Monday, 9 October 2017

Cheddar Gorge and the 100 Greatest Climbs

I blame Spanners. If he'd never mentioned it. If he'd never have shared that link, I'd have never have been addicted. Thing is, after your first you're never the same.

He shared with me a Google Maps link to the 100 Greatest Climbs. I'm not sure why he sent it, he must have sensed my strange love of hills, that feeling of accomplishment when you've been through pain but made it to the top. A bike ride isn't a bike ride without it surely? Anyway I ordered THE book, the 100 Greatest Climbs straight away. As it's title suggests, it's a compilation of the best climbs in Britain. How do you decide which are the "Greatest"? Well the author (Simon Warren)  suggests lots of different reasons, it may be because of the history of the climb, that it's used by a local club as its hill climb event each year, that it's particularly steep or that it's just a beautiful place to ride. Based all over the UK, they are split in to the South-East, South-West, Midlands, Yorkshire, North East, Scotland, North-West and Wales.

Handily for me, Number One, just happened to be on my doorstep. Well not exactly on my doorstep but it was near enough for me to ride out to it. This was back before I had a road bike, so I jumped on my hybrid and headed down the Strawberry Line towards, well who knows. In the book it is a three out of ten, but what does that mean? Well one out of ten is hard, according to Simon, and 10/10 will test any rider.

The ride out there was flat and gave no indication of what was to come. Cycling towards the climb through Cheddar I tagged on to another rider and asked him the way. How would I know the start of the climb. He said it would be clear.

Sure enough there was enough signage showing me the way to the Gorge. I was soon riding past shops and car parks (as described in the book) and the road began to rise. Soon it was sharp turns and steep gradients. But what a place to ride. The scenery was amazing, riding between big rock formations at either side, this was amazing. Goats looked down on me. I was now on my own, with the odd car passing me. The tourists don't come this far up it seems. An odd walker here and there.

As the gradient reduced I could click through the gears, panting heavily I was giving it everything. A car, stuck behind me for quite a while, drew level and with the windows down shouted "great effort" out of the window. I gave it my all, finally coming to a halt at the junction to turn off home. I loved every minute of it. I had to do more. In fact, as I type I've now done 24 and I'm a full blown addict.

I've been back to Cheddar a fair few times since and posted some better times (and some bad) on my road bike but I've never quite enjoyed it as much as that first day I attempted it.

So when I came up with the idea of producing a poster of one of the climbs, it had to be Cheddar. Teaming up with a local artist, we've come up with a design that shows off the best of the climb. The rocks and the turns. If you fancy buying one, head over to the 100 Climbs shop, where Simon has very kindly agreed to sell them. Then buy a book and get addicted.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

CH2CH2CH - Day 3 - Wincanton to Clevedon and Yatton

Day three in the saddle and with 80 miles ridden each of the previous two days, Team Pannier were looking forward to a shorter, sixty odd mile ride back to Clevedon and the finish line at Yatton. They also had a schedule to keep as the football was on at 12:30. The big game in question was the play off semi-final first leg between Huddersfield Town (2 x Team Pannier fans) and Sheffield Wednesday (3 x Team Pannier fans). There were nerves on both sides, with the occasional conversation of the game broken up by the more immediate task of getting to the pub on time.

The first task however was getting to Frome for breakfast. As there was nowhere suitable in Wincanton the team had decided to eat what rations they had on them and rely on gels and chocolate to get them to their breakfast destination. That was estimated to be about 20 miles away using Google Maps. We all agreed we could just about do that on the two courses we’d had the night before.
However as we set off one rider wasn’t feeling the love. Jukebox, doing a good version of the Snickers advert, was not functioning properly on coffee and gels and was in no mood for talking, cycling or anything really. Add in some winding, climbing roads and he was not a happy bunny. Thankfully Rich chucked him a Frusli bar and within minutes, if not seconds, he was back to his old self.

