Words: Serge the Seal of Death
So the 29th Hell of the North Cotswolds, or HONC, event took place on Sunday 14th April. Spring had sprung, well sprung a leak, but at least the temperatures were up from the freezing conditions that we have had for most of 2013. A few days of heavy rain preceding the event had done their work to create a major headache for the event organisers. The problem of finding suitable trails for 1000+ riders to actually ride (and not just totally destroy their drive-trains) needed to be addressed, and so with a few last minute diversions, and everybody trusting the signage, people were ready to go.
The HONC is a massed start event, and at 9am (or possibly 8.55 as it seemed to take some riders by surprise!) we set off. It made for a nice start to ride through the beautiful Cotswold town of Winchcombe, with police holding traffic and people waving. The pace at the back of the mass was relaxed, with a general acceptance that due to the massive amounts of mud that were expected, this ride was going to be more of an exercise in damage-limitation than vigorous competition.
The extended road section out from town took us along the B4632, then off onto a minor road and past the ruined remains of Hailes Abbey, leading into a good steady climb up a stone topped track. Here there were signs of water damage but no mud yet, although unfortunately the press of riders stopping, starting, walking and general lack of momentum and line choice made this climb pretty slow. Probably the guys at the front easily cleaned it, but for most it was a walk.
Cresting the climb, and with a good amount of altitude gained, we were treated to the additional element of today’s ride, the wind. A particularly exposed section had riders going for the ‘leaning into the wind’ approach, in an effort to stop the side wind blowing them across the road.
Our next section of trail did however live up the mud warnings. Even in the dry 2012 event, this bridleway had muddy sections, so it was now a veritable river of mud. This was a very deep, black, sticky mud that had the ability to become super-fluid after 100s of riders had been through it. Grip could be found (even my unsuitable small block 8s found grip) but momentum, frame clearance (which luckily I have huge amounts off) and pedalling technique (which I have just enough of) made this section doable for most. Although for CX guys and cantilever brakes, it was perhaps more challenging.
After a 2km section of this, the trail became an armoured farm track with a downhill slope. It was great fun (and sorry to anyone I covered in flying muck) and the first control of the day.
The HONC does feature a lot of road but it is used cleverly, often to slowly gain or maintain height, and so again we were into a minor road section before heading off on another armoured stone track, again with more flying dirt and grit, but little mud.
This lead to the 50/100km split. For me, as I had been given a lift to the event by EMO75 (a Bike Magic lurker who was doing the 50km) the choice was easy, plus as it turned out the right one for me (with my lack of time in the saddle over the winter months). But friends who did the 100km ride tell tales of trails so muddy that people were having problems even walking. I think my small Block 8s may have struggled!
For the 50km ride we were taken along sections of road, straight into a considerable headwind and past the Cotswold Farm Park (a great day out for the kids), owned by Country File presenter Adam Henson, and site of a Medieval Knights Templar farm.
What followed was another armoured double track, with stunning valley views and a great downhill into the stunningly beautiful Hamlet of Barton, replete with stone farmhouses, duck ponds and rivers, all in a secluded valley.
We now had the last road/trail to the halfway food stop, and just a small river crossing of the Windrush to contend with (also one of the chosen sites of the official photographer). To my shame I took the small bridge, while EMO75 rode the river and made it with only wet feet, others I think took a full dunking. My excuse was I did it last year – and the photographer missed me!
Another food stop in the Cotswold stone (there is a lot of that round here) village of Guiting Power. Food on the HONC is traditional: bananas, pointy flap-jack, bakewell tart and bread and butter pudding, plus tea or coffee. Yum.
With the wind starting to really make itself known it was off again, climbing out of the valley and once again onto the tops of the hills, where we came into a good headwind. Again the off-road routes were via dry stone double-track that was fine.
The next piece of off-road riding was around a field edge, and it would seem that wet grass does a great job of holding mud together and creating a soft Plastercine style surface, perfect for robbing you of any momentum and draining the energy from your legs.
By now I was starting to suffer from my lack of hours in the saddle prior to the ride, and the climb onto the edge of Cleeve common was slow, and getting slower. A nice off-road descent down a field edge, and the knowledge that we were now getting close to the finish, kept the legs turning. Another good road climb was to come, leading to another extended bridleway section (which luckily was slightly better drained), and then into a more muddy section. The next section of the ride was down a long running tarmac and gravel road, with drainage/speed humps, which were great for popping the front wheel off and whizzing pass CX bikes whilst trying to avoid being blown off line. Then we were onto the last section, an extremely muddy field edge, where the lack of any grip gave me crazy sideways speedway style leg-out moments. Then past the driveway of Sudeley Casle and we were back in Winchcombe, with only a last hill to climb through the town back to the start.
HONC 2013 had been hard work and totally different ride to the ultra-dry trails of 2012.
Yes it has lots of road sections, but these do give you feeling that you have really been out and about and these allow you to see the huge amounts of the beautiful countryside that the North Cotswolds has.
A quick mention to Simon and Olivia (his daughter aged 12), who completed her 2nd 50km HONC, and to Richard, who lost three stone since Christmas to totally kill the 100km route in under 8 hours. Well Done.