The Wessex Series has been very special so far. Challenging, but rewarding. I've nearly got a tear in my eye now it's all finished. As soon as it was announced that the series would run as calendar events to celebrate 20 years since the original series, I knew I would have to make it a target for my 2013 season. A small number of people had ridden these rides as perms over the last few years and were extolling the virtues of them to anyone who'd listen. There's a mystique about the rides that existed with their challenging navigation, difficulties with controlling (on perm versions) and finding places to eat, hills aplenty - could all this wonderful riding only be a couple of hours away from me?
Anyway - I signed up for the series and have been enjoying it all so far. The Porkers, in particular, (write up here) will stay with me for many years to come as one of the finest rides I have ever enjoyed. A whole month has passed since that weekend (I have ridden the BCM600 and a perm Ditchling Devill in the meantime) and I found myself on a campsite in Poole in the pouring rain (it had got increasingly humid through the evening, and it chose the moment I was pitching my tent to let rip with the rain!). A trip to a local pub for dinner with Daniele and Billy (both of whom have ridden the whole series so far as well) and a fairly early night before getting up at just after 4 for the ride down the Queen Mary pub for a breakfast arranged by Shawn the organiser.
It was a great way to start the day - sat eating breakfast with friends old and new talking about the series so far, and the two days of fun we had ahead of us. Unfortunately, the pub was a little overwhelmed, and some people still hadn't got their food before the start - but it all worked very well really.
Because of the slight breakfast challenges, we were off in smaller dribs and drabs than usual - so no big peleton tear up for the first section (and it would have been ideal for it!). The first section saw us heading into quite a stern wind as we headed North East towards Andover. This section was very pretty indeed - we went through so many pretty villages with thatched cottages. The terrain was not overly taxing with gentler, rolling hills to warm our legs up on. The sun was starting to make a real effort as well. It was going to be a hot day for sure.
We arrived at the first control in a decent time considering the wind. What a beautiful spot - the Hawk Inn in Amport. It was certainly a notch up from the usual audax control. After having had my card stamped by Lee I surveyed the menu and went for eggs benedict (a favourite of mine!), others were eating scrambled eggs on toast with salmon. All very fancy and great to drink decent coffee on a ride as well. The pub was beautiful and would make a lovely spot for a weekend away as they had rooms as well.
After more declothing and sun cream application, Crockerton near Warminster was our next control and the bumps started to get a little larger (nothing too crazy yet though!). More pretty villages and countryside let us to Crockerton. As I rolled up to the pub, I was warned by another rider that the food was pricey for not a lot. I had my card stamped by Tony and went to peruse the menu - living in West London, I am used to pricey food and usually things don't bother me too much, but I thought £7.75 for a sandwich was a bit much, so I took a gamble and decided to push on and find another cafe and/or village shop.
As soon as I left the control, we rode past the lakes where we'd all enjoyed the most magnificent breakfast sat by a camper van and a barbecue on the Porkers - brought back many happy memories.
Luckily I hit gold with a village shop (award winning apparently!) that was open for another few minutes. I had a hot cornish pasty, a can of drink, a big bottle of water (to refill my bidon) and a piece of homemade shortbread for less than a fiver - result!
The next section was where things got a little hillier and we were up above 200 metres for the first time. Somewhere on this section I got held up in a cow traffic jam.
I was a little ahead of the main bunch of riders by Beaminster (but the faster boys were well away on the road!), so the control at Beaminster was bereft of audaxers when I arrived. It was a nice surprise to see Shawn there to control - he'd ridden up from Poole to come check up on us. By the time I'd left, the place was very busy with riders tucking into sandwiches and cakes.
The next section was the toughest based on climbing figures. It has over a 2% climbing figure, by which I mean it has 20 metres of climbing per kilometre. For the UK, that's quite substantial. We were heading towards the coast at Lyme Regis and then following it a little inland to Exmouth. It delivered on it's promise and was a very challenging section with 4 or 5 very steep climbs. It was hot in the late afternoon sun as well, making for some serious exertion.
The Exmouth control was at the 24hr Tescos. I controlled at the garage for speed. There was a rider (Stuart I think?) there with a pretty much destroyed rear tyre. It was beyond booting and would have failed. He was ready to hop on a train unless someone was carrying a spare tyre - and indeed, luckily, Postie had a spare to give him.
