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The Joker REVIEW

by Jennifer Trotman

Essentials:

Date: Sunday 1st April - April Fool's Day
Distances: 100-120km (Full-Full+), 80-91km (Short-Short +)
Entry fee: £24.00 (short), £26.00 (long).  £2 extra on the day.
Participants: 1000 max.
Start: Salisbury Racecourse, Netherhampton, Salisbury, SP2 8PN.
Plenty of free parking..  Indoor HQ with refreshments available, and a toilet block
Feedstops: 1 on the short route, 2 on the long route (same stop used for all). Support vehicle at stop.  
Catering: Free tea/coffee after the ride, with other food available to purchase.
Timed: electronic RFID timing chip attached to rear wheel axle
Signs: A clearly way-marked route with clear signage.  Black arrows on orange for course directions, black on green for warnings (Slow, junction, etc).  Regular Orange repeater ribbons.
Roads: Safe quiet picturesque route on scenic back roads.
Professional photography of the event
Goody bag: souvenir Joker cards for each Joker challenge completed, free t-shirt. 

Summary from http://www.southernsportive.com/index.php?go=joker

"The Joker is a brand new sportive, set around the beautiful droves and valleys west of Salisbury. Stunning countryside, chocolate box villages and an exceptional course in this 'sportive-perfect' pocket of hills will form the backbone of the day. But this is The Joker, and it wouldn't be April Fools Day without a trick or two up our sleeves!

The Joker will tempt you and test you. He'll throw down Jokers Challenges; extra hills and hurdles off of the main course to really prove your mettle. And he'll offer you Fools Choices; free and easy short cuts that may just be too good to be true! Make the right choices and you'll have the ride of the season! Misjudge his smile and you'll fall into his traps..."

The Ride:

Early night. Early morning. Guess it must be sportive time then!  As with the Lionheart, Salisbury is not that far away from here, which meant leaving here at 6:30am for a really enjoyable drive across the early morning Mendips to get to the Racecourse in time for 8:00am registration.

The Racecourse was easy to find, and there was plenty of free parking, so I did what the marshal told me, parked up, and went to find registration, where I was pleased to see that they had a proper toilet block, as well as refreshments available.  I didn't need join the (short) queue however, as my ride partner had already checked me in.  

It was really hard to figure out what to wear.  The recent gorgeous weather has reset my layer gauge, and having the forecast return to seasonal resulted in much faffing and debate, and inevitably meant that I didn't get it right.  I think the entire car park was having the same conversation though!


The car park at the start


A proper toilet block

As you can see it was sunny, with the tentative promise of later warmth, so I opted for various thin layers on top, mitts, longs, and normal socks with no overshoes.  All essentially ok, bar the socks/shoes combo.  Bad call.  Winter socks maybe.  Overshoes maybe.  One or the other.  Neither?  Not good.  


The queue for the start


The briefing at the start

I ended up quite near the front of the start queue, where we all stood shivering in the sunshine, listening to quite possibly the longest pre-ride briefing ever.  Very thorough, that's for sure.  We set off at around 8:30am into the Wiltshire countryside.  Lots of low morning sunshine, on quiet easy country roads.  These didn't last long, as the first hill started around 20 minutes in which, considering how cold I was, wasn't a bad thing.

It was taking me a long time to warm up, and my back tyre seemed to be a bit flat.  Slow puncture?  Under-inflation?  I don't know, and it didn't seem to be getting any worse, but it certainly wasn't helping.  It was a relief when the initial chill wore off and I got my fingers back again, though my feet remained painfully absent.  


Going uphill


Beech trees

Now, you may be wondering why this ride is called the Joker?  Well it's not just because it's April Fool's day, though I particularly loved the rider in complete jester costume, with hat & bells sticking through the ventilation bits on his helmet - there's dedication for you. It's because there were 4 optional Jokers' Challenges, that generally added climbing & distance, and some Fools' Choices which cut distance but also came with a catch.  For each Joker achieved you got a Joker card for both souvenir purposes and to let the organisers figure out what you'd done, in what time.  I'm thinking that might be quite a logistical nightmare when it comes out to working out the official times and standards!  

