Posted by: Ian | June 1, 2010

My Tour of Wessex

On Saturday morning as Emily and I stood over our bikes at the starting line waiting for our Tour of Wessex to begin the marshal who was holding us asked if anyone had done it before. Only one guy answered. “Three years ago,” he said. “That’s how long it took me to get over it and come back.” The clouds that had threatened to open up as Paula drove us to Somerton did so shortly before we set off, setting the tone for the showery day that lay ahead. In my experience of sportives over the last few months, the harder they are the more serious the participants and the bunch of people gathered for this event lay at the end of the spectrum that this rule implied. Everyone other than us was in full lycra gear, several in teams, and the bikes were all high-end.

Even before we set off someone had had a puncture and within a few miles of the start the incredibly high frequency of punctures was matched only by the smoothness of the roads. Initially it puzzled me but upon reflection I guess that many of the riders may have been riding on tyres that favoured low rolling resistance over tube protection, and had them inflated super-high too.

Soon we were riding at a fair crack over the Somerset levels, giving us an easy and picturesque start. Unlike many of the cyclists, Emily and I seldom rode in a bunch but when we did it was far easier. Maybe next time we’ll do it more. According to the map, we passed close to Street and then Glastonbury, which I only recognised from the Tor. This was to be a theme throughout every day: the Tour gave a fantastic experience of the Wessex countryside and several of its monuments but avoided all of the towns. You can see why this makes practical sense; it also has a tourist logic too since many of the towns are a disappointment. Here’s a shot Paula took of Corfe Castle, which we passed on Day Two:

One town that we did go through was Cheddar. I’d never been there before and from the saddle it looked as I might have expected, with no opportunity missed to promote and sell cheese. The road out through the Gorge was our first notable climb. As usual, pro photographers associated with the event crouched by the roadside at its steepest points to capture cyclists in action poses.

The road up the Gorge features in the recently-published and excellent “100 Greatest Cycling Climbs” and, having read the relevant pages, we knew that the gradient got easier as the hill progressed. By the top, though, we were ready for the first feed station. By comparison to all the other sportives I’ve been on, the feed stations on the Wessex were rubbish. On the windswept plains above Cheddar Gorge in the cold and the rain all the station offered was bananas and Sainsbury’s own-brand Jaffa cakes. Not only was the sustenance meagre, the positioning was mystifying. Apart from a trestle table and a van there was nothing, including no tree or bush cover, so a line of guys stood along the verge peeing into the wind.

The next climb was tougher. At 25%, Alfred’s Tower was the first ascent to remove a significant number of riders from their bikes. Again, the photographers were out to capture the painful moment. The setting was tranquil with a lovely glade at the top and a gentle descent where cyclists could wheel past each other exchanging congratulations.

The second food station was no better than the first, being of no more use to us than to enable us to replenish our water, but at about 65 miles our major Planned Advantage arrived. Paula cruised by in the Audi and parked up ahead with ham rolls and hot tea. It was a god-send. Not only that, but I was able to change out of my soaking wet shoes and socks into dry ones and we both swapped to dry gloves. For the rest of the day Paula followed the route and we knew that she was within 10 miles or so if we needed help. At around 80 or 90 miles we had more ham rolls and tea, feeling great that we were within sight of the day’s end, which the online Information Pack gave at 99 miles. I’m not sure of exactly where we cycled in this section but we seemed to spend an age with a mile or two of Bruton without actually passing through it. I know the town only from At the Chapel, which is a lovely bistro in the town centre. Paula tells me that we were, at one point, only a block away but I would never have known.

As we came to the 99 mile mark Emily and I both felt great. My rear tyre was running soft but I was pretty sure it would last through to the finish. But as we rode on it became obvious that we were not near to ending the day: as well as the absence of any buildings in the landscape, road signs saying “Somerton 6” were strong clues. We pressed on, increasingly disgruntled, well into the low 100’s. I wondered how anyone would feel who had a mechanical breakdown at mile 105 of their 99 mile leg. Finally, I recognised the road back into Somerton and pushed up the last small, sharp hill, drawing level with another rider who was cursing the organisers. Emily and I crossed the mat together after 106 miles – seven miles to the bad.

