Plays your Joker cards right.
VecchioJo rides the Joker Sportive and comes up trumps
April Fools’ Day had just been and gone so the fact that the sun’s out is no joke and everyone is in a quietly ebullient mood, the bitterly cold weather of the previous weeks has subtly relented and it feels like a long long long overdue spring might just about actually be on it’s way. The new season is trying its best to elbow in but there’s still a frigid breeze to remind riders that it’s not quite over yet, although out of the wind and in true British stoic fashion it’s quite nice in the sun. To force the issue I’m wearing one less layer than last weekend with ¾ tights and brand new oversocks optimistically and gratefully replacing winter tights and Goretex booties.
The Joker Sportive starts at Salisbury racecourse and loops to the south-west taking in Wiltshire, some of Dorset, a little bit of Hampshire and a lot of pretty country lanes and droves along the way. The ride has a slightly different format to your usual “remove your brain and follow the arrows” sportive, and it’s a hell of a lot better for it. There are essentially two routes, the Long and the Short at 100 and 80 kms respectively, but add the optional Joker Challenges and the distance can sneak up to 120 or 91kms if you fancy it. The Joker Challenges are four extra loops added to the standard course, included to take in the toughest hills and other less obvious hurdles, and as a reward for the extra effort you’ll earn a special souvenir Joker playing card at the end of each challenge.
If all this sounds a bit much for your little legs you can take a couple of short cuts, although there’s a catch. A pair of Fools Choices along the route allow you to carve chunks of mileage and climbing out of the day but the payback is they’re not on the best surfaced roads, if they’re even roads, so will require pave and cyclo-cross skills and a little bit of luck to survive them unscathed. These sorts of route choices confuse some of the sportivistas on the day. Make of that what you will.
In a moment of what’s swiftly realized to be stupidity I fly straight past the first Joker detour in a misguided attempt to make up time as I started last and then got sidetracked for a while by the Torq stand a few feet afterwards and spent a while tasting bar and gel samples to make up for not quite enough breakfast, then I realize that it’s a sportive not a race and the sun was shining so after a mile I turn round and head back onto the first Joker loop, straight into a 20% climb. Oooof. This first challenge adds just over 7kms and includes a fun descent down Whitesheet Hill that must be a local favourite amongst roadies as there’s a bevy of them grimacing up, it’s followed by a quick scamper along the valley to a village where a nice man gives me a Joker playing card as confirmation of my efforts and I rejoin the standard Long route.
The underlying theme of the Joker is best described as undulating, or more accurately lumpy, there’s absolutely no flat anywhere. There are steady uphill drags alongside streams swollen with a full year’s rain, past daffodils wishing they’d not flowered quite yet, there are classic downland climbs that start steep before sweeping across the face of the escarpment and there are short sharp climbs up deep set roads tunneled with trees still disappointingly naked of green. The descents are just as interesting, varying from long coasts with time to sit up and listen to birdsong to short sharp controlled falls down tarmac scarred and pocked from the overlong winter.
Soon after the first Joker's Challenge riders are presented with the initial Fools Choice; instead of a down and up on the road there’s the option of a dirt track that cuts straight across the top of the hill, it’s less than half the distance and flattish but the surface is very much risky off-road. I take the tarmac option and when I see the Fools Choice join at the top of the particularly sticky climb I wish I’d taken it. Luckily the top of the hill is the welcome first feed stop and the division of the Long and Short routes, I’m still running late and possibly the last rider on the road and am politely told to get a move on so I stuff pockets and cheeks with banana segments and fig rolls and head west along Charlton Down. The joy of descending the hairpins of Zig-Zag hill is somewhat tempered by the stream of riders with numbers on the front wibbling up, some time soon I’m going to have to come back up here then. Ah.
But there’s more exciting things to do first, namely the highlight of the Joker Sportive - the ascent of Gold Hill, the cobbled climb in Shaftesbury that you’ll know from bread adverts, looks like it’s in Yorkshire and is achingly Olde Worlde picturesque. Approaching the town it creeps upon you that you’re running out of places for the road to go as there’s a wall of hill in the way with a church on the top, the route does a dog-leg right and you’re onto Gold Hill. In cycling terms it’s hardly the Koppenberg but it’s still short and steep and demands effort and concentration, even in the dry, especially when there’s a gaggle of grannies at the top watching and taking photographs. The Koppenberg doesn’t have a tea-rooms at the summit though, nor do you get a second Joker card at the top.
The queen climb of the day ticked off it was supposed to be a plain sailing second half all the way to the finish, at least mentally. The climb out of Fontmell Magna resolutely barged that idea into the weeds. What started out as a gentle climb past pretty chocolate box thatched houses alongside a river slowly and steadily ramped up into a needlessly long, painful, I need another gear climb. Luckily at the top there was a left turn along a level and easy road to recover, with biplanes landing at Compton Abbas Airfield to take the mind off screaming lungs. A fast descent with an sharp right hand junction at the bottom took riders to the bottom of the Zig-Zag climb which isn’t as bad as the descent would have you believe, and as the climb eases off and exits the cover of the trees it actually gets harder thanks to a block headwind along the brow of Charlton Down, the views to the left over towards Salisbury Plain offering little relief. Reaching the feed station for the second time and a third Joker card means I’m into the last bit of the ride and the slightly downhill fast road that follows encourages the legs to strike for home. This lasts until I hit the soul destroying dreaded combination of headwind and Roman road, thankfully there are the carrots of riders up ahead to slowly reel in to make it feel like I’m making some progress.
The final Joker of the day comes in the very last breaths of the sportive with an over 2 kilometre climb to collect a card only to descend again before climbing the same hill again up the next road to cross the finish line. Beautifully futile so close to the end. But at the top of this last Joker Challenge there is the second Fools Choice – the Last Laugh, a short cut straight to the finish that saves 3 kms and 66 metres of climbing, but is along a gravel and potholed track. It’s the same day as the Paris - Roubaix and I still have my Vittoria Open Paves on from last weekend’s Flanders trip, so it would be silly not to. Channel the inner Fabian and ride fast and loose over the unmade road for about half a mile to a giggly finish, a complimentary cup of tea and a free t-shirt that’s several degrees of quality higher than the usual straight-to-bike-rag event t-shirt.
The Joker Sportive isn’t ‘Epic’, despite some sportives thinking anything over 100km is deserving of that rapidly devalued word, that’s not to say it isn’t testing, the jagged outline of the route profile shows that it’s more than a good enough test for the legs with nearly 2,000 metres of climbing. Aside from the 5 dead badgers, 37 Costa Coffee corrugated cups on the Zig-Zag climb and too many discarded energy-gel wrappers it’s just a really nice ride in the country, as illustrated by the single hare lolloping across the road. My criteria for a good sportive is does it feel like been shown around the best roads the area has to ride on by a friend, with a bit of fun thrown in, just for shits’n’giggles, this one is just that. No joke.