Rode a new sportive, the Meon Valley Riser, last Sunday1. I needed a longish, hilly ride and there are few sportives 100 miles or longer this early in the year, even fewer hilly ones. That it was located in a part of South Downs that I’d never visited before added to the draw.
Long, rolling, and pretty, with a couple of hills each thrown in at the beginning and the end. There were poor road surfaces in places, but nothing worse than what we see all over here in Surrey. There were also a few high traffic roads used, but almost always on a descent or a fast flat – nothing that couldn’t be managed.
With 2100+m of climbing in 102 miles, it was hilly for the south-east, but not really a killer. In any case, as things turned out, the hills were to be the least of my worries.
The weather forecast wasn’t great – it was supposed to be quite windy with gusts reaching 71km/h, and rain all day long. I’d been trying the previous 12 hours to get out of riding it, dropping hints all around hoping Rags would take pity on me and let me stay home.
No luck. She did take pity and ask me to ride the 50 mile route, but that was her just being smart. She knew, as did I, that if I did go out, I’d be riding the full distance.
The rain wasn’t much of a problem. In fact it was a bit of a welcome, cooling relief for me, given I’d way overdressed for the ride. Had to stop at the top of very first hill to remove the neck-buff and the arm-warmers I was wearing under the rain jacket. I was boiling inside the jacket.
The wind was a different matter altogether. When blowing at a steady 15-25 mph, it was fun – slanting the rain in diagonally, keeping me in the drops, and turning flat roads into false flat climbs. At an angle, it made the turns in the road slightly iffy, and breaks in the farm hedges dangerous.
When the 50-70 mph gusts came, though, it was time to batten down the hatches. Down in the drops, bike bent at 30° on a straight road, trying to control the front wheel with all my strength, and desperately hoping no car comes around.
Given the weather, a lot of riders had cancelled, and most others had downgraded from the 100 mile route to shorter ones – meaning that I had to ride the whole route alone, with no one to share the workload in that wind. Not sure if this was for better or worse. I met a grand total of 6 riders on the longest loop, 2 of them on the side of the road trying to fix whatever they’d broken, and another trying to nurse his aching neck to the next feedstation.
The worst of the wind seemed to be reserved for the last. The Portsdown climb is a little bump in the road, a few miles from the finish, to test out the legs one final time. Sadly, the direction of the ascent was directly into the wind. When the wind was at its peak. Climbing that 90m climb was harder than anything I climbed in the Leith hill octopus a few weeks before. It isn’t often that I’m stalling while trying to push hard, standing on the pedals. Reminded me a bit of White Down Ln, or Cob Ln.
Getting off that hill wasn’t easy either. There was a point riding past the Royal Armories when I was descending in the drops, pedalling along, yet going slower (and harder) than the fella cycling uphill in the opposite direction. That wind, it be crazy2!
To showcase the weather, here’s Butser Hill, a week apart:
The route was great, the weather not so much – but together they created a unique experience that I quite well enjoyed. The one bit of the day that I did NOT enjoy at all was the organisation. It was almost the worst3 organised sportive I’ve ridden.
The Feedstation saga
I should have seen the warning signs pre-event – the website, and the sole email before the event, both had same minimal detail about the event. Neither had listed at which exact (or approximate) miles the feedstations were. I replied to the event email asking for this one detail, but didn’t get a response before the event. Or ever.
The second warning came at the registration. There was a large map of the route with feedstations marked but their distance in miles not listed. There was a lady, behind a table, sitting below the map. I asked her about the distances to the feedstations. No clue. The best she could help was that ‘someone told me that the first one is 20-something miles out’.
Asked at the first feedstation (21mi) how far was the next one on the long loop – ‘no idea, no one told us’. One of them guessed it might be 30 miles. The other said they honestly didn’t know, so shouldn’t be guessing. Fair bloke.
At the 2nd feedstation (53mi) – ‘no one told us, but some rider said the 3rd one is at 75 mile mark’. The 1st and 2nd feedstations had appeared close to the guessed distances, so I assumed this one would be fine as well. Wrong call.
The route between 2nd and 3rd feed-stations was, for the first part, directly into head wind. And the second part, into the hills. So, by the time I was approaching the 3rd feedstation, my back pocket provisions were running low, I had less than half a bottle of water left, and I was looking forward to the break. 75th mile came and went – no feedstation. 76, 77, 78. Nothing.
79th mile, still nothing, but the road had now started climbing. I was now sure that I’d missed the 3rd feedstation somewhere, so I emptied my pockets – ate the half energy bar, and kept the gel and remaining water for last combo of Beacon hill & Old Winchester hill. At the 82nd mile, I reached the top. And finally saw a feedstation.
