The forums are full of discussions about what makes a good cyclosportive. A challenging route, plenty of hills and good signposting are usually high on the agenda. Many people are to my mind a little over concerned about the quality of the cuisine at the feed points. One intangible element that features near the top of my list is ‘a good atmosphere’. This can mean a number of different things. On large scale events like the Fred Whitton or the Etape du Dales this tends to imply an air of excitement mixed with trepidation which you can almost taste as you get out of your car on arrival. I find that larger scale events with participant numbers in the high hundreds tend to have this character , and are exciting events to be part of. These particular events also have a number of set piece climbs which can lead to lack of sleep in the preceding few nights!
Then there is the Drumlanrig Tearfund Challenge which has happily ploughed its own distinctive furrow over the last few years. In its low key way it has become something quite special and unique in the burgeoning UK sportive scene. It has an atmosphere like no other event on the calendar.
The grounds of Drumlanrig Castle were bathed in bright sunshine on our arrival. Parking was easy and Richard and I were immediately struck by the benign, relaxed atmosphere as we got out of the car. Although there were 300 entrants, registration was a mere 100 yard stroll from the car and took a matter of a couple of minutes. It could have taken less time than that, if it wasn’t for the friendliness of the ladies on the desk. Although the sun was shining the promised strong easterly winds were just beginning to stir the leaves. As the day went on the wind was going to have a major influence on the outcome of the ride.
sportives and the big society
Throughout the day, the default expression of all the volunteers we met was a beaming smile. The event is run as a fund raiser for ‘Tearfund‘ which is a church based overseas aid charity . All the expenses of the event are paid for by separately raised funds, the excellent home baked food is provided by volunteers and most of these people come from the local churches. In this way the whole entrance fee, which is in fact a discretionary donation, goes to help others. I spoke to a couple of the volunteers at the lunch stop (of which more later) and they were saying that the event is good for the community as well in that it brings people together in a common enterprise. In many ways the whole model comes close to fulfilling the recently much vaunted aims of the ‘Big Society’. Cyclists get a superb event, Tearfund are able to raise significant sums to help others, and the local community gains from the social ties that are made. It would seem to be a situation in which everyone wins.
The event is divided into two loops. Between these there is an untimed stop for lunch in the grounds of the castle. This is perhaps another reason that the ride has a unique relaxed ambience.
First leg: Drumlanrig to Dalry and back again (62 miles)
We were ushered into the start pen in a group of about 20 , and set off through the grounds of the castle. At this stage the wind was behind us and so the pace was quite fierce from the off. The pattern for this leg was soon set as we proceeded over quiet rolling roads through small villages all looking their best in the wind blown bright sunshine. Tynron Hill was the first major obstacle. Although not long, the hill is steep, the road surface is rough and broken and it soon becomes single track. As I looked up the hill I anticipated some potential problems. There were a few ‘larger’ cyclists ahead who were already struggling to maintain forward momentum. Richard tried to pass one of the strugglers who veered to the side and unclipped. A sharp piece of evasive action saved the day and a multiple bike pile up was averted. It was a relief to get past and get a clear run to the top.
To be honest, it’s quite difficult to remember specific details of the next stretch, as the tailwind was propelling us forward at an exhilarating pace. As we approached Knowehead, the high ridge of the ‘Rhinns of Kells’ ( a name which always sounds to me like something from the Lord of the Rings), began to dominate the horizon. As we turned south, the tailwind became a crosswind and began to give us intimations of what was to follow. Just after Dalry we encountered the first feed station manned by volunteers from Dalry Church. Buoyed by the excitement of the wind assisted ride out, many of us continued without stopping.
We were riding straight into a headwind of between 20 and 40 mph. Now the real battle started. Each rolling climb became a minor struggle and the near 18mph average speed began to decline. I was feeling strong however and found myself on a solo ride after every climb. Richard was riding in a much more relaxed and judicious way and a mile or so after each climb would appear on my shoulder looking as if he was out for a Sunday stroll.
It was with some relief that I arrived back at Drumlanrig to the sound of bagpipes, having completed the first and longest of the two circuits.
Time for lunch!
The lunch break is something that is unusual in the cyclosportive world. As I said at the beginning, the organisers of this event like to do things somewhat differently. As you roll across the finish line, the clock stops, and in theory you can stop for as long as you want before resuming the hard work. The temptation was great today. The sun was shining, we were sheltered from the wind, and half of Dumfriesshire must have been baking and making sandwiches in order to provide the refreshments which were displayed before us.
