The never-ending Tour of Wessex

This past bank holiday weekend I rode the ‘Tour of Wessex’ with a few friends. Essentially a three-day cycling indulgence covering 340 hilly miles, followed by barbecue, beer and camping in tents each evening. Day 1 was a romp across Somerset and Wiltshire taking in many of the roads I ride regularly. Differing fitness levels dictated that our group split into pairs and I rode every day with Mike, each of us taking it in turns to fight the wind and spur each other on.

Rocking the new club jersey while riding on home territory

Rocking the new club jersey while riding on home territory

Let the battling begin

Let the battling begin

Day 2 was a race to the South Coast and back. A whacking 120 miles that was thankfully the day of least climbing at ‘just’ 2000 metres. We managed to find a group of similar ability and rode in a pack of 12 for 20 miles maintaining an average speed above 20mph with seemingly minimal effort. Then the hills arrived and the group imploded, never to be seen again. However we still made it back to base camp having maintained a very healthy average speed of 19mph for the day. That evening we went out for a few beers in town before stopping for takeaway where we got chatting to two motor-bikers who told us they’d earned their dinner with a hard day in the saddle covering 100 miles. The look on their faces when we said we’d just cycled 120 miles was priceless.

Still locked in battle

Day 2 – still locked in battle

Pushing up a climb

Pushing up a long climb

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However, after two great days of riding, Day 3 was unfortunately a day of slow torture. 110 miles of killer hills – 3000 metres of climbing in total, going up and down Exmoor several times in horrendous winds. I started the day with a bit of a hangover, the legs then refused to comply, we suffered a couple of punctures and then a niggly injury appeared giving me persistent grief. The result was that we set off at a pace I couldn’t really handle and I was left hanging on for the whole day. Walking a never-ending tightrope between wanting to quit and forcing myself to carry on. It was a day of pure suffering and completing the route was as much a mental as a physical challenge. It’s at times like these that you understand the toughness of endurance sports. I swear that a couple of times I was close to crying on climbs, but then suddenly you find yourself laughing at your own stupidity before gritting your teeth and pushing on.

On top of Exmoor

On top of Exmoor and feeling the pain

In the end I relied on my mate to pull me around for most of the day and tried not to whinge too much. Back at base camp I just chucked everything in the boot of the car and headed straight home, calling my wife en-route to run me the hot bath I’d been fantasising about for the previous seven hours. Sinking into the hot bubbles was ecstasy. The sort of feeling that is only be experienced as a consequence of coming after such prolonged unpleasantness.

In hindsight I probably should have just ridden two of the days. Three days at my hardest pace was definitely a step too far. However, it’s only by pushing ourselves that we discover our abilities and our limits.

Blenheim Palace 100 mile Sportive

After the painful intensity of Saturday’s time-trial, the fact that Mike & I had also signed up for a 100 mile sportive the next day didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Saturday’s TT in the grandeur estates of Blenheim Palace

The 20k time trial was a great event and there was also something nice about having participated in a cycling event but still having the best part of the day left to enjoy yourself. We spent Saturday afternoon with our ladies, out and about in the Cotswolds and ensuring not to lose athletic-focus by ‘carb-loading’ with several fine local ales. There was a bit of banter on the assumption that I had stolen a few seconds off Mike, much to both of our surprise. We were unable to find any official results from the TT online so we went into Sunday’s 100 mile event thinking that he needed to recover about 3 seconds on me.

Mike, Tim, Chris & Tom waiting to start …

… and six hours of sitting on a slim, plastic wedge gets underway

The first hill of the day draws a few sharp breaths

We rode the first 30 miles with Tom and Chris who were doing the 60 mile version. At the first feed stop we had a quick bite and then departed with Tim on the 100 mile route via Cheltenham. It was a hilly extra 40 miles and we worked as a team.

