Simon Warren takes a group of riders out across the open plains and through the stunning gorges of the Sigma Sports Mendips Sportive
Last time I was in Glastonbury was the ‘summer’ of ‘98 suffering four days of constant rain and up to my knees in a river of mud at that year’s music festival.
I had hoped the weather would be better this time round and although it was dry as we unpacked our bikes following a painfully slow journey from London, heavy skies loomed above us.
The forecast showed dark clouds but no rain, so, if only for the sake of this article, we hoped they wouldn’t break and we could stay dry. I could see my optimism wasn’t universal, so in an effort to lift spirits I decided to liven up the day’s ride by declaring we would be ‘sprinting for signs’.
Let me explain
There’s nothing better to get the blood flowing on a cold, overcast day than sprinting for signs. Each village sign we pass on the road is worth a point to the rider who crosses it first. There are no points for second place.
Dangerous riding will be penalised but any and all other tactics are welcome. As I personally haven’t the ability to sprint my way out of a paper bag I have to take different weapons into battle — cunning, surprise and maybe a little secret reconnaissance (heaven forfend).
Knowing the location of a town or village sign is half the battle, you can manoeuvre yourself into position, shelter from the wind, then launch your attack and catch your ‘competitors’ napping. If you are riding in unknown territory and lacking local knowledge you could always take a sneaky look on Google Earth (not that I would).
Before I forget, there is another important rule: anyone found sprinting for a sign that is not an official settlement marker loses a point. If the rider as much as flinches then he is penalised, and as his or her judges are their competitors, appeals are never successful, Oh, and a county border is worth five points, as you will find out.
Rolling away from Street, cutting underneath Glastonbury, the first half-hour of the ride was spent on roads straight out of West Flanders: pan-flat, hedge-less, and following the lines of deep-set dykes.
With the wind on our backs, we were rolling along effortlessly at a very good pace, swapping turns at the front and catching up with club gossip. Facing north, the landscape is dominated by the Mendip ridge, and above it a shroud of threatening cumulonimbus.
It was dry now and borderline mild, but only a fool (or optimist) would start to remove the layers. Now, when I suggested sprinting back in the car park, Mike’s powerful thighs instantly began to pulsate with excitement, his fast-twitch fibres sensing a successful day on the bike.
True to form, and with the rest of us barely able to leave our saddles, he’d bagged the first point, straightening his jersey and looking over his shoulder to check if anyone had followed. Moments later he bagged another, then Duncan took two on the bounce and, with a little luck, I picked up a couple myself.
Approaching the first climb of the day we were all square on two points each, apart from Jon who was playing the long game and yet to open his account. This isn’t the most mountainous route, in fact a glance at the profile will show just three major climbs, but each one is a significant obstacle that will present a challenge to any rider.
Crossing the A371 through Easton it’s time to tackle Ebbor Gorge. Of the three, this is, in my opinion, the toughest of the principal ascents and we agreed that there would be no heroics on the climb, so I sat on the front and tapped out a steady rhythm.
However, one person’s steady rhythm is another’s breathing through their ears and soon the group fragmented; OK, take another kilometre off the pace.
The first half of the climb is nice and gentle but after the junction where you head left it all turns a bit nasty. Before long you’re fighting your bike up a 20 per cent slope, twisting through corners, only briefly, but enough to really hurt.
Mike gave it some proper gas to keep the pace at the front then blew to let me and Duncan grind it out together on the varied undulations to the summit where, with the threat of drizzle in the air, we regrouped.
The route and key climbs
Comprising three stunning ascents and a veritable maze of windswept rural lanes, the Mendips Sportive gives riders of every ilk a chance to shine. Starting in Street, a large village just a few clicks south of Glastonbury, particpants will be treated to quaint and far-reaching scenery and vistas for the duration of the ride.
1 Cheddar Gorge
One of the most famous climbs in Britain, the backdrop for countless photo shoots and advertising campaigns. Cheddar Gorge, once you’ve dragged yourself away from the town, starts to ramp up to 16 per cent right away. Steep and punishing through the lower bends between the high stone walls of the gorge, it’s hard work to drag yourself upwards. The further you ride, though, the easier the slope becomes.
2 Burrington Combe
Not as dramatic as Cheddar Gorge but beautiful all the same, the ride up Burrington Combe begins in the shadow of towering stone walls. The early slopes twist and weave a little and the gradient ebbs and flows, then following a 90 degree left-hand bend it calms down for a long drag to the summit.
3 Ebbor Gorge
The first and toughest climb on the route, Ebbor Gorge will be a real shock to the system after 10 pan-flat miles. You rise away from the A371 between the high hedges and to begin with it isn’t that gruelling, it’s when you reach the T-junction and turn left that it really kicks up. Now it’s a killer, the next 1.5km are a nine per cent average with peaks of 20 per cent.
>>> Route map and profile is available at ukcyclingevents.co.uk/events/mendips-cycling-sportive/
Now on top of the Mendips, we began to zigzag across the plateau, heading for the descent off the other side. Rounding the first of a handful of bends Jon gave flight; had he seen a village sign? Yes? No! He was sprinting for a sign warning of toads — minus one point Jon.
No matter how unique, toad, or for that matter frog signs, do not count. In fact, we hadn’t passed a village for a while now and I could see that everyone’s legs were starting to twitch a little. The merest sight of a house or a blind bend saw the pace quicken, the conversation disappear and the focus on competition return. Mike’s finger was on the trigger and poised to shoot; I was trying to wind it up to a point where he couldn’t get past, just in case.
