Posted Thursday 31st March 2011 –
The Southern Sportive guys have been out checking the route for their Great Western Cycle Sportive which takes place on Sunday 19th June. They’ve sent us this pre ride report, it looks like they picked a great day for previewing the course.
The full Great Western course covers 170km (107 miles) with 2100m climbing. Four major climbs punctuate the route, and a saw-tooth mid section which throws you rapidly into a further six consecutive ascents that total over 700m. None would be a concern on it’s own, but they sort of gang up on you.
We parked up in Wroughton, south of the event start, and immediately found ourselves on the cussed ascent out of town. We headed south through the Avon valley in pleasant, hazy spring sunshine which faded ominously as we looped into Avebury. Passing right through the ancient stone circles that dominate the village, we wondered if some prehistoric weather God had dastardly plans for us! The stones can affect you like that. They are around 100 years older than Stonehenge and you can walk amongst them and touch them. And there is something about the way they pepper the village, mixing with people and buildings, that makes them feel more powerful and potent than their more famous and aloof cousins to the south.
Whatever power they might have though, the stones were kind to us, and the sky brightened up as we approached Hackpen Hill, our first real test of the day. Climbing 350m, the initial target is the White Horse carved into the hillside, before the road cranks sharply up around the bowl of the hill to crest the Ridgeway at the top. We were being reminded at every turn just how the rich, ancient history of this landscape still shapes it today. White Horses are a feature of Wiltshire hillsides, mostly (like the Hackpen Horse) dating back 200-300 years, but all taking their cue from the Bronze Age Uffington White horse to the east. The Ridgeway itself of course, is famous as Britains oldest road, with 5000 years of use to date and counting.
As we passed the signpost indicating the ancient track though, it was time to stop contemplating history and start concentrating on the descent. One of the best features of the Great Western is the way the biggest climbs transition into long, sweeping, exuberant descents. From the top of Hackpen we launched into several kilometres of fluid descending, only interrupted by a small rise as we skirted the north side of Marlborough on the way towards Ogbourne St George, before hitting the next challenge, the impressive climb to the top of Round Hill. Suitably recovered from our earlier efforts, we took this without too much trouble and once again found our efforts rewarded by a 13km descent into the Kennet Valley to ride along the river edge. This is a beautiful spin, with just a couple of short climbs to lift you out of the Kennett Valley and drop you into the Lambourne Valley to again join the gently flowing river. Picture postcard villages flow by every so often, and we started to realise just how little traffic we had seen so far. It was all feeling quite idyllic as the route turned us back north towards the Ridgeway once more.
But into every ride, a little pain must fall! I had been enjoying the run a bit too much so far and had forgotten what was still in store. The next 30km had nothing of any singular note to shout about on the profile, but the flow of the course was about to change. Short, sharp climbs threw themselves at us one after another, offering little in the way of respite in between. The repeated assault was taking it’s toll on my lack of fitness, and by the time we finally crested the Ridgeway at the the eastern end of the course, I was ready for a breather and a bite to eat!
Feeling more composed, I followed the others over the edge for the fast descent off of the ridge. The views to the north stretch 50 miles into Oxfordshire here, but the road had a little too much zip for me to lift my gaze from the tarmac for too long. We passed through the village of Letcombe Regis in the shadow of the ridge, and before long were facing back up it ourselves, to take on the formidable Blowing Stone Hill.
The Blowing Stone itself sits in the front garden of a cottage at the foot of the hill and is another of the areas many ancient curios. A perforated sarsen stone (apparently), it is reputed to act as a natural rock trumpet if you know which hole to blow into! In fact, none other than King Alfred is said to have used it to summon his troops for battle. I was conserving my breath for the climb ahead though; Blowing Stone Hill is a stubborn beast that releases you from it’s grip reluctantly.
Over the top, and at last we got a chance to recover. We were heading back into the Lambourne Valley on a 10km descent that loosened the stiffness from my legs somewhat. The next climb, up Kingstone Down to crest the Ridgeway for a final time, felt an easier affair with the bonus of some beautiful scenery to take your mind off the pedals.
Time was pressing by now, so we worked our way over Liddington Hill and departed the route to return to where our van was parked. We’d covered most of the course and I was surely due to pay for my longest ride in some time, but it had been worth it. Running events doesn’t always give you enough opportunity to ride them, so it was good to get a day out on such a stunning course. My legs may not agree right now, but they will eventually!
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