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Meon Valley Riser REVIEW

by Jonathan Cook

The Riser is an excellent early season challenge with some stunning scenery and awesome climbs - with a nasty sting in the tail, this event is a great way of benchmarking early season fitness on some of Hampshire's quietest lanes.


Grass men welcome riders

Essentials: 

Entry fee: £23 or £20 if you booked before 25th December 2011
Distances: 47 and 83.5 miles
Start/Finish: Boundary Oak School, Wickham Road, Fareham
Timed: Yes  
Participants: Limited to 1000 (around 340 on the day)
Feedstops: 2 Catering: Porridge, tea and coffee at start, jacket potato and beans on completion
Signs: A3 Black arrows on luminous yellow background
Road: Predominantly quiet lanes on mostly resurfaced roads.

It was the day of The Tour of Flanders, The second "monument" of the cycling season, April Fools' Day and more importantly The Meon Valley Riser, as not for the first time this year I defrosted the car on a crisp clear early Sunday morning and headed south, Fareham my destination. 


Riders make their way to the start

Arriving at the ride's HQ, Boundary Oak School beautifully situated in 23 acres of rural Southern Hampshire, I was almost hesitant to be directed across the near perfect striped lawn into a field with ample parking space as cars began to stream in through the entrance.


Riders register and inspect the route map

With a sunny day in prospect and a clear chilly morning I had chosen the 83.5 mile route as opposed to the 47 mile option also on offer. Registration took place inside the school's sports hall. As riders inspected the route map I collected my rider's pack, which consisted of a Torque Gel, route card and laminated handle bar number which also had the timing chip attached to it.  More importantly it contained my breakfast voucher, which entitled me to some porridge, my second portion of the day and a cup of tea or coffee.  Riders were greeted by friendly event staff and mingled, sunning themselves as the temperature began to rise before the start. 


Having breakfast

One potential improvement for next year that seemed to be shared by several riders is that some additional toilet facilities would have been beneficial, but that certainly didn't hamper my start to the day. There was still time to be offered a free energy shot which tasted more like cough medicine before riders departed for both routes at around 0830am in groups of 20-25 at 3-5 minute intervals. With around 340 entrants on the day there were no mass departs and I set off alone down the school drive through the picturesque school gate out onto the lanes of Hampshire. 


The Grand depart

Immediately the Riser lived up to its name with a short drag up to the B2177, as I tried to look relaxed passing by the official event photographer before joining with a couple of other riders and heading out into the South Downs towards the first climb of the day. Butser Hill came after 15 miles and certainly didn't disappoint on the climbing front. As one of the highest points in Hampshire it qualifies as one of England's 'Marilyns' and is also the highest point on the chalk ridge of the South Downs. The road rises up through trees before traversing to the right and ramping up steeply, so steeply that even at this early stage on the route some riders walked the final parts to reach the crest of the chalk hill. This was then followed by a sweeping descent with stunning vistas across the South Downs as we headed towards the first feed stop of the day, which came after 21 miles, situated at the George Inn at Finchdean - perhaps a little too early for some riders. However there was a healthy supply of bananas, flapjacks and water and energy powder of offer. 


Buriton Village Pond and Church

Caution needed to be taken on arriving into the village of Buriton after 26 miles, where event marshals efficiently directed riders as the route split. It looked to be a busy day in the quaint village as traffic lined the roads and people congregated around the village pond. The ride then meanders out into the Meon Valley traversing back and forwards across the South Downs National Park on virtually all quiet roads searching out as many climbs as possible. There are a few junctions to navigate as you enter into Petersfield, probably the largest town on the route, passing by Heath Pond Picnic and Recreation area, which I later learned, is part of Petersfield Heath and is registered as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (a SINC) outlining again the scenic nature of the route. 

On leaving Petersfield we tackled Stoner Hill, which for me was my favourite climb of the day. Continuing on from Bell Hill the road widens and really does feel Alpine in style as you zigzag towards the summit left with glimpses back down to the valley floor through the tree lined ridge. The gradient wasn't too steep either which meant you could get into a nice rhythm.  The route continues on undulating uninterrupted lanes with some nice fast sections, which meant your average speed remained respectable. Due to the hilly nature I'd found myself on my own for sometime but particularly enjoyed the miles ticking by in this area of outstanding natural beauty.  There was even time for a four mile section of gravel road resurfacing, Hampshire's answer to the Strade Bianche which I can't say I enjoyed and negotiated hesitantly as I half expected the front or rear tyre to go flat.


Plenty of goodies on offer

The second feed station at 61 miles was stocked with a healthy supply of goodies, my water bottles were topped up with energy powder of the lemon and lime variety and I scoffed a couple of flapjacks down. With 22 miles left I sensed the end in sight, shed a couple of layers and set off down an exhilarating descent - not the first of the day. Getting to the top of Old Winchester Hill was the next objective, another really nice climb on newly surfaced tarmac, which makes a huge difference. Rising up and then dropping down before rising again, in my view the hallmark of a truly good climb.


View from the top of old Winchester Hill

The view from the top of this chalk hill is spectacular, particularly against a picture perfect blue sky and there is also an Iron Age hill fort and a Bronze Age cemetery. A few miles later there is a real sting in the tail which I hadn't expected, crossing into the aptly name Crooked Hill Lane one rider proclaimed "now we've got one more massive climb" as we hit Portsdown Hill aka the "lactivator" which rises in gradient up to 1 in 4 at some points, taking your total climbing for the day to 1408m. Several riders had adopted to tackle the last steep section on foot but urged me on before one last fast section back to event HQ, passing by Fort Nelson Armory as views stretched out across the Solent and Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower glistened in the distance on this clear bright day. 


Views of The Solent

Back at base as I crossed the finishing line and had my name and time displayed on a plasma television screen before being handed a food voucher. Claud The Butler was also on hand for those requiring 'recovery' cake as riders relaxed with their jacket potato and beans or ducked inside for a post ride massage. 


A well earned jacket potato and beans

I really enjoyed the day on roads I didn't know existed, made better by the fantastic weather and will certainly be venturing back perhaps to even tackle the South Downs Way. What I really liked about this event is that the route had been meticulously picked to incorporate in the main good and newly resurfaced roads with the odd exception in a few places and the signage was excellent throughout. The organizers were friendly and it was nice to have breakfast and lunch included as part of your entry.