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  • Writer's pictureMatt Fisher

White Horse Challenge 2018

I have to admit that sportives aren’t my thing. Maybe it’s the image of a collection of old men in loose-fitting lycra on bikes with downtube shifters and baguettes in their jersey pockets for sustenance. A world away from the aero-is-everything approach I associate with Time Trialling and triathlons.

Of course, the reality is that sportives attract all sorts, with those described above firmly in the minority (I’m convinced that they still exist though!).

The other reason I don’t tend to do sportives is that I usually completely underestimate their popularity and miss the cut, only deciding to apply once the event is sold out.

So when a friend had a dicky knee and couldn’t compete in this year’s White Horse Challenge, I had to accept the offer of a free place.

The White Horse Challenge is a popular sportive taking in parts of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire, around 90 miles (140km) long and with over 5,000 ft (1,500m) of climbing.

A fellow Pewsey Velo rider, Martyn Sweet was also riding and was determined to beat his 4:37 previous best. I thought that might be a tough order, but we could give it a go.

So I met with Martyn at the start line and we set off not long after the start line opened at 8am. Martyn had a couple of other friends he planned to ride with, but within a couple of kilometres we seemed to be on our own, effectively riding a two-up time trial. Perhaps not the best strategy with over 130km still to go.

After passing a group of cyclists, we noticed that they had latched-on and the group became a slightly larger and faster peloton. It was clear that there was a mix of experience, skill and strength in the group, with the same faces taking turns on the front (me included!) and others staying firmly in the draft.

After a while, I realised that Martyn hadn’t taken a turn on the front, but just assumed that he was lurking at the back, saving his legs for later. The group was keeping a good pace, regularly in excess of 40kph and the front guys were working well together, taking regular turns.

This was all good on the flat, but did seem to disintegrate on every climb, as the front guys put the power down and made those behind hurt. Climbing up to Purton, near Swindon, I managed to stay with the group as our numbers thinned a little. Then it was relatively flat through to Royal Wootton Bassett and then onto Broad Town where the road kicked upwards again to Broad Hinton. This was a steeper and longer climb, and I confess I was distanced. Not too badly, but sufficient to remind me that I was a triathlete playing with ‘real’ roadies. Still no Martyn.

Onto the flat at the top and my time trialling experience paid off as I managed to close a good chunk of the gap back to the leading pack of five or six riders. Then there was a steep dive into Clyffe Pypard, where the superb Ultegra R8070 disc brakes on the new Giant TCR allowed me to fly down (almost taking the Strava KOM in the process) and by the bottom of the hill, I was back with the pack.

Then it was another nice flat and fast chain gang on some quiet country roads through to Cherhill and the very aptly-named “Labour in vain” hill. Again, the front guys gave it full gas and the group splintered. I was left in no-man’s land, about 300 metres behind the leading group and about the same distance in front of the next guy behind.

I couldn’t quite bridge the gap to the front and I didn’t want to slow to wait for the guy behind. So I was resigned to having a few lonely kilometres. I did catch two other people that had been spat out of the fast group, but I wasn’t catching what was now (I think) just three riders.

The next hill was my old friend (sense the sarcasm…), Hackpen Hill. A long false flat really saps your energy (and willpower) before the real climb comes and you wish you had another two granny gears on the bike. At least I knew that after Hackpen Hill, I could bomb down the other side towards Marlborough.

The guys in front obviously had the same idea, as I wasn’t catching them. Oh well, more solo miles!

In fact, I soloed all the way from Marlborough to Ramsbury (I'd forgotten about Spring Hill....) and onto the village hall at Froxfield, where by chance I met a guy coming out of the feed station. We rode together for a bit as we climbed towards Lambourn Woodlands. In fact, without meaning to, I started to distance him.

Then it happened.

That squishy feeling. That feeling that the bike is suddenly handling somewhat differently. Oh no.

Look down. Yup. I’ve got a puncture on the rear.


There was nothing else for it. Stop, get the wheel off and change the tube.

Now rewind two days. When my new Parcours Passista 56mm deep section wheels arrived, I had fully intended to set them up as tubeless. So a visit to Pewsey Velo ensued and I picked out some nice Schwalbe One Pro tubeless tyres. But what we didn’t have? Tubeless valves that were sufficiently long for the 56mm deep rims. Bugger.

So we set the wheels up as clinchers for now, fitting inner tubes as a temporary measure until the valves arrived. The problem is that we really should have thought twice about fitting inner tubes inside new tubeless tyres. As a ‘get you home’ strategy, I’m sure it’s fine. But when you then puncture and have to get a nearly-new (for which read ‘stiff’) tubeless tyre off the rim, it doesn’t necessarily go to plan. In fact, I broke two tyre levers in the process.

All the time having bikes merrily cycle past me. To their credit, at least most of the riders asked if I was ok. I lied and said that I was…

Eventually I got the old tube out and stuffed a new one in, but I couldn’t get it in a position where it wasn’t being pinched by the tubeless tyre’s reinforced bead. I might have swore. More than once.

The final nail in the coffin came as, after eight minutes of faffing, Martyn passed me and headed off up the road. Sense of humour failure complete.

Finally, I got the wheel back on the back and, knowing Martyn was only a minute or so minute up the road, went back into time trial mode, catching him in a kilometre or two. At least we could ride the final 25-30km together.

white horse challenge 2018Down into Lambourn (got held up by traffic, just to add to the joy) and then a long gentle climb up to Kingston Warren and Kingston Lisle. I manged to time trial Martyn and I onto the back of a group up the road and after a little rest we started working with the guys as a peloton.

This worked well and we then had just the last real climb to do – the Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill Road (great name!). There’s a King of the Hill competition, but by the time we hit the timing mat I knew I was on my bootstraps and was in survival mode. Still, I gave it what I had and did a time that was okay on the day (although would have been embarrassing on a lesser ride).

Then it was back down and a flat final 10km or so to Shrivenham. I seem to remember there were four of us left and we agreed to do what we could to get back to the finish line as quickly as possible.

None of us had the energy for long turns on the front, so we rotated quickly, each only taking the front for a few seconds. Even then, as we reached the outskirts of Shrivenham, it was really hurting.

The ego in me made me sprint for the line, only to realise that ‘the line’ was right outside the village hall, up the kerb. Cue massive application of brakes and a crawl across the finish line. Typical Fisher…

Anyway, we were done. Despite hardly riding together, Martyn and I had somehow managed to start and finish together (actually he ‘beat’ me by a single second on the official timing). My official time was 4:35:38. My Garmin time (it had auto-paused during the puncture incident): 4:25:06. A whole ten minutes lost to that darned puncture.

But I did have some fun and I learned that sportives aren’t just for old men in baggy cycling shorts.

I may be back for more.

Thank you to the organisers, marshals and volunteers on the day. Your efforts were much appreciated!

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