Paula whisked us back to home and hot showers followed by an ideal spaghetti bolognese dinner. Before crawling up to bed I checked over the bikes, inflating my rear tyre from its miserable 40 PSI back up to 120, meaning to check it properly in the morning.

Of course, by the morning I forgot all about it until we were about to leave, and it should have been no surprise at all to find I had a slow flat that needed changing. Accordingly, we were late driving away and didn’t get away from the start until after 9 o’clock on a day that was slated to run 117 miles. I don’t know if I put the tube in badly or not but after about seven miles, just as we were turning past the Yeovilton military base, I had a proper explosive puncture.

The ride itself was good and the weather was dry, if not initially bright. The Tour continued to be a real tour of the sights with the first feed station established in a car park right under the giant of Cerne Abbas. Again, we made an unrewarding stop for water and imitation Jaffa cakes and Emily cheered everyone up with the encouragement, that was widely welcomed but founded in factual error, that the stretch until the next feed station included only one significant ascent. There were, in fact, at least three. The first climb brought us the first view of the sea somewhere around Durdle Door, although Durdle Door itself was unfortunately not visible. A longer ascent shortly after gave us sweeping views across to Poole harbour, and another hook-up with Paula, who was chatting with a non-sportiviste cyclist at the top.

Some of the riders who were carrying sportive numbers probably didn’t make it to the coast as they looped round on a different route at a point where you could naturally short-circuit the marked trail. The times, when they are go on line are, I guess, no more meaningful than the Tor of Cornwall results that show me finishing third. For those of us who stuck with the plan, by mile 70, which is as far as Emily or I had ever previously cycled in a single day, the ride was getting long. Fortunately for us, towards the end of a particularly draining uphill grind Paula was there again to fortify us with tea and ham rolls. This was enough to see us over the last major climb of the day, at Bulbarrow Hill, which really didn’t seem so bad. The feed station just beyond it reached a new low: they were out of water! Of course, within another ten miles we were back with Paula again, where we could top up.

Given that we had had a late start and a puncture and stopped at each useless feed station plus our own high-quality food stops, we were now in real danger of not getting back to Somerton before the close. Although this would have been no disaster, it would have been a disappointment. We peddled hard while in the Audi Paula drove ahead and stationed herself by the mat so that if necessary she could physically stop the guy turning off the machine before we arrived. In the end, we beat the sag wagon back and a string of late riders came in after us. Then it was home for chilli.

The final day, yesterday, got off to the best start. We were there on time and the sun shone. This was also the only day when I knew the route reasonably well. Emily and I had done a training ride over the hardest parts of it and the rest I had done on my own. Or so I thought. It turned out that the actual route was a bit different from my prior reading of it from the maps, but in every point of difference the official route was better. The route selection and the signage were fantastic throughout the three days, unlike other aspects of the organisation. For example, the first feed station on Day Three was set up in the wrong place and demanded an unscheduled climb just after enduring a leg-killer to get to where the feed station should have been. The idea of doing an additional hill climb for second rate Jaffa cakes was never a possibility for me and this error inspired us to ignore the feed stations altogether on this day, which, with Paula on the route, seems obvious now.

The second major climb of Day Three was the beautiful ride up and over the Quantocks. As we panted up it a guy ostentatiously wearing a King of the Mountains polka dot jersey went past us at an astonishing crack. I saw him do the same up another hill later. The last time I saw him was when he sped past close to the end. I have no idea why he didn’t finished hours before us. At the top of our Quantocks hill we cycled past Dead Widow’s Ditch – a marker post that I always notice – and to the top of a 25% downhill that leads into Crowcombe. Emily can write about the fear that this has instilled in her – suffice it for me to say that she made it down comfortably. In fact, Emily’s performance on the downhills, which she has previously not enjoyed, was transformed throughout the event. Even so, I still often do the steep ones a bit faster and I felt pretty quick as I hurtled down Crowcombe hill. Then I saw a blur whizz past me at unbelievable speed, quite unlike anyone I’ve ever previously seen on a bike. Paula was waiting at the bottom and heard the guy report euphorically that he’d hit 57 mph. While both Emily and the human bullet made it down okay, another rider had a spill on loose gravel just after stopping at the foot of the hill. She was of more advanced years than most of the crowd and an excellent advertisement for the health benefits of cycling, notwithstanding the cuts that she took on her fall.