A warm day in the Cotswolds

I’d been waiting for it to happen and finally, after nearly 6 hours it did – Mike went for a break for the finishing line. Although, actually it might have been me who started it. All I remember is that the two of us were suddenly taking it in turns bursting to escape and then laughing when we looked behind and saw the other stuck on our tail. It ended with me flying through the grounds of Blenheim Palace thinking I’d done enough to escape, only for Mike to sprint past me with a few metres to go and then thank me for ‘leading him out’.

The end of a good weekend of cycling

We had to wait until Monday evening for the official results to arrive. First was the 100 mile sportive – Mike had snatched the 3 seconds we thought he needed, finishing in a time just shy of 6 hours. Then the 20km TT results came in and I had finished in 33:50 to claim 9th placed novice in the 300-strong event … and 6 seconds ahead of Mike. So after six and a half hours of riding, we were separated by just 3 seconds. Great fun and incredibly close.

The Dartmoor Classic 2012

This 105 mile sportive was a tough challenge. Setting off in the wind and rain and getting a puncture in the first few miles was a blow, but I’m glad to say that I recovered from that blow and then from the subsequent punishingly hilly route to finish in a respectable time.

Them hills’ll get ya

After the epic Tour of Wessex I went into this event with a certain amount of confidence. However, confidence is nothing that a few steep hills can’t smash to pieces. The event was well organised with marshals at every junction and a good number of locals out cheering us on. However, I never truly recovered after my puncture and just seemed to be fighting negative thoughts for hours on end.

Digging deep, but it’s difficult to dig yourself out of a hole

The most recurring thought in my head was the one where I climb off my bike and then throw it across the moors before sitting down and crying. Fortunately the toughness of the event didn’t break me!

Wearing a rain coat and leading a straggle of sufferers up the moors

For 70 miles I pushed and pushed. And then pushed some more. Strong winds, persistent drizzle and a dodgy front wheel were all affecting my thoughts. After 80 miles and with a repaired wheel, the sun finally broke out of the clouds and I knew I’d broken the back of the event.

Wait a minute … I’m enjoying myself

And having had the mechanical delays meant that there were lots of people ahead of me to overtake for the final hour. Admittedly this may have dampened some of their moods as they struggled home, but it’s important to share around the experience of suffering on a bike.

On the drops and making up for lost time

In the end I scraped home in just under 7 hours. I then had a short working week of 2 days, before getting ready to head off to France (avec velo) for a two week holiday with my wife in the Loire Valley where we’re looking forward to good weather, wine, food and some relaxed cycling together.

A painful day

On Sunday I rode a 105 mile sportive with a few friends. It included over 3000 metres (almost 10,000 feet) of climbing and part of me was looking forward to the hard work. As it turned out, the day was pretty much all hard work, with a reasonable amount of satisfaction at the end, but to be honest quite minimal enjoyment levels. Having worked 6 days this week, setting the alarm for 4.15am on a Sunday was not the most enjoyable start.

Wake up – it’s a different type of work today

I had been hoping to take lots of photos for the blog. I had also been hoping to ride with Andy all day. Unfortunately a tyre sidewall blow out on a descent at 6 miles ended both of those plans. It was the front tyre and I was lucky to stay on the bike as I lost control at a fair speed. By the time I’d stopped the tyre had half come off the rim. Luckily Andy was carrying a spare piece of tyre which he handed over before I told him to carry on. I put the piece of tyre inside the damaged tyre and replaced the punctured inner tube before setting off again.

Basically my day consisted of:

6 – 16 miles – thrashing it up endless hills trying to catch up with Andy but overcooking it and suffering badly

16 – 30 miles – fighting up more hills alone into headwinds, sidewinds and rain. Lots of rain.

30 – 60 miles – quick feed stop and then as per 16 – 30 miles

60 – 70 miles – finally found somebody going at a similar speed and teamed up. This helped in fighting the wind, but I was starting to notice a constant d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d from my repaired front wheel.

70 miles – stopped at feed station and inspected the front wheel. The repair was starting to bulge out of the split but luckily there was a mechanic at the feed zone who replaced my tyre for a small fee.

70 – 104 miles – after the stop, the weather and my mood seemed to change and everything improved to the point where I was finally enjoying myself. I crossed the line in just under 7 hours which felt good for all the hills and mechanical issues.

