Gels taste so good
Where’s the mud?
Dressed for the occasion
Event raised money for Air Ambulance
… and more mud
One of the first things that strikes you when doing a multi-day sportive is the sheer amount of things you need to take. You really don’t think much of it in a single day event, as your clothes for the duration plus toiletries and any energy products will easily fit into an overnight bag. With three days (theoretically – ed.) worth of clothing, food, tools, spare tubes and tyres packed, we were finally ready for the off.
Upon arrival the place looked abandoned and it seemed that the long-range weather forecast had put off a few souls for the weekend’s festivities. I was a little worried when the organisers seemed to get a little flustered by three people turning up at once! I was hoping for their sakes that they got the routine sorted before being swamped by the late arrivals the following morning. I was disappointed that as we were down for the three days, neither of us was asked for either a racing license or the AUK membership card that had been requested on the website. With nothing much else to see or do, (visit nearby Cadbury Castle ? ed.) our home for the weekend beckoned, a small caravan in sunny Sparkford.
Day one – the one with the sunshine.
Five thirty am is never the most pleasant time of the day, even if the sun is shining. Encouraging my body out of its sleepful awakening was the smell of fresh coffee brewing on the stove (thanks Jon). Shovelling muesli down, knowing that this will be used as fuel in the first few miles was a hard chore. Fed and watered it was time to get down to the start for our 7.10am departure time. Riding the 10 minutes to the start was a gentle introduction to the day’s proceedings. Turning the corner into the start area we were greeted by the mass chaos of riders still trying to sign on, while others were desperate not to miss the start with groups of friends.
Finally our time had come and we were off. Turning left out of the gate the 100 mile ride had begun. The weather looked like it would be kind to us today. I was harbouring a cold (picked up from an event the previous week). I was clad with arm and knee warmers, plus the addition of a gilet to keep the worst of the wind off my chest. Noting the keenness of a mixed group of riders, some of which were flying off the front like it was a quick blast round Richmond Park, I settled in for a day in the saddle. Upon reaching the first small hill it then struck me that my cold had progressed onto my chest as I had next to no power at all on those little hills. Catching up with my riding buddy I encouraged him to go off with the faster group ahead as I was struggling on the rolling sections covered so far.
The steepest, but not the longest, climb of the day was soon upon me, the 25% percent climb up to Alfred’s Tower. Wheezing like a forty a day Woodbine smoker, the hill got the best of me half way up and reluctantly I dismounted. Taking my bike for a walk allowed me to catch my breath for a couple of hundred yards. This allowed me to remount and finish the climb aboard my bike. Andy from D E Photos had perched himself at the crest of that hill to get some great gurning photos of the riders, including myself!
The off road section through Stourhead country park seemed to create all sorts of chaos with riders taking it very gingerly over the loose terrain and those throwing caution to the wind suffering punctures in some cases. I think for some people this came as a surprise, but luckily I had seen the event video from last year. The section from here had a great rolling feel to it and I managed to clock my fastest speed of the day at 75kmph down one hill. I saw a few riders stop off at one pub for a drink (soft drinks); tempting as it was, I kept going.
On through Wells and passing the Cathedral we headed for the longest climb of the day to the top of the Mendips. About ¾ of the way up the climb the second feed was upon us. At the first site of something savoury to eat I was overjoyed. The sun had truly come out at this point and people were removing various layers of clothing. There is a big danger of staying too long at these stops, especially when the volunteers were so helpful in filling riders sandwiches for them. So off I went again, like much of the day riding on my own to the top of Cheddar gorge. Descending through the gorge you needed to keep your wits about you as the car drivers had no regard for any other road users. In an ideal world it would have been great to have the whole road to use while descending.
Heading out of Cheddar passing the families tucking into cream teas and ice cream, we headed across the Somerset levels towards Glastonbury Tor. For the first few miles this had a lovely rolling section to it. With a turn off onto a rougher section heading towards Glastonbury in what seemed like an old Roman road due to the straightness. This allowed you to recover nicely before the last climb of the day. Flying along at 35kmph on my own I decided not to stop at the last feed station as I still had plenty of fluid left on board from the previous one.
