Despite LEL being my big ride for the year, I have been looking forward to the Wessex Super Randonneur Series much more than LEL. I have been hoping that they'd be a real highlight for the year. A little history of the series is here - http://www.wessexsr.talktalk.net/general.htm
The series has not run as calendar events for a number of years now, but the perms have been widely talked up by a number of people (though primarily Hummers of YACF) as being some of the finest (and hardest) rides around.
On this 20th anniversary of the first running of the series, the organiser, Shawn, has been persuaded to run the whole series as calendar events (with the support of various controls being open at strange hours etc.). This made the series even more appealing as one of the main challenges with the permanent versions of the rides are the controls. So I felt I just had to ride the series this year.
I knew it would be hard. Hummers is a strong rider and some of his descriptions of the terrain to be covered made me realise that these rides would take serious work and would test me to the limits. The series starts with a double-header of the Hard Boiled 300 followed by the Dorset Coast 200 - the distances are challenging enough, but the inclusion of 7250 metres of climbing makes for a real head-banger of a weekend.
So, on Friday evening, I found myself camping (more on that shortly) near Wareham. The first thing to understand about the rides is that their timings are fairly unusual in some cases. The Hard-Boiled 300 starts at 2am, giving 4 or so hours riding before the sun rises, but also meaning that the finish cut-off is 10pm that evening - which actually means there's a chance of a decent sleep between this and the Dorset Coast (normally a 300 starts around 6am with a cut-off at 2am - I am not sure whether this timing was done for that reason, but I'll take a decent sleep between rides any day).
Having pitched my tent and eaten some dinner at the local pub, I saw a few familiar faces at the campsite (Daniele, Justin and Adam who I have ridden with on a number of rides). Having said hellos and agreed that we'd leave the campsite at half past midnight (we were about an hour's ride away from the start (but only fifteen minutes away from the start of the Dorset Coast for the next day)), we all went to get a little rest. I didn't sleep much - lightly dozed for a couple of hours. Nervousness about not waking up, kept me awake.
By just after midnight, it was cold. Way below freezing. So we all wrapped up and headed over to Poole. There was already quite a crowd gathering in the train station car park - we quickly hopped up to a garage for some pre-ride snacks and then went and had the usual chats with friends old and new.
Brevet cards distributed and off we went into the cold night. The first section was on larger roads without serious gradient, so fast group-riding was a great way to really munch the miles. I was really upset when our group widened out to avoid a dead animal when I glanced down to see it was a cat with a collar. I felt bad that I couldn't really stop and at least move the poor thing to the side of the road and look at the contact details on it's collar. I know cats get knocked down a lot in towns (one of the reasons why we're so happy our garden has 9 foot high walls!), but it's really not that common on country lanes. Poor little thing.
The temperatures were still on their way down. My Garmin was reading in the minus 3 or 4 range most of the night-time section, but as we approached Shrewton (the first control) it was noticeably colder and water bottles were now not functioning properly with frozen spouts etc. Just as dawn was beginning to think about happening, we reached the first control. It was now minus 6 on the Garmin and there were some seriously cold riders now. Amazingly, the organiser had arranged for a pub to be open (from 4am!) to serve us breakfast. A roaring log fire helped many people warm up a little, and spend some time there (we were there for 50 minutes - a long time, but really needed in those temperatures). Breakfast eaten, feet warmed a little and off we went again. I was riding primarily with a bunch of chaps from AC Hackney (Justin, Gadge, Adam, Joolz and he who must not be named). It was so cold as we left. Utterly miserable. And things were now getting choppier and laneyier (made up audax word - more laney - i.e. off the main roads and onto the little lanes, usually slower, harder riding, and (as we'd find more and more on the ride) often with comedy surface conditions more suited to mountain bikes). The sun came up and really warmed us - it promised to be a magnificent day. Forecasts had been for temperatures up to around 10 degrees - after the past 3-4 weeks, that would be most welcome. A problem throughout the weekend was getting layers right - the winds were still cold and if you were out of the sun, it was still chilly. But there were some climbs where sweat was dripping off me.
