Cyclo-Sportive: Bike Blenheim Palace Sportive
In surprise October sunshine, over a thousand cyclists hit the rolling and scenic Cotswold roads for a right royal time in the inaugural Bike Blenheim Palace sportive
My Cyclo-Sportive - Andy McGrath
Dry mouth. Check. Fuzzy head and fifteen minutes late for the start. Check and check again. After burning the midnight oil and going a little overboard on the alcohol consumption, the previous night could have been a chapter straight out of ‘How not to spend the night before a sportive'. Nevertheless, I was up and out on the Bike Blenheim Palace Sportive, making its debut in the sportive calendar with its sixty and hundred mile offerings.
With Baroque-style Blenheim Palace providing a stunning backdrop, my ride companions and I were greeted by an arctic blast of wind as we dropped down from the start on the World Heritage site's narrow, ribbon-like roads. Quickly forgetting the excesses of the previous night, a ferocious early pace got the blood pumping and the legs warm.
Cyclists were the only things moving in the Oxfordshire villages on this sleepy Sunday morning. The quiet roads continued as the day progressed; a clear benefit of holding a sportive in the area is the distinct lack of traffic on the route. Cursory A-road sections and minimal interference from traffic lights also added to the feel that the rider had the road to himself.
The pretty Cotswold scenery was also a fixture for most of the day. It ranged from rolling horse-filled meadows to steep green valleys and cosy Gloucestershire villages nestled in the back of beyond. With the brisk morning conditions ceding to incongruous - for October - blue skies and a warm sun, many scenes could easily have been mistaken for a fine midsummer's day.
The route was well-judged, suitably challenging without being torturous. Though lacking a notable leg-breaker, there hardly seemed to be a metre of flat. A long climb would repeatedly be followed by a narrow and twisting 50km/h descent to tackle, making it difficult to get into a rhythm.
After the ride's first undulations, the feed stop came as a welcome break, with bacon sandwiches and biscuits on offer for hungry riders. More easily-digestible products, such as energy bars and gels, could be better for next year. However, the organisation was excellent in the event's first outing, with several riders commenting on both the sheer number and efficiency of marshals positioned at junctions.
The lumpy parcours, coupled with an unyielding pace on behalf of my companions, began to take a toll on my legs in the last twenty miles. Thankful of opting for the shorter route, a gel or two kept me going. There was still a constant stream of riders - over a thousand completed the sportive - on the undulating road back to Blenheim Palace, a testament to the event's popularity.
One of the best parts of the sportive was the closing section back through the palace grounds, swooping over cattle grids at 40km/h on a ruler-straight road, with the Column of Victory looming large. The route suddenly dived away into denser woodland, with the finishing timing mat placed on an innocuous corner. A kilometre up the road was a stunning vista across the lake to the palace and an altogether more atmospheric second finish, complete with marquee and medals. Happily, the views of the palace and its 2,000 acres of parkland proved just as intoxicating as the previous night's Argentinean red.
It didn't stop there though. The vibrant post-event atmosphere also sets it apart from the commonplace sportive. Its position in a busy and varied Bike Blenheim festival of cycling schedule means there was still much to do. I was at leisure to make a day of things, exploring the palace grounds before wandering over to watch the cyclo-cross race in the afternoon sunshine.
I'd recommend this sportive to anyone - the quiet roads, well-judged route, attractive scenery and exclusive royal setting are all part of a winning formula. Although in its infancy, this sportive has the potential to blossom into one of the most popular events in the country.
What's so special?
With no particularly diabolical gradients, the succession of draggy climbs were slow killers, adding an attritional element to the event. Climbs at Lower Swell and Great Rissington stick in the memory. Also, starting and finishing in the glorious surrounds of Blenheim Palace is something to be savoured.
Sportive Sound Bites
A product development manager who rides a Wilier Cento Uno
Time: 3-26 (100km)
"I couldn't fault it; I found the course quite challenging and very interesting. The countryside was fantastic and the weather couldn't have been much kinder to us. It was in the last twenty miles I really began to feel some of the hills and dropped back, off the group, on some of them."
Raced as junior, got back into sportives in a big way earlier this year
Club: Wayfarers Wheelers
Time: 4-13 (100km)
"A big group of us rode, and it was good all round. Though there were no particularly hard climbs, I was quite tired at the end of it. It was all about undulations, which did take it out of you. It was a fantastic setting in Blenheim as well."
Has ridden Dartmoor Classic, Exmoor Beast and Cheddar in 2009
Time: 4-24 (100km)
"I'm still aching now! I had an absolutely cracking day; out of the sportives I've done this year, it was definitely the best one. The course was very rider-friendly; it didn't seem like they were putting the hills in just for the sake of hills."