Soon the small lane climb to the Tor was upon me. Again hampered by the chest infection I had to dismount and walk the steepest part. Walking up these sections was costing me time, so I remounted as quickly as I could. Knowing that the last climb had finished and there was less than 30km left to ride seemed to ingest some vigour into my tied legs. Soon enough the signposts were pointing back to familiar names from earlier in the day. I crossed the line, not entirely happy with my time but pleased to have finished.
Day Two – the war of attrition with El Nino
Settling down for the night after day one we were hoping that the weather forecasters had got it wrong on the predicted front that was coming our way. The wind had picked up but thankfully no sign of the rain that was threatening. I was awoken at five am to the hammering of rain on the roof of the caravan. My sleeping bag looked like the most sensible place to spend the day, so I stayed there for the next hour not moving an inch. The rain stopped. Somewhere between common sense and lunacy I convinced myself that this was the worst of the rain and up I got. Not fancying the muesli this morning I chucked down a Clif Bar and some coffee. Suited up, off we went to the start. This time we were greeted with a lot less riders. Compared to the first day where around 600 had started, the field had now been reduced to half that. Without the first day chaos our much smaller group of around twenty were off. In the first couple of miles already we were seeing many riders turning round and calling it a day, the pounding rain too much for some.
The first 5km were a magical mystery tour that seemed to set the scene for certain sections that would appear again in the last 17 miles. Again within the first 30km we had a comedy hill, unsure of it’s percentage but I’d make a guess at around 20%. Throwing hills like this into the ride so soon tends to separate the riders up, on a day when you’d preferred to have the shelter of a group to ride in. We hooked up with Salt (it said so on his jacket, sorry don’t know your real name) and Jules, two riders who were using the long weekend as final preparation for the Fireflies ride (good luck to them as it’s a 10 day ride in the alps for charity). In our small group of four it made for more pleasant riding than just plodding along in a twosome. Unfortunately Jules was suffering a few mechanical problems, so Salt pulled back and off we went. I would see them briefly again as they passed me while I was fixing my first puncture of the day.
Suffering with cold fingers it took me rather longer than usual to replace the tube and check the tyre out. I lost around 15 minutes ; standing in the cold didn’t help with trying to keep warm. I got to the first feed and sensibly my riding partner Sarah had already departed, trying to avoid the cold. At the first feed everyone asked for food, but this was just a water and energy drink stop, which considering the reduced starters was a bit of a shock as I was hoping for a banana. The friendly volunteers offered what they could, but to be honest all I wanted was a hot tea or coffee. Quickly I was off, trying as much as possible to avoid the cold.
Most of the next section from the first feed to the second seemed to be a blur. The only bits I remember clearly were the climbs over the MOD range. The climb seemed to go up in a series of steps. None of these were particularly steep, but after all the rain and cold it was a slog to the top. Normally I would have relished the descent off the top, but the roads were very wet by now so caution was the order of the day. If the weather had been clear it would have offered spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. I am told than on a good day you can even see the Isle of Wight.
While descending I incurred my second flat of the day. Neither time had my tyre punctured but I had suffered a pinch flat on both occasions. Off came the wheel and halfway through I started to shake and the first signs of hypothermia were showing. Reaching into my back pockets I ate a Torq bar and took a Smart-1 gel in also. One of the dangers when it’s so cold is that you tend to drink less and the effects had taken its toll. With tyre pumped up off I went, probably a little slowly than I would have liked. Reaching the cattle grid I saw the unhappy sight of an ambulance. A rider had unfortunately come off on the slippery surface. (I later found out the rider had broken his pelvis, get well soon.)
Running low on gas I managed to hook onto the wheels of two boys from Farnborough & Camberley CC. Graham and Adam were each taking monster turns on the front; I hung on the back trying to recover. We made it to the second feed; a quick sandwich and we were off again. It was nice to have a taste of something savoury; I was still looking for that elusive cup of tea though.