Turning another corner, we rose again, another corner and another climb. Even the downhills were matched by turning and going back up, what was essentially the same hill. It was nothing major but with 160 miles in the bank from the last two days and not having any food for energy, the team found it hard going. By now there were aches and pains, with Chef’s knees causing him some trouble.
At this point the team weren’t in the mood when they came to a road closed sign. They had learnt from previous experience – there’s always a route through with a bike somehow. So on we pedalled, we were now in some beautiful grounds, with well-tended gardens and a lake below us. There was clearly something going on down at the lake but the team pushed on. Maybe they were in Longleat and further on than they thought, was that just wishful thinking?

They must have been half asleep at this point as it seemed like they had joined a triathlon. They had ridden in to the Stourhead National Trust grounds and they were clearly hosting a sporting event. Team Pannier were cycling right on to the course by the start and the people supporting and putting on the event were nothing but supportive. “You’ve missed the swim!” “Are you here for the triathlon?”. “Did we look like we were there for a triathlon?!” Andy responded. Off they rode, out the main entrance and on to the road, glad to have got out of the way before the “proper” athletes came through.

On the road the Team Pannier train was shifting at a decent enough pace and then all of a sudden a car passed. It was the vehicle at the front of the race, advising the stewards that the race leader was coming. Not only had the five of them found themselves in the race but they were now at the front of it. There were a couple of options and they considered stopping but thought that they might be there for a long time before the last rider went through. So the option was to try and out ride the person at the front until they could get out of their way. Hold on, there was another vehicle coming, this time it was the official Team Pannier support vehicle as Mule was making his way to Frome to advise on dining options.

One rider whizzed by and now they were well and truly in the race. Thankfully it wasn’t long before the route took the five off the course and they didn’t have to embarrass any more athletes for not being able to keep up with the might of Team Pannier!

Having thought they might have been in Longleat before, they were now at the gates. The gates that were closed to traffic. Spanners now decides to share his knowledge that the owner of Longleat had fallen out with Sustrans and the route through the grounds had been closed for a period of time. He assured (not very convincingly) that it had all been sorted and that it was allowed to follow the National Cycle Route. As proven with the last closed road, they weren’t afraid to try their luck and on they rode. After all, that previous road had only been closed for cars because of the triathlon.

The entrance and ride down to Longleat House was very impressive and it felt great to be riding as a team, heading towards the beautiful stately home. Arriving right in the middle of the grounds, our route took us alongside the house through a section saying “absolutely no access” or similar. Finally we took a hint and re-routed around that part. However our new route took us directly in to the house’s grounds, past the maze and food stalls. It was very surreal to be in there and, we think, allowed to be in an area you normally pay entrance to get in to

We didn’t hang around and started to head out of the area immediately adjacent to the Elizabethan Mansion. We were now passing members of staff in cars and none of them seem to be bothered, just smile and wave boys, smile and wave.

Now back on course it was time to take a left out of the grounds. “Strictly No Access” Oh come on. Really? What’s the worst that can happen? The team would soon find out. Now eighteen miles in to the no breakfast riding and it didn’t feel two miles away from Frome. The road rose and everyone creaked at the effort. Littlehorn and Spanners riding side by side noticed something along the route. There were little passing points on a road already wide enough for two cars. It had a familiar feel to it, what was it? Was this the safari park? Were the team about to be eaten by lions? “I’m not worried about the lions” said Spanners, “I just have to ride quicker than the others”.

Mule was ahead of us, scoping out potential places to eat. It had come down to another all you can eat at the Premier Inn or a local greasy spoon. The team opted for the latter and thankfully it was right on the scheduled route. Not only that but the milometer ticked over to twenty miles as the countryside turned in to the suburbs of Frome.

Now on a National Cycle Route, the five riders circled the town, heading down some off road paths that were shared with walkers. It slowed the pace and meant a bit of weaving and map reading. The front two passed a blind man being guided by his daughter. Ironically not seeing him until late, Andy braked hard and that was it for Chef. With nowhere to go he was on the ground before he knew anything about it. He now had cuts and bruises to match the pain he was getting from his knee.