The second stop was reached - a sort of transport cafe. We were half way - 150km in 8.5 hours - it wasn't super fast at all - but it meant we had 11.5 hours for the second half - we were pretty comfy with that idea. Gadge even got to read the paper for a while:
We were fairly comfortable with the time, though we knew things were going to get a lot tougher soon enough. Almost as soon as we left the control, we got badly split up - a locked Garmin and a wrong turn meant some back-tracking, and then 2 of the group stopping to sort out the Garmin (at the top of a big descent saying for others to carry on) - I raced down the hill, only to find that everyone had stopped with the Garmin-sorters. My legs were feeling good - and whilst it is good fun riding in a group, you have to be a bit selfish at times and push on - we had 25km of respite though as we rode on the Somerset levels heading to our next stop at Axminster, so I really caned that section solo. But once we were over the levels, things went vertical again, with a very challenging climb taking us up to our highest point on the ride of around 280m. We were now very fragmented as we dripped into Axminster - the hills had split us all up even more. But we got there and assessed the situation. Hummers' advice was to make sure you had at least 7 hours for the last 100km. We had around 7.5 hours - so whilst we weren't up against it, we knew we couldn't mess around. We all knew that the last 100 was the hardest part (the Hard Boiled is so called because it gets harder as time goes on I believe), so left with a steely resolve to get this done.
On a big climb on the next section, myself and Justin were a little ahead of the group (at this point I was climbing well and Justin (on fixed!) had no choice but to HTFU and get on with it). Coming down the hill was a lad on a road bike, on the drops, peddling like crazy in the big ring - way, way too fast - his wheel was bouncing - we both let out a collective expletive as he passed us. A blind left hander is not the place to be on the drops trying to break the world speed record - as soon as we heard the bang, Justin and I stopped dead - we knew it was the lad. He'd come around the corner to find a stopped van (waiting for the rest of our group and a car to pass up the hill) in front of him, a bunch of cyclists on the far side of road to him. From the noise, we thought he must have hit the back of the van - and that would have been game over at the speed he was doing. Justin said he was a first aider - so we turned back down the hill - we'd seen the rest of our group jumping off their bikes. We were really fearing the worst as we approached the accident. Thankfully - the lad (15 or 16) was on his feet. I am still not sure what had happened - but he hadn't hit the back of the van - but he had hit the deck very hard and removed lots of clothing and skin. He was about 10 miles from home - luckily the lady in the car stepped in and was prepared to take him home and sort him out. He is no doubt in a lot of pain once the adrenlin wore off. It was rediculously stupid the speed he was going - he was already on the edge of control when he passed Justin and myself - a blind bend on a narrow road is asking for trouble. I love going down hills very fast - but being older and wiser, I take it steadier on roads I don't know and/or have blind bends. He's young and stupid - we all did that sort of thing when we were his age - but hopefully he learnt a lesson. It'll be a painful one for sure - but he's bloody lucky to not be in a wooden box after hitting the back of a van.
After making sure he was getting home - we pushed on up the hills and into the real meat of the Hard Boiled. The hills got more and more frequent - steeper, longer, worse lanes. The problem with these conditions is that you never get a chance to make up the time you lose going up hills - normally, you can gain time back going down the other side of a hill - but here, on twisty narrow lanes with gravel everywhere - you are descending on the brakes all the time. We were now seeing why 7 hours was a sensible time for the last 100km. Our small time buffer was being eroded away rapidly. Panic wasn't setting in quite yet - but urgency was. This led to more splits - Justin and I were still climbing well (apart from the really steep stuff that Justin had to walk on fixed (and, purely for solidarity you must understand, I joined him on a couple of walks!) and were quite a bit in front of the others.
