Along with three other crazed cycling friends, 9 months ago we signed up to the 2012 Tour of Wessex: a three-day event covering a total of 545km (340 miles). And after 9 months of not knowing whether it’s actually possible to train for such an event, the day had suddenly arrived. The event took place over a bank holiday long weekend giving us three days to cycle and a fourth day to then complain to sympathetic wives and girlfriends about hurting from head to toe.
Base camp for the event was the village of Somerton where by Friday evening we had all arrived, pitched tents and set up the barbecue. Excited anticipation was mixed with the obligatory downplaying of recent training.
Breakfast the next morning consisted of coffee, porridge, jam, bananas, oranges, figs, brioche and just about any other carb-dense foodstuff known to man. By the time we rolled on to the start line 20 minutes early it was difficult to tell whether we were all overcome by nervous energy or just a massive sugar-rush.
We set off in the first group of 50 and despite an agreement the previous evening to ride even tempo we were quickly caught up in a exciting group of a dozen or so riders thrashing it across the country lanes of Somerset. We took our turns pulling the group before dropping back to recover in the slipstream. A conversation during one of these moments revealed that many of these riders were just there for the one day and could afford to go hell-for-leather. Approaching Cheddar Gorge we realised that our average speed was too fast, and regardless of the fact that it had been assisted by drafting it was clearly not going to be sustainable for over 20 hours so we let the group go.
Cheddar Gorge was the major climb of Day 1 and also happens to be in my back yard. Knowing the climb gave me the ability to pace myself appropriately. It isn’t a particularly difficult climb once you get through the first two steep bends, but past experience has proven that attacking it too hard can lead to some serious suffering further up. I took the two corners at a steady pace and then worked up a good rhythm for the following 3km of gradual ascent. The first feed station of the day was situated at the top of the Gorge and we stopped briefly to top up bidons and grab a few handfuls of jelly babies and flapjack.
The route then took us down an exhilarating descent of Old Bristol Hill where I hit a top speed of 76km/h and was just beginning to question my sanity when I was overtaken by someone else. I feel that descending shows me up as a novice, but is also probably result of having entered cycling at an older age. Had I started at the fearless age of 18 then I’m sure I’d fly down hills without constantly touching my breaks and saying “woah, woah … woooooooaaaaaaaahhhh …” to myself. Maybe once you get past the age of 30 there’s unfortunately no escaping this fear-factor.
The rest of the route went to plan and we were either riding in our own small group, or within a larger group of adopted riders of similar ability. Taking turns to pull the pace line before dropping back to draft your way back up the line was great fun and made a huge difference in maintaining speed and conserving energy. And after 170km of riding with nearly 2000 metres of climbing, we crossed the finish line in an overall time of 6 hours and 1 minute which included 12 minutes of stopping to refuel.
Back at Basecamp we ate a first dinner of takeaway Chinese before tragically attempting to erect a tarpaulin to shelter us from the threatening clouds. We spent over an hour unsuccessfully trying to secure the sheet between two trees and two cars and when one of these cars was then edged forward causing an opposite corner to rip we noticed that we had been providing great entertainment to the rest of the campsite. Fortunately we were then assisted by our neighbour’s eleven year son who pointed out how to erect a simple and robust shelter. We consoled ourselves by agreeing that he was almost certainly a cub-scout.
Following a second dinner cooked on the barbecue we spent some time stretching, groaning and surveying the next day’s route before heading back to our tents for an early night’s rest.