Following directions sent by Mule the team suddenly found themselves in the middle of the town and able to see the café up ahead at the top of a small rise. Finally, food! You’ve never seen bikes parked up and locked quicker. What a treat we were in for. Fried bread. FRIED BREAD! Chris Froome can only dream of getting such performance enhancing nutrition in the Tour de France. “Full English” after “Full English” as the team made their way down the line. Not for Mule though. Oh no he hadn’t earned his, he had to make do with a sandwich.

As everyone finished their breakfast (and Spanners finished his additional piece of cake!), Mule Googled, phoned and eventually booked a table at a pub closest to the route around the time of the game. It was to be in Stanton Drew at the Druid Arms.

Straight out the door and straight up a hill. Can anyone taste fried bread? A tough start after breakfast and it was due to be a bit bumpy for a little while. Tired legs and heads were starting to show and with one of the navigators now in the car, there were just two people who knew where they were going. It meant keeping up everyone together was important and each wrong turn was keenly felt. The stress of keeping the team on track and with minimal map reading stops fell to Littlehorn and Spanners.

They were relieved after they found the Colliers Way (even if they did overshoot it slightly). This route would take them to Radstock. No more map reading for a little while and the team were able to ride two by two to chat on the traffic free trail. Signalling that a walker was coming or a dog was in the way was left to the front rider.

Spanners approaching a couple went right then left, signalling to the team behind to go left. “How rude!” said the lady as we passed. “Excuse me?!” said Spanners, unaware (as the rest of the team were) of what he had done wrong. Going back to “discuss” with the lady what her problem was. It turned out he’d muttered under his breath “make your mind up” but didn’t realise she heard him. Oops.

In to Radstock and Jukebox was on the front and, powered by breakfast, was leading the way as they went through the town centre. A small town, it was soon disappearing behind and below us as we began a climb up a long, steady climb. Jukebox really was on a mission, whether that was because he wanted to watch the game or have a pint no one knew but he hammered away at his pedals like an angry man. Every time the pedal came around he slammed it down and the same on the other pedal. He got to the top and turned around to see the devastation he’d caused on the Team Pannier peloton. Like Nairo Quintana he had ridden himself into form during the three week (read day) tour.

Time was now ticking down to the half twelve kick off and everyone was motivated to get to the pub in time. We were pushing on, stopping just to regroup to make sure we were on track and together at major junctions. Now on undulating main roads we kept spreading out and then regrouping. Going over a major roundabout the two navigators shouted over the wind “have you seen that next right” “yep” and with that Spanners road on and waited at the aforementioned right to wave everybody down the correct route. Jukebox and Littlehorn turning and heading down the road towards Stanton Drew.

It had now been a little while since they’d seen the others behind but time was tight and Spanners was waiting for them. There were no junctions for them to turn off so the pair got to the pub and quickly parked up to get their pints and join Mule in front of the screen. At this point the pair realised the mistake. Kick-off was 12 not 12:30 and the first half was nearly over. Oh and hang on, where are the others?

It turns out they’d missed the whole conversation in the café of where the pub was and had turned off and carried on the original route. Either that or it was an excuse for Spanners to get some extra miles in while disguising it as anger when the three arrived at the pub. Not only that but Andy and Chef had a coming together on their bikes with more blood and injury for Chef. Their reward was a beer and nice food in a welcoming pub, oh and a dull second half where nothing happened.

Saying goodbye to Mule as he headed off home, the five were on the final leg. No stopping until they hit the sea. While that wasn’t exactly true, it was a case of digging in and riding out those last miles. Cycling in the sun and heading to Chew Valley Lake. With Mule dropping everyone’s panniers / rucksacks off in Yatton, the team were travelling light. Down to essential supplies for the last hours, stripped of unneeded clothes and snacks.

Turning and crossing the edge of Chew Valley Lake, it afforded the team an excellent view of the massive reservoir – the largest artificial lake in the south west. From here they were in Littlehorn’s riding playground. Knowing the route from there, he promised only three more climbs before nothing but flat.

