I first rode the Castle Ride in 2013, when I did the Classic route at around 70 miles. Action Medical Research are a great charity doing great work and they also put on great sportives, so for my 2017 training the Castle Ride was a no brainer.
As I had recently upgraded my Dragon Ride entry to the Gran Fondo, I thought I should do similar for this event. So I emailed Paula at Action a couple of weeks ago and upgraded from the Champion route (101 miles) to the Epic (124 miles) I think it’s the first year they’ve offered the Epic route option, which brought the total up to four (the others being Cool at 33 miles and Classic at 70) so it really is a sportive that caters for all levels of ability and enthusiasm. Registration for the Epic was at a slightly painful 06:30 – 06:45 but I guess it’s good to get moving if you’re looking at an 8-plus hour long day. A quick word on the start and finish location, Tonbridge Castle, which gives this sportive a unique and charming character and provides a picturesque area for friends and family to meet you as you finish and relax on the Castle lawn afterwards.
Dark, grey and rainy summed up the weather in the morning, so registration was a bit of a soggy affair, but it was well organised and I didn’t have to queue (I guess it may have become busier later on as the other route option entrants arrived) I was given a wristband to wear once I’d written my name and rider number on it, plus the usual rider number to zip tie to the handlebars. I was also given a credit card sized piece of card with emergency contact details for the organisers on it, which is a nice touch and emphasises the friendliness and accessibility of the event.
It didn’t take long to get everything sorted (it is a faff to get rider numbers on my handlebars with my Wahoo Elemnt mount in the way though!) and I was off in a good sized group soon after 06:40.
The route soon leaves Tonbridge via the Hadlow Road then turns off quickly into a series of quaint country lanes. Heading out East past Paddock Wood, Headcorn and through Dering Wood, the first 40 miles or so are relatively flat, with just a few rolling hills to break things up nicely, with just a bit of a climb up through Pluckley and Egerton.
After dipping back down at Hunton, the route heads back West back towards Tonbridge. It diverts off North before it gets there though and the first big climb hits around 55 miles in, when a long and steepening climb takes you up to and through Plaxtol, a lovely little village in the heart of the Fairlawne Estate land. From then on, it’s constantly up and down to Ide Hill, the roads all the while staying pretty and quiet though.
I’d managed to get with a couple of different groups in the first half of the ride, but to be honest I wasn’t particularly comfortable cycling with them as it was chucking down with rain and the braking on carbon rims just wasn’t up to it compared to a lot of people who were running discs (an increasingly common sight at sportives I’ve noticed) So I decided it was safer to run on my own until it brightened up, which it did at around 09:00. However, after the Plaxtol climb, I hit a real low point in terms of energy, as I’d forgotten to bring the jellybeans I’d put aside at home for quick and easy energy boosts on the ride. I had also elected to aim for the Ide Hill drinks stop, so passed by the first two (there’s one around 25 miles in and another at 50) which in hindsight was a mistake.
Ide Hill village hall had never been a more welcome sight when I wobbled in at the 70 mile mark and I quickly down some flapjacks and topped up one of my water bottles. I couldn’t believe this marked only the half way point on the Dragon Ride! A lesson (re)learned though for June, making sure you manage your energy intake throughout the ride is absolutely critical.
A bit of a mental reset and another flapjack and I was ready to get going again. The Epic route option is essentially a big loop that starts and finishes at Ide Hill, taking you up over the North Downs towards Orpington and back. It’s a killer route and adds a lot of extra climbing over the Champion option. The headline hill is Brasted Hill, which is long with an increasing gradient, hitting 20% towards the end.
85 miles in and there was a slight error on the mapping, which didn’t match up with the signs as the route went through the suburbs back out of the Orpington/Chelsfield area. Noting that the signs hadn’t be turn around by saboteurs (the Action logo was present and correct on the bottom right of the signs), I decided to stick with the signage and ignore my Wahoo’s beeping. It soon matched up again but it was a little disconcerting and I wonder if others made the same choice.
Back to Ide Hill after 23 miles of hilliness and I stopped off again for more flapjacks and some (very weak) energy drink. By this time it was sunny and dry and heating up nicely. The chain lube I’d put on the day before was long gone however thanks to the earlier rain, so my bike was squealing like it’d just been unearthed after a few years sitting down the end of the garden. Another lesson learned, don’t use chain lube you bought back in 2012…
Pushing on regardless, it was then a long descent down Toys Hill (got to be careful here with the various junctions and some broken up tarmac, but there was good signs in place warning cyclists at the top) before a fast, rolling route back towards the finish. I ended up cycling for a few miles with some guys from Beckenham Cycling Club, who had been doing the Champion route, but they soon pushed on as I maintained my own pace.
After 110 miles, my right knee cried enough heading up a short incline out of the saddle, so I decided to play it safe, stay seated and spin the last section back into Tonbridge.
Cheering Action volunteers through the Castle gate at the end made the finish quite special, added to the fact that my wife had come over to wave me in too. We quickly identified the Tonbridge Old Fire Station stall and ordered a satisfyingly chunky burger, which we enjoyed on the lawn watching other cyclists finish and celebrate together.
There are a couple of key points to make to sum this event up. First, the venue, route options and friendliness make the Castle Ride one of the best sportives I know for people new to cycling or sportives generally. Secondly, the Epic route is a great addition and introduces a genuinely tough option over and above the Champion.
If you want a good atmosphere, great roads in a picturesque location and the comfort of good organisation, then the Castle Ride is close to the perfect sportive.
You can take a look at my ride on Strava
Thanks very much for reading and see you there next year!