Second leg: Mennock Pass and Dalveen Pass (38 miles)
Into the windtunnel
It really wasn’t easy to pull ourselves away to the start pen and contemplate what was sure to be a testing time riding up hill into the teeth of a gale.
If the first leg had been a jaunt into the rolling countryside of Dumfries and Galloway the next couple of hours or so would be spent in much wilder terrain. We were heading into the Lowther Hills and up to Wanlockhead , the highest village in Scotland, which was a lead mining village at the dawn of the industrial revolution. We started out riding alongside the River Nith, then at Mennock, we turned right and then steeply left before the slope levelled out to a more relaxed gradient. On either side of us were massive grassy hills which closed ever more tightly around us as we climbed.
Talk of gradual slopes might lead you to think that progression was easy, but the wind was roaring down the glen and every metre seemed hard won. As we climbed, I took my turn at the front of the group and dug in with gritted teeth. The next time I looked over my shoulder there were just two of us. My companion was from the ubiquitous Border City Wheelers who are usually to be found in the thick of the action on most sportives.
Usually this climb is one to be undertaken on the large ring and at some speed, but today it was a question of engaging a low gear and digging in. The climb seemed endless as the road took surprising twists around the folds of the glen. As Wanlockhead appeared, I looked over my shoulder and I was on my own.
If the retreat of industry always left as few scars as it has at Wanlockhead the world would be a better place. The rather bleak location is relieved by a straggle of white cottages and a pub. It must have been a rather less attractive and more intimidating place in its heyday. I can only imagine that life was cheap and short for those men who had to go underground with primitive equipment and minimal reward for their endeavours.
From riding up to Wanlockhead when taking part in the much missed Radar Ride, I had the idea that the road to Elvanfoot was a steady downhill. I was proved wrong with what turned out to be a roller coaster of steady ups and downs interspersed with false flats. In this exposed spot the wind was at its worst. It felt nearer to a constant 40 mph than the 20mph which had been forecast. As I struggled into the headwind, lamenting the seeming lack of any downhill stretches I was joined by three other riders, one of whom was a soldier from the ‘Rifles’. I stuck with them for as long as I could, but in the end I had to let them go.
At Elvanfoot with its unsightly electrical substation, surrounded by wind farm clad hills, the route changed course. At first it went south which meant crosswinds, but then shifted to a more south easterly course. At last there was a tailwind, but also a gentle change in gradient to a series of false flats. It was now possible to start turning the pedals properly again amid a wide wild landscape of blowing grass and bare hills.
Down the Cresta Run
Into the bend with the inner knee pointing the way, outer foot hard on the pedal, then switching balance for the next bend and so on until the road starts to level out far sooner than expected or desired.
So it was on this descent. I was joined at the foot of the hill by yet another ‘Border City Wheelers’ rider who must have been flying because he seemed to appear from nowhere.
The last few miles of any sportive always seem to elicit a final response from tired riders. We rode hard down the road, then up the pink gravel drive to the finish line which was situated in front of the magnificent facade of Drumlanrig Castle.
I got round the 100 miles in 6 hours 7 minutes which was slower than I had planned for but I suspect was a decent time for the conditions. I await the official results to see how others fared.
I rolled down to the car and the refreshment tent feeling weary from the conditions, but with that deep feeling of satisfaction engendered by the knowledge that my form and fitness seemed pretty good. Richard arrived only a few minutes later still looking as if he had been on a gentle spin round the block.
A couple of months earlier I had been invited to become a member of the ‘Cervo Rosso Test Team‘. Fortunately for all concerned this didn’t require me to have any great athletic prowess, but instead meant becoming part of a small and varied group of cyclists from around the world who were asked to field test the clothing. This was my first sportive ride in the full kit, and it was perfect for the job. Suffice to say I travelled in great comfort and in a style to which I could easily become accustomed.
A couple of days of reflection have only emphasised what a great day it was. The scenery, atmosphere and organisation were spot on. Sometimes a good event is more than the sum of its parts and just occasionally it can work the other way. The ‘Drumlanrig Tearfund Challenge’ is definitely in the former camp. This is an event that has evolved over the years into its current form. I rather hope that it will now be left as it is. I can’t see much that could be improved upon, unless someone could do something about that pesky wind!
I will be back next year.