Some events just capture the imagination and when news of The Stone Circle, Hotchillee's new gravel event, first crossed my desk I was instantly sold.
A 200km gravel ride starting from Old Sarum and passing by Stonehenge, with overnight camping during the week of the summer solstice - who could resist?
So Friday 23 June saw me fly over from Dublin, and after a quick stop-off in Hove to drop off my bike box and assemble my bike I was on the train west to Salisbury.
I arrived at Old Sarum late on Friday - about 500 years too late to see the castle, and 30 minutes too late for the free beer and pizza party. Luckily the oven was still lit, and after a quick and welcoming registration I was soon tucking into a freshly baked pizza with a cider from the Stohk stand. Around me in riders milled about chatting or lounged on hay bales looking down on Salisbury glowing in the late evening sunshine to a live DJ set.
Icelandic masters of suspense Lauf had a stand on site, so with dinner sorted I took the chance to ogle their Seigla. The Lauf website goes into compelling detail justifying every design choice and it's clearly a well thought-out bike; I guess most bikes are, but I like it when the manufacturers - Dom of Mason Cycles is another who exemplifies this - take the time to articulate the decision-making process that underpins the various choices represented in each frame.
A few other bikes caught my eye too, in particular the rear suspension shock on this titanium beauty from Moots:
Two distances were on offer, the 215km long and a semi-skimmed option at 135km. I was down for the long - no point traveling all that way for less - which had a start window of 5:00 - 5:30am. By the time I'd arrived on site, dropped off my luggage and borrowed someone's track pump to top up my rear tyre, it was shortly after 5:30 and I was left to start with the short course riders who were still arriving on site.
I really wanted a coffee but there was a queue at the Giro stand and I was already late. I rolled over the grass to the start line to find a familiar face and Scottish accent in charge of the pre-ride briefing. Who was it? All I could think was Frankie Boyle..it wasn't until the next day I realised this jovial silver fox was none other than Brian Smith!
One face I did recognise was the rider right in front of me in the start grid: I'd lined up in a small group incuding Juliet Elliot, vlogger par excellence. Juliet was just one of a mini peloton of cycling celebs riding on the day, with Nico Roche, Francis Cade and David Arthur among others all out on the course too.
Brian sent us on our way with the advice to take it easy since we were only doing the short route - adding with a cheeky grin that we could always do it twice if we felt like it.
Soon we were approaching Stonehenge, and as the iconic stones came into sight we were asked by Hotchillee staff to dismount and walk past as a mark of respect.
Dark clad figures were milling about the foot of the stones, and as we got closer we could see many were wearing garlands of flowers in their hair. I found myself walking behind Juliet as she delivered a chirpy piece to camera - something about "should have worn robes instead of my cycling kit" - and laughed to myself. If anything, we probably looked weirder in our gaudy lycra than the folks marking the solstice at the stones.
Lolling to myself, I trundled on alone. We were well strung out at this early stage, with most of the field having a head start but I was picking up a few stragglers here and there - in one case a chap who'd taken a tumble when his front wheel washed out, and was feeling a bit the worse for wear. There were also the occasional puncture victims standing alongside the course and for a while I entertained myself by counting the riders I passed.
Six, seven, eight... the routes converged again; we'd been heading west and through the MoD village of Imber, where, Wikipedia says, 150 residents were evacuated at just a few days' notice towards the end of the Second World War in order to allow US troops to train there. It was supposed to be temporary but they were never allowed to return, although the village is occasionally opened to the public apparently.
The first feed stop was on a hilltop with signs for the Westbury White Horse, one of several enormous equine figures cut into the hillside around Wiltshire. It's not as ancient as Stonehenge, most likely dating to the mid-1700s, but a majestic sight - or I imagine it would be, if you take the time to look at it. I was back on the bike after a quick refill of the bottles and a handful of Haribo.
At 100km the lunch stop arrived, in a pleasant meadow at the edge of a wood by the imposing sight of King Alfred's Tower. I found my bag waiting, and sat down in the shade on some grass for a break. The wrap and Coke was very welcome, while the Snickers had unfortunately liquefied in the heat but I ate - or rather drank - half of it and bagged the rest.
There was a decent range of snacks on offer, from Haribo and bananas to High5 gels and other goodies. I filled up my bottles not 100% sure whether it was with water or energy drink, grabbed a handful of Haribo and a banana and rolled on.
