Since buying myself a new bike last year that combined my need for a proper winter bike with the ability to gravel ride, I’ve started to explore some of the trails locally and out into the Peak District. This has been a great way to see new views that you don’t ever see from the road and also to avoid some of the stress of sharing the roads with the occasional maniac! So I took the decision to enter a gravel sportive this year rather than a road based one.
The White Roads Classic seemed to offer what I was looking for and with entry at £30, wasn’t too expensive. Centred around the ancient Ridgeway byway, the ride is designed to pay tribute to the original Italian Strade Bianche which takes place in the hills of Tuscany. The Ridgeway runs in full from Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring to Avebury in Wiltshire, dates back nearly 8,000 years and is the oldest ‘road’ in the United Kingdom. It features several Neolithic and Iron Age sites including one of my all-time favourite spots, the white horse at Uffington, and was my playground in my early mountain biking days when I lived in Swindon. The Ridegway sees a real mix of users and, at some times of year, can be really cut up by the 4x4 crowd, but this damage has been reduced over the past 10-15 years and the surface improved. The surface is a mix of fine white chalk and stone, with quite a lot of flint too. This makes it fast and hard in places but quite sandy in others, and the downhills can be challenging with wayward stones easily able to throw you off if you aren’t concentrating.
I managed to persuade Gordon, an old school friend who now lives in Reading, to join me and made the most of the weekend by catching up with him and his family the night before, which would allow us an early start on the near 100 mile course. He had chosen to ride his “Franken-bike”, an old Pace RC200 aluminium box section frame updated with mechanical disc brakes and running a 1 x 11 set up which he had used recently to explore some of the early part of the course. The route itself started in Streatley (just west of Reading) and headed generally west towards Swindon, before looping back to the start. There were a total of 17 gravel sections, ranging from 0.8 – 3.5 miles. In all, the off-road sections totalled about 25 miles, with a further 70 miles on the roads. The early start went out of the window when the rider packs came through only a few days before the event and said that riders could start from 9.15am, but at least it meant we could have a few drinks on Saturday evening and have a relatively steady start on the Sunday.
Arriving at the start on Sunday morning, there were already quite a few people there and it was interesting to see the varying levels of preparedness. There were quite a few people on gravel/cx bikes, but an almost equal number on pretty standard road bikes. And tyres! This was somewhat surprising, but each to their own and we registered and got ready to go. Looking at the club kits on display and listening to the voices, it seemed that most entrants were quite local – club kits from Oxford, Reading and various parts of London were visible – and there were South African voices, a clear sign of being in closer proximity to our capital city!! The weather was already warm when we set off in the second wave and after a short road section, we hit the first of three early gravel sectors, a steady climb of approximately 2000m in length. It very quickly became clear that those on road tyres were going to struggle. Riders were walking early in the climb and the first puncture repair was seen within about 300m! And they continued. Within the first 3 gravel sectors, I must have seen 20 repairs being carried out and it was a theme throughout the day. Gordon suffered an early mechanical problem with his front disc binding slightly, so we carried on at our own pace, stopping for an occasional roadside repair to free up his front wheel.
We settled into a fairly fluid group, getting caught or passed on the road sections, and then re-passing the same people when we came to the gravel sections. Although Gordon rides a fair bit, we were riding at blue rather than red pace and my hill training in Derbyshire became very evident on every climb. The temperature gradually rose and it was a welcome relief each time you could get into the shade.
The main climb of the event was Dragon Hill which features in Simon Warren’s second “Greatest Climbs” books (#121). It’s not a monster at 1km and a 91m ascent, but sits just below Uffington White Horse and runs past the hill where, legend would have it, St George slayed the dragon. Riders were well spaced out by this point (approx. 35 miles) and with little traffic, the climb passed easily enough and we were able to enjoy the views north towards the Cotswolds over the Vale of the White Horse. We then did another short gravel section before the first feed station in Bishopstone where riders were generally cursing their choice of bike/tyre as well as stuffing their faces.
We moved on after a brief stop and were glad we hadn’t eaten too much as we quickly came across a short but sharp road climb and then a similar gravel climb at Foxhill. This site holds special memories for me as it is adjacent to what used to be The Traveller’s Rest pub where I first worked at 18 years of age. Unfortunately, it’s now an Indian restaurant and wasn’t open for a cold drink for old times’ sake, so we cracked on through the town of Lambourn. It’s beautiful countryside, lush green fields with regular clumps of woodland and white railing designating where the gallops are for all of the racing stables that litter this area. As the second feedstop at 100km approached, Gordon decided that he was “broken” (technical term) and would, while the chance presented, simply hop onto the Ridegway and head straight back to the finish by the most direct (and flattest) route. I carried on with the route with approx. 40 miles to go and increased the pace as I repeatedly rose up to cross or join the Ridegway, before dropping down the other side and then climbed back up again. Riders were passed, some stunning houses were seen and I rode through the enticing smells of afternoon barbeques wafting through the lanes.
Nearly 10km of the final 25km were off road, with a couple of long steady descents that made you concentrate, especially as you rode through dappled shade, which hides any potholes that might be lurking to catch you out. Arriving at the finish, I saw that Gordon was sitting by the side of my car in the shade having arrived back some 20-30 minutes earlier. I availed myself of the free glass of prosecco offered to all finishers but kindly declined the prize for finishing - a bag of chalk from the Downs - as I figured it would simply end up all over the boot of my car! Disappointingly, after a near 100 mile ride on a very hot day, with temperatures peaking at 34 degrees C, there was no water available which I thought was really poor. Somewhat amusingly, there were two ambulances in attendance and I wondered what they would do if someone was suffering from minor dehydration?!
All in all, it was a great event. The route was amazing and showed off the area to its full extent. I had considered leading a club group down there but sadly some small sections of the route are private roads, so I will need to work with Gordon to see if there are easy ways to work around that. The organisation leading up to and on the day of the event wasn’t the best I have experienced but, having done both C2C and TotH, I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of the best organised events in the UK. The organisers also run the Cheshire Cobbled Classic and the Tour of the Black Country, and I’d be interested in having a go at both of those in 2018 to experience something slightly different for the normal run of the mill sportives. If you’re thinking the same, make sure you choose the right bike and tyres and you should have a great day.