshire Wildcat Sportive on Sunday, March 10.

Rather than merely being there to perform civic duties, Chris quickly changed into his riding kit and climbed aboard one of his Boardman cyclo-cross bikes to mix with the riders on the Fun (34 mile/55km) route.

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I had the pleasure of accompanying Boardman on the first 15 miles or so before the course split off for the Standard (62 mile/100 kilometre) route, which I had elected to ride. A fair few hardy souls had gone for the full monty 80-mile (129km) Epic route, a distance slightly beyond the range of my fuel tank.

It may have been over a decade since Boardman turned a pedal in proper anger, but he can still pedal with effortless ease – and revealed that he still rides four to five times a week for two hours or so when time and commitments allow.

Assisted by a decent tailwind and a downhill section from the start at Salisbury Racecourse, the first 10 miles were easily checked off at a 20mph average. “Do we have to go back up this to the finish?” asked Boardman. “It’ll not be so nice on the way back.” Proof that even Tour de France stage winners don’t particularly like riding up hills into a block headwind.

It’s immediately apparent on the route that the lanes around this area of Wiltshire and Dorset are very quiet on a Sunday morning. Breaks in the hedge-lined lanes give you a tantalising glimpse of the surrounding countryside – and the steep scarp slope of the chalk downs surrounding you.

The first encounter with a proper ascent of the downs comes at around 14 miles up Donhead Hollow to Ashmore Down. This takes you straight up around 475 feet to the highest point on the ride and the views at the top are stunning.

Boardman had said that he was going to “take it easy” up the climb as his cyclo-cross bike was a “bit heavier than a road bike”. Predictably, the former multiple national hill-climb champion taking it easy on a cyclo-cross bike is very nearly the same as my trying-as-hard-as-you-can on a road bike. The nice chaps at SportivePhoto took some pictures as proof.

The route split at the top of the climb, and I waved goodbye to Boardman as he linked up with some other riders on the Fun route. A short flat section towards Compton Abbas Airfield gave me a chance to catch my breath before descending back off the downs to the pretty village of Fontmell Magna. I decided to forego the offerings at the feed station and press on around the village and then back up the downs on the second of the day’s big ascents up Sutton Hill.

With a turn to face north-east, the wind was blowing straight into riders’ faces making the climb seem longer than it really is. A natural bowl between the chalk slopes to the right provided more great views across the Dorset farmland, bleak yet beautiful.

A right turn took me onto Boyne’s Lane, which is a fantastic gentle downhill run for around three miles, allowing you to build up some good speed and spin the lactate out of your thighs.

After that there was a 20-mile respite from the bigger hills as the undulating lanes pass through farms and small villages nestling in the shadow of the downs. The scenery change is welcome with the open, grassy downland swapped for farmland and a bit of shelter thanks to the hedgerows.

Just after 50 miles, when your legs are starting to feel the sting of effort, there’s the ride’s third big climb – Ox Drove. The ascent is not steep at around four per cent but it drags on for an energy-sapping two miles. It’s all soon forgotten, though, with the sweeping descent following immediately afterwards.

The ride’s sting in the tail is the short climb back up to Salisbury Racecourse. Boardman was right – it wasn’t so nice on the way back, the helpful tailwind of the ride’s opening stretch turning into a niggling face blast for the finale.

As I pulled over the line to collect a finishers’ medal and goody bag – even CW correspondents appreciate receiving these – I was greeted by Chris Boardman, who had completed his ride in two hours and had subsequently spent several hours chatting to riders, signing autographs and talking about the range of Boardman bikes on display.

Me, I ducked into the cafe for a hot sausage roll and a cuppa, to watch riders coming across the line, tired but with a broad grin on their faces.

Sportive soundbites

James Ecclestone
Standard route, 62 miles

“It was excellent, really good. A challenging route that was a good start to the year. I’m
hoping to do the New Forest Sportive and Dragon Ride later on in the year.”

Louis Mustin
Fun route, 34 miles

“It was alright apart from the massive hill. It was a brilliant workout and my first ever sportive. I’ll definitely do more, and want to do the standard route next year”

Wendy Hopkins
Fun route, 34 miles

“Awesome! A nice route and lovely scenery. There were a
few hard hills, especially the one in the middle but then you get to ride the downhills, so
it’s worth it.”

Cycling Weekly Sportive Series 2013

Sunday March 10 Wiltshire Wildcat Sportive
Sunday, April 21 Surrey Hills Cyclone Sportive
Saturday May 4 Dartmoor Demon Sportive
Saturday May 18 South Downs Spring Sportive
Sunday, June 23 Ripon Revolution Sportive
Sunday, September 1 Malvern Mad-Hatter Sportive
Sunday October 13 Box Hill Original Sportive

Online entry and more details>>

This article was first published in the March 28 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio, Google Play, Nook or download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.