This was to be my second year at the HONC (The Hell of the North Cotswolds). It was the 35th running of the off-road sportive named for the Paris-Roubaix, run on the same day. With the recent dry weather, the trails promised to be largely dry – and that means bumpy. Common sense had prevailed this year, so I was riding my MTB in order to protect my body. It would be slower on the roads and the climbs than the ‘cross bike, but after two bouts of sciatica last year, initially caused, or at least exacerbated, by riding it at last year’s HONC, it was the sensible option.
I’d planned to do the 100k route (a 50k or 75k were also available – the latter by starting on the 100k circuit and returning on the 50k) and it promised to be brutal with near 1,900m of ascent – almost all off-road. The climbing would start straight away onto the south summit of Cleve Hill at 330m and there promised to be a nasty sting in the tail over Sudely Hill at 299m.
The day dawned sunny, but frosty, and after the sun came up a cold wind started gusting from the East. It was going to be a cold one. As the 1,000 riders gathered for the mass start there was an interesting mix of bikes: ‘cross bikes, hard-tail and full suspension MTBs of various types and vintages – including one full susser with tri-bars on! – and the odd e-bike. This was matched by an interesting group of riders – club riders in lycra, MTBers in baggies, families doing the short route – and a number of riders from our good friends Cats MBC. With no gridding the start was slow, but we were cheered on by the people of Winchcombe, who had gathered to watch.
The legs were a bit sore already from too much off-road riding in the week before – but still, it wasn’t a race. Straight out of the village we were off-road and after another mile we were climbing. Congestion made it difficult to maintain a rhythm, as riders ran out of gears or breath – and some were walking on the climb. It didn’t matter – climbing more slowly would protect the legs – and it wasn’t a race. Up onto the shoulder of Cleve Hill with fantastic views across the Cotswolds passing riders taking off layers (fools – decide whether you’re too hot at the bottom of the descent, not the top!) and turning into the cold easterly, which would be nagging us all day, for a long fast cold descent as the riders thinned out, passing more riders at the bottom putting layers back on!
After passing the separating point for the 50k route we were into rhythm of the event – up, down, up, down – ‘cross bikes passing on the climbs and then being passed on the rougher sections and off-road descents – the cold easterly ever present and seemingly always a headwind. I was really hammering the off-road descents on the MTB – maybe it was the right choice – and it wasn’t a race after all. The descent into Guiting Power for the halfway feed station was an absolute cracker, only spoilt by a blind turn necessitating a touch of the brakes.
After downing some cake (for some reason I had a sausage roll craving, but there were none available) and a quick chat with some of the Cats guys, I was off again. The legs were hurting a bit, so should I just do the 75? – no stop those negative thoughts! – cycling is all about pain and hypothermia! – and you’ve committed to yourself to complete the 100. Again the climb was congested as we’d joined the 50k route again. I declined to ride through the ford as it looked deep – and that cold easterly would be making another appearance soon. Back into the rhythm again: up, down, headwind, up, down, eat, drink, headwind. It was getting hard now – counting down the miles on the Garmin. Someone asked after Dean – is there anyone he doesn’t know? With 10 miles to go we could see the last hill in the distance. The sting in the tail was big. The climb started gently on the road, then turned onto a brutally steep bridleway – it was fine, it was the last one – it seemed to climb forever. As we rode into the sky, I heard a whirring sound as an e-bike came past – grrrhhh – now don’t be negative, he’s doing no harm and maybe it’s the only way he’s able to do it. Up, up, up, nearly there. We finally got to a level bit of road – are we there? No – another uphill bridleway – up, up. Now for a ridiculously fast descent on tracks and singletrack roads into Wynchcombe, through dazzling yellow fields of rapeseed, with marshals reminding us to slow and turn – and give way. Back to the finish for my medal and staggered past the scouts’ bike wash too befuddled to take advantage (I went and gave them a donation later). Elapsed time just over 6 hours, riding time just under, for 100km largely off-road with over 1,800m of ascent.
So was the MTB the right choice? Well I could hammer the descents and my back was okay. The ‘cross bike would have been quicker though. Still it wasn’t a race and I’d had a grand day out, and my back still seemed to be in one piece! Will I be back? – Yes. Which bike will I be on? I don’t know!