We were not entering the night time section - a run across to Taunton Deene services. Another very hilly section (1.86% stat fans) with a couple of real monster climbs on the way. There was a lovely wooded section that I reached as the sun was going down - it was getting colder partly as I was in the woods, but mainly because the sun was gone. So it was time to pop on arm and knee warmers - I'd ridden 300km in around 14.5 hours, considering the hills, I was pretty pleased with that.
Going into service stations is always weird on a bike - feels so alien being somewhere integral to our motorway systems on a bike (there's always a back way into service stations and Taunton is no exception with an entrance down a little lane). They always come as a rude awakening with their bright lights, fruit machines, traffic noise etc. But, they are open 24 hours a day, which makes them very suitable for audax usage!
I was starting to feel a little tired, and knew I would probably get the dozies on the next section. It was a colder night than expected, so I didn't fancy taking a nap in a bus shelter or similar. So, I decided I needed to cat nap at Taunton Deane. I did also buy a Red Bull and a Flat White to hopefully give me the caffeine kick to get me through. I put on more layers feeling how cold it was getting (much colder than expected) - I feel the cold very easily (probably as I am very thin), so tend to carry more layers than many riders (I am always amazed when I see people riding in just a jersey when I have 3-4 layers on - lucky them!). I'd run out of layers and was till a bit concerned, so on with the rain jacket as a final layer.
I did get 10-15 minutes nap as well. There were lots of riders streaming in now, so had a chat with a few - everyone seemed in great spirits still. There was some pink sunburnt skin on show as well!
I set off again. The stage started pretty flat over parts of the Somerset Levels. I felt good, not too tired, a little cold - but it was all going well. I was on for reaching the sleep stop around 3am, which gave me a good 5 or more hours in hand for a sleep. Much better than I normally manage.
However, even with a caffeine hit, I did start to struggle a little on this section. I was getting tired, I was slowing down considerably. But I kept going, knowing that I just had to reach Drew's house for a sleep. Drew is a legend in audaxing circles - partly as he's been around a while, but primarily because he has ridden PBP on a couple of very unusual vintage bikes - below is a photo of my bike and his on PBP in 2011.
To get to Drew's we did have to get back up on to the top of Mendips. The very top. By the hardest climb in the Mendips (according to locals).
It would be a hard climb with fresh legs in the day time. At 2am with nearly 400km in the legs, it was evil. If Shawn had been stood by the roadside as I inched up the climb, I may have compelled to jump off the bike and do away with him, just so he couldn't inflict the torture on anyone else in the future! It was exceptionally steep and raised us up well over 250 metres in not very far. At one point I tried to tack across the road and lost the front wheel causing me to tumble off sideways! There was no way I could get going again - it was really steep and the surface was very poor. So I walked a short section until it got less steep before setting off again.
At the top, it was a short distance to Drew's. There were plenty of bikes parked outside his house. It was just after 3am. All was good. A spot of toast and cereal and I was ready for bed. There were no beds left, so a spot on the landing was the best Drew could offer - I was carrying my silk sleeping bag, so that was more than I needed - it was carpetted, so was a luxury floor really (I've slept on hard wooden floors recently on rides - Menai Bridge on the BCM for one).
Whilst I was approaching Drew's, I had been pondering how long to sleep for. I'd got so much time in hand, I could have had 3 hours or more if i wanted. But, I also had another thought - if I finished at a sensible time, I could actually collect my tent and get a train home to London, rather than getting the train on Monday morning. It would cost a fair bit, but I would sleep in my own bed, and be able to make better use of the Monday. So, I elected to go short and get an hour's kip and hit the road by 6am. That should mean around a 6pm finish - perfect!
I got my sleep, got up and attended to hygiene - clean shorts, clean teeth etc.
Breakfast was served - Drew knocking up full englishes with good humour. There were still riders coming in as we were getting ready for the off. Doesn't seem to matter whether you are on your way in or out in this photo though - everone looks equally knackered!
This section looked, in theory, fairly straight-forward with a trip up to Malmesbury and the summer cafe. My legs said otherwise. Every long ride will usually have a section where you feel rough - this was mine. I was very slow. I was really struggling. It took me far longer than expected to reach Malmesbury - I'd been passed by several riders and not been able to hang onto their back wheels. It was a very hard section for me (due to my state, rather than the hills, though there were some of them as well!). It was a very pretty section until the final drag into Malmesbury. I was very pleased to reach the Summer Cafe and eat a lovely stilton and bacon panini, some cake, coffee, lemonade etc. - started to feel alive again.
