Posted by: Ian | June 4, 2011

My Tour of Wessex, 2011

When Emily and I lined up in the start bunch for the Tour of Wessex last year I was unsure whether I’d be able to complete all three days. This year, despite less good preparation and a recent six week period with no cycling, it was different: I’d done it before so I felt I ought to be able to do it again. Unlike last year, we began with reasonable weather. There was a light occasional drizzle but no hard rain or strong winds and the roads remained dry.

This was my first sportive of 2011 and it was great to see so many cyclists and so many bikes gathered near the start. I had chosen to ride the Astraeus for the first couple of days and, incredibly, I spotted at least one instance of every other relevant model of Van Nicholas: the Zephyr, the Euros, the Mistral and the Yukon. The Yukon wasn’t Emily’s: she was riding her sporty Scott CR1 Contessa.

The first day also offered two alternative shorter distances. I’m not sure how many signed up to or started these but the results show 595 finishers for the main distance and another couple of hundred finishing the shorter rides. The demographics of the participants in the long event are  given in the results and charted here (click on it if the font is too small to read):

The first day begins quite easily, progressing through Glastonbury and then out across the Levels. At the end of this stretch at the top of one of the day’s first rises Emily had a puncture. Unfortunately, we were, unusually, sharing a pump, which I was carrying. We had become separated and I didn’t hear Emily’s calls and texts so it cost us more time than it should have. Once I looped back it was swiftly fixed and we were soon moving again and rolling into Cheddar to face the day’s biggest hill.

Despite its length and its reputation, the climb up through the gorge is not difficult by comparison to other climbs on the tour. Emily, whose preparation for the event was probably no better than mine, made easy work of it. More significantly, she also completed the long descent pretty briskly. Since her bad accident at the Exmoor Beast in 2009 Emily has been apprehensive down steep hills and it was good to see her tackling them with more confidence. Nonetheless, of all the riders who finished with similar times to us on the first two days we must have been amongst the fastest on the ups and the slowest on the downs.

Here’s one of the pro snaps of Emily, with Glastonbury Tor in the distant background:

The Garmin 800 provided its usual mix of brilliance and frustration. At the start of Day 1 and again on Day 2 it infuriatingly dropped a bunch of miles, making the figures for distance travelled meaningless. This spurred me to use it differently from how I normally do. Since I had loaded up the Activities generated by last year’s Wessex rides as Courses, I was able to use these to show me the elevation profiles.

I soon switched to using view shown here almost exclusively. This, when on the road, puts a black dot in the centre of the screen corresponding to the rider (me) and showing up/down hill just gone (to left of centre) and to come (right of centre). By tapping on the screen you can adjust the scale, which is very useful. I adjusted the horizontal scale so that I was looking at the gradients immediately about to confront me rather than being distracted by slopes further ahead. Emily adopted this screen for Day 2 and, in contrast to me, preferred a longer profile horizon more similar to that shown in the photo. Both are useful and it’s easy to change them on the fly. I couldn’t figure out how to shift the black dot to the left so that the screen shows more of the upcoming route than the route already cycled.

As you can see, on the two fields at the top I configured it to display Speed (no value appears in the photo as I took it while stationary) and the Distance to Go. Since this is read from the Course it was correct even though the distance travelled (not shown on this screen) was wrong because of the lost miles. I switched to this through necessity but found that I preferred thinking about distance left rather than distance gone. Psychologically, it makes it feel more like travelling downhill than uphill, if you get my meaning.

I didn’t have a Power reading because I’d taken off my CycleOps PowerTap wheel, and both the Cadence and Heart Rate readings had periods of gross unreliability or outright failure.

We ended Day 1’s 106 miles after just over seven hours of cycling time and eight hours of elapsed time – a few minutes quicker than we had managed last year.

Day 2 went similarly, with the signature ascents going by quickly, while comparable riders made back the time that they lost to us on the climbs with sprightlier descending and tighter drafting on the flats. But at no point did it feel at all like a race and it was wonderful to enjoy the Wessex countryside and especially the views out over the sea once we reached Lulworth Cove. At 117 miles, the second day is the longest of the three and by now we were starting to miss Paula’s Service Car visits. Last year we had been spoiled with tea and ham rolls every 20 miles or so, which had provided great breaks and good distance markers too. This year we carried our own ham rolls and there was no tea. Nonetheless, we made it back after around eight hours of cycling and an elapsed time of almost nine.