At the finish I found out that one of our friends had fallen and had been taken to hospital with a broken femur and possibly damaged her hip too. All in all it wasn’t a great day and there were certainly some lessons in suffering all around – some unfortunately far more serious than for others.

The event was however extremely well organised and maybe in a few days I’ll do it justice with a more positive write-up.

Tour of Wessex – Day 3: Somerset & Exmoor

Knowing that the organisers of the Tour of Wessex had saved the toughest day for last, we awoke on Day 3 slightly apprehensive about how our bodies would react to another long day in the saddle. The 180 kilometres ahead of us would contain 2500 metres of climbing.

At least we would have 35 km to warm up our knees before the hills began

With most of the hills confined to Exmoor National Park we were looking forward to some great views over towards Wales

On top of the usual breakfast feast I also ate a few eggs and an extra cup of coffee. It wasn’t until I reached the start line with a slight stomach ache that I realised I’d hardly drunk any water since waking up. I consumed both bottles on my bike within the first 40 km thankfully easing my stomach pains before refilling at the first feed zone.

I wasn’t the only cyclist with a full tank of water. Probably the most spectacular pee Gatesy’s ever enjoyed

We blasted our way across Somerset and into Exmoor National Park in North Devon. The hills became very regular but we were rewarded with some amazing views.

On the top of the moors

“That looks a bit like Barry” “Who’s Barry?” 

We cycled up. We cycled down. The sun was shining. The views were spectacular. The hills were long but gentle. We were in a big group and everyone was enjoying themselves. Somebody was laughing. Then something in me switched – I was at the back of the group as we pulled our way up a long hill and I just started working up a rhythm. Before I knew what was happening I was past everyone and off the front of the group. I’m not sure it was a conscious decision to escape but it felt exhilarating and I just kept on pushing. Part of me imagined I was in a race breaking away from the peloton. Part of me just enjoyed the hard work. I rode on my limit overtaking a few other riders further up the road and told myself I would slow down when I was caught. In the end I was on my own for about 10 miles and was completely shattered when the group finally reached me.

“And an unknown rider in blue has broken away from the peloton….”

Gatesy celebrates reeling me in

I knew I’d never actually escape Gatesy, but I also knew he’d be extremely pissed off by my antics which obviously spurred me on! Fortunately I was caught at the start of the descent off the moors giving me ample time to recover.

I had no idea what this sign was supposed to mean but I knew it was good news

This was soon followed by a feed zone where I refuelled and accepted my mocking for embarking on such a fruitless and selfish waste of energy.

A much needed feed zone in a local village hall

Back in the pack and sucking wheels to recover

From the foot of the moors it had looked like an easy last 40 km to the finish line. However the organisers had one last trick up their sleeves with an unadvised additional 15 km. We pressed on and thankfully saw the signs to Somerton just as Gatesy leapt into his early sprint finish. Not wanting to be outdone we followed suit for one final hurrah and crossed the finish line together with much hand shaking and congratulations.

“Is it over? Please say it’s over”

Gatesy shortly before his head exploded under the pressure of 17 gallons of drained lactic acid

I don’t think there’s any way to sum up my three most enjoyable days of cycling and really do it all justice. I think I’ll just let the tan lines do the talking:

The road cyclist’s badge of honour

Paul looking incredibly pleased with the sharpness of his tan lines 

Tour of Wessex – Day 2: Somerset & Dorset

Basecamp at the crack of dawn on Day 2

After a good night’s sleep I awoke early on the morning of Day 2 feeling ok, where “ok” is roughly defined as having functional legs but the knees of a 90 year old who also happens to have been hit up the backside with a sledgehammer. Fortunately I had come prepared for this likely eventuality and had brought ample supplies of ibuprofen and “chamois cream”.

The cyclist prepares his seat for the next 7 hours

The obscene quantities of the previous day’s breakfasting were again repeated but without producing the same energetic effect in the camp. The second day’s riding was billed as 10% further than Day 1, and the realisation that pain and suffering were about to be dished out in prolonged, healthy servings was clearly on our minds. We were definitely not the first riders on the start line today.

