Posted by: Ian | November 22, 2009

The Blenheim Sportive

The first entry on this site – the one that brought the site into existence – was my write-up of the Exmoor Beast. It would have been more satisfactory to have started before then, and the best first entry would have been an account of our time at the Blenheim Sportive a month earlier. Or perhaps it might have been better still to kick the thing off with an outline of the grand plan to do the 3 day Tour of Wessex next May.

This afternoon I did a pretty hilly 30 km ride around Hill Farm House. I enjoyed it. I liked the uphills and the downhills (though I like the severe ones less) and the miserable weather. Today’s ride also featured a stretch of “rough road” between Lydmarsh and Chaffcombe, which itself had both an uphill and then a downhill component and was all sorts of fun on my Tricross in the rain. But as I was coming back towards home I wondered, as I often do, whether I really have it in me to do five of those in a row, and then do the same the next day, and then do the same again the day after that.  That’s what the Tour of Wessex amounts to.

Knowing that it’s going to be at the margins of what I can manage, I resolved to do at least one trainer sportive first, and the one that first caught my eye was the Exmoor Beast. I was delighted when Stuart and Emily agreed to do it with me. Later, Emily came across details of the Blenheim Sportive, which is much more convenient for Londoners, and Martin, who has a place nearby, quickly agreed to join her on it. I was initially less keen – only because of the practical difficulties of getting to Blenheim for 7ish on a Sunday morning. As I reflected on it, the attraction of making my first event an easier one combined with the prospect of a nice ride with Martin and Emily outweighed the logistical issues, especially when Paula agreed to drive me there. It became a slam-dunk winner when my good friend Luca invited us to stay with him and Lori the night before. So Blenheim became the first station on the journey to Wessex, choosing the 100km rather than the 100 mile sportive as it was our first.

The afternoon and evening beforehand was perfect. We had a lovely time with L, L, Michaela, Clara and Massimo, and snuck out in the morning while the house still slept. On the way to Blenheim Palace we passed several competitors who were cycling to the event: if you live nearby I’m sure it makes sense but it was so cold, dark and early that I couldn’t imagine being outside of the car. By the time we swang into the Palace grounds it was getting properly light. We were directed to a field full of parked and parking cars and, incredibly, found that we had parked next but one to Martin, who, with Emily, had got there moments before us.

Outside, I was shocked by the cold and dithered about what to wear. I knew that the ideal bike gear should leave me a little chilly when I set off but I had no certainty about the weather that might face us over the coming hours. Luckily, as it turned out, I eschewed my warmer (and drier) Gore softshell jacket in favour of a light Rapha gilet.

Martin fixed up his Condor, which I hadn’t seen before – he has a different Condor for commuting – and which he’d reconfigured from time trial set-up a few days beforehand. It looked great. He was advised when he bought it to get a bike that he’d never want to upgrade: that sounds extravagant but is advice I’d pass on. Emily wheeled out her new Scott CR1 and that looked mean, too. I had bought my Felt at around the same time as Emily got the Scott and now, mixing it in the presence of such enviable bikes, I was glad that I’d ended up with a bike that I liked so much. I had come quite close to buying a Specialized Roubaix instead – on test, it was so easy and comfortable to ride. Ultimately, though, I preferred the stiffer-handling Felt. Equally importantly, on that morning I wouldn’t have wanted to be pushing along a bike that, like the Roubaix in Evans, was white: it’s just not me.

Before we began we had to pick up our timing chips. Emily attached hers to her shoe. Thinking that it would be more secure there, I stowed mine in my wedgie bag under the saddle and Martin followed suit. Then we crept up to the start line, Martin encouraging us to go off with the self-categorised “fast” groups. I waved back to Paula and we were off.

