Posted by: Ian | May 7, 2012

My Somerset Gran Fondo 2012

Yesterday Emily and I completed the Somerset Gran Fondo. For me, this was a training ride for next month’s Tour of Wessex. For Emily, it was her second long ride of recent weeks/months and (I think) her first recent ride with proper hills. Our goal, then, was to get round and enjoy it rather than to set the course on fire.

Initially, my main concern was following the route. A week or two ago, just after the Exmoor Beauty, my Garmin 800 completely lost its ability to find my location. After restarting it countless times and upgrading the firmware I took it to my LBS as a last resort, fearing that it would gather dust in the office until I called in enough times to prompt them to speak to the Garmin rep. But on Saturday night we loaded the route onto Emily’s 800, and in any case it turned out to be extremely well signed.

My other concern was the weather, which has been so disappointing recently. On the day, the forecast was for cold weather (3 degrees and not heating up much) and the possibility of rain. Again, the worry was needless: after a chilly start the skies cleared and for most of the day we had sunshine, affording excellent views at the very many places where they can be available.

At the start line, waiting in the over-long registration line, I queued next to someone with a Cervelo R5. As I’ve written before, I don’t understand the rationale for choosing that particular frame but I’m nonetheless heartened to see that others do. I was not at all surprised to hear that he’d bought it from the sales guy at TriUK in Yeovil who had spoken with a note of derision about my cheapskate R3.

On the road, the pleasant climb up Cheddar Gorge came quickly. Considering her lack of hill training, Emily made it up with impressive ease. As I was passing through the dramatically gorgey stretch near the bottom the first of the photographers was only just setting up, so missed an opportunity to snap us weaving through a family of cute goats who were wandering on the quiet Sunday morning road.

At the top the route left the gorge road earlier than we were expecting to make the descent to the Levels. With some familiarity, I stationed myself at a few points on the way down to wait for Emily, who, since having to roll off her out-of-control bike a couple of years ago and breaking ribs in the fall, has become fearful and slow on the downhills. It gave me a chance to see just how quickly sportivistes whizz down such hills: normally I don’t get this perspective since I’m one of them. I love the quiet fizz of the riders zipping past at speed, one after the other, backs flat. All of the cyclists that we’d passed on the ascent, and many more besides, flew past before Emily, who had climbed so well, made it down.

On the flat we were fast again, covering many miles (without chain gang support) at over 20 mph. One reason that Emily may have done less climbing recently is that she’s been getting bad back pain while ascending. This had started to kick in before reaching Bridgewater and so, with three hills much harder than the Gorge ahead of us, we stopped for Neurofen. Despite the pills, we took the Enmore/Spaxton climb and the undulating rise up towards Exmoor without attack. By now, the sun was coming out and seeing off the cold edge to the air and the day was shaping up beautifully.

On the third climb, from Elworthy Cross, I made a point of spinning up and keeping my heart rate relatively low. It felt much easier than it had a couple of weeks ago on the Exmoor Beauty, yet it turned out that I made it up a little more quickly. From there we had a nice long stretch with no notable hills and only a pleasantly manageable descent into Dunster before reaching the second feed station at Blue Anchor. The views out across the sea to Wales were spectacular. The people manning the feed stations were also especially friendly, although the food itself was adequate rather than great.

From here Emily had another run of Neurofen-chomping mildly lumpy Exmoor terrain to take us to the last climb of the day at Crowcombe. Given the state of her back, this 25% hill coming at the 75 mile mark removed Emily from her bike. For me, I’d done it before and gave no thought to walking. Moreover, this was the first long ride when I’d be using my new Speedplay pedals and I enjoyed the feel that they clamped my feet much more securely on the steep pulls than my SPD’s. Until now, I’ve used SPD’s for the convenience of being able to switch my bike shoes and boots between my various road and commuting bikes without the hassle of changing pedals. With the Speedplays on the Cervelo it feels complete. And it does seem easier to do the hills in them.

This is how it felt until I came within cycle-reach of the cattle grid that marks the top of Crowcombe Hill. At this point the gradient eases off, there aren’t many more turns to go and you know you’ve done it. As I was congratulating myself I drifted onto the edge of the verge. The back wheel skidded as I tried to steer back to the road, and then, as I wobbled, my grippy Speedplay pedals wouldn’t release. In a classic comedy cycling move that I’ve seen several times and never previously understood, I toppled off the bike. The Cervelo was okay and I was okay but the time I spent fishing the chain out from inside my chain rings (not to mention disengaging my other shoe) before I could re-mount and finish the last few yards killed my Strava time.

At the top on the moor we stopped for a guy whose gears had completely crapped out and who needed help from the emergency support line. On the wooded descent down to Over Stowey I again saw riders who had generally cycled more slowly than Emily fly past as she came down on the brakes. Once back on the flats our speed increased dramatically towards the final feed station and the closing miles.

My final ride time (with only one minor routing mishap) was 7:35 and our elapsed time was 8:51. Some of the difference was accounted for at the three feed stations and most of the remainder was lost in the descents. But for us this wasn’t a day to race. The route was excellent with a good mix of flats and hills and plenty of Somerset scenery. The sunshine and relatively light winds were a major bonus. To make the route ideal, I’d prefer to avoid passing twice (or even once) through Bridgwater and I’d spend less time on the busy parts of the A38, but I’ll still probably do it again next year.

Here’s some stats…

190 riders started the Gran Fondo and 183 finished. Of the finishers, nine didn’t get timed at all of the mandatory feed stops so I’ve excluded these from the charts below.

First, here’s a breakdown by gender (men on the left chart, women on the right) and age:

No major surprises there. Next, here’s how everyone did, with men’s and women’s times picked out using the same colours as above:

I know why they do it but it’s sucky that the organisers don’t make it easy to see your finishing position. If you want to know yours I can give it to you.

Finally, here’s how the times look by age:

The blue line through the middle is a fit of the points. It shows that as riders age we get slower, with the slowest coming at around my age. Then, insofar as these results may be in any way representative, those who are cycling into their Fifties and beyond are actually a bit faster. I suspect that this reflects that these guys have been riding for longer than those of us in our Thirties and (like me) Forties who took it up within the last five or ten years. Then again, I wouldn’t stake too much on this one sample.



  1. Looks like a good warm up for the Tour of Wessex. I’m entering this year’s TOW too. Have never done anything like it before … and it’s getting very near.

    • This will be my third. The routes are fantastic. Unless it hammers down with rain for three days I’m sure you’ll love it, especially if you’re smashing the hills on your new Merckx.

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