There were loads of cyclists in Malmesbury - and some were asking where we were off to etc. - it's hard enough explaining the distances we arrive to club riders, let alone non-cyclists and many of them just couldn't get their heads around the fact that we'd set off over 24 hour previously.
In the cafe, I had heard that Hummers (a well-known 'character' of Audax and really the person who championed the Wessex rides over the past few years) had sheared his rear derailleur and put it into the spokes. As I left, he turned up, covered in oil having turned the bike into a single speed machine. He seemed very chipper and ready to tackle the last 150km on single speed (and he did indeed finish, though I think it was tough getting the bike to stay in gear etc.)
The last two sections were gentler terrain, but not without some lumps and bumps to go. We were entering more familiar ground again - and for me, a trip back in memories to spending lots of time in Shaftesbury a few years ago on a very large job - good to see Chutneys restaurant was still there. Much curry was consumed there whilst we were working over there.
On this section I was starting to feel more lively and made good progress to our last control at Nunney Catch. A garage forecourt picnic - including ice cream!
I was now positive that all was going to be good and I'd be able to get the train. I had thought I would finish and then go and collect my tent - but Rich convinced me on the last section that it made sense to divert off route and collect my stuff before heading to arrivee. Made sense really - it didn't matter if I got to arrivee in 35 or 36 hours really - doesn't get recorded anywhere.
The last section had a few lumps to finish us off - the last one in particular was horrifically steep. I'd grouped up with Rich and Stuart (he of the tyre issues). I had certainly got summit fever now - I wanted it to end as quickly as possible. I was busting for a wee and was thinking about dropping off to attend to that, but we were moving nice and fast - we'd picked up someone else (don't know name at all) as well. I found myself up front with around 20 km to go - and found I'd got some legs on me. I ended up doing a big old pull at a fair old lick over gently undulating terrain. 15 or so km of really gunning along was a hoot. I was sad to have to drop off to divert to my campsite - it was a real laugh.
Anyway - I got to the campsite and quickly packed up my tent, talked with Cass to let her know I'd be home etc. and then headed down to Poole. Stupid thoughts went through my head - what would happen if I crashed and didn't finish the ride now? Of course, this let fate do it's work and I had what can only be described as my closest miss ever at high speed at this roundabout here - http://goo.gl/maps/INAIb
I would have been travelling probably close to 40kph and, well, he didn't even look. I swerved and braked - luckily he swerved the other way. My front wheel glanced his bumper.
Very respectable looking chap in his 50s, wouldn't even wind down his window to explain or apologise - just looked straight ahead, wouldn't even turn to me. Then drove off.
I got the first part of the plate - but what can you do with that? The police would have no interest. It was really scary - I have had near misses before - I ride in London all the time and have reasonably good expectation of when someone is going to do something stupid. I've only been caught out once by a child, who slipped his parent's hand and ran across Kensington High Street!
But having come close to hitting a car side on at pretty high speed, I was quite shaken. And I knew he was going to do it as well - you can tell. He didn't even look. I just hope that somewhere in Poole, there is someone that feels at least a tiny bit of remorse and will sharpen up their driving skills soon.
Anyway - I was a bundle of adrenalin, anger, excitement and joy now. I headed down the road to the pub, tried the Twin Sails Bridge - but it was up and I was in such a rush to want to get to the end, I span around and sprinted back over the old lifting bridge. And arrived.
Shawn was out enjoying the sun in the beer garden and had a badge and a congratulatory handshake for me.
I was very chuffed to have finished the ride and the series. It had been wonderful. Very hard in places, it had taken me to my limits at times. I been to some very dark places, but I had seen the light as well. Wessex has some of the most beautiful countryside in the country and some remarkably sparsely populated areas. It also has some of the nastiest hills around - very steep lanes covered in gravel and moss. A test for any cyclist for sure.
I have got to know some people better as there were 10 of us who became Wessex Super Randoneurs yesterday - http://www.wessexsr.talktalk.net/wsrs.htm
I'm proud to have done the series and I think it will be hard to top the experiences we have had on these rides.
But, as ever, the next ride is already in my mind. The mighty Pendle 600. Featuring just about every hill in the north of england, with over 10000 metres of climbing, it will be extremely challenging. Those that rode it last year have all said it's the hardest 600 they've ever ridden. Anything that puts you at the bottom of Hardknott with 500km in your legs is just cruel.
http://app.strava.com/activities/59356134 for details