On paper it looks like an easy ride. As I’ve written before, all BikeHike profiles tend to look the same because they fill the rectangle with whatever hilliness the ride has. To see how comparatively gentle this is, you can look at the scale on the BikeHike profile for the Exmoor Beast: both rides are 62-63 miles long but on the Beast’s profile the y-axis runs from zero (not 164) to about 1,500 (not half of that).

By the time we started the sun had come out and the day was warming up. Literally only yards from the start line we began to pass competitors who were repairing punctures at the side of the roadway. My heart went out to them but I felt great and sped along quickly. Once we left the grounds of Blenheim and turned onto the public lanes I found that my natural speed was taking me past groups of other cyclists. However, Martin and Emily initially fell into a gentler and perhaps more sustainable rhythm and so I spent the first few miles in a speed/wait cycle that was probably not ideal for either my mood or my energy levels. But presently we settled into a pace where we were making decent progress and travelling along more or less together.

The route on the road was at it looked on the map: flatter than Somerset and, as promised, very pretty. It took us around several honey-stone Oxfordshire/Cotswold villages, one or two of which I knew from the years I spent living in Stroud. When cars passed by the number of cyclists on the roads required them to slow, and at most of the road junctions marshals either waved us through or flagged us to a stop.

The riding was perfect. Here you can see Emily looking smooth and relaxed, like a cover shot from Cycling Plus.

While we generally rode along together, the downhills tended to string us out temporarily as Emily – wisely we would learn at Exmoor – held back on the steeper ones. After one such fast stretch, Martin, who looked strong all the way, was powering up the long incline that followed. I kept with him for a while then let myself fall back, partly to wait for Emily to catch up and partly for a rest. Presently, Emily made her way up to me but by then Martin was out of sight. What we only later found out was that he had disappeared behind a hedge for a few minutes, during which time we must have passed him. So for a period around the middle of the route we cycled apart, neither party knowing who was ahead.

At around the half way mark Emily and I came to a T-junction and a marshal waved us through to our right turn. I was a little ahead of Emily and turned first, keen to get through because the marshal was holding up cars for us. I noticed as I turned that there was loose gravel in the centre of the road. About 20 yards on, I looked over my shoulder to check that Emily had made the turn before the marshal let the cars go on: I must have missed her fall by only a second or two. If there is such a thing as a good fall from a bike this probably wasn’t it, though it lacked the severity of her fall in the Beast. I wrote in that blog that “fortunately no bones were broken”. Let me correct that: now it appears probable that Emily fractured a rib. However, at Blenheim, there was blood and there was bruising but fortunately no bones were broken.

After a short stop to check herself and her bike and gather her wits, Emily decided to press on with the second half of the ride. We continued at a decent pace and not too long later Martin caught us up again. He had been unsure whether we had stopped at the food point: we hadn’t but he had checked it to be sure. For sustenance, I was carrying a Mule bar and some Clif bar shot bloks and had a protein/carb supplement in my drink. Martin had something similar I think. I’m not sure that Emily even took water: I don’t get it myself, but we all make our own choices.

For roads, scenery and weather the second half of the sportive matched the first, although one of our party was bravely riding through her pain. With around fifteen miles to go I started to become grateful that we had signed up for the 100 km rather than the 100 mile event; but before too long the entrance back into the Palace grounds appeared, earlier than we had expected, leaving us a very pleasant final scoot through the park. Martin and I tried to contrive for the three of us to pass over the timing mat marking the end of the course together but somehow Emily nosed past us. It was academic: the timing chips that we had packed safely under our saddles didn’t register and so only Emily recorded an official time. We turned in a very decent 3:39 in 67th place out of 623 (recorded) finishers. We would only have needed to save 12 minutes when Emily fell to make the top 25.

Paula was waiting on the finish line and took the photos from the end that you can see on our gallery. We dismounted and went over to see the start of the Brompton race. It was a hoot.



  1. […] Hell of the Ashdown If the Blenheim 100 km was an enjoyable Sunday blast and the Exmoor Beast was a hard slog in absurd weather that you press […]

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