British Cycling Wiltshire Weekender - Salisbury Sportive
Event: 11 August 2012
Location: Five Rivers Leisure Centre, Salisbury
Preview and images: Rob Rowlands
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“Come down to Salisbury on Bank Holiday weekend and ride 60 miles,” someone said to me back in 2011. So having dragged two other friends in for the ride, we set off from the West Midlands in the direction of Salisbury to play our part in a weekend called the Twinings Pro-Am.
If we were the ‘Am’ bit of the title the organization of the event definitely lived up to the ‘Pro’ epitaph. From the organisation to the route this was a superb event. So with the event back again for 2012 and known as the ‘Wiltshire Weekender’, let’s take a look at the route for Saturday’s mass participation element, the Salisbury Sportive.
As the event site suggests this is “a challenging yet enjoyable route”. If you want a pan flat route this isn’t the ride for you and it is fair to say the shorter route is less hilly than its longer counterpart. Both provide an undulating challenge in spectacular countryside along mainly quiet roads.
Both routes start out from Five Rivers Leisure Centre and head along the genteel Woodford valley, a quiet rolling country lane providing the opportunity to loosen the legs before the more testing parts of the course get underway. Continuing through the town of Amesbury you climb up onto the first Down of the day.
Folly Bottom in particular provides a deceptive climb before dropping into Bulford. Those who rode this last year will be pleased to hear the enormous pothole at the bottom of the descent caused by torrential rain the day before the event has now disappeared but riders still need to beware of the main road that they have to cross and it’s around here the routes split: the 100km route takes you north towards the North Wessex Downs, the 60km route forking right to the east and on to the village of Tidworth.
The long way around
Above: The area's chalk horses play their part in the ride.
The longer of the rides takes you north, rolling along the undulations of the river Avon and through picturesque Wiltshire villages with their bunting and thatched roofs. It is not just the short climbs to contend with here: beware of tanks crossing on their manouvres across Salisbury Plain. After Upavon the route takes in a circuit towards Devizes giving tantilising glimpses of Alton Barnes white horse as you gain altitude on the way around. The white horse is an impressive sight but also a reminder that the first main climb of the day is approaching, the mile long climb up Walkers Hill. Never overly steep it continues to rise as it snakes around the contours of these somewhat mystical hills. From here the route drops back into wide valleys and on into Marlborough.
Above: Mind the tanks! Salisbury Plain is an MOD area, so expect tanks and gunshots to punctuate your ride.
Marlborough is dominated on its western side by Marlborough College and this route brings you through its impressive bridge into the main street of the market town. If you feel in need of some refreshment there are plenty of coffee shops along the high street. Leave through Marlborough’s nooks and crannies you head out along the Kennet Valley trough Mildenhall, Axford and Ramesbury, past one of the neatest field hedges I have ever seen.
Above: Thatched cottages and pretty villages are the order of the day.
Along the way, beware of overhanging thatched roofs in these villages and don’t get lulled into their sleepiness as you still have a bit of a way to go yet. From Hungerford you climb onto the Common, past grazing cows and out towards your next climb, Gallows Down. The route rises almost continually from Hungerford and like Walkers Hill earlier in the day the climb can be seen on most of the approach, topped as it is by the Combe Gibbet, a set of gallows used to punish two locals accused of having an affair in 1676.
Above: Combe Gibbet.
Your punishment will be slightly less painful but no less public, the last 600m of the climb being particularly cruel and exhibiting the tell-tale arrow on the OS map. Having survived that climb it’s a quick, narrow descent into Combe, a short climb up to Manor farm and an interesting, technical switch-back to be negotiated before dropping down into Combe Bottom. As you pedal through this valley you are almost taken back in time, it feels tranquil, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the South East. From here it’s on to Hurstbourne Tarrant and a left turn to follow the relatively flat course of the Bourne Rivulet towards St Mary Bourne and finally to the feed stop at Tinkers Hill.
60 mile route
Above: The gently undulating Tidworth Road.
For those who chose the shorter ride, the route is undulating but the feature climbs of the 100 mile route are absent. From the deviation point at Bulford, the shorter route skirts around Bulford Camp on a wide road before rising up onto the Tidworth Road. Not to be outdone by its longer cousin, as well as the risk of tanks the 60m route takes you pass a series of Army ranges so that bang may not be a puncture! The route then drops through parkland into Tidworth - garrison town, dominated by its impressive barracks and the grandiose Tidworth Oval sports ground and birthplace of James Blunt (as if you needed an earworm for this ride). Here you cross the A338 and before you the climb to Perham Down.
If you are unlucky enough to be stopped at the traffic lights you have the chance to contemplate it though in reality it looks harder than it is, continuing for a mile before dropping into Perham Down and snaking to the A342 towards Andover.
The route bypasses Andover itself via a network of lanes. The terrain remains undulating with some short, leg testing climbs though never too long and soon flattening out allowing you to regain some composure and breath. These lanes really do have the feeling of cycle orienteering: they twist and turn and you might ask yourself if you are really on the right route. But don’t fear, with the signage out and riders from the NEG to help along the way, you’ll know you are on the right path.
After a long straight along the Portway Roman road there is a challenging right hand turn into a descent which brings you down to the road into Tinkers Hill, your half way point, the refreshment stop and the point at which the two routes merge again.
On to the Finish
The shared route back to Salisbury remains rolling starting with a stern climb up from Andover to Cowdown. From here it is a rollercoaster of dips and rises through more picture-postcard villages and along tree-lined roads and open fields. The views back towards Wiltshire are worth a heads-up along the way. At Cholderton there is an unavoidably short section along the busy A338 and riding in a small group might provide some reassurance to less confident riders. The route swings back onto country lanes and through Porton before a dog leg via the A338 takes you along the old Roman Road and towards the ancient hillfort of Old Sarum. This is the last climb of the ride and by this point with legs tiring this long drag might feel harder than it otherwise appears so save a little back. The route then skirts Old Sarum and via a sweeping descent brings you back onto the outward route and a short, flat return to the start/finish.
A well organised and located cycling challenge
The routes combine a cycling challenge with the opportunity to take in the beautiful countryside of Wiltshire and Hampshire. The organisers have achieved the near impossible by finding largely quiet roads in an otherwise busy part of the country and participants can be rewarded with a great day out - and a lovely cup of tea at the end. As a cycling challenge this is a fantastic event offering something for the beginner and expert alike.
For me, the crowning glory by the organisers is the decision to locate the start/finish at a leisure centre. Other events may have more glitz to them but this scores highly for attention to practical details. There is ample free parking for participants and the availability of free showers means you really can enjoy that after event refreshment - especially if your non-cycling friends have accompanied you!
And speaking of non-cyclists, Salisbury has plenty to offer and keep them entertained whilst they await your return. Having made last year’s trip with me and usually contemplating how to liven up the time spent waiting in the car, my (non-cyclist) wife was particularly glad of the local attractions with which to while away the four hours I spent on the bike. The city centre is within walking distance of the leisure centre making it a handy (and free) place to park for everyone.