The drink turned out to be a High5 energy brew. I don't normally use gels or sports drinks - preferring civilian provisions - but as the ride went on I was instantly converted. Even as we reached 150, 180 and 200km in the saddle I was feeling relatively fresh and in good form - a total contrast to the Wicklow 200 a couple of weeks previous, where I was clinging on for dear life after the first 120km.
I've since ordered a batch of energy drink for longer rides, it really does work especially if, like me, you find it hard to remember to eat and drink enough.
If nutrition is half the battle, the other half of the credit has to go to the route itself: Hotchillee have come up with a masterpiece here, weaving through a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of essential English summer landscapes.
It wasn't all gravel either, there were plenty of pleasant detours through quaint villages, leafy lanes and smooth tarmac making a welcome change to the bumpy chalk ridgeway and gravel tracks.
It was just impossible to get bored with so much variety on hand: at one point the route directed us off road through a barely visible gap in a hedge - it looked hardly big enough for a fox to slip through - but on the other side a narrow trail snaked along the edge of lush landscape of open fields and woods.
At one point I came upon a mother and her kids waiting by the side of the trail having a picnic; they were waiting for her husband to come past. She kindly offered to refill my bottles from an enormous jerry can, along with those of the two riders behind, before cheering us on our way.
The course was not signposted, instead we relied entirely on GPS files provided beforehand. This worked very well for the most part, the only minor issue came when the organisers released an updated version of the route the day before after the final recce.
Some riders had got the memo, others - including me - had not. The revisions were pretty minor as far as I can tell, but the small bunch I was riding with were left in some confusion at one junction, with some taking the road and the rest of us plunging into a field of waving waist-high grain and then through a forest path, before emerging back onto the road at the same moment as the riders we'd just parted company with.
The second feed station, like the first, was well situated at the top of a climb and in this case with expansive views for miles across the rolling green countryside of Wiltshire.
It was hot now, and I was glad to refill the bottles with my newfound elixir and take a few minutes to stretch and regroup. We were only about 40km or so from the finish, or two hours riding, but I didn't want it to end.
Leaving the feed station I fell in with a loose group of riders, among them a photographer with a weighty-looking camera slung over his shoulder as he rode. Every so often he would sprint ahead, leap off the bike and grab a few shots as we approached, before remounting and catching us up.
"You know Ben Healy?" he asked, pulling alongside me. I was, again, in my pink EF Education First jersey which it turns out is a bit like wearing a Man City jersey, and having to explain to people that you followed them before they were good. I said I didn't know Healy personally, but of course was a fan.
"Well, his dad's here riding this today," said the photographer, "I was chatting to him earlier."
I asked if Healy senior was wearing the full team kit like me. "No, although he is wearing EF socks," came the reply, "You wouldn't guess he was the father of a world-class athlete."
Never mind Ben Healy, I was in awe of this photographer's stamina: he'd been putting in sprints like this all day while amassing hundreds of top-quality photos along the way. Like Juliet with her vlogging, it put my own efforts to shame - a few snaps at the feed stops followed by a report anywhere between a month to two years later, it's not quite the same dedication to reportage.
At any rate, the two of us found ourselves riding alone after a few km and got chatting; it turns out he was Michael Blann, a well-known cycling photographer for Rouleur among others, and with a few majestic photography books of epic cycling climbs to his credit.
He was just back from a work trip to Sri Lanka, which he'd loved. I remarked how impressed I was at how he could combine a decent pace on the bike with his photography duties, and he told me he'd raced for a pro team in Australia for a few years, before returning to the UK and settling in Hastings.
Havign said that, with over 200km on the clock we were both starting to look forward to a cold beer at the finish.
One last little effort up the slope to Old Sarum, and there was the finishers' arch where a smiling welcome and a can of Stohk greeted us.
There was a party atmosphere at event HQ - music, food and drinks aplenty as riders sat or lay on the grass, reliving the day's adventures. There was no sign of Nico Roche, it looks like he dropped down to the short course and made tracks early... although I did hear muffled shouts from an enormous wicker figure of a cyclist erected behind the Ekoi stand. Odd...
I bought a giant hot dog and an ice slushy and sat against a hay bale while I ate. Images of the day were whirring through my mind, but the one that kept recurring was of the tall standing stones in the morning mist, with the robed figures strolling at their feet.
My reverie was interrupted by the guy at the Giro coffee asking if I wanted free cake - he was distributing surplus stock to grateful cyclists, a hero.
If it does, it's well worth a trip down to Salisbury. Forget the cathedral and its impressively tall spire - the Ekoi Stone Circle is the hottest ticket in town.