DISTANCE 117 miles (189km)
MAIN CLIMBS Walbury Hill, Stoner Hill
TOTAL CLIMB 2,500m
ACHTUNG! Ensure you eat, drink, eat, drink, and then eat, drink some more!

The Highclere Castle Sportive, all 117 miles of it, is a UCI event. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to get ProTour points for finishing first, although Paolo Bettini and Cadel Evans wouldn’t find themselves so out of place racing round this tough course in southern England.

In fact, it’s thanks to its motorcycle safety and service outriders, and a general high level of organisation, that this sportive, run for only the second time this summer, has gained the seal of approval of international cycling’s governing body.

It’s part of the Victor Ludorum series of sportives and Audax events — Victor Ludorum is Latin for ‘winner of the games’, not a James Bond villain — which includes the more recent Autumn Classic and a number of Audax ‘Training Programme’ events to get you fit for the big boys.

The Highclere Castle Sportive begins — you guessed it — at Highclere Castle. I had visions of hordes of cyclists stinking out the east wing with embrocation and desecrating Capability Brown’s bushes with the usual flurry of last-minute calls of nature, but thankfully for the present-day owners, the starting area and HQ were situated well away from the castle in open fields.

Despite being an open-air affair, the HQ was well-equipped, with plenty of clean loos, a coffee bar, burger van and cycle service area. The sign on process was also quick and efficient.

The weather was good. You would usually expect as much for an event held in mid-June (granted, unless it’s the Glastonbury music festival), but after 2007’s appalling summer, the relief was palpable as the early morning haze burned off to reveal a gorgeous midsummer day.

Easy rider
After leaving the castle grounds, the ride was set to head southwards, all the way down to Winchester, looping in a clockwise direction back to the start. 117 miles. No small undertaking. But having ridden sportives in the Alps and the mountains of South Wales, I was fairly confident the Highclere Sportive wouldn’t throw up anything I couldn’t handle. I thought I knew Hampshire pretty well. I thought it would be a relatively flat ride — how wrong I was.
The roll-out was peaceful and relaxing, much like the castle grounds themselves.

Unfortunately, we were only afforded a brief glimpse of this Victorian pile before we left the estate and the fun began.

I’d positioned myself in what I knew would be a fast group in order to gain an early advantage. However, I hadn’t realised quite how quickly I was about to be launched into the ride, and it wasn’t long before I was reduced to hanging on for grim death. Despite the harsh lessons of rides past, knowing I should be sensible and ease up, I stuck it out until the first climb at around 12 miles: Walbury Hill. My faithful companions dropped me quicker than a hot spud. Cresting the hill and rolling along the top alone, I allowed myself to take in the glorious views before putting my head down and pressing on.

I had been doing enough training to want to have a crack at the gold standard time, which for my age category was 6hr 48mins — an average speed of 17.2mph. Not easy, but with the right group, I could be in with a shot.

Two-upmanship
Before long, fortune smiled upon me. A guy in a Gatorade-Chateau d’Ax jersey from back in the day, and a bike to match, became my companion. Physically he was my polar opposite — lean, wiry, light, built for climbing. I, on the other hand am bulky, heavy, probably built more for sumo. But we had similar intentions — getting round as fast as we could. And while he had to wait for me on almost every climb (I admired his patience), I was able to give back something in return by towing fast on the flats and the occasional long, slightly downhill runway.

The ride became a two-up time trial. Through and off for 100 miles, more or less. The times when we actually rode side by side and chatted were few and far between, but we talked enough to get the basics. He was Charles McGilligan, and he was in his forties. An affable chap.

It became a crazy undertaking, going as fast as we could in TTT formation, the hills coming thick and fast. Often nothing to write home about, just a significant rise in the road, but enough to ensure that you would hurt that little bit more later on.

Steep by name…
As it turned out, ‘later on’ for me came not long after the second food stop at Steep, just outside Petersfield. At 80 miles, but with 40 left to go, it was that point in the ride, familiar to any long-distance athlete, past the halfway point but still with a lot of ground to cover. As we left the welcome food stop, the road pointed upwards and we tackled Stoner Hill. On its own, a lovely hill to ride. Despite still being in my neck of the woods, I’d never ridden this before, and the forest setting was so similar to the tree-lined climbs of Southern Wales, or even the Alps, that for a few pedal revs I forgot the pain in my legs.

Attempting to keep pace with my partner, I rode the hill just about as hard as I could, and from then on the ride became a battle for survival. Every rise in the road saw me crashing down through the gears, trying to find a ratio that my glycogen-bankrupt muscles could turn. I felt sorry for Charles, who, waiting for me, at times seemed like he could barely go any slower.

It’s amazing how far 20 miles seems when you’ve already done 100 and are spent. In fact, as we toiled round the outside of the castle grounds, even the rem-aining three miles seemed almost insurmountable.But soon enough I hobbled through the finishing pen, gingerly dismounted and collapsed on the grass, 10 minutes inside gold medal time, literally choking on the elation of it all. It’s a strange thing, this cycling.

ROUTE DETAILS
Begins at Highclere Castle near Newbury, Berks, and heads south towards Winchester via St Mary Bourne and Stockbridge. Then east to Steep, near Petersfield, before heading back to Highclere via Preston Candover, North Waltham and Kingsclere.

WANT TO RIDE IT?
Keep an eye on the Britain By Bicycle website at www.cyclegb.co.uk, where all info on next year’s rides will be posted in due course.