QUICK INFO
Website: www.nelsonstourdetestvalley.co.uk
Distance: Chicken Curry (25 miles), Spag Bol (50 miles), Full Monty (100 miles)
Total ascent: Full Monty 
5,500ft approx
Number of riders: 625
Number of finishers: Long route 242; medium route 202; short route 116.
Free cups of tea consumed at finish: 875
Terrain: rolling downs, farmland, tranquil valleys
Best bit: camaraderie before, during and after the event
Worse bit: Rain storm for the later riders

For a splendid day out on the bike, you can’t beat a bit of downland.

Of course, mountains have their drama, and even fens have fans, but the chalky whaleback downs of southern England provide graceful curves, rolling roads and bucolic scenery – all perfect for cycling that can be as relaxed or demanding as you want to make it.

And so it was on the inaugural Nelson’s Tour de Test Valley, a sportive through the tranquil villages and farmland of Hampshire. It may be a new event, with a deliberately small field of riders, but the organisers put in a huge effort, and the end result was a very enjoyable ride and a sportive that already felt established, and all for a very good cause as well.

The Tour de Test Valley was set up in memory of Nelson Pratt, a keen cyclist and professional snowboarder, who suffered from depression and took his own life in 2012. As well as remembering Nelson (or ‘Nelly’ to his friends), the aim of the sportive was also to raise awareness about depression and suicide, especially in young men.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this underlying theme, the Tour de Test Valley was one of the friendliest and most relaxed sportives we’ve ever ridden.

Camping and cruising
The day began with the smell of frying bacon in the air. The sportive start was on a farm near Andover, so several riders took up the option of complimentary camping the night before. An early-morning festival atmosphere greeted those of us arriving around 7am, with people emerging bleary-eyed from tents and the coffee stall already doing good business. If tea is more your thing, it was available free of charge from a nearby marquee – another nice touch.

After our caffeine hits of choice, we rolled out from the start, and within the first few miles we were cruising along quiet country lanes, tootling up the gentle inclines in the early morning sunshine, then swooping down the other side on smooth descents. This was close to cycling heaven, made even better by the local terrain, which seemed to create roads with a sheltering hedge on one side and an open view on the other.

This landscape seemed to put everyone in a good mood, so the pace was relaxed and the ambiance very friendly, with none of the racer-wanabee untidiness sometimes seen at sportives. This peaceful mood was especially appropriate as the sportive was supporting the work of a charity called CALM, and many friends of Nelson Pratt were doing the ride in his memory and to raise money for the charity at the same time.

Initially we aimed north, over Haydown and Tidcomb Down through the village of Shalbourne, before looping back down to the south to reach Hurstbourne Tarrant. The immaculately signposted route was surprisingly low on car traffic, mainly keeping to lanes and minor roads, though the lanes never so small you felt you were riding along a cart track.

Having said that, there did seem to be a lot of riders suffering punctures. Maybe it was the previous day’s rain that washed flint into the fields. Maybe it was the thorns from the farmers’ hedge-cuttings. Or maybe it was because everyone’s tyres get a little thin by the end of the season. Either way, full marks to the mechanic that got several riders rolling again.

The route took us north again to bypass Hungerford, before following the River Kennet valley and then looping south to pass through East Woodhay and near Highclere Castle. By now the inclines were getting less gentle. In fact, a few were pretty damn steep. But the beauty of cycling in this area is the hills are never that long.

We were also helped on some of the bigger hills by the spectators at the top who’d come out to support friends and families, but were just as happy to give the rest of us a cheer, too.

The encouragement was further dished out at the feed stations. Along with energy bars and bananas, riders were treated to copious piles of home-made cakes and ham rolls, all served by the event’s supporters with tireless enthusiasm. (Maybe they’d been on the energy bars too.)
Refuelled after the second feed at Burghclere, we pushed on.

The scenery was delightful all the way, but the skilful route planners saved the best to last, with a beautiful section between Longparish and Wherwell following the River Test that gives the valley (and the event) its name.