We dragged our sorry bodies into Maiden Newton where there was a control at the village hall - we knew we better not hang around - we were still in time, but it was reasonably tight. We had 55km to go now. Slowly the rest of the group came in looking battered and bruised - but still in reasonable spirits. Tea, cakes and a bit of banter and we were off again for more of the same. The profile on the routesheet showed three really choppy big hills to come straight after the control - before it eased off slightly for the last 25km or so.
Yep - they were three big hills. Again splitting us up - and again Justin and I found ourselves off the front by a little way. We were constantly doing the maths on finishing in time - we were comfortable now we hoped - we were looking for around a 19 hour finish - a whole hour within the limit! It was getting dark now and I started to suffer with tiredness - I feel sick when I am sleepy tired - and this is what I was suffering. I knew I'd finish - but it was really hard work now. I told Justin to head on and plodded on for the last 10km or so.
Finally - the bright lights of Poole and a pub finish. 19 hours and 10 minutes of brutal riding. 320km and 4419 metres of ascent (mainly condensed into the second half!). So glad to finish. Every 5 minutes or so, another one of the group would arrive looking shell-shocked to have finished. We were missing Gadge though - he must have had an issue. Eventually he called Justin - where's the finish??? He was in a bit of a panic - he'd assumed the finish was at the train station (where we started), but it was in a pub (probably only 3-400 metres away). Justin eventually found him and guided him into the finish (about half an hour after he'd actually finished! But still within the time limit).
Adam chose this moment to reveal that he'd noticed a crack in his rim at Axminster (and had decided not to tell anyone!). This put his ride in the 200 in jeopardy - luckily, I had a spare set of wheels with me (a faster lighter set that I was planning to maybe try on the 200 - I built them a few weeks ago, my first ever wheel build and I wanted to see if they'd survive!). This meant he could take my other wheel - however, he was 9 speed and I am 10 speed - we'd need to swap cassettes. I certainly hadn't packed a cassette tool - but a quick chat with a local rider secured the required tools for the next morning we hoped!
Drinks, food and discussions about how to get back to the campsite led us to decide that the train could take the strain as the thought of riding another 20km in the cold was not appealing.
It was another very very cold night - probably around minus 5 or 6 again. I slept well - I had one night time pee expedition (and it was freezing!!) but woke up with slightly cold feet (my sleeping bag (a new one bought just so I could camp at this time of year) has a comfort rating of minus 5 - seems pretty accurate as I was just about ok).
The bike was a bit frosty in the morning.
I was stupid not to have emptied the bottles - they were of course frozen solid - but I was lucky, they hadn't split.
Wheels swapped and Adam had to ride to the start (about 5km) with my wheel in his hand - luckily it was mainly downhill!
The Dorset Coast is one of the oldest regular audax rides - this is it's 36th year of running and it (and it's little brother the 100km Dorset Coastlet) attract a huge field (especially as it's far from an easy ride!).
Adam had said he was fine setting off after us as he needed to sort out the wheel etc. So we left him to deal with all of that.
We all knew that we were in for another punishing day - and our legs were very stiff and sore. We'd ridden what, certainly in my opinion, is the hardest 300 out there - and now we were going to tackle a very tough 200km ride.
Luckily, it started pretty mild with a blast to a chain ferry at Sandbanks. We rolled up to the ferry quay to see it cast off with many many cyclists on board. Oh well - it only takes 10-15 minutes to turn around - so we popped into a cafe for coffees and snacks to eat on the ferry - great cornish pasty sorted me out.
Onto the ferry - with a small number of other cyclists (the slow and the late-starters!). Over the other side, we were joined by Martin Lucas for a while - it's very rare for me to ride with him as he's one of the very fastest riders there is. He'd been staying with his folks nearby and had made a leisurely start (no doubt he'd still have been one of the first back!).
The route of the Dorset Coast took me past many places I remember as a child from holidaying in Dorset - Corfe Castle was one such place and it looked magnificent in the decent sunshine (though not as hot as the previous day, and the wind was up).
