Event Review

REVIEW: White Horse Challenge 2014

by Jennifer Trotman

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White Horse Challenge 2014

I woke up actually excited about doing a sportive. It's been a while since that was the case. I think it's because I've had hints of form lately and my weekday rides have gone fairly well. So the alarm went off and I was up and at 'em fairly easily, with the sun rising, blue skies overhead and that general feeling of optimism about the day. 

The White Horse Challenge starts from Shrivenham, which is only an hour or so away, and this year was to be my third participation in the event. I noted my rider number, 501 (very Levi's) from the website beforehand, as instructed, in order to make registration easier. We would see... 

Riders registering 


As I arrived at HQ, I was still early enough to be marshalled into a parking space in a car park just around the corner. Hard standing is always nice, easy walking distance from HQ is even better. Registration numbers were organised in batches, and finding mine couldn't have been easier. With the usual spiel, "map and cable ties over there, help yourself to coffee", my timing chip was stuck on the left hand side of my helmet, and I was done. I headed back to the car via a slightly smug trip to the ladies' which involved passing the queueing gents to get there - sometimes being a minority is great! 

Sunny it may have been, but it was still pretty nippy. However, since I was riding for Cyclosport, and I have Cyclosport kit, deciding what to wear had become a whole heap easier than it might otherwise have been. 

I headed back to HQ where I loitered near the start with intent. At some point the relevant time came, and riders were allowed over the start line with very little fanfare. Well, none actually. Time to ride the bike! I set off into the sunrise. For all my positiveness, about a mile in there's a nasty draggy hill which isn't really a hill I guess but felt like it as I was a long way from warmed up, unless feeling like death warmed up counts!  

Waiting for the off


After that things got a little easier. The first 25 miles or so are pretty flat, allowing you to get into your stride, so to speak, admire the scenery, and just enjoy being out there. This is all familiar territory for me. I've done so many sportives now that they do tend to blur into one a bit, but I did remember how beautiful this route is. As I pootled my way through Purton and Wootton Bassett, sorry, Royal Wooton Bassett, there was plenty to look at. Cricklade had its Town Crier yelling as we went past. The lady Mayor was out in Wooton Bassett, waving us by. Pretty villages, flowers, thatched cottages, and beautiful countryside, what's not to love? 

Broad Town

First real climb 

The first big climb of the day was upon us at Broad Town. I know there's a white horse on it, but with the sun rising behind the hill and casting it all into shadow, today I couldn't see it. I've done this climb several times, and it's one I like. I like it even more when it isn't covered in snow, as it was last March! It wiggles up through trees, isn't massively steep, and goes on long enough for my crawler gear to engage - all the boxes ticked for me really. 

Once up, we turned to ride across the top with views of fields of stunning yellow oil seed rape. It was just a joy. The descent the other side wasn't so much fun - it's technical, shaded and with a lousy road surface, but came complete with warning signs and marshals. Once it settles down a bit though, I got a bit of what I do best all the way from there to the first food stop - flying along fast on the flat. (Note to others sitting on my wheel - your shadows betrayed you: it's kinda unfair to take a ride for a few miles and then overtake and head off!) 

Ah well, not the first time, and won't be the last. I didn't really feel the need to stop but figured that it's hard to review a ride properly without experiencing all of it, and I'm glad I did. Having grabbed a few photos and half a banana, someone called my name. It took a while to register, since if I'm doing a sportive on my own, I tend to presume I'm going to stay that way. It turned out to be Alex, one of my twitter friends. It was nice to see a familiar face, and even nicer to be invited to join him and his mates to ride for a while. 

Pretty out there

Enjoying the sun

Eating at the first feed

Alex very chivalrously leant me his wheel to sit behind for a while. His mates mostly disappeared, and I predictably dropped like a stone as we crawled up the A4 past the next white horse at Cherhill. We weren't massively popular with the traffic. All of us heading east, with a time trial going west, meant the cars were sort of picking their way through us. Luckily it was still early in the day and not too busy. Once again it was a beautiful place to be on a day like this, there were some great jerseys to admire, and once the climbing is done the flying stretch along the A4 towards Avebury is a blast. 

