The Hell of the North Costwolds, Or HONC as it is known, is now in it 28th year and is one of the original long distance rides. First held in 1984 after Pat Smith and Tim Groom had the idea to bring an event that they enjoyed, the Paris Roubaix sportive, to the Cotwolds, which with its miles of rocky tracks, byways and bridleways and quiet country roads long rides were easily possible.
This is the second time that I have ridden in the HONC. The first was in 2007, when I did not really get the event: I had massive tyres and set of at a stupid racing pace and by the time I had completed the 50km I was destroyed, and left thinking that the trails had lacked any technicality.
So why did I do it again? Well having young kids limits the time you have to ride, so having a goal helps to get you out over the winter. Plus with this event only being a 45 minute drive away I thought I was time to try again with a different attitude.
My training had been nonexistent due to the germ factories that are primary schools, however I believed that looking after young kids has to keep you fit, otherwise why was I tired so much! And with Kenda Small Block Eight tyres pumped up I was ready to do the HONC on my hardtail.
At this point something really needs to be said about bike choice. The HONC is an event that does have a lot of road and track riding, as such there is almost no bike that cannot be used, a full road bike may be really hard, but there were a good number of cyclo-cross bikes, lots of 29ers, both geared and single speed, fully rigid and full suspension bikes, hybrids and even a unicycle doing the 50KM, truly a brave man.
And so onto the ride. The weather had been amazingly kind, with blue skies and white clouds but a cold north westerly wind that would increase throughout the ride into a draining headwind for the later parts. The ground was dry and fast, and I had really wanted to do the 100km route, as luck would have it the route allowed for a sneaky 75km loop, completing the first 100km section before rejoining the 50km route at the cake stop, so allowing me a possible easy bail out.
And so with a police escort, 1,300 riders set out from Winchombe and into the grounds of Sudeley Castle – a special as it was the 500 birthday year of Katherine Parr – and then into the first climb, at which point people were already stopping to fix punctures. With any event where you have 1000+ riders the first climb is always going to end up as a bit of a squeeze, but the route was wide and generally good and spread out the field.
Once the first climb was completed it was on top of the ridge line with stunning open vistas. Quiet country roads, singletrack bridleways and stone tracks soon lead us down the other side and onto the first split point, good as they really open up the field. Following the 100km signs along more bridleways and a lovely bit of swooping wooded singletrack, the route at 30km then came to a wonderful track in a beautiful grassland valley which could easily have come from any costume drama, with the added benefit of smooth trails.
By now people were starting to think of the food stop, which it would become clear, was still some 25km away and several hills.
And so the kilometres continued to roll by via tracks and bridleways, as we passed the 45km checkpoint we were taken back up onto the spine of another more stony ridge again with great views, but now the wind that was to last all day had started to make its self known, chilling all those who stopped to long and resulting in marshals being well wrapped up.
By now I had got chatting to a number of riders who were doing a similar pace to me, its always nice to get a feeling of fellow riders and the how they see the ride, to the girl on the full suspension bike with titanium bars and seatpost (she was very proud of those) who only came to the Cotswolds for this ride. To the guy on the lightspeed cyclo-cross bike, struggling with his decision not to put a mountain bike block [cassette] on the back, the large number of retro bikes out on there aged and normally colourful bikes. Bars were so narrow back in the day!
After a final valley with a great rocky decent, (cyclo-cross bike left well behind on that one) and a stream splash for the camera if you wanted it was into the food stop at around the 55km mark. This was the point where I had to decide; do I head back on the 50km shortcut or continue on the 100km route? I had been out 4 hours at this point and was feeling pretty good, conditions would never again be so good as the ground was bone dry and my summer tyres were rolling along nicely, so a quick flapjack or three and refill the water bottle with energy juice and back out.
The last 30km of the ride was hard for me. The time spent on a bike and both my brakes had started to get spongy, limiting my confidence on the downhill sections, with the last checkpoint complete and told, its only 12 miles to. I was going to complete the ride, the only problem was the one hill was Cleeve hill. The riding would have been great, the tracks were rocky and relatively technical, but by now I was on damage limitation, with that feeling that I could keep going but was not as sharp as I should be, although I managed a smile I think for the last official photographer.
The final decent onto the main road back into Winchombe was great fun, and the congratulations being shouted at you as you made your way back through the town was really nice.
So HONC 2012, technical riding, yep was some good stuff on the route, and the views were great, weather was almost perfect apart from a good breeze, but this would have been a very different ride in the wet and the cold and one that I am sure would have beaten me.
And as a note a huge well done must be said to Simon and his daughter Olivia from Witney, who at the age of 11 completed the 50km route in a riding time of 4 hours 17 minutes, cleaned all the climbs and received a round of applause from fellow riders on the Cleeve hill climb. Well done.
Will I do it again? Yes, but I really need to do some training next time.
Serge the Seal of Death