Chew Valley Lake
The first climb was from the other side of the lake and as they uphill, they headed towards dark clouds and the airport. By the time that rise had plateaued the wind had got up and the heavens opened. The only issue was that some had given their coats to Mule. This included Jukebox and Littlehorn who had been happily cycling along in their short-sleeves ten minutes earlier. Sheltering under the trees, others donned any extra clothes they had.

Now as they cycled towards the airport up the second climb, they faced a headwind and more rain. Waiting to cross the busy A road by the airport the cold air was there for all to feel. Still facing the wind they cycled along to the site of planes landing and taking off. Spanners let out a whoop and was off. He knew that the side of the airport signalled the start of perfect descent, winding through trees, safe enough to push on and so quick that the cars struggle to keep up or pass. The team regrouped at the bottom with Spanners declaring the ride down his favourite part of the ride that weekend.

Now was the tough part mentally, Team Pannier were to ride past Yatton, their final destination, in order to get to Clevedon and put their front wheels in the sea. Definitely front wheels. Isn’t it? Suddenly the team had a deadline. Littlehorn’s wife had to leave at 5:40, could they make it to Clevedon and back in time to look after the kids? Jukebox, always the gentleman, offered to go straight to Yatton “I’m soaked through and I only have a short sleeve top on”. The rest of the team gave short shrift to this offer and on they pedalled.

It was now typical Somerset level riding, with the remaining climbing merely a blip on the horizon as they crossed the M5. With a deadline focusing the mind, Littlehorn deviated the team away from the proposed route to hit the pier and beach as soon as possible. The only problem was going down a one way street. Mounting the kerb and crossing like a pedestrian. A right up a slight bump and there, in front of them was the sea “is that where we started on Friday?” one person asked. Clearly made an impression on them.

We Made It!
Photos were taken but there was no time for hanging about, there was a deadline to meet. Chef by now was feeling battered and bruised, with a bloodied leg and a grumbling knee. It can’t have helped with the increased speed. Suddenly rattling along at two miles an hour faster, at the end of a long ride, the team were chatting but pushing on.

Round the back rounds, a slight wrong turn (don’t you come down here all the time Littlehorn?!) and speed through Kingston Seymour (butts). Over the bridge by The Bridge Inn and they were on the home straight. Round the corner, in to suburbia. Bang on time they pulled up to the door.

The deadline had meant the end was a bit of rush with not much chance for nostalgia over what they had achieved over the past three days. The team celebrated with a cup of tea and a piece of toast. The bikes were loaded ready to head back north, showers were had and that was it.

Another great trip with a wonderful team. Chef battered but never complaining, Andy now seeming like he’s always been part of it, Jukebox not quite the broken man of previous years, Spanners guiding and fixing as always and Littlehorn still wondering where his next meal is coming from. Mule? Will he ride again? Will we always make him carry our stuff? Only time will tell.

Monday, 10 July 2017

CH2CH2CH Day Two - Dorchester to Wincanton

His decision was made. He was off. We were seeing no more of John S. He had thought long and hard about staying but looking back he’d realised his preparation for the ride had been nothing like last time he joined us. Still he’d joined us on our longest ever ride and he had also had a bang average curry in Dorchester. So he’d suffered just as much as us.

After our usual all you can eat breakfast at the Purple Palace we set off on our bikes once again, dropping John S and his bike off at one of the many train stations in Dorchester. Today we were to form our own train as we pedalled to the coast and then we would be jumping on a ferry.

The morning’s ride started swiftly, with lovely flat roads stretched out in front of us. “John would have loved this”, “if only he had seen how he got on with today’s course”, “has John gone home?” were just some of the comments as we rolled along at a comfortable but increased average speed of 13mph. Riding alongside a train, Spanners waved just in case it was John on his way home.

It was a great feeling heading to the sea, we were cycling through quiet fields and woods close to nature reserves and it had a real calmness about the ride. Managing to stay on track always kept the speed higher and we were doing fine until we took a little wrong turning as we came close to the coast. Seeing on the map that we could just take a short cut to get back on track we thought there was no reason why we should revisit our previous steps / pedal strokes.

