Cyclo-Sportive: Circuit of Kent 2009
Sevenoaks, Kent, 13 September 2009
80km or 140km
With a reputation as one of the most rider-friendly events in the country, I was looking forward to riding the Circuit of Kent as a nearly-end-of-season bit of fun. There was another reason that I wanted to take part in the long-running south-east sportive: I had recently encouraged my father-in-law, Ken, to turn from being a runner into a cyclist and this seemed to be a fitting event to kick off his experience of two-wheeled events.
With entry in, and full ride information bounced back promptly from organiser Derek Williams of the Rotary Club of Sevenoaks, it was easy to get prepared for the event. Ken and I turned up at Sevenoaks Preparatory School at 8am, bottles primed with energy drink.
We were confronted by a car park already busy, with a wide variety of bikes and a wider variety of riders spilling out onto the grass chattering with expectation of the day's events. The weather was perfect, a slight autumn chill but dry and no wind.
We'd elected to ride the 80km route, rather than the full-on 140km expedition. The event's target times for gold and silver standards made it easy to work out a rough average speed to attain your target. After a quick registration procedure, we were given an electronic timing transponder to attach to the bike. Zip ties fixed, and we were off.
Having carefully worked out that I needed to ride at an average of 16.5mph to safely come in for gold for my age group, my bike's usually reliable computer had decided it was going to choose this moment to go into meltdown. There was no way that I left the start at 87mph. Less chance that I was averaging 46mph.
The first 10km or so passed in a blur, and I completely failed to register that there was a long, steep downhill right after the start... meaning that there'd be a long uphill at the end of the loop. More of that later. Somehow I'd lost touch with Ken; I was too busy trying to fix the malfunctioning handlebar gadget. A shameful way to treat your wife's father.
After being passed by several groups of riders, I decided to try and tag on the back of a small group to see if I could keep up. I could for a bit, but these guys were obviously using the event for race training, so I hung back and linked up with another couple of riders.
Rushing past oast houses, hop fields and orchards lined with poplars, the route treats you with stunning scenery at every turn. Pretty red-brick villages living up to the Garden of England cliché.
The route was more undulating that I'd expected, with a cluster of short, sharp hills in the first 25km. I, and the route, soon settled down into a rhythm, with a longish flat section after East Malling leading to the half-way feed station at Claygate and beyond.
Still unsure of how I was doing time-wise, I decided to miss out on the free cakes and press on. At this point I'd lost my earlier companions and was on my own again with no sign of riders in front or behind. Had I missed a turn? No, there was another of the highly visible waymarkers, and around a corner a trio of riders for company.
The 10km marker came up, and the talk turned to the ride's finale. One of the riders was a local and kindly warned me of what was ahead - the final climb of One Tree Hill to the finish was a killer.
Despite the twee Winnie The Pooh name, One Tree Hill is a heavily wooded climb with several corners lulling you into thinking you're nearly there, only to realise you not. I was on the edge of blowing, and wished that I had stopped to grab a quick cake in Claygate.
Several riders were walking up, and one poor bloke was stooped over his bike by the side of the road. Not so much a sting in the tail, but a swarm of angry six foot hornets whacking your legs with cricket bats.
A short flat roll to the line allowed time to almost compose myself and not look too red-faced at the finish. As soon as you cross the line, the transponder does its work and gives you an instant time. Gold achieved, with a few minutes to spare.
Barely ten minutes later and Ken rolled in, looking much better than I did. He had also achieved gold in his first ever cycling event as the age of 61. Quite a result.
On to the food hall, where each and every one of the 850+ riders is given drink, a roll of their choice, soup and a selection of stunning cakes. Rather than the usual anti-climax of packing damp kit away in a car and going home, everyone sat around chatting about the ride to the backing of a live band. All saying they'd be back next year.
Advance entries for next year's event (Sunday September 12, 2010) will open from mid-November 2009 via www.kentcyclosportive.co.uk.
What's so special?
Organiser Derek Williams modelled the original Circuit of Kent in 1997 on continental cyclo-sportives, with support, facilities and atmosphere as important as the quality of route. With challenge times to aim for and a great circuit backed up with grade A food at the finish, this a sportiviste's dream. And it raises a massive amount of money for a variety of cancer charities.
Your Circuit of Kent
Ken Swain, Oxford
60+ category, 80km, 2-58 (gold)
"I started cycling only a couple of years ago on a mountain bike after a fair few years of road running. My son-in-law talked me in to riding the Circuit of Kent - my first ever cycling event - although I'm not sure that I was thanking him during certain parts of the ride!
"After 10km I was overtaken by a group of riders, so I tucked in behind and my lesson in road riding began. The bloke on the front of the group started shouting helpful comments and directions, and the rider directly in front of me kept making hand signals to point out potholes and other things. All new to me.
"At the 40km mark, I looked at my bike computer and guessed that the split for the 80km and 140km routes must be coming up some time soon. When no sign came up, a cold sweat came over me - maybe I'd missed the sign and was now riding the 140km route. This could be embarrassing with the lads on the finish line, but I carried on regardless and sure enough saw a sign confirming that I was still on the 80km route. Relief.
"After 79km I wasn't feeling too bad, and the final climb started - I was joined by three ladies from a local club. I asked them whether this was the famous finishing hill, "yes" was the reply "and it's as bad as they say it is". Not really what I wanted to hear. Halfway up the hill and I was dead. A phrase came to mind from Rhino in the animated film Bolt: "It's a good day to die". A voice from behind told me that it was just up a bit further, then over the top and down to the line. And we were there.
"At the finish we were greeted by hot tea, excellent food and a jazz band. The ideal opportunity to sit down and chat to fellow riders and reflect on the morning's events rather than hastily packing up and driving home. The whole ride was very well organised and I'll definitely be back."
Gretchen Miller, London
18-39 category, 80km, 2-56 (gold)
"It was my second sportive after the Chilterns sportive and there are less hills here. I definitely felt fitter than the first one. Although that last hill was all I was thinking about for about 75km."
Martin Cole, Sittingborne, Kent
40-49 category, 80km, 2-36 (gold)
"It's the second time I've ridden the event, but the first time I've done the 80km route. It's a good ride, well organised but challenging. It's the only sportive that I've done this year, and the first time I've got the gold so I'm happy with that."
Circuit of Kent 2009 facts
Over £60,000 raised for Macmillan Cancer Care and Hospice in the Weald
With 13 editions, the Circuit of Kent is one of Britain's longest-running sportives