Welcome to Groundhog Day

We set our own pace at the start of Day 2 on the long haul to the South coast

For the first 40 kilometres we had established a sizeable chaingang of around 8 riders when Gatesy unfortunately punctured. Thinking we had a few minutes of waiting while he carried out the repair, I disappeared behind a bush to answer the call of nature. I was barely halfway through when I turned around and was amazed to see a neutral service motorbike pulled over and a mechanic replacing his rear wheel. Twenty seconds later we were back on the move and laughing; the only thing missing had been a crazy fan to push him back on his way!

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but we never expected a puncture to be so enjoyable

We continued South along great country lanes across rolling hills in the fine morning sunshine. It was all very enjoyable and regardless of the puncture we were still maintaining a good pace overall.

Crossing the Salisbury Plains

An excessive amount of information on the bike computer, but it did help distract me when the end goal seemed so far away

“I can see the sea!” Reaching the South Coast

Beginning the descent down to the coast

On top of the world – celebrating after a long climb

Having seen the Cerne Abbas Giant, Durdle Door, Corfe Castle and thankfully avoiding seeing any tanks or missiles on Lulworth Military Range we finally reached Wareham after 60 miles where we would effectively turn around and head back along a different route.

They don’t call it the Tour of Wessex for nothing

Following Gatesy’s puncture we had taken the decision to skip the first feed station at 30 miles and keep going to the next one located at 70 miles. The problem with this decision was that it’s generally best to eat before you get hungry, because once hunger strikes the pedals just get heavier and heavier. Sweets, fig rolls and energy gels were dug out from the depths of jersey pockets but by the time we reached the feed zone my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I was really suffering. I ate like a man who hadn’t eaten for weeks and barely chewed before swallowing the first few mouthfuls of cheese rolls, flapjacks and bananas.

The food made a huge difference and we were soon back en route at a steady tempo. Things were looking good until my front tyre suffered a blow out. I quickly pulled over and stripped off the tyre looking for the cause. At first I couldn’t find anything but then noticed a long gash in the side wall of the tyre which looked like bad news. I didn’t have any tape to patch up the inside of the tyre wall so I just shoved in a new inner tube and replaced the tyre. However once I started pumping it up, the inner tube started to bulge out of the gash. In hindsight I suppose I might have been able to slip a plastic wrapper inside the tyre to retain the tube, but thankfully on this occasion we were again saved by the neutral service motorbike who produced a replacement tyre and even carried out the repair for me.

Paul offering stringent criticism of my tyre mending technique

Lightning may strike twice so always ensure you are followed by a support crew

Having lost significant time through two punctures and an excessive gorging session at the second feed zone we hit a high pace back to the finish. Once again we picked up a few other riders of similar ability to share the workload. The dark clouds which had been threatening all afternoon eventually exploded a few miles from home which only made us ramp up the pace further. On top of the motorcycle support this was yet another reminder of how fortunate we had been. Rather than huddle beneath our tarpaulin that evening we decided to venture into the town of Somerton for a beer and some local grub. We discussed the events of the day’s 119 miles and prepared ourselves for the final chapter of this epic Tour.

Great pace and great camaraderie to the finishing line

Tour of Wessex – Day 1: Somerset & Wiltshire

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.

Day 1 Route – Somerset and Wiltshire

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.

The first course of breakfast being prepared

The start line on Day 1. “Where’s everyone else?”

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.

We were fortunately blessed with some unforecasted fine weather

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.

A quick feed at the top of Cheddar Gorge

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.

Finished! Well, for today at least …

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.

If you plan to camp in England in the summer you need to know how to erect a simple shelter. If you lack these basic skills then ask a small child for help

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.

When it comes to carb-loading it’s important not to ignore any potential energy source

“Is it weird going to bed at 9:30pm on a Saturday night?” “Yes – but not as weird as cycling 6 hours a day for three days in a row, so get some sleep!”