Heading down a section that was more a track than a road we could see a man and vehicle parked up further down. Feeling this meant there was a way through we pedalled on. We were wrong, well according to the man we were. We were “not to come down there again”. Fine by us as we wouldn’t be back, not that we said that. Andy did however manage to catch the whole action on his GoPro and to make it even better Jukebox created a segment called “Don’t come this way again” on Strava. I’ve got a feeling he might have a few more cyclists he can remonstrate with passing his door in future.

Approaching the coast and where we would be catching the ferry, the area had that wonderful mix of sand, grass and road. We even covered a stretch of off road to let Chef show off the skills of his very nice looking, new Voodoo bike. Then we joined the queue for the ferry. Oh no, that’s not what you do. The (very kind) drivers in the queue waved out of windows and the top of their convertible to get us to go past, we had our own entrance and we boarded the ferry with barely any waiting time. This was fun!

On board we quickly had snacks and took photos (Strava wasn’t paused, you’ve caught us out here) and the chains clattered as they pulled the ferry from Studland and Godlingston Nature Reserve across to Sandbanks. Sandbanks, the home of Harry Redknapp as we all pointed out. You could see why it was a popular place to live and we soaked in the view as we cycled along the beautiful seafront at Canford Cliffs Beach.

Riding down the front in gorgeous sunshine we were looking for a place to put our front, or was it back wheels, in the sea? Spotting a point to get down on to the beach, Littlehorn announced “I wonder if I can get on the sand without dismounting?”. Two seconds later and lying in the sand we knew the answer was “no”. We pushed across the sand and had the obligatory photo, one man down on the previous morning’s tally.

However, we weren’t to be without our sixth member for long. John S had done some thinking on the train and decided to join us in Wincanton but this time in his car. He was going to follow us in the car, grabbing lunch with us on the next day when we planned to catch an important football match at the pub. Not only could he catch the game but he could carry our gear. So it became that John S became our Mule!

Back to the riding and it was twelve o’clock and we were thirty three miles in to what was thought to be a seventy five plus mile day. At Bournemouth Pier it was the signal to head off the beach and after a quick conflab it was decided we’d stop for lunch as soon as we spotted somewhere heading out of Bournemouth. That didn’t look forthcoming as we rode through the imaginatively titled lower, middle and upper gardens. It was a lovely, flat green area that got quieter and quieter as we headed further away from the sea.

Suddenly we were taken from sea and gardens to housing estates and that’s the beauty of bike riding and touring. The scenery changes so quickly and you can enjoy so much this wonderful country has to offer. Even if that is a short sharp uphill on a questionable surface (or Guest Ave Mountain Bike Groveller as it’s called on Strava). A quick Google and slight wrong turn (Littlehorn) we were on our way to have as much salad as we wanted in the Harvester. Free food, music to any Yorkshireman’s ears.

Blue sky and sunshine was still the order of the day and we stripped down to minimal wear before sitting down to a feast. The Harvester will always hold fond memories for the boys, whether that's because of the nice grub or the delightful waitress I'll leave for you to decide.

Now we were ready for the next section, a ride out to Blandford Forum to skirt Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs. A beautiful area where we saw thatched cottages and rode over lovely wooden bridges on quiet back roads.

In Blandford Forum we picked up the North Dorset Trailway for some great, traffic free riding and the miles just kept ticking away as we went through more small towns and, apart from the odd few metres, managed to keep on route. Spanners even had enough energy to time trial a segment on a long stretch of road.

As is usually the case, the frequency of stops and snacks increased as we went later in the afternoon. But somehow we just kept clocking up the miles. Thighs may have ached, bums were sore from saddles and backs may have needed stretching but we were all in good form. In fact we were starting to enjoy the flat roads and started playing games on the downhills, seeing who could travel the furthest without pedalling. This is a game of high risk, not because of the speed going down hill but because as you slower to crawling pace, it's a game of chicken who can click out of their pedals last before they come to a halt and fall over.

As Wincanton appeared on signs it was great to count down the miles. As we grew even closer the sign posts wanted us to come off route to head in to Wincanton. This is often the case as we may be staying on the edge of town and following the signs is not always the most direct route.

