"Shall we try some of that elderflower vodka your folks gave us last Christmas?"
An innocent enough comment for a Saturday night, but as pre-event preparation goes, hardly ideal. This was brought home to me at 6am the following morning when I was loading up the car for the short dash up the M11 to Newmarket for the Wiggle Spring Saddle Sportive. However, a judicious application of caffeine and the obligatory pre-ride breakfast of croissants and an oat and banana smoothie, coupled with a restorative dose of Radio 4, cleared my hedgerow hangover pretty quickly and by the time I got to Newmarket I was feeling pretty fresh.
Sign in was quick and efficient and the facilities on the start line covered everything I needed with toilets, the opportunity to stock up on any forgotten essentials, fill up my bottles, and even try out a Garmin.
Despite a week of glorious spring sunshine, the weather for the ride was grey and overcast. This, coupled with the fact that I left my glasses in the car and so had to do the ride in sunglasses, meant that the highways of byways of Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex looked distinctly murky.
Queuing up on the start line and over the first few miles of rolling Suffolk countryside, I was struck by the large numbers of children and families out on the route. It was heartening to see the Wiggins and Pendletons of the future riding a fleet of Islabikes. These thinned out a bit after the turn-off for the short route, but when the routes reconvened, it was good to see the kids still had the energy to attack on the climbs.
The route was largely made up of quintessentially English country lanes that would make Jack Thurston proud, with only occasional stints on slightly busier roads. Borrowing bits from the route of the 2015 Tour De France (as evidenced by the faded 'Froome Dog' graffiti on the road) and the Dunwich Dynamo, the route wound its way through pretty clapboard and thatch villages of three counties.
Red, blue and purple (lots of purple) signs and banners for the forthcoming election gave the traditional-looking English villages we rode through a carnival air, even if they were largely deserted early on a Sunday morning.
Feed stations on the ride were fine with flapjacks, bananas and the usual array of powerbars and energy drinks. Fortunately, unlike some other sportives I've been on, the organisers had provided water alongside the yellow bowsers of isotonic drink.
The route was clearly very well thought out and clearly signposted, although I would have liked a little more distinction (different colours maybe) between the short, standard and epic routes. Irritatingly, some of the roads had been recently resurfaced which left me sliding about on loose gravel and fearing for my paintjob. A final cheeky climb back to Newmarket Racecourse provided a sting in the tail that left my legs trembling for a good hour after the event.
The long, grey winter had left me worrying that my fitness levels wouldn't be up to the challenge, and the final twenty miles were a bit of a slog, but the ride proved to be a great way to end my hibernation and get my heart beating. Surprisingly, despite the previous night's boozing and extra winter padding, I still finished the ride with a gold standard time the right side of 4hrs 30. Reassurance, at least, that I hadn't wasted all of last season's efforts...