Gravel // 116km // +1405m // 11th July 2021
I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the sportive scene. Why would you pay to go and ride roads that are just as full of cars as they always are? Is £30 really worth some route signs, a couple of free gels and the odd bidon top-up? I’d probably still land on the side of “no” for most events, but knowing how elusive “proper gravel” can be in the UK, the Glorious Gravel series got my attention.
With post-lockdown calendars filling up disappointingly quickly (whatever happened to that mellow new normal?) I jumped at the chance to book onto the Salisbury Plain Summer Epic – and then promptly forgot about it until a week prior. With very little training in the legs and my girlfriends big 3-0 birthday party booked for the day before, I resigned myself to relying on grit to get around, rather than any semblance of form. We only chose the long route after all.
We set off from London at 6.15 after a night of half-sleep, light hangover and minor trepidation in tow – rocking up at Thruxton full of Starbucks and Greggs. Sign in was quick and we made our way to the start. Having picked a late start time to facilitate our boozing, we were some of the last to set off and would have to push on to make the cut-off time for the long route. After a two sentence safety briefing we rolled out, onto a short stretch of road before we hit our first off road section some 500m later.
Gravel (n)A loose aggregation of small water-worn or pounded stones.
This sure wasn’t gravel. I was probably naïve in expecting the dreamy aggregates of the American mid-west – naivety that led me to rock up with nearly slick 38mm Gravel Kings. This rain slicked, muddy bridleway sure blew the cobwebs away, particularly after I’d tasted it after sliding out for the first time. 115km to go – would it all be like this?
Fortunately not – although there were plenty of challenges still to come. The route soon reached its first stretch of what I’m going to call Hollywood Gravel as we entered the military’s playground before branching out through a blur of small villages and country lanes. The occasional stretch on field-side bridleways proved challenging, with only narrow ruts to ride in and plenty of big puddles of questionable liquids.
Some 40km came the first real challenge – a real f*cking brute of a climb up Orams Hill. A minor sense of dread did kick in at the top when realising this wasn’t even halfway, but was quickly replaced with pure concentration for a flinty stretch along another wheat field and a slippery, rutted descent.
This was where woopsy number 2 took place as I arrogantly tried to bunny hop between ruts, landing somewhere between the two, sliding out for long enough to think I had saved it, before high-siding onto a surface too solid to be so slippery. That one hurt and left me with a bit of bruising on the wrists; not desirable with 6okm to go.
It was around now that I found myself churning through the km’s in a bit of a trance – the hook of “Unconscious Melody” stuck in my head and very little of the landscape really registering, with every bit of brain power focused on keeping my woefully inadequate tyres in the right orientation (with mixed results). I could probably described most of the individual flints and puddles in a great deal of detail – but the landscape on a bigger scale mostly passed me by.
My memory picks up a bit for the final third of the ride. We re-entered the military ranges and found ourselves being cheered on by squaddies in tanks, whipping up almighty clouds of dust. By this stage my legs were in survival mode – churning out watts at one level and one level only. Stopping now would be the harbinger of cramps and an embarrassing call for a pick up.
After soldiering on, surviving the best of the gravel on offer rather than savouring it, things began to become familiar once again. The end was near – but that first muddy bridleway had to be overcome first. Fortunately a few hundred pairs of tyres had squeezed most of the slime out of it by the time we returned, meaning the gastro-mud remained in situ, ready for another sucker to taste.
Then the finish arch came in sight, along with… well, not much else really. Having been the final starters on the long route we were in the last 20 souls to make it back. The food stall had shut. The atmosphere was gone. The rain was starting. But at least we had a warm bottle of bitter and an enormous sense of achievement.