DISTANCE 85 miles (135km)

MAIN CLIMB Symonds Yat was the sting in the tail, but there are plenty of nasties along the way

ACHTUNG! Don?t enjoy the views too much on the hairpin descents

Apparently when this event was first run last year, FODSC organiser Graham Temple was told by a number of would-be entrants that they weren?t going to bother with it because it wasn?t hard enough ? they ?wanted a challenge?.

Perhaps they?d never been to the Forest of Dean before. I didn?t ride last year but given its complete lack of flat terrain, it seems unlikely that any good-length route in this beautiful part of Britain could offer anything but a stiff challenge.

In any case, what the naysayers certainly did achieve was to make the whole experience a sight harder for us all in 2007, as Graham sought to silence any doubters for good.

?It?s got at least 20 recognised climbs,? he told me proudly on the start line, adding with a grin: ?I?m certainly glad I don?t have to ride it.?

I have to confess that while I realised it wouldn?t be a pushover, I wasn?t fully prepared for the severity of the challenge that lay ahead. With Graham?s words, plus a few additional comments from various riders who knew their onions, it was gradually becoming apparent to me that it was going to be a seriously hard day.

Bad press

In particular, the climb of Symonds Yat ? thoughtfully slotted in at the end of the ride ? was getting a bad press. Graham had told me how the previous year Matt Postle, ex-Tour of Britain stage winner no less, had to walk up it, and it had been variously described to me as ?three miles of one-in-10?, and ?a mile of one-in-four?. Topping it all was the manager?s reaction at my hotel in Symonds Yat when he thought I intended to ride over it into Monmouth on the morning of the ride: he paled visibly and gave me the sort of stare usually reserved for someone announcing their intention to ride Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Whichever of the various claims was true, it was clear Symonds Yat was going to hurt.

At least starting the ride was simple and painless. No queueing or jostling, just turn up and go, any time between eight and 10am. From the start gantry at the trade village in the centre of Monmouth, we cut across Chippenham Fields park, doubled back along the road, a left, then a right, and then bang ? onto the first climb. Which went onwards and upwards for the best part of five miles, all the way to the village of Trellech.

What a start. After dropping down into the Wye Valley itself, we enjoyed about half a mile of flat road before heading up the opposite side, another long, steep climb. And so the story continued.

By this time I had come across a hard-working, coherent group of riders from London Dynamo, and I did my best to follow them. They were a little on the strong side for me though, and each climb saw me gradually transform into a huffing, puffing, snotty mess as I drifted out the back, before having to sprint like a maniac to get back on as the road levelled.

I hung in there though ? until we got lost. The arrowed route had so far been spot-on. It seemed pretty obvious where to go and the confirmation arrows placed 100 yards after each junction made it even more failsafe. Foolishly though, I was following wheels, not arrows, and somehow our group ended up off course.

They carried on while I found a couple of guys from Welland Valley Wheelers ? Rob and John ? who had more sense than the rest of us and were actually in possession of an OS map.

Into the forest

After a six-mile detour, which looped back to Monmouth and then up a three-mile hill, we were finally back on course. The ride was still young, and I was knackered.

So far we?d only skirted the Forest of Dean; now we plunged into it, heading south-west towards Lydney over a succession of testing lumps, before heading north again, finally pointing ourselves at the feed station. It couldn?t come quickly enough. At 90km ? 10 more than planned ? we arrived at the feed. Wide-eyed and jelly-legged, I stuck away a banana and a cereal bar, and topped up on energy drink. Perfect.

After a short rest I was ready to go again, and with Rob and John opting to hang around a while longer, this time I was on my own. Thirty-five miles to go ? how hard could it be?

Very hard, actually. This final leg was obviously where Graham the organiser had decided to reap revenge on those who?d dared underestimate the Forest of Dean. The climbs became steeper, and they became longer. Bull?s Hill, Ruardean, New Road ? just three nasties in what became a blur of painful ups and all-too-brief downs over the next 20 miles.

Mercifully, New Road brought us back round to the same feed we?d enjoyed earlier. More cake, more banana, more energy drink, 15 miles to go, and two utter stinkers to negotiate on the way.

Coup de grâce

The first came almost immediately ? whistling down a steepie into the depths of a gorgeous valley. I could see riders in the distance, beetling up the other side, following a hedgerow along what looked like a near-vertical lane. From the bottom the reality wasn?t much better, not quite vertical but a good 20 per cent. People were walking. Who can blame them? Thanks to my compact chainset I made it over, but only just.

And so on to Symond?s Yat, the Forest?s dreaded coup de grâce. Ah, it wasn?t that bad. After all the horror stories I?d built it up so high in my mind that the anticipation was far worse than the realisation ? which at Symond?s Yat was a trifling couple of miles? steady climbing followed by a 200-yard 25 per cent ramp.

After the Yat I had prepared myself for a couple of miles? gentle descending back to the finish at Monmouth, so I was dismayed to find a further 10 miles of blustery open road to tackle, still alone. But it was duly done, and I enjoyed sweet revenge as I cruised the final few downhill miles into Monmouth ? descending the hill we?d had to climb earlier, after going off course.

ROUTE DETAILS

The ride starts in the Welsh market town of Monmouth and heads south to Trellech. Then cross the valley back into England and loop north towards Monmouth, cutting across to Staunton. Then south to Coleford, Bream and Lydney before north again to Cinderford via Pillowell and Soudley.

You?re now well and truly into the forest. The route then loops west back to Coleford, up to Edge End and then back east to Drybrook, passing a feed on the way. The action hots up now as you tackle Bull?s Hill, Ruardean and New Road before arriving at the feed for the second time.

With 16 miles left, English Bicknor and then Symonds Yat are your big tasks before a straightforward blast to the finish line back in Monmouth for tea and cake.

WANT TO RIDE IT?

Got to www.forestofdeanspringclassic.co.uk.