Rolling off the Mendips, the next part of the route undulates up and round the glorious Chew Lake. It’s neither pan-flat nor lumpy enough to really test the legs, but the roads are fantastic to ride and as we worked our way round we could only watch as Mike increased his sprint tally to eight points — an unassailable lead, perhaps.
Passing through Chew Stoke and the apex of the route, we turned back into the wind and it hit us hard. I knew it’d felt easy until now; I had hoped it was due to great legs but it quickly became evident that a nice tailwind had had quite a part to play in it.
Reassuringly we were all still in good shape; we swapped turns and battled our way over the dam wall along the western edge of the lake. By now I was longing for another climb. Naturally I want every ride to be packed with them and although I’d only registered three when I glanced at the profile, there are a handful of lesser bumps in-between capable of getting the blood flowing, including this rise up into Blagdon.
Break for the border
As we hit the base, Jon engaged his crawler gear and I pushed the pace. Of course we’d all re-group at the top, I just needed to test my legs. Mike hung on briefly but had no need to chase; he was well ahead in the sprinting game and could save his legs. Duncan held on for a while but soon I was alone.
Then while riding solo, up ahead, what was that I saw? I looked back, there was no one there, then looked in front again. It was the sign marking the border into North Somerset, that’s worth five points. Bingo! I pushed on, rolled into Blagdon and smugly picked up another. I was now level pegging with Mike. Ha ha, the climber had clawed back his deficit on one hill.
Next up on the route is the second major climb and my favourite of the three, Burrington Combe, it’s an absolute beauty. Not as visually spectacular as Cheddar Gorge, and not as viciously steep as Ebbor Gorge, it sits somewhere between the two on both counts, testing you with its variations of slope.
I was keen to work my climbing legs here — it would be rude not to when presented with such a canvas — so I gently wound it up and pressed on to the top. It’s an awkward climb to ride, its predominantly mild slopes are interspersed with a series of stiff little ramps which check your speed and hinder your progress, which is why I like it so much.
The key is to click down a gear when it gets steep, preserve your cadence then as soon as it evens out again, click back up and pick the speed up again.
As I waited briefly at the summit it was now that the weather closed in — or more like we had closed in on the weather. Until now, the bulbous clouds had managed to contain their load but now we had ridden right into them and it was time to get wet. Through a haze of thick drizzle we rode on, looking for the path back down off the ridge; conditions were reasonably grim.
Following the plunge into Cheddar we saw a garage and decided to refuel. Between us, among other things we purchased a bottle of tonic water, a Pepperami, a Weetabix milk drink and a hundred weight of flapjack.
Bottles replenished it was now time for the highlight of the ride, the show-stopper, the one and only Cheddar gorge. I’d been selling this climb the whole morning, Mike had never seen it before and it’s safe to say his mind was blown.
Every time I ride it I spend more time looking up than where I’m going — I never tire of its beauty and its drama. It’s simply stunning. In fact Jon liked it so much he spent an extra five minutes looking at its lower slopes, at least that was his excuse for keeping us waiting at the top.
With the summit crossed, the reasonably grim weather turned substantially bleak and soon visibility was down to 50 metres, the roads were covered in mud and the rain was coming in sideways.
I’d like to tell you about the views, the wonderful scenery but I was having trouble keeping an eye on the wheel in front. We were cold and desperate to get off the tops and back to the flatlands, and quick. Not because we’d had enough of the hills of course, we yearned for more, we just needed to get out of this cloud.
Once back on the flat, after a slight hiatus in the sprinting, we needed to flex the legs to warm us up again; we needed another sign, but could we find one? There were none, and now Mike was starting to see things, his legs were exploding like popcorn in a pan.
First he chased a school sign — minus one point. Then a sign for an antiques shop — minus one point. No longer able to control his natural instincts he was chasing ghosts, sprinting for anything and everything that crossed his path. At this rate all I had to do was sit back and the title would be mine!
Crossing the Somerset flats, the wind was biting and it was clear that Jon’s legs were gone, everyone has a bad day so we were nursing him a little to keep him out of the wind. On paper this last section of the route seems pointlessly convoluted; it’s only when you check the profile that you understand why it weaves around so much, to make the most of this little ridge of hills.
These last 20 miles were actually my favourite of the whole ride. The variation of the exposed flat straights, the short little climbs, into the wind, out of the wind — it was great fun to ride. And we’d also found some more village signs at last which Mike was comfortably hoovering up, much to the disgust of Duncan who was giving it all he had to try and pip him to at least one of them.
Riding up into Shapwick, I saw the sign was on a significant incline and as the strongest climber I felt confident; I surged, gave it everything, only to see Mike fly past, then instantly regret it. He had used his last bullet. Ha, now he was in trouble, I was now going to ride him into the ground, that would be the last point he’d score.
Towards the Tor
At this point Jon had chosen a short-cut back, leaving the three of us to hammer out the remaining miles home, and hammer them we did. Swapping turns with Duncan we did our best Belgian hardman impressions and fought the wind with all our might, pounding the flat roads; it felt great to really turn the screw.
Instead of taking the same route back to the HQ as we left on, the ride follows the B222 straight into the heart of Glastonbury. It had me wondering why until I looked up to see the famous Tor dead ahead, a symbolic beacon to drag you home.
By now all Mike could do was hold the wheel until the elastic snapped, leaving the two of us to fight for the ultimate glory of reaching Glastonbury first. By the time we got there we were both shattered and really couldn’t be bothered, and anyway, victory for the day went to Mike — those huge thighs would not be defeated.
The profile of this ride may only feature three prominent climbs, but it is about much more than that. It offers up a smorgasbord of terrain, from 20 per cent corners to exposed flatlands and everything in-between, so whether you’re a 60kg climber or 100kg rouleur you’ll just love the Mendips Sportive.