White Horse Challenge (Ride Report)

So this time I did finish!

And with the legs having been shaved in trepidation, and the groupset installed and collected from the LBS in the nick of time. The combination of these factors must mean only one thing: the start of my cycling season!

If there’s a better way to christen the new SRAM Rival groupset than by taking on the White Horse Challenge, a 90-mile sportive, do let me know. Otherwise, the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside were challenging enough! I can’t remember the exact moment in time when I decided to sign up for this sufferfest, nor would I have anticipated the climbs, headwinds and solo-riding efforts  that came with getting dropped, so I am taking away a few lessons from the ride:

i) more hill training required. I am not a “climber” and not yet a “sprinter”, even if my thighs project the idea of power (it’s a work in progress);
ii) the lack of training in the winter wouldn’t have prepared me for the climbs I faced – there is no shame in having to get off and walk; and
iii) spending 60 percent of the ride with nothing but my own thoughts and the push of the pedals can present their own internal battles.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun. I certainly did – you can see for yourself at Garmin Connect.

With only one short 20-mile ride before the sportive to get to grips with my new Rival set-up and the “double-tap” shifting that comes with it, I knew there would be challenges on the ride. But when the morning of the race came, I rolled through the gazebo and onto the road with my fellow Zappi CC club members at just before 8:30am in Shrivenham. We started off at a strong pace, similar to our weekly medium-fast paced club rides, zipping past several groups, larger than our own. I have to say we looked impressive in our matching club kit and our 13-strong pack of riders managed to pick up a few hangers-on, droppoing them almost as quickly, and that was until the first hill.

Historically, the sportive maps an area that is home to nearly 24 naturally carved white horses, so it only make sense that such a ride would take place in an area used heavily by actual horses. It was a close call (and something I’ve not seen happen before), but a large stud and his rider were properly spooked by the whizzing of wheels gears that it reared up on the opposite side of the road. You can’t anticipate what a horse might do when spooked, so a prompt squeeze of the brakes was made, which resulted in my fish-tailing across a slick patch on the road. I managed to keep control of the bike and carry on but it certainly got the heart pumping! Further ahead (around laps 10 and 11), the pace dropped by about 5mph -the first hill approached –  and the gradient shot up to 10% then 15% (and possibly higher that I stopped looking at the readout).

The Rival was responsive as I dropped it into the small ring and pushed the rear cassette up as high as it could go on its 11 x 28 set up and settled into a steady rhythm. I didn’t fancy getting up out of the saddle yet, because I knew I had two more big climbs ahead. I would find out by the end of the ride that decision was going to cost me. I watched my fellow riders push themselves up the hill and re-form, but that wasn’t meant to be for me. Being dropped is never fun and the impulse to work double-hard to chase was there, but no such luck. Fortunately I wasn’t alone for too long, managing to catch four other club members before we approached Hackpen Hill, a bit of a best with several upward bends to the summit.

Having now reached the second-feed station of the sportive, the end was in sight! I only wish I could say the same about the supplies at the station (as I was craving a bacon sandwich!), but settled for gels, Fig Newtons and crisps.

Next up: the final climb and “the King of the Hill” that was the Uffington White Horse, the largest (and oldest) chalk horse design in England – dating back nearly 3,000 years. I wondered whether or not its original designers ever thought of the struggle that is pedalling up the hillside. Probably not, but in just under 8min I made the climb up the hill (not the swiftest, but at that point every moment out of the saddle, my thighs were screaming!) These events and key points of the ride are always well covered by photographers, so it gave me the desire to finish the climb with a flourish – tongue-sticking out in Tommy Voeckler style! Have a search for rider 478, if you like 🙂

At the end of it all, I finished in 5 hours and 50 minutes (nearly an hour later than the quickest club member), but never once did I think “am I done yet?!” or “are we there yet?!”. These are the rides to enjoy and that’s all down to the organisation of the route, coming together with other club members (and other clubs), and in this instance passing some pretty awesome looking carvings.

I have yet to decide whether or not I’ll do it again!

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