The next thirty kilometres between the feed stations took us through the open section of Wareham Forest and round the other side of Sherborne. The rain and wind had been pretty constant all day but thankfully we seemed to have a brief interlude. This allowed me to dry off a little which brought some warmth back to my cold feet. When we reached the final feed we knew that there was only around thirty kilometres left to ride. Here began the second magical mystery tour of the day. It felt like at times we were climbing up two or three sides of the same hills. Feeling tired and wanting a hot shower by this time, I found this a pointless exercise and enjoyed it as much as a visit to the dentist.
Unfortunately I lost my two riding companions on a right hand turn into a village. This was the village that had to have its direction signs replaced four times during the day due to locals removing them. Not wanting to get lost in some of the lanes I ploughed on towards Wincanton. After a quick phone call for some rough directions I ended up coming back down the A303 in the hard shoulder. I don’t know if time trial riders are mad or brave or a little of both after my 13km excursion.
Finally reaching the muddy finish field a huge sigh of relief came over me. Many times had I wanted to quit and maybe if I’d been a little smarter I would have. I crossed the timing mat, rode down to the end and handed in my timing chip. I knew I was cooked after doing 200km (40km more than the route) and that if tomorrow’s weather had been warm and sunny I had nothing left in the legs. At some point I’ll be back to do all three days.
Things to improve on:
The Wessex cycle show element was a bit of a wash out. I can understand that the organiser is looking to bring a little something else to a Sportive. But this needs to be relevant, as watching the Trials riders and BMXers had nothing to do with the weekend’s proceedings. Having the start in a field can be a success or a nightmare depending on the climate conditions. Unfortunately it turned into a mudfest making the start/finish slippery and dangerous.
It’s a shame that some of the helpers hadn’t been briefed on what energy drink they had in the tubs as I am sure more people would have filled up. It would have been good to see the option of some food on all stations, even if it had been a banana. Being dictated to when you had to eat seemed a little strange compared to some events.
Things I enjoyed:
The weather on day one was great, day two was unbelievable at times, I don’t think I have ever ridden so long in the rain. You can’t plan these things, it’s the luck of the draw in our country. Except for the few steep hills over 20%, which killed me with my chest infection, I really enjoyed both courses. I would have liked to have ridden day two in the dry to see if the magical mystery tours might have been better. Did I mention the savoury food at the second feeds?
The nutrition used for the event was a mixture of products from both SIS and Torq (who were an event sponsor) and a couple of Clif Bars thrown in for good measure. Drinks on the bike were either SIS Go or Torq Energy. Both of these are great, not heavy on the stomach like some drinks. Also stuffed in the pockets were some SIS Gels, both the original and the new Smart gel. The new Smart Gel worked brilliantly for me on both days. It provides the same amount of energy as a regular Go gel but with the added punch of the caffeine. The caffeine effect kicks in at around 45-60 minutes from ingestion: I found these useful at the bottom of climbs as it aloud me to concentrate on the descents.
Like many sportive riders I chose to ride a carbon frame. My weapon of choice was a Condor Baracchi that proved to be both comfortable and stiff for the ride ahead. I was using, after the ED’s recommendation, the new Continental GP4000 S tyres. Although I had two flats I never punctured! These were pinch flats caused by hitting divots in the ground due to the heavy water on the road and poor light conditions. The grip of this compound is amazing even in those wet conditions.
I was testing a whole range of various clothing over the two days I managed to ride. I will post some separate reviews for these, but if you were wondering about buying a compact waterproof for the London to Canterbury stage or the Etape, I would recommend that you get hold of a Gore Oxygen II jacket. It kept me dry for the whole of day two, if only I had a full body suit made from it.
I would like to mention a few groups of people who I think were superstars. The motorcycles out-riders were first class. I actually didn’t see them on day one but on day two it was like having three guardian angles flying up and down the course. As one of the event sponsors was Continental, the motorbikes were equipped with tyres and tubes. At one point I saw one of the guys changing a tyre for a rider, as they were unable to due to the cold.
The second group I would like to champion is all the volunteers at the various feed stations. They provided a cheery welcome to all riders. They looked after us on day one under the sun and had to brave the wind and cold of the second day. The third and final group would be the ladies who manned the Food tent back at the START/FINISH. They had to battle with hoards of hungry cyclists, generators breaking down and some ferocious winds. The cakes that were on sale were truly fantastic and went down well with a hot cup of tea.