We cycled on, past a couple of turnings for Wincanton and then pulled up at our turning. It was a field. There was a public footpath down the edge but this was definitely a field. With football chants going around in our head for the next day we were singing “we’re on our way, we’re on our way, to Wincanton, we’re on our way. How we get there we don’t, how we get there we don’t, all we know is we’re on our way.” Well we soon, knew, we were turning around and heading back to that last sign for Wincanton. A bit of a blow to morale at this late stage in the day, 74 miles in to our ride. We just pushed on and got going again. Soon riding in to Wincanton under the A303.

Wincanton is a small place, Littlehorn had been telling the rest of the team and soon they saw that themselves. As we entered and exited the town in no time and finally arrived to see a friendly face waiting for us. Mule was there videoing us as we pulled in. But we weren’t done. Spanners announced that he was on 79 miles and he was going to keep riding until he was on 80. Littlehorn not wanting to be outdone followed him in laps of the roundabout and car park. “Done” announced Spanners. “Oh” said Littlehorn. He hadn’t checked his mileage when they got back. He was only on 79.1 and had a few more laps to do. Nine and half hours after setting off, the team were done.

Unloaded, showered and back out in good time, the short walk next door to the pub was achieved with minimal effort. The team stayed there for the evening as their search for any other decent eating establishment in Wincanton produced no results. Tomorrow they would have to search for somewhere for breakfast. Littlehorn would not be sleeping well without knowledge where his next meal was coming from.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

CH2CH2CH Day One - Clevedon to Dorchester

Another year and Team Pannier’s eighth official expedition in nine years. It was again to be a trip across the country as we aimed to complete another coast to coast. In fact this time we were to attempt the Ch2Ch2Ch. That is the Bristol Channel at Clevedon to the English Channel at Bournemouth and then back to the Bristol Channel at Clevedon again.

The route, concocted by Spanners (Rich), had a real tour feel to it. Taking in the wonderful sites of Somerset and Dorset. Starting at the wonderful Clevedon Pier and heading down the scenic Strawberry line to the foot of Cheddar Gorge. From the top of the Gorge we would head down past Wookey Hole, through the city of Wells and on to see Glastonbury Tor. From there it is on to Dorchester and then a ferry to Bournemouth!!! From there we turn around and head back through beautiful countryside, taking in Frome, Chew Valley Lake and the not so picturesque town of Wincanton.

Tour Director Spanners said: “The ‘end to end’ rides always feel more satisfying and more of an achievement than just doing a loop. I guess this was a bit of both, a loop with something interesting at either end. I liked how the route could take in a few famous places that I’d never been to like Wookey Hole and Glastonbury.”
“It was over a descent distance, not too hilly and took in one of the 100 Greatest Climbs (No.1 in fact), it was a mix of cycle paths and roads. I was really pleased with how the route turned out. I thought it was ace!”

Setting off from Little Horn’s house in good time, we wiggled our way down country roads from Yatton to Clevedon. Adding extra miles at this point of the ride seemed easy but Little Horn and Mule (John S, more about the nickname later) discussed whether we’d regret the 7ish extra miles at the end of the day.

Who would regret those miles later was up for discussion. There was the usual mix of preparation before the ride. Andy and Jukebox had a lot of running in their legs, in fact Andy had run 10K the day before and Jukebox has raced (RACED) the day before that. That either meant they were confident of what lay ahead or they didn’t quite realise how far we had to go. We’d soon find out.
Jon and John had come in with minimal training from what Strava could tell us but they both pulled it out of the bag when needed in the past, so this year would be no different. Spanners and Littlehorn (me) were on the other scale. We’d been racing each other via Strava to see who would be the first to ride 2000 miles and climb the equivalent of five times up Everest. Spanners had been distracting the gaze away from himself despite having climbed a lot more feet in the year.

So we got to Clevedon and dipped our back wheels in the Bristol channel, hoping to dip our front wheels in the English channel down in Bournemouth. That wouldn’t be until the next day as first we had a long day ahead of us and a little hill in the form of Cheddar Gorge.

