North Somerset with Team Plowman Craven

DISTANCE 41 miles (66km)

MAIN CLIMB Cothelstone Hill

TOTAL CLIMB 950 metres

ACHTUNG! The two A roads can be busy

It’s Monday morning and we’re in Bridgwater at the invitation of the Tour of Britain organisers. The weather is a bit touch and go, and the Plowman Craven riders have had a pretty tough weekend. It’s not an ideal day for looking at part of a big stage race, but it fits nicely into their programme.

There’s a bit of stretching and yawning in the car park, but when the guys get under way everything clicks into place. Cycling is what they do.

“I love cycling for its own sake,” says Neil Coleman. “If you take up running you only ever get two or three miles away from where you live, but with cycling you can explore. It sounds corny, but I love the freedom of the open road.

“I also like cycling because it’s a sociable sport,” he continues. “I enjoy the Saturday rides from Chippenham that Andy Cook organises. All abilities ride together — it’s good way of meeting useful people, like builders and plumbers.”

Meeting doctors too. That’s what Alex Higham is. For him 2008 is a one-off. “The offer from Plowman Craven was my last opportunity to do this, to be a full-time bike rider. I’m starting a GP training course in August, although I’ll try and put that back a month so I can do the whole year. I’ll never be far away from exercise though. It’s such a central part of my life,” says the former Cambridge University rower.

North SomersetHill preview

Coleman and Higham, along with PCA’s Bristol-based Simon Richardson, plus two 18 year olds, Ed Griffin and Josh Yetman from the South West Bike Academy, are attending the launch of the Chard to Burnham-on-Sea stage of the Tour of Britain this afternoon, but they are keen to have a look at a key hill in the stage this morning.

To warm up they ride west alongside the northern edge of the Quantock Hills, which is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and squeeze through the gap between the hills and the Bristol Channel at West Quantoxhead.

A little loop takes the group towards the small harbour town of Watchet, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You know, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” and all the bad karma that comes from shooting an albatross. Then from Watchet they turn south, cross the A39, and enter more lumpy terrain to traverse the eastern edge of the Brendon Hills.

These are an off-shoot ridge of Exmoor, where the local authorities actively support a number of cycling initiatives and events, and will welcome the Tour of Britain when it crosses the moor on this stage in September.

The group joins the route for what will be the crucial part of the stage at Bishop’s Lydeard. This is the beginning of the Cothelstone Hill prime. There’s a drag up to the start and a flat bit across the top before the descent, but the crux of the climb is two kilometres long, averages eight per cent and has some steep bends. The top is only 17 miles from the end of the stage, and it’s all downhill or flat.

Alex Higham shows what he’s good at on the climb, and it’s not “sitting in dead last position in the bunch”, like he said earlier when asked what he thought was his top racing skill. But there’s no serious attacking in the group. This is supposed to be an easy day and Ed Griffin from the South West Academy has snapped a gear cable, leaving him with 39×11 and in need of motor assistance to reach the top.

North SomersetBluebell wood

The hill is heavily wooded, with fantastic views of surrounding countryside snatched between the trees. A carpet of bluebells sway in a chilly breeze below us on this late April day. Showers threaten and it’s not a day for hanging about, but Coleman says we’re in exactly the kind of place that got him into cycling.

“I used to borrow my dad’s Raleigh tourer and I thought riding it through the lanes was brilliant. I’d go out on my own and ride for miles and even at 15 or 16, before I started racing, I would ride up and down the same hill five times just because I enjoyed it.”

Coleman still enjoys the simple, quiet pleasure of riding in English lanes, although he’s done a lot of racing in America, and he really enjoyed that too. “The criterium circuit over there is amazing. There are races all over and we were never in the same place for five minutes. It was real rock and roll racing, living in the back of a van sometimes,” he says.

The final downhill bit back to Bridgwater is over in a matter of minutes. The stage will rush through the outskirts of the Somerset town (which to its great credit was the first town in Britain to petition the government against slavery) before heading across Bridgwater Bay to Burnham-on-Sea on the mouth of the river Severn. It has the second greatest tidal range in the world, and a British stage victory here would underline the rising tide of road racing in this country.

North SomersetYOUR GUIDES

Neil Coleman

Age 26, single,

lives in Corsham

Has a degree is sports science

Cycling strength is time trialling

Alex Higham

Age 29, single,

lives in Lambourne

Has a medical degree

Cycling strength is climbing


Take the unclassified road west out of Bridgwater and pass north of Durleigh reservoir. Continue through Spaxton and turn right (TR) at the top of Hawkridge reservoir on unclassified. Turn left (TL) on A39 at Nether Stowy and TR on B3191 at Williton. TL on B3190. TL at Fairy Cross on the B3188. TL on B224 just after Elworthy. TR on A358 and TL on unclassified at Bishop’s Lydeard to Cothelstone. Continue through Cothelstone to Bridgwater on unclassified.