Posted by: Ian | September 7, 2010

My Tour of Britain ride

On Saturday evening I felt like crap. I’d nursed a headache since I woke up in the morning and felt listless and sick. On Sunday morning I had to get up early and cycle 175 km from the north Somerset to the south Devon coast on a sportive that follows the route of the Tour of Britain’s hardest day. The pros will do it next Tuesday.

Luckily, when I woke up my headache had gone. The forecast had been for sun but outside as I put the bikes on the car there was a light drizzle. Emily had signed up to do the ride too and was staying with us in Taunton. After our pre-sportive porridge Paula drove us to Minehead. The nearer we got the blacker the skies became and the heavier the rain. Once there, I reluctantly dug my Gore softshell jacket from the bottom of the Tesco bag I’d prepared the night before and left the much lighter and less waterproof Rapha Stowaway jacket behind. Paula, who was team photographer as well as driver and support crew for the day, took a snap of Emily and me standing in front of the grey Bristol Channel and then drove off.

As the car carrying my shorty gloves and favourite jacket sped away the rain relented.

One of the surprises of the day for me was how picturesque many of the local towns and villages that I’ve driven and ridden by without every really visiting are. Since before moving to Somerset six or seven years ago I’ve acquired the impression that its exceptional landscape far outclasses its population centres, with the partial exception of Taunton, the county town. Maybe I’ve driven through Shepton Mallet and Chard too many times. Whenever we want an alternative to Taunton we can go to Exeter (Devon), Bath (Avon) or, of course, London so Somerset’s town’s remain largely unexplored. On Sunday I was charmed by Minehead, Watchet, Dunster, Wiveliscombe, Milverton and Wellington.

The first of the big hills – a King of the Mountains stage on the Tour of Britain – comes immediately out of Minehead. I was feeling much better and big-ringed it up to Wheddon Cross. The gradient felt easy and I passed a stream of riders all following the advice given in pretty much every issue of Cycling Weekly and Cycling Plus to get in a low gear early. I usually come to Wheddon on my way home from Dunkery Beacon, when it pisses me off to have a sharp bit of hill still in my way. This time I was ready for it and spun up past the photographer near the top and took a moment to wait for Emily. We then found that the actual top was just round the corner and marked, pro-style, with a KOM finish sign and a line across the road. We were in a real race!

Just past this we were re-introduced to the amateur world of the humble sportiviste by an official warning us that the road down was steep and slippery. It was neither. We made good progress on the descent until it flattened out, shortly after which I punctured. The puncture was easy to spot so I patched it to conserve our spare tubes. This was prescient since about a mile later the same tube exploded, leaving an irreparable 3″ long gash diametrically opposite the new patch. I guess the cylinder I used had over-inflated the tyre – how would you know? I was circumspect for some while afterwards.

I went briskly up the hill approaching the aptly named Watchet and then ran into a group of riders who had to brake sharply on the wet downhill, where a small knot of two way traffic was held up by parked cars. Negotiating it carefully, I proceeded to the first feed station. We weren’t planning on stopping but Emily had fallen a little behind somewhere on the up/down so I boosted a slice of malt loaf and topped up my water. The process of texting Paula to say “All is well” gave me pause to realize that it probably wasn’t: Emily should have been closer behind. After a few more anxious phone-checking minutes, Emily cycled into view, teary and with what looked at first like a twisted handlebar. She’d taken a spill at the same point where I’d had to weave through the mess of cars and bikes, and, in addition to a few bruises, she was upset that she’d damaged her bike. Fortunately, the STI’s had only twisted round the bar, which was easily fixed.

From Watchet we started an ascent towards the next KOM stage. As we left town the Rapha Condor squad sprinted past looking fresh and smart, and more than anything clean, in their trademark black kit accented with pink and white. Signage as we-crossed the A39 warned that we faced two miles of 17% gradient. I wonder whether the Tour riders find these short steep ascents much easier than the grinding 5% mountains of continental Europe? I plan to do some to see for myself. Certainly, earlier in the year I found Haleakala’s 35 miles of constant 4-8% incomparably harder than anything I’ve done in England, but that’s something else again. The hill from Watchet was hard but very doable. At the top there were a couple of guys standing and clapping encouragement, which was a feature all along the ride that I wouldn’t have thought I’d enjoy but I found that I did. Again, there was a KOM finish line and again it was beyond where the top seemed to be. I think they’re placed to allow the pro climbers a racing sprint finish for their polka dot points.

The next few miles that ultimately led to Wellington were comparatively gentle. It was on these stretches rather than the ascents that Emily’s relative lack of form became apparent. She was feeling as I had the previous day – we probably had the same bug – and wasn’t able to eat anything or even drink. To make matters worse, she had a Schleck moment when her chain came off, losing more us more time in the general classification. By Wellington she was tootling along with obvious signs of running an energy deficit after 50 miles of fuel-less riding.