From Crowcombe we hauled over to Minehead, by way of a 20% spike at Stogumber, and then to the start of the most notorious climb of the event: Dunkery Beacon. Before we began we stoked up on a ham roll but even this wasn’t enough to negate the almost 300 miles we had in our legs by now. Getting up was just hard work and many people gave up and walked. One guy ahead of us slowed right down until he was barely moving – and then toppled over. But the weather was fantastic and the panoramic views spectacular and getting to the top felt fantastic. I had had all sorts of pains – knees, quads, lower back, upper back, saddle, hands, left foot – but at the top of Dunkery all I felt was exhilaration. Ignoring another lame food station, we gunned it downhill to Paula who was waiting at Wheddon Cross. Here I took on only a banana and extra drink in preparation for one of the sections I was looking forward to least: the unnoteworthy but surprisingly lumpy drag back over to Bishop’s Lydeard. With the bulk of the ride behind us this went much more easily than I had feared and when we met up with Paula the final time for our last ham rolls and tea I felt great. Immediately after that we finished the last proper climb – up Cothelstone Hill, which has featured on the Tour of Britain – and from them on in I felt wonderful, as though I could complete the last 30 miles in any gear and at any speed that I wanted. The only hiccup was right before the end at Somerton. I had gained a little ground on Emily and pulled over to wait. After a while I started to worry and cycled back towards her. My phone went and it was her. “You must have missed a sign,” she told me. “I’m at the finish.” Carelessly, I’d sailed past one of the last direction arrows, going where I expected the course to be instead of where it was actually signed. Emily waited and we crossed the mat together for the third and final time after our last 106 miles.

Forget miles and kilometres, In three days we had cycled over half a Megametre. The achievement, and indeed much of the pleasure, lay in the preparation and training as much as the actual ride but it was wonderful to complete it. Our time – over 26 hours – was no record but we hadn’t come to the event with the ability, hope or expectation to do anything other than finish, and having done so is great. Would I do it again? Probably, and without waiting three years like the guy at the very start. More than that, it suggests the appeal of doing different types of long ride and shows what can be not only possible but also fun.

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  3. […] The Garmin Edge 800 captures a tremendous amount of info about my rides. Garmin Connect is a great tool for picking over the ride data and sometimes I use Training Center to provide another (less slick) way of looking at the same info. But, it strikes me, both of them leave potential analysis on the table. Yesterday I downloaded Golden Cheetah to see whether this can offer something new. It’s free and open source and runs on the mac. At first sight, it looks great. Here, for example, is a visualisation of Day 1 of last year’s Tour of Wessex: […]

  4. […] the Beast of Exmoor, the Tour of Britain ride, and (my favourite domestic event this year) the Tour of Wessex. I hoped to get 2011 started with the Hell of the Ashdown too. Unfortunately, I was late to sign up […]

  5. […] has already given a brilliant account of the the three days and, from his post, you’ll know that despite my fears, we not only completed the Tour of Wessex, but neither of […]

  6. Nice write up….I to cursed the organisation!…I think the choices of road for day 1 was interesting…

    Day 2 and the 119 miles instead of the expected 117….On day 3 I went out of my way to ask teh organisers if it was the advertised 106 and was it sticking to the expected route…All he said was ‘Follow the signs’ 😦

    Well for me I did the Tour…I wont be doing it again! I can do the miles and the climbs…I dont need the timing chip and the use of the roads are free 🙂

    Well done on completing it….I to am feeling chuffed…


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