With so many miles ahead of us we’d agreed to take the flattest, most scenic route to Cheddar, following the Strawberry Line all the way to Cheddar – named after the trains that used to bring the strawberries up from Cheddar when it was a functioning train line.

The miles whizzed by as the guys all caught up with each other after a good while not seeing each other. Various snacks were digested and everyone was in a positive mood as we cycled our hybrids and mountain bikes along the traffic free route.

Chatting to Jukebox he’d been worrying about whether to come on the ride at all. Now a very keen runner, he was worried about injury and his lack of training on a bike. With a marathon later in the year he’d offered to be the chauffeur / director sportif for the ride. While it would have been a bonus not to carry our panniers it also would have been a shame not to get the time to chat and share the ride with someone we don’t see much of the rest of the year.

So far so good, even if we were only just in to double figures for the day but his knee was holding up well and so far not giving him much pain. He’d even started to look forward to cycling up Cheddar Gorge, hoping he might summit the climb third out of the six riders. This was to be a tough task as Spanners, Littlehorn and Mule had been ahead on a lot of the climbs last time it was six of us back in 2015. However he did have some form on his side. When the hills had got steep AND long, he’d performed better than Mule, particularly on Holme Moss, a beast of a climb.

Arriving at the end of the Strawberry Line we already had a few creeks and most of them were coming from Spanners bike. Handily there was a bike shop in the industrial estate and a quick tightening of some phalange or other and we were ready to hit the Gorge.

Crossing over the mini roundabout and cresting the bridge was the signal for the start of the climb. Littlehorn shouted this out but either Spanners didn’t hear or wanted to acknowledge passing but he asked the start of the climb as he whizzed by. Passing the lower shops we spread out across the lower section of the climb. Soon it was Littlehorn and Spanners battling it out. As on Holme Moss a few years before, home advantage probably came in to play as Littlehorn pulled away and knew the importance of being out of sight on the winding road. Having nothing to chase and the incentive disappears. With the climb getting gradually easier it’s great to take in the surroundings of the beautiful Gorge. No wonder it’s one of the 100 Greatest Climbs.

Jukebox had suggested that those finishing first on the climb should turn around and come back down to make their way up with the riders further down. This meant extra miles and feet climbed for Spanners and Littlehorn in their battle and so as Littlehorn hit the end of the climb he turned around to find Spanners just coming around the corner. As they set off back down together they would soon find out who would be third.

They didn’t have to wait long to find out, soon poking their panting head around the corner was Jukebox, he’d achieved third and was looking in fine form. With about the same gap came Andy, looking comfortable and in control and then Chef. Chef, we later found out, had been in last place at one point but had reeled Mule in near the top and not only passed him but left him behind.

Now Spanners and Littlehorn were spinning around to ride back up with Mule. Although at the back he didn’t seem too deep in his “pain cave” and was happily tapping away at his pedals at his own rate. Chatting amongst ourselves something seemed to distract the riders from their conversation. Was that a mobile phone ringing? Some sort of ringtone? No. It turned out John was happily listening to a spinning playlist that he’d been training to back in his garage on his turbo trainer. “Yeah, it was helping me, although Chef must have thought something was odd as Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough was blaring out as he went by.” He said with Jess Glynne in the background singing “put your arms around me, tell me everything’s OK”.

After a regroup, we were across the top of the Mendips (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and heading down Ebbor Gorge. Passing the wonderfully named Titlands Lane just before entering Wookey Hole. It wasn’t far from there until we were to hit Wells.

Wells was of course the backdrop used for the film Hot Fuzz, set in Sandford, a place we’d passed on the Strawberry Line only hours before. Of course that wasn’t the first filming location we’d passed as Clevedon had been used in Broadchurch as well as a One Direction music video.

We’d now ticked off 36 miles and we were glad of the sight of lunch. Especially Little Horn who always wants to know where his next meal is coming from. We were made to feel very welcome in The City Inn and if memory serves, only Andy and Jukebox had a pint. A sign of the riding done and the riding still to go. It would have been pints all round and whiskey chasers in the olden days.