We (again I rode with Justin and Gadge) made it to the Weymouth control feeling ready for good feed - we didn't use the main control cafe (as it was rammed) but chose one that Justin and Gadge have used on the perm version of the ride. 11:30 seemed like a good time for a plate of chilli and rice - and it hit the spot perfectly. We received a text that Adam was on the road (we weren't sure what wheel he was on though) and he'd have some navigation challenges - but was moving.
We set off - we all felt pretty battered - fine on the flat - but lacking punch on any sort of climb (and there were some climbs to come!). It was noticeable that many of the Hard Boiled riders were floating around the rear of the field with us!
I was clearly feeling a little stronger than the others (though not a lot!) and moved clear of the others. Some whopping climbs took us to some great viewpoints of the coast. Whilst the climbs were hard - they were not as energy sapping as the choppy stuff from the previous day.
At Axminster, the ride had taken over a school hall for food and drinks included in the entry fee (and it was great - especially the veggie soup!). I was feeling okay - still moving - but finding it hard work (especially the climb up Abbotsbury hill!). I was being very leisurely at the control - and the others rocked up - with Adam! He was using my wheel and everything was working well for him! I was well chuffed for him.
I left a little ahead of them again - I had some time in hand, but not an awful lot. We had a nasty climb out of Axminster (Sector Lane) and a real monster (Spyway Hill??) to deal with in the next section - really hard work and my stomach was playing up. Audax puts ones stomach and bowels through hell - without wishing to get too graphic, I spent a large portion of the run into Dorchester playing the "Gas or solid?" gamble.
The wind (of the natural sort!) was also causing me troubles, and the ridge following Spyway Hill was amazingly beautiful but had me riding into a stern headwind that was also quite cold. Hard work.
Dorchester - the new place to come and die it seems - as you come in there are hundreds and hundreds of brand new retirement apartments. This Google Streetview is old - but panning around it gives an idea of how much has been constructed there:
It is weird - it's like a film set. Many of the units weren't quite finished and/or were empty. I am not sure if they are still being finished or whether they are something that seemed like a good idea pre-2008.
Anyway - by now things were at danger level in the toilet games - so arriving at the control, I sprinted into the loo to lighten the load.
Funny little greasy spoon in a car park for the last control - I was definitely in the very back part of the field now. The rest of the boys arrived shortly afterwards and Adam sat down to this plate of pork and meat of dubious origin:
It was now clear that we were getting close to the time limit (13 and a half hours) - but we could see that it was primarily downhill from here.
Lights on and off we went for the last 28km. Gadge, Adam and Justin were all intending to catch a train back to London - this was complicated by rail replacement buses - so some nervousness had set in about trying to get bikes onto the buses etc. (and the risk of being stranded in Wareham overnight etc.). Gadge was a man possessed to get back for a certain time - I couldn't hold him as he hooked onto the back of a pair of faster riders who passed us. I knew I was likely to finish in time now, so plodded along on my own for the gentle descent home. Anyway - I caught him up as his Garmin batteries had run out and he needed to change them.
We rolled into the finish after around 13 hours - so enough time in hand to be happy.
We'd done it - parts 1 and 2 of the Wessex Super Randonneur. It had been a very challenging weekend (Saturday in particular) but with some amazing cycling and some great laughs along the way.
The boys gave up on the idea of trying to get bikes onto a rail replacement bus (always a gamble) and sorted taxis out to Bournemouth - I am of the understanding that beer was procured on the way to the Bournemouth - so the train journey went just fine!
I am now looking forward to the Porkers 400 - this apparently is the hardest ride of the whole series, so I am also a little worried about it. I need to study the route profiles carefully and work out where we will lose the time etc. (everywhere I think!).
The legs are tired and sore - but I am so pleased to have got around without too many dramas. A couple of days off the bike should help things recover a little - maybe a light spin tomorrow!
Edited to add some Strava goodness: