Fun is fast but slow can also be fun. Who rides fast anyway for 215 kilometres? Ok so our friends over the pond in the US show it is possible to race fast for that long and there are plenty of gravel races in Europe of that distance or longer but sometimes it fun to just enjoy an event. This past weekend Hot Chillee organized the inaugural Stone Circle gravel event, a proper adventure starting from the English Heritage site of Old Sarum and passing historic landmarks like Stonehenge.
Friday night there was a pizza party with DJ rocking the tunes, the arena coming alive as people arrived for the following day. Earlier in the day there was a warm up ride starting from the Lauf bikes stand with demo bikes available to try. Lots of other vendors filled the arena providing plenty of bike bling to look at and tasty carbs to eat.
Saturday morning started early with a four o’clock alarm clock, there was just enough time for a quick breakfast and copious amounts of coffee. The start line opened at 5 am, it was awfully early but at least there was a good reason to be awake at that time. On top of Old Sarum hundreds of cyclists gathered ready for their summer solstice adventure. There were two route distances available, 135 kilometres and 215 kilometres, the majority of entries choosing the longer route.
You could start at any time within the next hour with groups of 10 going off each time. You were timed from when you crossed the start line to when you crossed it again at the end, for most though this was about the experience, not the time. I was there just to have fun, absolutely no racing today, my enjoyment like many others was to visit a new location and ride new routes.
I predicted an 8-hour ride time for the 215-kilometre distance, I’ve not done many rides that long before. There were three feed zones on route but I nervously stuffed my hydration pack and jersey pockets full of carbohydrates! I needn’t have worried though because each feed zone was stacked full of energy drink and gels, sweets, cake, chocolate bars, pretzels and more!
I was riding the event with a coaching client / regular training buddy, we were all set for a very long day on the bikes. We set off in the third or fourth wave, we quickly descending off the heritage site on the first trail and then rode towards the wide open expanses of Salisbury Plain. Very quickly we picked up the groups who’d started ahead and a merry group of around 15 people formed. A few were keener than others to push the pace on the climbs but I tried to keep things steady encouraging the group to stay together and keep it social.
Around 12 kilometres we passed Stonehenge, an amazing sight on any day but even more amazing before 6am on this beautiful summers day. The event was given special permission for bikes to pass closer to the stones than normal, this added to the sense of occasion. As we continued north we entered the wide open tracks of Salisbury Plain, there were some absolutely incredible gravel over the next 40 to 50 kilometres. These white dusty roads took us up, down and around the rolling hills providing amazing hilltop views out over the Wiltshire Downs. Many of these gravel roads and tracks are normally closed to the public. We sped past firing ranges and tank testing areas, plus big groups of soldiers working hard.
Sadly after about 90 minutes we suffered puncture number one, I quickly plugged the hole and filled the tyre with gas but the group was gone. We trundled on as a pair but after another ten minutes it was obvious the tyre was still losing air. A pre event warning had been given about punctures, little could be done though with the big flints that littered the gravel tracks on this part of the route. We stopped, fitted a bigger plug, pumped the tyre up, it went flat, we removed the tyre insert, fitted a Tubolito tube, pumped the tyre up. Rode on. All good for about 50 minutes but then the tube starts going flat. At this point we think it’s game over. We are close to the first feed though so pump the tyre up and ride on slowly, I try my best not to ruin a nice carbon wheel. We make the feed and happily we find a truck full of tools and spares. We take the tyre off, fit a tyre boot, find the offending flint, fit another tube and decide we may as well ride on to feed zone 2 where the shorter route turns off. As we pass Longleat zoo my buddy Liam gets a puncture but this time we can fix it with a plug. This epic adventure was getting really really epic!
The tracks through the woods at Longleat were absolutely incredible, a mix of short punchy climbs and trails through pine trees and some longer steeper climbs which tested your gearing choice but rewarded with some crazily fun singletrack descents! We reached feed zone 2 already feeling tired and a little daunted knowing we weren’t even half way through the big route. Despite this we both had huge smiles on our faces from the amazing route. How could we possibly bail at this point! This was one of those days you remember for a very long time, memories you can share and talk about until no one else will listen.
Above us King Alfreds Tower, a 160ft high folly built in 1722 with view over three counties. Ahead of us lay another 130 kilometres of riding with some big climbs to finish. On went the majority of people, motivated by more adventures and the finishers party. From feed zone two to three we had almost 3 hours of riding, we had planned a feed zone 2.5 eyeing up a bakery and supermarket for snacks but in the end we sailed straight through the town and onto the old North Dorset Railway. We stopped at the Shillingstone Station to look at the old diesel and steam engines. A group sailed past us as we took photos so we joined them for the next part of the ride. It was fun riding with different groups and speaking to different people about how they were feeling this far into the ride and what brought them to the event in the first place. It was good to see a few Lauf Seigla’s out on the ride as well, instant friends!
We both soon regretted not stopped for snacks at our makeshift feed zone 2.5 but soldiered on into hour seven, here the route started heading north through quaint little villages and quiet farmland, proceeding up into the hills near Shaftesbury. We then followed the Old Chalk Way back up towards Salisbury. There was no shortage of spectacular views and fun trails even at this point in the route. In my tiredness I narrowly avoided clipping a huge white pheasant, something I had dismissed from my eyesight as just a discarded white bin bag! We joked that we were both seeing things, hallucinating, apparently that’s what happens on ultra endurance rides!?
The final feed zone after 8 hours was a welcome sight, we ate far too much Haribo and sat enjoying the sunshine for much longer than planned but that’s fine on days like this. The final 50 kilometres were a bit of a blur but the sight of Old Sarum and the finish line on top of one last climb is one we’ll remember. The adventure was complete! High fives with new and old friends, a beer, ice cream and party!
This was one of those days on the bike we'll happily remember for a very long time. The location, the atmosphere in the arena, the pizza party, the route, so many wow moments. That was year one of Stone Circle. I’m already looking forward to heading back to the event for year two and seeing how much the event can grow.