After a couple of years of hitting every big-name organised sportive in the South East I've been on a bit of break. Whilst they're generally well-organised, and often with luxuries like photographers, they can be a little, well, soulless.
The Wolfe of Westerham is an excellent smaller event. I signed late (very late), picked up timing chip number 256 and was already wowed by the beauty of the starting point - Squerryes Court, Westerham.
Ordinarily closed to the public, Squerryes Court is the feature manor house of the eponymous estate. In addition to hosting this annual sportive, now in its second year, the 2,500 acre estate has varied agricultural uses, and a vineyard (more on that later).
The Wolfe comes in two distances - Long (67 miles) and Short (40 miles) - both are available in "Epic" flavours, which sees riders climb York's Hill. I plumped for the Long variety, not least because the hills on the course are those I ride on many weekends.
The course in 2017 had been changed somewhat from the 2016 version:
Despite starting rudely with around a mile of climbing at 5%, the first half of the course is relatively flat, pretty fast, but deceptively tiring. The unwise rider will burn a number of matches over the gently rolling roads and struggle with the back-loaded Kentish side - by my calculations the last 30 miles had around 2,000 feet of climbing.
Opportunities to refuel are excellent with two feed stations stocked with water and homemade cake. Apparently bananas were on offer, but my tardy arrival meant these had gone. A small criticism from me is that I find my sweet tooth stretched on sportives and appreciate a little more variety. I imagine I'm in a minority, and the cake seemed to be warmly welcomed.
The key hills are Hubbards, Pains and York's - the latter is the toughest, and one of Simon Warren's original "100 Greatest Cycling Climbs". It's also the site of the final feed station.
Signage was pretty good, and to be fair to the organisers the issue is often the locals. I have done several rides in this West Kent area and found signs deliberately removed. In talking to the organiser, Mark, I learned the Wolfe team endured abuse from several drivers when putting up (small) signage, including have torn-down markers thrown at them. Let's not forget this is a charity ride, with proceeds going to the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust which sponsors the event.
I'm not the sharpest when fatigued, and I did find myself getting confused with some of the signs I did see - "Epic's that way... no wait that's Short Epic - I'm Long Epic". It's a relatively small matter but as Epic autocorrects in my brain as Long, I did go the wrong way on one occasion, and had to doublethink other times!
The ride was a joy, featuring some lovely countryside, some mixed quality roads, and, in the main, very little traffic.
On returning to Squerryes Court I exchanged my timing chip for a bottle, medal and a shrink-wrapped snack; but the real joy is that all riders are invited to a free barbecue, which even catered to my fussy vegetarian needs. There is also an opportunity to sample a complimentary glass of Squerryes' sparkling wine!
I was under pressure of time so couldn't stay, but the afternoon also involves a family-friendly fun day, and a band was setting up as I left. This adds an additional dimension to what is often a solitary pursuit, and tends to take me away from the kids - it would be nice to invite them along next year.
It was wonderfully middle-class, the highlight being a dog, poorly controlled by two youngish children, snaffling down a road-weary, lycra-clad cyclist's hard earned sausage. The (I assume) father of the dog-minding children was suitably apologetic and hurriedly purchased a replacement.
£35 is at the top of end for cost for sportives, but I felt it was still good value - particularly if you can make the most of the fun day, the band and of course the barbecue and pink fizz.
There's not many sportives that can claim a live band at the finish line, and a diminishing number with "soul" - but the Wolfe definitely has it.
For more information on the Wolfe of Westerham sportive and to sign up for 2018, visit www.westerhamcyclingclub.co.uk/wolfe-of-westerham.