After finishing for the day Emily and I drove to Taunton station and picked up Joerg, who had travelled over from Zurich. Not fancying the 25% descent down Crowcombe Hill on Day 3, Emily returned to London and Joerg picked up the baton.

The scene at the sportive centrale in Somerton on Day 3 was totally different. The mood was set by the complete cloud cover and the promise of heavy rain. After the buzz of the first two days, the place looked deserted. The organisers were advertising an alternative route of 50 miles (instead of the scheduled 106), which contained none of the sections in that I liked. The equivalent demographic chart to that shown above for Day 1 is here:

The halving of the y-axis scale indicates the level of fall-off. I’m equally proud and sad to observe that it’s we men in our forties who are over-achieving in gumption.

Despite the sketchy weather, we started off well. I was very aware that the only way, short of an accident, that I was going to fail to finish the event was by going off too quickly on this final day. However, we fell in with a bunch of about 15 riders who took the easy initial miles at a good pace, averaging over 20 m.p.h. for miles 2 through 10. Ridden on our own, as Emily and I had last year, the wind had made this section hard work but in a pack it was a complete breeze.

As we headed towards the hills and Joerg took a drag at the front the pace sped up and we lost a few riders from the back of the bunch. When we reached the first proper hill of the day I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, keep up myself and we had to let the group go. I was just pleased to have been delivered over the first tenth of the day for so little effort.

For the final day I’d switched to the Felt with my new Fulcrum wheels. The immediate conspicuous difference between bikes was the sensation of riding on tubeless tyres with about 20 PSI less pressure in than in the clinchers on the Astraeus. It’s hard to judge how much difference the lighter bike and better wheels made; for the first 80 miles all I knew was that I was slower than Joerg. We rode together but he was faster up the first four major hills and took up more of the lead work than I did when we drafted across the flats. Both Crowcombe (hill two) and Stogumber (hill three) were harder work for my tired legs than when I’ve been up them on recent training rides. Knowing what was coming, I took it relatively easy on the last couple of miles towards Dunkery Beacon, but it was still hard work, even for Joerg, who got up this one ahead of me too:

After this slog our legs were probably in more similar shape and I contributed more evenly to the pull across Exmoor towards Bishop’s Lydeard. We took the fifth and final big hill of the day, Cothelstone, in about the same time and dropped into the last feed station before the journey back to Somerton. While I didn’t feel as jaunty over this stretch as I had last year, I was able to even the balance a bit on our combined efforts and finished without the tank running completely dry.

Only 203 riders completed all three days. Here’s a chart of when we all staggered in after the first finisher:


The red lines represent Joerg and me, who crossed the line after just under seven hours of cycling for an elapsed time of 7:25. The green lines represent riders who finished Day 3 but not both of the other days. Considering that we took in all three feed stations and also made a stop to try and find Heidi at her friend’s house in Over Stowey and had at least one natural break, the non-cycle time of around half an hour looks very disciplined. It reflects a less recreational and perhaps differently committed approach than Emily and I had taken on the first two days.

Our average riding speed of about 15 m.p.h. was similar to the speed Emily and I took over the same distance on the first day (and even my top speed of 41 m.p.h was only a shade faster than the highest speed I hit coming off Cheddar Gorge). However, it’s much faster than Emily and I managed on Day 3 last year, when we had taken to relying on Paula’s support breaks to nurse us towards the finish line. This year Paula was unwell and unable to drive out to offer the same excellent service.

For some of the last day I was riding along asking myself whether or not the Tour of Wessex is simply too hard to enjoy. The difficulty isn’t in the steep hills, which I like, but the sheer number of undulating miles you have to put in over three days. Fortunately, none of the niggles I’d had beforehand troubled me in the event and afterwards I felt looser and healthier from a muscular perspective than I had at the start. However, I didn’t sleep well for the nights of the event or those following and have felt exhausted this week and, following a short trip to Zurich, a bit ill. I’ve lost about half a stone since just before the Wessex too. Some good rest this weekend should see me back to good health, I’m sure, and those pounds will come straight back on. There’s little doubt that if I have keen friends to do it with I’ll sign up again in 2012.

This final photo is of me at the end of the third day. I’ve liked the jersey for a while but didn’t feel quite able to buy it for myself, not being Swiss. Happily, Joerg got it me as a gift. Now I have to go and cycle up some alps.



  1. […] also explore new cycling territory. 2011 itself contained repeats from 2010 – the fabulous Tour of Wessex, some great long rides in the South West, Blenheim, the Exmoor Beast, weekly loops round […]

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