I was informed that I’d been climbing Beacon hill all this time, and the feedstation was strategically located at the top – with just the Old Winchester hill and the long, rolling descent to the start to follow. Out of curiosity, I asked the fella at the final feedstation if he knew where the previous two were located – ‘they didn’t tell us’.
He asked me to top up my pockets – he had a lot of grub left since few riders had started, and many abandoned4. I, happily, obliged.
The start was another warning sign I should have recorded. There was a start line with timing cables laid across it. But there was no one there – not a rider or an organiser in sight as I started. There were plenty of organisers milling about inside the registration hall, about 100yd from the start, just out of sight behind another building. But no one at the start.
Just to be sure, I stopped before the line to down a sip and start the watch. Looked around again to check if there was anyone walking over. Nope. Not a soul.
Most sportives insist on a start line briefing about the route, the signs to follow, any hazards (specially on a day with weather like this), etc. Some insist on attending that briefing so strongly that I thought it was a required condition of their insurance cover. Here, there wasn’t even anyone around to check if I ever started.
Another thing at most decent sportives is the 3-sign route marking – one sign before the turn to inform of an upcoming turn, one at the turn, and one after to confirm you’re on the correct route. Further more, some of them put up a carry on sign every few miles just to reassure the riders that they’re still on the route.
No such luxuries at Meon Valley Riser. There was one sign at most turns, usually strategically placed so it became visible just at the last moment before the turn. It wasn’t fun approaching a roundabout at speed not knowing which of the 4 exits I had to take. Till the very last moment, when the sign appeared in a corner. ‘Carry on’ signs between turns? Ha ha ha!
More seriously, some of the signs put up casually on poles, had been turned around by the howling wind to face the opposite way. It was a not-so-funny game of guess the route in pretty unhelpful weather.
It seemed as if the ride was meant to be a sportive, till they decided to make it a part-audax by doing away with some of the route signs.
Just to underline how bad the planning had been – at the finish, they offered beans on toast, and reluctantly handed out a water bottle, but were out of tea and coffee. Yes, out of tea and coffee. The 2 easiest beverages to make. And the only 2 beverages I expect at the end of a long, cold, wet ride. Ran out of them on a day when, apparently, a lot of signed up riders hadn’t even bothered showing up.
The bright spot
Despite miserably failing at organisational ability (in my book), one positive thing was the smiling faces, and happy chatter, by the organisers/volunteers everywhere – the registration, the feedstations and the finish. Special kudos to the people manning the feedstations – for smiling, chatting and catering even in that horrible weather. A huge thanks to you all.
It’s a lovely route, challenging but not overly hard (discounting the abnormal weather we got) – rolling all along with bigger hills bunched up in the beginning and towards the end. Butser Hill and Old Winchester Hill promise really good views in better weather. Portsdown hill as a short, steep challenge is a welcome sting in the tail – the views from its top, and the fast descent down to the finish (again, on a regular day) are well worth the effort.
For me, the weather was a challenge, but a welcome one given my training target. It almost felt like I was attempting a mini Fred Whitton5 – never flat, wet and windy all through, though with just 4 real climbs. It took quite a bit out of the legs and the back, but gave me more of a test than I’d paid up for.
However, having ridden it, I do NOT recommend this sportive to anyone. Despite the smiling faces and the great route, the organisation is just too poor to risk it. If you want to enjoy the route, gather a group, grab the gpx file, and go ride it by yourself. At least then you’d be planning your route directions and feed intake yourself, not relying on organisers who may let you down.
- Started writing this post a week back. By the time I published it, the last Sunday was the Sunday before last. Still, leave it as it was when started. ↩
- One great side effect of the crazy weather was that there were hardly any cars out on the roads. Quite in contrast with a shorter ride the previous Sunday, a beautifully sunny one, in a neighbouring area of South Downs. ↩
- Spring Onion + Compact 50, organised by 5034 events, are definitely the worst sportives I’ve ever ridden. So bad that they make this one look average! I forbid anyone I know from every riding one of them. ↩
- If the organisation of regular stuff – start, feedstations and route markers – was so bad, I really fear for the ones who had to abandon.
The fella who’d wrecked his neck by riding too long on the dropped drops, the couple who were searching for dropped bike bits on the roadside, and the guy who’d punctured twice and run out of spare tubes. The organisers’ recovery broom wagon for riders, if existing, must have been really tested on a day like this. ↩
- Dearly hope the organisation at the real Fred Whitton isn’t anywhere as bad as the Meon Valley Riser. (It isn’t! I’ve known about the exact location, and distance to, of the feedstations from *before* I signed up for the event) ↩