The Test is a classic chalk stream where the trout angling is of such high quality and the local fishing club so select, it’s rumoured even Prince Charles had to join the waiting list. But we didn’t have time to wonder about idle pastimes. By now we’d done over 80 miles of cycling, and all those hills were starting to tell.

As some participants dug deep for remaining strength, others were happy to sit up and take it easy. As riders passed each other on those final miles, the camaraderie we’d noticed at the start of the event was still in evidence, as words of encouragement were exchanged – even if they came out between gasps and grunts.

For the tired or saddle-sore riders, the last stretch of the route passed near the suitably-named village of Nether Wallop. Then it was off the main road and up the farm lane to swing under the finish arch to applause from the big crowd of spectators.

Luckily, we finished before the rain, but even the torrential downpour that followed couldn’t dampen the riders’ spirits. Everyone sheltered in the spacious barn and marquees, and enjoyed the big post-ride meal, along with more of those endless free cups of tea. The beer tent was busy as well.
In terms of scenery, route and atmosphere, Nelson’s Tour de Test Valley was one of the best events we’ve ridden for a long time. It maybe new, but it fully deserves to become a highlight of the sportive calendar for years to come.

Nelson’s nibbles
Nelson’s Tour de Test Valley sportive is named in memory of Nelson (‘Nelly’) Pratt, a world-class snowboarder and Olympic coach. He also enjoyed cycling and food, according to his friend and event organiser Marcus Chapman: “A bike ride for Nelly was about the food stops. He’d love to cycle, work up an appetite, then stop for tea and sandwiches.”

With that in mind, Marcus and his team put considerable emphasis on the edible aspects of the event. The three routes were named after Nelson’s favourite meals: the Chicken Curry was a 25-mile fun ride, the Spag Bol was designed to be a non-strenuous 50 miles, while The Full Monty was the hilly 100-mile option, based upon Nelson’s own favourite ride.

The theme continued at the feed stations, where Nelson’s friends and family helped with the catering. Nelson’s mum Edie, with a team of assistants, made hundreds of sandwiches, but only after they’d baked literally thousands of cakes – 1,100 flapjacks and 870 chocolate brownies to be exact – all happily wolfed down by hungry sportivistes.

Then, back at the finish, a professional catering company dished out big helpings of casserole, beef stew and (naturally) chicken curry to all the finishers, while a nearby CALM tent offered endless supplies of free tea and biscuits. Marcus has the stats: “Thanks to the support from our friends at Twinings, we served 875 free cups of tea, and handed out 1,700 free biscuits.”

After the event, many riders and supporters stayed on the farm for another night, to enjoy a party with music and barbecue. From which Marcus supplies us with one more statistic: 220 pints of local cider were guzzled.

Supporting CALM
As well as remembering Nelson, the aim of the Tour de Test Valley sportive is to raise awareness about depression and suicide, especially in young men. According to CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 35 in the UK. And 75 per cent of suicides in the UK are male, which is why CALM is focused on preventing male suicide.

The CALM website says: “We believe that if men felt able to ask for, and find, timely and appropriate help when they need it then hundreds of male suicides could be prevented in the UK.

We believe that there is a cultural barrier preventing men from seeking help as they are expected to be in control at all times, and failure to be seen as such equates to weakness and a loss of masculinity. We believe that suicide is neither inevitable nor an indication that the individual was a failure in any respect.”

As part of its work, CALM operates a national helpline and texting service to give advice and support. For more information check out www.thecalmzone.net. It’s confidential, free and anonymous, and open every day of the year 5pm to midnight, but it costs about £20,000 a month to run.

So as well as raising awareness, Nelson’s Tour de Test Valley raised a lot of cash. Organiser Marcus Chapman said: “We raised a total of about £55,000 from entry fees, rider sponsorship and bar sales etc, and we’re pretty chuffed with that.

We’d like to thank riders, supporters, Andy Cook Cycling and all our sponsors – especially Vans for providing the jerseys and Madison for the goody bags. It was a day I’ll never forget, and we’ll definitely do it again on a similar date next year. Nelson would have loved every second of it. He was without doubt there with us all.”

This article was first published in the October 31 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!