Avebury always seems to go too fast for somewhere that is so big.  A couple of minutes, quick glimpses of standing stones, and you're through and heading along the next lovely rolling section. It would be easy to overdo it here, but I knew the next white horse would be along shortly, so I kept it sensible and spent some time sitting behind an Ireland jersey and conserving my energy. Oddly, for ages I couldn't quite keep up with him, and then suddenly I'd gone past him and he fell away too.  



Hackpen Hill

You can see the whole of the climb ahead of you from a long way off. Alex was back with me now, and he reminded me that one of my favourite downhills comes afterwards, which made the climb far more enjoyable. It's steeper than Broad Town, at least initially, and bendier, but it's more open so there's plenty to enjoy visually on the way up. There were a few walkers by now that had to be carefully negotiated as there were cars going both ways too, and a fair few other leisure riders hurtling down and grinning at us as we went up. 

There were a few spectators at the top, complete with cowbells and a red Ferrari. I commented on how nice a car it was and he retorted by saying how nice a hill it was, which seemed a little, well, random. Never mind, time to head for Marlborough. Man, that's some fun riding. Fast, straight, clear...grins from ear to ear. 

By the time we reached Marlborough I'd somehow managed to lose Alex again, and nearly lost myself. There were no signs and the marshal who was supposed to be pointing us all to turn left on the high street was deep in conversation with a local, and nearly missed me as I nearly missed him! Luckily I saw him, just as he got with it enough to wave in the correct direction. 

Hackpen views


Out of Marlborough, left past the marshals with wine gums and cheery chat, and on to negotiate the country lanes along the river valley. There were some lumpy bits, and one really steep one that somehow I'd managed to completely forget, which proved quite a challenge. However, I'm ok with hills now, I know I can get up them, and this one was no exception. Hard, but doable. 

Time for the second feed stop. I stashed my gilet and grabbed corn chips that went down really well. There was one portable toilet, and one growing queue. Alex arrived behind me and didn't really stop. It took me longer to catch him than I thought. Not queueing was not a wise move, as my bladder decided I should have stopped, and got fairly insistent about it. The roads just seemed to be dragging now, with wind, and nowhere to stop, and a body totally distracted and not riding well. Finally, and a little ironically maybe, I came across an industrial warehouse place called WHF Logistics where I was able to sort out my logistics. I took the opportunity to eat and take a gel before setting off again too, and found Alex. 

This was the hardest stretch, which we did together for a while. Slow grind, more of the same old countryside, average speed dropping, head drooping, brain zoning out in the patterns on the road... that gel hadn't come soon enough, but at least I had taken it. At some point we parted company - again - I think I'd zoned out too far. I just had to do the pace my legs were doing, not faster or slower, and it just kinda worked out that way. 

After a while I started to feel better, helped by the fact that the miles were being eaten up, and the end was getting nearer. I may have felt better but I knew that the last big hill of the day was still ahead of me - the gratuitous detour that is Uffington. Another one featuring a white horse that you never see! 

Second feed

Uffington ahead 

Uffington bends

Bizarrely, I enjoyed it. This time up it I seemed to be suffering less. I just sat back and got on with it. And yes, I enjoyed it. Mad. I must have been worrying about it more than I thought I was though, because even though there was a bit more up and down afterwards, I was feeling infinitely better, and was on the finishing straight - mentally and physically. I chatted to another rider for a bit, and at the 5km to go sign we pushed on and headed for home. I sat on his wheel, apologetically, the entire way in, but he didn't mind, and then launched the sprint for home. 

Arriving back at HQ I rolled over the timing mat to record an official time that was seconds over 6 hours. I was just so pleased; my longest ride of the year so far and it was so much better than I'd expected. Yep, me and my medal were feeling good.

Apres ride in the sun


There wasn't much to hang around for now, and I didn't fancy sitting on the grass and chilling out by myself - not when I could be heading for home and a pint of lager somewhere - so me, my happy face and silly sunburnt hands headed back to the car park. White Horse Challenge - done. (With apologies to Alex!) 

Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 9 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 10 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 8 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 8 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 9 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 8 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 8 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 10 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 10 out of 10
Overall Rating 88.9%