The Dorking Original Sportive - set in October - surely this is too ambitious. After the wash-out summer and torrential rain forecast during the week, who on earth would want to enter a sportive in October?
Well - lots as it happened. In fact so many that three large car parks were in use on the day and the first train to Dorking was packed with cyclists. The allure of the iconic Box Hill had attracted so many entrants the UKCycling Events team opened registration for a few hours on Saturday evening to alleviate the anticipated bottleneck.
In the pen before the start, sportive first timers - Peter and Tom - were eagerly discussing Leith Hill and White Down as they fastened the numbers to their bikes. Others - such as Etape veteran Dave Winston, were eager to tackle the Epic, head on - showing a brave display of courage and determination at this late stage in the season. Everyone was thankful for the brightest and most beautiful of autumnal days as riders set off with Box Hill to their backs and the slopes of Denby's Vineyards and a course of rolling hills ahead.
From the outset, riders had no time to relax, pitched head first on to the slopes with the smell of the coffee at the start line still in the air. Although the temperature was chilly the warm up acts included in the first ten miles worked up a sweat. There were some rewards too, as a rightwards glance from half way up Ranmore Hill revealed a slumbering Dorking, the sun casting shadows over the autumnal colours framing the town.
The ride profile (arguably) outlined four clearly definable hills - Ranmore, Leith, White Down and Box Hill, but these were linked and joined a network of draining, undulating roads that dipped down only to drag up again causing frantic gear changes and taking a toll on the legs. The roads were quiet although the surfaces of some of them were appalling and roadside puncture repairs offered additional confirmation of the route signage.
The second feed station broke up the pain of the undulations, but a quick scan of the horizon revealed that the business of the day had not yet even started, as Leith Hill loomed in the distance. The climb up Leith Hill was a tough starter, the road skewing round to the left at the church to the Leith Hill car parks, past courting couples and families out enjoying the glorious sunny day, oblivious to the effort of the roleurs providing a backdrop to their day.
For me the toughest climb was after Leith and over the A25 in to White Down territory. It's best to ignore the 18% road sign that terrifies any rider or jalopy owner and signifies the start of the badlands, where the Pill Box lies in wait - no longer in use - though surely if it were operational - it could put many a grateful rider out of their misery.
The route then had a short sprint and downhill section before turning on to Box Hill, the main event and the scene of a smash and grab Olympic crime; where Cav's hopes were dashed on the nine times loop up the - now - infamous zigzags. As close to an Alpine climb as you can get.
Gentle slopes, that come with a National trust surcharge. The surface of this road was the best in the whole ride, off the Olympic route was a different story as first my pump then a camera worked their way free and smashed. A disappointing post-script to a most enjoyable day. The families were out in force - many clapping and offering words of encouragement. Donkey Green presented Surrey in its full autumnal glory those riders not chasing Gold or Silver stopped to enjoy the view that was surely denied the Team GB riders in the summer. The route left Box Hill via a fast descent down Pebble Hill and a long ten miles back to ride HQ where there was a steady stream of riders filling in to collect their deserved medals.
And the Sportive newcomers were impressed. Darren - another sportive first timer - in a Fullers Ale top was hooked, even mentioning the sting in the tail of WhiteDown as a highlight. Tom and Peter put in big times and impressive silvers on their first sportive outings. Although I missed Gav L and Dave, both were impressed with the route and pleased with their times and had thoroughly enjoyable days.
And so thoughts now drift to off-season activities and objectives for next year. But more of that later...