Spending my childhood in the Borough of Swindon (a ceremonial county of Wiltshire) is not something from my past that I actively volunteer when it comes to personal information. While I have nothing against it personally, there was an episode of Room 101 where a minor celebrity banished the whole town to the show’s shameful vaults – and it does seem to have a problem with being taken seriously (especially after being twinned with Disneyland Paris, for a time). For example, you can pick up postcards showing off the Magic Roundabout on an overcast day or grab a stick of rock with ‘Swindon’ appearing throughout – despite it being around 80km from the nearest coast (and an estuary at that!).
Rather than answer that my home town is Swindon, I generally opt for something along the lines of ‘half-way between London and Bristol’ or, for those more familiar with the area, ‘near Marlborough’. And while this is geographically correct, the latter is actually indicative of where Swindoners will likely head out for a ride, pointing their handlebars south and heading into the green and rolling heart of Wiltshire.
Though based in the North West now, I wanted to ride the Cycle Wiltshire Sportive to nail my first ever century, but also because a sizable section of the route is on my parents’ doorstep. I therefore signed up for the long route in an effort to familiarise myself with my home county and link together a whole host of small towns and villages visited over the years for dentist appointments, walks and good pubs.
To provide a little more information about the wider initiative, Cycle Wiltshire is all about creating a lasting legacy of cycling and healthy living across the county (yes, that was lifted from their website). The two-day festival at the beginning of May featured the sportive and event hub on the Saturday, followed by the final round of British Cycling’s Spring Cup which forms part of the Elite Road Series.
Based at the Five Rivers Leisure Centre just outside of Salisbury, the event hub had a hi-vis-clad team and ample parking which made the arrival process incredibly simple. Signage directed riders through reception, past the squash courts and on into a sports hall, where a row of sign-on tables formed HQ. Here, everything was ready to go and I was quickly out again with my timing chip, bike number and cable ties. While a few of the tents were open, serving coffee and starting conversations, I decided to crack on with preparations and get my bike ready.
Back at the start, small groups of riders were briefed and set off in short intervals. There was nothing out of the ordinary to be highlighted, but both the official and the guy on the PA were decidedly helpful in offering beginner’s tips to help in dealing with the wind (that would be gusting at up to 25mph all day) and working as a group to save energy. The range of bikes and riders was pretty wide, with short (20 mile), medium (64 mile) and long (99 mile) routes available.
We were soon set off and rolled away from the leisure centre on a bike path that headed north out of the town. This quickly turned into winding country lanes with hardly a car in sight – which turned out to be the blueprint for the day. The first ten miles or so were pretty flat and took us up towards Amesbury (and past Sting’s house!). The profile then became a little choppier as the route wound north east through Tidworth and Ludgershall, where the ratio of civilian to military buildings seemed to dwindle and we were faced with some imposing signs as to what we could be sharing the road with.
In the next ten miles or so before the first feed station, the gentle climbing began until we were up and over the North West Downs. The road peaked at 257 metres so was by no means Alpine, plus the feed station followed soon after at the 38 mile mark. From the outside it appeared that there were simply toilet facilities and two water butts outside; one with water and one with some sort of High5 concoction. Closer inspection revealed a whole village hall of seats and snacks however, as well as a steady supply of tea in polystyrene cups. Bliss!
Feed stops have always been one of the things that I feel can make or break a sportive as, when you’re nursing your legs through a bad half hour or racing through your bottles on a hot day, the mile countdown to what is often a gazebo in a lay-by can be one of those things you divert most of your brain energy to. And while riders weren’t particularly struggling at this point, the enormous choice of sweet and salted snacks and the rare ability to have a cup of tea were definitely welcomed – and boded well for the second one. A big thank you also goes out to the volunteers staffing these stations, for giving up their time and making 400 cyclists very happy indeed.
Not long after the feed station, the medium and long routes split and it seemed that the majority of riders had decided to go for the 64 mile route. This meant that there were far fewer bodies on the road, but we pedalled roughly north until taking a pretty clear right turn into the substantial headwind. It was at this point that the earlier advice to ride in groups really started to show and people who were initially strung out along the road began to cluster together. There was some respite in the shape of winding bends, but it was a tough ten miles or so into Marlborough.
This was the part of the world that I am most familiar with and it was fantastic to be riding on roads I didn’t know existed before popping out in familiar places. The signage was incredibly clear throughout which was really helpful in being able to relax into the ride and take in the surroundings, plus the organisers made the GPX file available in advance for anyone that wanted a back-up. As a result, I’ve saved the course and am pretty sure I’ll be bringing my bike back with me on every parental visit – and making time for a good spin (sorry mum and dad!).
Out of Marlborough, it was a blustery slog up to the top of the Downs before a quick couple of descents into a bit of a basin between Clyffe Pypard and Compton Bassett (there are some good names in the South West!). Climbing back out of the other side past the Cherhill monument and white horse, there were some absolutely beautiful sights and I decided to drop off the back of a group that had been loosely riding together for the last few miles. Coming over the top of the drag, there was also the wonderful combination of a slight downhill coupled with a tailwind that meant you could fly along without having to put too much pressure on the pedals.
After a short time we arrived into Avebury which is a Neolithic monument containing three stone circles. Being not too far from Stonehenge and in a county that has a bit of a thing for crop circles and equinoxes, it draws lots of visitors each year. The second feed station soon came into view with a big, flappy High5 flag beckoning us in and the hopes I’d had at feed station one were most certainly met by a couple of sandwiches, a pot of nuts and a cup of tea. Here, the 20 or so riders taking a break were all in good spirits and chatting about the road so far while trying to calculate the percentage of remaining miles that would have a tailwind.
Setting off again, I slogged into the wind and up a drag for a while before being scooped up by two friendly riders who were pretty strong. Working together, we took a bit of a TTT approach to dispatching the final 25 miles or so while also breaking formation to have a chat. Here, the roads were quiet and the scenery was absolutely beautiful, with the wind having blown the clouds apart to let some scattered sunlight through. We soon found ourselves on the home leg which, as it mirrored the initial 10 miles, was nicely familiar. We must also have been flying as I think we surprised the event photographer who was basking in the afternoon sunlight. With everyone so stretched out at this point, capturing three riders in relatively close formation was probably a bit of a challenge (I haven’t seen the results as yet).
Turning into the event village, we were welcomed in by the loudspeaker and duly received our goodie bags and medal. Before dismounting and stopping my Garmin however, I remembered that the briefing had actually mentioned the ride as being 99 miles, rather than the full century. This matched up to the digits below me, so I nipped up and down a couple of local roads just to be able to say I’d done it. This also got me closer to the car, meaning I could pop the bike away and throw on some leisure wear to head back into the village.
Things had obviously gotten going a little more and all of the stalls were in full swing with coffee, ice cream and information about local services on offer. Behind the finish line there was also one of British Cycling’s Go-Ride tents, where coached training and racing sessions had been held throughout the day for younger riders who had turned up on their bikes. I grabbed some food, thanks to the meal token that every finisher had been given, and had a wander around in the sun, plus it was pretty rewarding to think that it was a Saturday afternoon (rather than a Sunday, as with most sportives), so I still had a good chunk of weekend left.
While it would have been great to head down to the elite race on the Sunday to make a full weekend of it, we decided to stay a little more local in the end but I did keep an eye on what was going on. The journey back added a bit of a buzz to the weekend, with team cars nipping around the twisting lanes to carry out reconnaissance and reinforcing how great it was to see an event of this profile in the South West.
Cycle Wiltshire gets top marks from me and if they could just extend it by one more mile and order less wind next time, that would be the icing on the cake.