With a name such as the SPAM Winter Challenge, I could hardly miss this for the obvious Python connection.
Now that that's out of the way, I may continue with a brief summary of what was clearly the last bike event of 2013 for me (I've managed seven this year, significantly more than any other year since I left NZ). Just over an hour's drive north up on Salisbury Plain, a few of the Combe Raiders were coming across from Somerset for this event that tries to deal with the Christmas excesses. With all the storms & rain that we've had over the last week, it was just as well this was supposed to be a course that deals with all sorts of weather well.
It's been a very mild winter so far, so it was with some surprise that I had to scrape a frost off my car as I set off this morning. This did mean that it was a wonderfully clear day - ideal for a ride. Driving up the A360 it was clear that the event was in the middle of the largest MOD training area in the country - there were signs for tanks crossing & signs warning of unexploded ordnance frequently. Unusually, the race briefing warned us to ensure we didn't ride into any tanks or stray off the trail and do a commendable impression of jumping high into the sky & scattering in thousands of pieces. Eventually the others made it from Somerset - some not quite in the knick of time for the 10 am start.
The first quarter of the fifty kilometre circuit was definitely the best. I really should learn to get a reasonable position mid-field at the start of such events - battling through a surprisingly large field up a long & slow climb is tedious. After that climb there were a few dives down off the ridge & back up again - mostly on rough muddy doubletrack through fields, with a bit of singletrack. The mud was pretty gloopy & horrendous for sticking to everything, but not too difficult to ride through (it did end up taking over an hour to clean my bike properly once home). We then found ourselves on the road for about twenty kilometres as we rode through the army land - boring, but preferable to being blown sky-high. It was a perfect day for riding: extensive views over the beautiful Wiltshire countryside, still, and not too hot or cold (about 5 ºC).
The strangest part of the day was riding through the middle of a fake-village. There were dozens of house-shells - they seem to have walls, roofs, floors, fences and little else. Clearly these are used for urban warfare training. The only real thing in the village was the church, which had parishioners walking to it; there were a lot of people around. [A little research shows that this was the village of Imber - it was evacuated in 1943 for the war effort & the villagers have never been allowed to return as the MOD continues to use the land - a lot like Tyneham which I happened across during another biking weekend in May. The church is no longer in use, but the roads that we were riding along are open occasionally so the public can have a look around.]
As this was the last event of a year of much biking, I was pretty keen to see how quickly I could get around the course. So I only stopped for forty seconds on the whole ride to get some food out of my pack; also, this meant I didn't even carry my camera - so I only have my memory of how splendid the countryside was. After passing plenty of birdwatchers, derelict tanks, garrisons & barracks we finally got off the road. More short steep ups & downs later we were back along the ridge looking north for a while - I'm a little disturbed at my ability to recognise a cement works from a long distance. I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was to ride past a huge hole in the ground shortly after - the limestone had to come from somewhere after all.
We rejoined the two shorter courses for a while before diving off the ridge for one last really steep nasty climb. With a nice bit of singletrack in some woods, the car park & therefore finish line was tantalisingly close for much too long. But it was worth getting to the finish line for the cake alone - a local hospice was fundraising and there was a plethora of cakes on offer, there was so much choice it was overwhelming. So not the most interesting course, but a great day out on the bike to end a pretty big year of riding for me - & a good chance to catch up with mates too. I was happy with finishing in 2:40, without really pushing myself just not stopping for chats, photos or much food.