The first Joker was entitled "Straight Up".  At which point my chain came Straight Off.  Did I mention things weren't going that well?  I took advantage of the impromptu rest to immortalise Easter Sunday lunch...


Easter lunch is coming

..before uneventfully climbing the hill.  This might have been easier if I could feel my feet.  I'd forgotten how distracting their absence can be.  


The Joker 1 - Straight Up

There were some gorgeous views today, especially from on high.  Having taken the time to climb all the way up there, I think it's only fair to stop and appreciate them from time to time don't you?


View from the escarpment


Painkiller views

I headed off again, and at some point was overtaken by a rather impatient fellow rider who then went on to blithely slip left at the next T-junction, joining the main road with nary a glance over his shoulder, leaving one very justifiably annoyed young GTi driver having to brake so hard to avoid him that he stalled, before re-starting, and revving off with an angry toot of his horn.  Yet another motorist with his opinion of road hogging, rule-ignoring cyclists reinforced.   I actually happened across the car and driver at the next village and did some damage limitation and some work on motorist-cyclist relations by apologising for the rotten apple in the barrel.  We're not all like that you know!

I was starting to get hints of mojo back, and also the odd tingle that implied that my feet might still exist by the time I got to the food stop, somewhere around 25 miles in.  There was a support van with a track pump so I was able to put some more air in the back tyre and hope that that did the trick.  My valve cap was mysteriously missing, so maybe it got bashed in the car?  Who knows...  I also grabbed half a banana, before heading off again.


Food stop

Shortly after this, approaching the Joker 2 turning, one of my gear changes felt weird...and when I took the turning and stopped to see what was wrong, it became clear that the rear gear cable had actually snapped, reducing me from 24 gears...to 3.  Top top, top middle, and top bottom.  Not good.  I'd been worried enough about getting up Gold Hill as it was, let alone with no granny ring!  I used some choice language and headed back to the unadulterated long route.  No more Jokers for me.  No Gold Hill.  No Zig-Zag hill.  Not happy! That's my first ever real mechanical on an event though, so I guess I've been pretty lucky up until now.  

I followed the route as best I could, reduced to walking up the big hill near Fontmell, quite missing being able to test myself against the long climb properly, and jealously resenting those cycling past me.  I think a part of me was hoping that when I got back to the food stop again that the support van would fix me, that someone would rescue me, broom wagon me home...anything!  Nope.  The pre-event pdf instructions claimed that you would never be more than 7km away from home, but this definitely wasn't the case.  

Having limped my way there it turned out there was no get out of jail free card, and no real alternative option other than to possibly take a more direct but main road route back to the start.  Apparently the biggest hills were behind us however, and the rest of the return route (47km) was mostly undulating.  The thought of having to walk in more major traffic whilst also running the risk of getting lost didn't appeal, so I had no choice but to get on with and decide to follow the route.  I figured I would do the best I could when I could, and walk if it came to it.  Stiff upper lip... (I did find out afterwards that if I'd hung around long enough for the feed station to close they would have given me a life back in the van though).

In some respects this was good for me.  I just got on with it.  I'm pleased to say "they" hadn't lied either, which is great, because if there had been a lot of hills like that big one for me to walk up I'd still be walking up them now...   Mostly it was doable, though I have to say the headwind added insult to injury.  Like only three gears wasn't enough of a challenge?  

The riders were very spread out by now.  A few who passed by chatted to me as they went, including one who nicknamed me "no-gears girl" on learning of my plight, and whom I saw several more times.  His cheery "go no-gears girl!" did wonders to boost my morale, which seriously needed it - so thank you whoever you are! 

Inevitably I spent a lot of time riding on my own, and was very pleased that this was an event with regular repeater ribbons.  If you're on your own, having a bad day at the office, and starting to think that you might be lost as well the sight of a fluorescent orange ribbon can proper cheer you up!


Repeater ribbon

Actually signage all 'round was pretty good with all turnings clearly marked. There was some confusion around the food stop, possibly because it was used twice and used on both routes, as to which way the long route and short route went and when.  It would also have been good if the Joker options were signed in a contrasting colour to the main route signs - so as to make it clearer as to which way to go from a distance rather than having to peer at the orange sign and actually read it.  

