With 325 miles of riding over three days, was set to be a challenge even in good weather. The weather forecast as of Friday lunchtime predicted torrential rain and howling winds. I have never wanted to ride my bike less.
As it turned out the event was one of the best I’ve entered and I enjoyed (almost) every mile.
Day One: Mendips and Cheddar Gorge
The sun was shining and the mood was upbeat as we signed on at 6.30am on Saturday morning. There was a slight delay (due to the PA system not working) but we were soon lined up ready for the start.
We were supposed to be setting off in groups of about 20 riders according to our predicted finish times… but needless to say trying to organise cyclists is a bit like herding cats and we started in whichever group we fancied, eager to get pedalling. It worked well enough and by 7.20am my group bleeped over the timing mat.
Day one took us out through the Mendips and a quintessentially English landscape of thatched cottages and beautiful, quiet roads through meadows and woodland: a bucolic idyll. There was a real diversity of riders and plenty of women taking part.
Many were triathletes using the weekend as training for Ironman competition and were riding very strongly. There was a real mix of bikes too from the nondescript to the rather flashy (and in my opinion rather ridiculous for the event) full-aero time trial machines.
Signage was excellent (although a few people went astray, due perhaps to a particular local who thought it amusing to remove the signs) and there was great motorbike support from the National Escort Group who carried cheery grins, spare tubes and mechanical know-how.
Some junctions were marshalled and we needed the reassurance when we turned, somewhat incredulously, onto a rocky track past a stately home, an intriguing detour which claimed a few punctures.
We’d been warned about the descent through Cheddar Gorge and rightly so — the lead into it was fast but as the wide swooping bends funnelled into the gorge it threw a couple of tight corners in-between the high limestone sides.
The ambulance was already attending to a broken collarbone. I braked carefully and took time to admire the soaring walls of Britain’s biggest gorge.
The ride finished on flat, straight roads and I enjoyed stretching my legs a bit before rolling back over the timing mat in time to enjoy a tuna sandwich while perusing the trade stands and watching the BMX tricks on the half-pipe.
One day down, two to go.
Day Two: Dorset and Isle of Purbeck
Sunday morning started as the forecast had predicted, cold and wet, and there were considerably fewer riders on the start line. But those who stayed in bed missed out on a surprisingly enjoyable ride.
Yes, it rained persistently all day, and on a couple of exposed sections the rain stung my lips and cheeks, but it was not as torrential nor as windy as I’d feared. I was glad that I’d packed some extra layers, though, and stopped off to buy some race blades after work on Friday.
If nothing else my backside would be dry… for a few minutes at least.
Predictably, punctures and mechanicals beset those riders who did brave the weather and it’s a testament to the great camaraderie of sportive riders that one man, who had had a couple of punctures and decided to call it a day, gallantly lent his (un-punctured) rear wheel to my friend whose spoke had broken 10 miles in.
He left hers in the sign-on tent where he would retrieve his some eight hours later.
The ride again took us through some incredible scenery, this time heading south-east to the coast at Swanage. We pedalled along avenues of rhododendron and through woodlands heavy with the scent of wild garlic before climbing across open heathland.
We had a rather misty view of the Cerne Abbas Giant (which was a big tick off my list of things to see) but I never noticed the sea through the unfaltering rain.
The climbs were steadier than Saturday’s, but the twisty, leaf-littered descents were a bit hairy in the wet and we all had to renew our brake blocks when we got back to camp.
This is where the early start time was a godsend as, despite eight hours riding, we still had time to shower and relax before cleaning and fettling our bikes in the afternoon (in the rain). My best memories of day two are a row of bikes outside a tea shop about 30 miles in, and a single rubber glove floating in a gigantic puddle near the finish, looking for all the world as if a rider may still be attached to it.
Undying thanks and admiration go to the stoic souls at the feed stations who smiled through chattering teeth as they refilled our bottles and handed out bananas in the pouring rain.
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Day Three: Quantocks and Exmoor
The bad weather continued through the night and Monday dawned damp with a bitter north wind blowing. The start was delayed until 7.30am as the tent housing the timing equipment had blown down.
The wind was to remain with us most of the day, but the rain at least stopped by 8am and the sun shone.
It was hard to get the right balance of layers for climbing and descending. The bright sun and biting wind were in keeping with what was a day of extremes.
The route was flat and fast for the first 25-30 miles — and then we hit the Quantocks. I had jokingly said I’d been thinking of putting a 27 on my triple. Someone said grimly I should have done. They weren’t kidding. What an awful climb. It was endless. And steep. And we still had another 100 miles of riding and two more big climbs to come.
Just as I thought I could go no slower and maintain momentum, the road swung left and got even steeper. For the first time in a long time, I gave up and got off. Defeated. I found out later that some of the faster riders had made it up on a 39×23.
More rolling fast roads and some nice little lanes swept us along to Dunkery Beacon which was steep but not as bad as the first hill.
It did occur to me, as we muscled our bikes heroically upwards, that to the casual observer we must have looked rather silly. There are quicker and easier ways up a hill — walking for one! The view from the top was fantastic though.
Day three felt by far the toughest. The fast roads were great for getting the miles in but there weren’t as many attractive lanes as on days one and two. The three main climbs were brutally steep and, to cap it all, the route turned out to be more than 130 miles of riding instead of the promised 125.
Those last few miles nearly did for me mentally. My hands hurt, my feet hurt, my butt hurt. I had not bargained for another five or six miles and was riding on my own at that point — although the motorbike riders did wave cheerily before speeding off on their comfy big bikes.
When I reached the finish line, in nine and a half hours, I added up the figures for the weekend and discovered I’d ridden for 24 of the previous 58 hours. No wonder my backside was sore.
All in all the Tour of Wessex is a fantastic event.
Where else can you ride through three distinct and beautiful parts of the country from a single base? There was good signage, great motorbike support, quiet roads, stunning scenery and, best of all, fig rolls and Soreen bars at the feed stations. My favourites! I definitely recommend this event.
WANT TO RIDE IT?
JUST as the Tour of Wessex is well organised on the road, so too does it have a particularly informative website. Log on to www.tourofwessex.com to find out about how to take part.
Not only will you find details about the routes and how to register, you can also discover more about the local area, read training advice, find nearby accommodation, and even order commemorative T-shirts.