Then we had Monument Road ahead of us. Emily had cycled up this once before when Stu and she came down to Taunton for a pre-Beast training ride last year. It’s a punchy little hill that tires you out with a moderately harsh gradient before revealing a super-steep rise at the end. And the kicker is that on your first run it at you don’t know when the end will come so the sight of the final ramp can be crushing. I’ve cycled up this a few times and learnt that it’s not nearly as bad as it looks. On this ride I also knew that the top marked the day’s half way point and the transition from Somerset to Devon, and, much more significantly than any of this, the stage at which Paula would be waiting with tea and ham rolls. This fortified me to crank it up there without ado. From the top Paula and I watched a string of people puffing over the hill; the majority were pushing their bikes. Very soon, Emily appeared riding strongly and showing no sign of the recent fatigue. The promise of tea and ham rolls – food she could eat – had perked her up too. They were a godsend.

The second half of the ride looked flat and gentle on the route profile. Predictably, it didn’t feel that way on the bike. We passed one guy sitting by the side of the road looking forlorn. Emily asked him if he was ok. “I’m from Essex,” he replied. “We don’t get hills there.” Later, after we had left Exeter, I had pushed on and while waiting by a feed station found myself next to a chap who I’d seen throughout the day, sometimes looking very strong on the hills and sometimes flagging. “How’s your ride going?” I asked him. “I haven’t trained enough,” he said wearily. “I did the Dartmoor Classic this year and this ride’s much harder.”

For the 20 miles after our ham rolls uplift we made steady progress, enjoying the Devon scenery. Somerset was more beautiful but the entire route was exceptionally well conceived and signed, and a pleasure to ride. My Bike Watch highlight was a Van Nicholas Euros. Its owner had had it for four or five months and expressed himself most happy with it.

At 75 miles we had our next rendez-vous with Paula. This time as well as tea and ham rolls I had a couple of neurofen to head off an inchoate backache and dumped the blue soft-shell jacket. The combination of all of this gave me a second wind that lasted throughout the rest of the race. I felt great. Moreover, Paula had parked at the end of an uphill that marked the start of a descent. No doubt the pros, being very good and having the road closed, will bomb down at startling speeds but my two minute mile was exhilarating. All of the day’s descents were pleasant ones, as Emily observed later, wishing that her ability to find the carefree abandon they offered had not been so heavily moderated by coming off on one of the first.

Soon we swang through Sidmouth, where on a shorter ride you’d want to stop for ice cream, and coming out of Sidmouth had the last noted ascent of the day at Peak Hill. I was delighted, honestly, to find a transponder mat at the bottom: again, it was just like being in a real race! There were more people clapping at the roadside and the photographer gave me a very encouraging word. I suspect that this late in the day most of the cyclists were pushing their bikes up. I had to cycle around a group of three who were pushing theirs up three abreast. As I cycled round the unthinking dolts, for once my sympathy lay with the motor vehicles. The climb was properly tough and as I beeped over the mat at the top I was both delighted to have cycled up it at a decent steady pace and disappointed not to have had a chance to do a timed ride knowing the road well enough to attack it more. I can’t wait to see the pros smash their way up a constant 20%.

Paula had made an impromptu unscheduled stop at the top to watch Emily and me make it up but there were no treats and it was straight onto another terrific descent. Our third and final tea and ham stop before the most deserved one at the end came at 95 miles. From there we had a nice easy ride through Exeter and the pretty coastline around Dawlish before pulling up the last incline leading to Teignmouth. It was a gentle rise but we were close to the end of the day and amongst those finishing now the latest starters and the victims of multiple punctures and mechanical faults were probably outnumbered by those who had just found it all very hard. Some of them were trudging alone up the hill until they could reach the top and coast down with a well-merited flourish to cross the finish line. The organisers had kept a celebration atmosphere alive as we approached the mat and we were handed medals with the same cheer as the day’s first arrivals.

My one true disappointment of the day was my Garmin Edge 500. It’s such a well designed device at the headline level: it has exactly the right functions, the right size, the right weight and superb data display software. Unfortunately, much of this is lost in the manufacturing. I used to love it but now I’m hardened to losing a few miles from all of my standard rides while it spends forever “locating satellites”. Worse, the button presses don’t always register (and on a minor note they’re placed counterintuitively for the functions they invoke). The consequence of this yesterday was that I lost all of my ride data. I’d pay a lot of money for a Garmin equivalent that reliably worked.



  1. […] the climbbybike Difficulty score the route rates 175 – below each day of the Tour of Wessex, the 2010 Tour Ride and, of course, Haleakala but above all of my other rides from last […]

  2. […] Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the Blenheim, 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 […]

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