The first hour of my return leg was mostly rolling, and in the last hour there were a couple of long slow hills that were, unsurprisingly, a proper slog.  I'm usually one for sitting in the saddle and plodding my way up, so and having to get out of the saddle and climb until my legs ran out was hard work.  When my legs ran out, I walked...a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.  Still, I wasn't the only one, which was some comfort.


The hill behind me

Even with my mechanical failures (the back tyre was going down again) there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than riding a bike in the (still rather chilly) sun, however slowly.  It's not the Tour de France, I wasn't going to be winning any fancy jerseys, and there were no sunflowers but...


Not Sunflowers, but still yellow

The main downside to all this sunshine and scenery and shadows?  It hides the potholes and bumps a treat, and a lot of the road surfaces were NOT good today. Even without the dry weather and the farm traffic induced gravel, which we were warned about at the start, some of those roads would be hard pushed to be described as having a surface at all.  Pretty though, right?


Shade and trees

As I got closer to the end I found myself back in familiar territory as the final section retraced the start of the route.  Still, I can't tell you how relieved I was when Salisbury Racecourse hove into view, as a couple of hours before that I'd been in serious doubt that I'd get there at all.  I've never had a DNF and I really don't want one either!

Finally - the finish line...which I happily crossed, before handing in my tag, picking up a tea/coffee voucher and getting my free-shirt.  


Finish line


Refreshments

Riders were spread out in the sun everywhere, discussing the ride, drinking coffee, and adding to their tan lines.  I did likewise, and for the most part everyone seems to have had a good day out.  It seems to have been a bit hillier than some were expecting though.  


Relaxing in the sun

According to my Garmin, my ride time was around 4:30, over 66.3 miles, with an average of 14.8mph.  And you know what?  All things considered, taking the walking into account, that's not bad, and at least I got one Joker.  I'm just happy to have made it round and triumphed over adversity.  I may not have had a good event, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good event - because it was.  I'll get those Jokers next year!

  
(L-R) Paul, Andrew and Martin

Paul East happened to be parked next to me before the event, and got sucked into the layers debate.  In his very distinctive Reading CC kit he also passed me during the ride, and he put up with me wittering on over coffee afterwards.  According to him it was "A great, unique event. Well organised and signage was excellent. Really enjoyed the challenges, especially riding up Gold Hill with the encouragement of spectators, although the hardest challenge was the hill before Zig Zag, and not one of the four".

Andrew Bennett said "The event promised a new slant on what is the typical Sportive scene, with the concept of Jokers - these were extra challenges above the standard route.  Looking forward to the challenge I went with the view to taking on all 4 challenges. A sunny but cold start, perhaps the fingerless gloves and shorts were not such a great idea.  Ride briefing was good, we left on time and headed out in the first group. The first 19 miles were great, excellent scenery and well marked out course hitting 19.5 average.First Joker Challenge 20% hill was nothing short of painful and also enjoyable thanks to the reward of an awesome descent. From there we arrived at the first feed station, which looked like it was still setting up and with only 25 miles down it was a little early so we rolled on, looking for the next Joker challenge. The scenery and route flew by, we reached the 4th Joker to our surprise, completed this rolled on to an even bigger surprise...the end was here. 58 Miles completed and general confusion by all.  

Organizers were generally surprised, having expressed our disappointment it looks like the first group got ahead of marshals for the 2 + 3 Joker challenges therefore we missed both these and the second feed stop.  To be fair once the confusion was set aside all of the group one riders were offered free entry into the next Southern Sportive.  Generally a good course, great weather and even though a short ride it was enjoyable bar the hiccups."

Martin Harrison, one of the organisers, was busy checking people in and recording who'd done what.  When planning their event calendar for this year, finding that April 1st fell on a Sunday had made doing something a little bit different irresistible.  He did admit, with a rueful smile, that they had made lives a little complicated for themselves on the timing front with the addition of the Joker challenges though!  Having received quite a lot of positive feedback after the event it seems likely that the Joker will take place again next year, even if April Fools Day won't be so conveniently located on the calendar!  





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