Posted by: Ian | October 5, 2010

After Blenheim

By the time we turned in for the night on Saturday on the eve of the Blenheim sportive I’d resolved not to do the event again next year. The drive over to our accommodation at Burford had been easy but our experience at The Bull was enough to put me off doing any more sportives where I can’t start the day from either home or a friend’s house. I won’t write about The Bull now; if you’re especially interested in its shortcomings you can check out my review on Trip Advisor here.

By the morning my resentment at our overpriced digs had been succeeded by enthusiasm for the ride ahead. My only disappointment was that our friend Steve was unable to join us on the bikes due to some passing health issues; nonetheless, he and Gill came down to take in the event and cheer us on. Paula and I met them at Blenheim Palace and also made our rendez-vous with Emily, who had driven up from London. Last year Emily and I had ridden Blenheim with Martin – we weren’t sure if he was going to join us again this year as he’s a self-confessed fair weather rider and rain during at least some of the morning looked certain. When Emily’s text elicited no response we assumed he’d stayed home in the dry.

At the start of the day participants are required to assign themselves to a starting group. The riders in the 100 mile event go first. In the 60 mile event, which we were signed up for, you have to choose whether to be in the Fast group, which expects to finish in under five hours, the Medium group, with an anticipated five to six hour completion time, and slower groups behind that. As we walked up to the start lane I was discussing with Emily where we should position ourselves. Our intent was to have a relaxed ride round this time. Since with no stops we finished in about 3.5 hours last year, I argued, the Medium group seemed right this year, when stopping was very much part of our plans.

“You did it in three and a half hours!” a guy walking behind us exclaimed incredulously.

We assured him that we had.

“You did it in three and a half hours too!!” he exclaimed further, looking at Emily as if just noticing her. “Christ, now I feel really terrible.”

Paula, Emily and I grouped ourselves in with the Mediums and soon we were off, cruising through the Palace grounds and then out onto the open country lanes.

Of all the sportives I’ve done the Blenheim is by some way the best organised. The signs are faultless, the food stations are well supplied and the marshalling is beyond comparison with any other event. It’s such a pleasure to approach a junction where you’d normally have to stop and be called over by a marshall who can assure you that it’s clear – or even hold up the traffic for you. It all speaks of munificence of resource.

Equally exceptional is the quality of the road surfaces, which exemplify the affluence of the tonier parts of the Oxfordshire/Cotswold region. After cycling through Somerset and London where pot hole avoidance demands constant vigilance, it’s a real treat to glide over ribbons of smooth tarmac. The houses, too, in the chocolate-box villages are almost over-perfect. More even than the vernacular mellow stone, I love the ubiquitous clay rooves, whose moss-covered tiles grade in increasing size from small at the ridge to large at the eaves.

The outstanding feature of the actual cycling is how hilly it isn’t and consequently how easy it is. After riding it last year, I’d considered doing it this time on my Tempo but wimped out in the preceding days following my failure to eliminate a marked unevenness from the transmission. With the Tempo ruled out and still no news on the Van Nic, I took the Felt. It flew. As a small nod to fixed gear cycling I did the whole ride in my large chain ring, adding a little edge to the ascents. Emily, who tends to keep to the high gears anyway, did the same, attracting a patronising comment from an older guy who informed her (as if the purpose of gearing might be mystery) that she’d find it easier if she changed down. Today, by the way, I took the Tempo into the Condor shop who remedied the remaining bumpiness in the ride by replacing the chain and sprocket. I could easily have done it myself but it didn’t occur to me that they’d wear out so quickly riding fixed: it’s my third chain/sprocket in two years and I do less than half of my mileage on that bike.

Paula’s continuing cycling progress over recent months was evident. Although she doesn’t, like me, spend a couple of hours pretty much every day on the bike, she made it comfortably up every hill and went at a very decent speed on the descents. This time she also benefitted from having support crew meeting up with us periodically, this time in the shape of Steve and Gill.

There’s nothing quite like being able to sit in the back of a car that’s there for you at these times. As the traditional provider of tea and rolls, no one deserves it more than Paula.

Five miles before the end, immediately after taking a break that lasted just longer than it takes to fix a puncture, I discovered that I’d got a puncture. Unusually, I was unable to find the flint or shard that caused it in the tyre, despite easily locating the hole in the tube, so set off after swapping in a new tube apprehensive that I might have to stop again. Luckily – or through wilful refusal to look down at my back wheel – I made it through to the end, although when we got home the tyre was again pancake flat.

The final stats were interesting. Although the 62 mile course had felt hill-less, there was, according to my Garmin, 4,000 feet of ascent. While by no means Somersetesque, this was far more than I’d expected. For comparison, the 45 mile Cornwall Tor route had 4,400 feet of ascent and this had felt far more undulating. My average heart rate of 128 bpm and average power of 169 W weren’t anything like as high as on an intense training ride but they’re into normal sportive territory.

Our final time of 6:18 put us into 730th place out of 864 starters. The longest time that got recorded was just over 10 hours and the quickest was 3:20, less than twenty minutes faster than we managed last year. Our actual ride time, again according to my Garmin, was only 4:37. A part of this slow down relative to last year can be pinned on the weather, since it rained most of the time and we had wet roads throughout (although the degree of this in the photo was not typical!). The 1:40 discrepancy between our ride time and our finishing time can be attributed to our well-executed drink/snack/relax strategy.

We found out later than Martin had done the ride with three other guys. They set off only ten or 15 minutes before we did and he finished in 4:05, in exactly 100th place.

Contrary to my grumpy thoughts at The Bull, this is a sportive that has to feature on my 2011 calendar.



  1. […] Haleakala (and the ride down), the Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the Blenheim, the Beast of Exmoor, the Tour of Britain ride, and (my favourite domestic event this year) the […]

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