Event: 11 November 2012
The Salisbury Saxon CX was the first event of the new cyclo-cross sportive season from the Cycle Events Organisation.
The people behind the Trail Break MTB and Southern Sportive road event series, they launched their new CX Sportive format as a balance between the two for the winter months.
It's easy to see the appeal at this time of year; the mixed surface courses are safer and more stable (and keep you warmer!) than winter road riding, but you're not hub deep in mud the whole day as you might be on a mountain bike ride on a wet winter's day. And more and more people from across cycling's tribes are catching on to the format.
The event day dawned to clear blue skies and hint of warmth in the sun despite the temperature hovering just above zero. Perfect weather for a late autumn ride, but at the same time, we knew it was going to be wet, very wet.
After what seems like a year of rain, the ancient droves, despite running along the tops of the surrounding hills were waterlogged. The valley's clear chalk streams were nearly bursting their banks and threatening the roads. Standing water and mud were conspiring against you on the trails.
But that's part of the fun of a cross sportive. The event is built for bikes and riders that are willing to go anywhere the course takes them. And that's just what it does, weaving its way from ridge top to valley using just about any surface available, mixing rough with the smooth (and the wet with the ....wetter!)
Salisbury race course was the starting point for the ride. Sitting high on a ridge, it straddles one of the two parallel droves that run west from Salisbury making it an ideal start location to get right out into the countryside. Parking was easy and as you would expect from a race course, the facilities were more than adequate. Good catering and plenty of toilets meant no queues and plenty of time to get ready. It was bright and clear from the off, without a cloud in sight, and at 8.00 in the morning a light frost was reflecting the early sun and making everything shine.
Gathering for the start, it was fascinating to see so many different bikes. Unlike other events where just about every bike looks like just about every other bike, a glance around this morning revealed bikes old and new; cross, mountain bike (slinky hard tail, and big full sus) tourers, 29ers, singlespeeds, hybrids and any mix of these.
Some riders had been very creative in picking up the best aspects of the different styles to build their 'do anything' all rounder. Singlespeed CX's, drop-barred 29ers, you name it. There was a real enthusiasm for the bike and the personal choice you had made for the day. In the end, different parts of the course were going to work out better for some bikes than others, but it would all balance out. Swings and roundabouts, not of course forgetting the water splashes!!
Right out of the start 200 yards of super smooth tarmac deteriorated into deep, stony puddles and slippery mud, courtesy of the local 4x4 community. There was an alternative route here and interestingly it presented a classic bit of cyclo-cross; hurdle over a gate onto a much better surface and you had the chance to jump ahead of most of the mountain bikes tackling the rough stuff along the muddy track. Then it was back on to the road briefly for 100 yards before taking a narrow track weaving downhill across fields and through woods, across the valley road... and so the course went on, mixing road and track, big climbs and exhilarating descents. The first half of the route definitely favoured the mountain bikers, with some very deep puddles. field crossings and singletrack woodland sections, but the return leg introduced a few more road sections in the valley lanes, and a really tough 20% tarmac climb put the slimmer tyred CX bikes back in charge.
When you looked up from the track, the valleys running west to east from Salisbury offered some absolutely stunning scenery, made even better by the bright sunshine and clear air. The droves form the backbone of the course and the intricate linkage of tracks, trails and quiet roads make this a really great area to explore on a bike. And if you took the time to stop for a moment, the views went on for miles.
It was Sunday 11th November, Remembrance Sunday, so the organisers had announced they would grant every rider a minute on their ride time, to allow for those who wanted to stop and take their Remembrance Day pause for thought. And on a beautiful, crisp day, looking out on this landscape, in a part of the world with a long military heritage, this was maybe the perfect place to do so.
Back at base there were a lot of very tired riders. No doubt that was a hard ride. Even those taking on one of the shorter distance was surprised at both the technical difficulties and toughness the course offered. But listening to the chat it was clear that there was a real buzz too and a sense of achievement. Sense of humour failures conspicuous by their absence.
Rides like that can take their toll, but live long in the memory for all the right reasons. With the bike washed and hot tea and food consumed there was still time to sit back and enjoy the last of the sunshine before heading home. Winter riding should always be like this.