With a portfolio of ten big rides across the south of England, organisers UK Cycling Events have come from nowhere to quickly become a major name on the sportive scene. For 2010, these sportives are sponsored by another well-known name and brought to you as the Wiggle Super Series. Your correspondents from road.cc tootled down to the south coast last week to join Martin Barden, the man behind UK Cycling Events, for a preview ride round the route of the upcoming Mega Meon.
The sportive starts at the South Downs College in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth. Martin proudly showed us round the 1500-place carpark. Not the first thing you expect on a preview ride, but this is important - as you’ll know if you’ve had to leave your car in a muddy field or residential street a mile away from the HQ at some other sportives. By the same token, we’re promised plenty of toilets at the college too - hopefully meaning no queues for that early morning constitutional we all need before a long ride.
With facilities inspected, it was time to get out on the bikes. Our route left Waterlooville heading north, and within a couple of miles we were out of town and spinning nicely along country lanes through peaceful farmland. It set the scene for much of the rest of the day: rolling downs, quiet roads, pretty villages.
The first real gradients came after about 15 miles - a little foray into the edge of the South Downs. Butser Hill was one of those climbs that doesn’t look too bad, but gets steeper at the end to catch the unwary. The view from the top was worth it though: east towards the main bulk of the downs, and south to the glistening sea. Next came Old Winchester Hill, longer than Butser, but not as steep, so just a case of sit and steady-pedal as the road curved up between woods on either side.
Even though the hills are small compared to some we could mention in the Pennines or North Wales, not every rider will have to deal with them all. The Mega Meon is available in three flavours: Epic (97 miles), Standard (72 miles) and Fun (55 miles). The Epic riders do everything, the Standard riders do most of it, and the Fun riders miss all the serious climbs and just have a jolly nice day out.
With the bulk of the climbing already behind us, our route wound through the delightful village of East Meon, and kept to tranquil lanes for several miles as we skirted Petersfield and worked our way up towards Basingstoke, before turning south again - keeping to quiet roads all the way.
After a few hours in the saddle, thoughts turned naturally to food. A chance for Martin to tell us about the feed stations. There are three on the Epic, two on the Standard and one on the Fun ride, and each will offer two types of food: ‘eat me now’ (bananas, flapjacks and the like) and ‘take me with you’ (gels and energy bars to slip in the back pocket for later). Sponsors include High 5 and Eat Natural - giving an idea of the type of stuff you’ll get. UK Cycling Events promises that every rider, even the slow ones, will get all the refuelling they need. None of this getting to a feed station late in the day to find empty tables, thanks to greedy early birds or inadequate stocks.
Any concerns about sustenance allayed, we reached New Alresford and cruised down the pretty high street. This was the first town of any size we’d seen since leaving the start, and pretty much the only large place on the whole route. That also means no traffic lights - good news for the riders who like to keep moving.
Well over half-way, we were back out in the rolling Hampshire countryside again. The sun was out, there were colourful fields of rape-seed everywhere, the roads weren’t too busy with traffic, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. This is how cycling should always be. Sheer bliss.
The end of the ride beckoned as a couple of steady rises were followed by a sweeping descent down into the Meon Valley, where we turned south, following the river mostly downhill towards the sea.
Yes, mostly. A few miles before the finish came the last proper climb of the day - a bit of a slog up Ports Down Hill to the weird spires of the radar station on the summit. Once again, the view was worth it: a stunning vista over Portsmouth Harbour, the Solent and out to the Isle of Wight.
Then it was downhill again, a sharp left, another little rise to tease tired legs, then home and dry back at the finish. A very enjoyable ride indeed. Hard enough to make it a challenge, but not a complete head-banger. At road.cc that’s our kind of ride.
The Mega Meon itself is on 11 July. Based on our preview, it promises a delightful circuit on the rural roads of Hampshire. Based on previous sportives from UK Cycling Events, it promises good organisation and a friendly atmosphere. For more see: www.ukcyclingevents.co.uk/