As we waited for our food, Mule searched for a Wi-Fi signal to find out if he’d got FA Cup final tickets and Neil searched for his wallet. A look of dread spread over his face, it wasn’t there. Where had he left it. Was it back in Yatton? Panic set in, swear words were probably said and he grabbed his phone. Calling Littlehorn’s wife who happened to be working at home that day. She could check. No answer. He tried again. He messaged for her to call him. Not looking at this from the other point of view, he hadn’t thought how missed calls from someone cycling with Littlehorn would look. Especially more than one. Would we have two people in a panic, one losing a wallet, the other losing a husband.

Meanwhile Spanners checked the same bag Neil had been looking in. Sure enough, there was the wallet and thankfully it hadn’t occurred to Megan that missed calls from him would mean an issue with Littlehorn. Panic(s) over.

The route from here would take us around Glastonbury Tor, circling it on the cycle route mean we would see it from all sides. As we did three sides of a square, we then took a sharp turn and headed up a concrete road with grass down the middle. This soon rose steeply and suddenly everyone could feel their lunch sitting heavy as well as their supplies for the next three days. This kind of hill was much more Mule’s type, short and sharp uphill. Perfect for his lithe frame. So as he came up at the back of the group it was clear he wasn’t on a good day. We took a few photos with the Tor in the background and then we were off. A brief diversion down the wrong road but we were soon back on route.

A stop near Butleigh to refuel and Jukebox realised he hadn’t climbed that last hill or at least he couldn’t lay claim to it as his Strava had been switched off. Amazingly calm, he just started it again and away we went. Climbing a non-descript hill we arrived at one of the few main roads we would ride on. It hadn’t been long since lunch, just an hour and a half but there were now tired legs in the peloton and the pace was slowing.  We’d ticked off 50 miles but still had maybe as many as thirty to go.

We were now looking forward to another stop, seven hours since setting off and Mule in particular was struggling. No matter how much Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut he shovelled down his neck, his legs just didn’t want to keep going. Stopping at one pub before a turning we googled what refreshments lay ahead. We saw there was another pub not too far ahead and decided if it was open we’d pull in there.

As Chef and Spanners set the pace ahead we pulled level with the pub. Surely they spot us and turn around? As that appeared less likely could we keep going to the next one. One look at Mule and that was a no. He was dismounted and heading inside. Littlehorn offered to catch them up, gallant – no, wanting to make sure he didn’t lose miles to Spanners – yes. Luckily they weren’t too far ahead, although it was undulating and they weren’t too keen to do that hill again. However with the option of a refreshment break they’d soon turned around.

Relaxing with a mix of hot drinks and Cokes (not together), the team sat and watched in wonder at the news of the NHS being hacked. It all seemed surreal and far from important when we still had many miles still to go.

Back on our bikes we hit some busy roads around Yeovil but soon enough, out the other side were tranquil Somerset and soon Dorset roads. Still there was something keeping us going and in good chipper. We’d all studied the map and the terrain after Yeovil was “all down hill” as it “followed the river”. It seems we had all looked at it separately and thought we would be fine on the final stretch. 20ish miles of easy going, all downhill.

At this stage, Mule (John S) had really had to start digging in and motivating himself to keep going. Offering at one stage to catch us all up at the hotel if we wanted to push on. He’d clearly not been with Team Pannier through bad times before. The rest of us had all been there. We’d all been the last man at some point. We had all felt like we were holding the others back. That’s also why we wouldn’t leave him. Tomorrow that could be one of us.

Chatting at the back Mule and Littlehorn were a fair way back from the other four, with one of them dropping back every now and then to offer Mule encouragement and checking we were still all on the same route. Coming down a hill and around a corner the other four were waiting by a ford. "Try going through it, we've just been through it." We edged up close but it appeared to deep. "I did get soaked doing it!" said Spanners. Sure enough it was deeper than he thought and he'd soaked his feet in the process. He would be drying his sock using a hairdryer that night...

Anyone taking a closer look at that profile, zooming in would have seen a jagged descent rather than a smooth downward slope. Each downhill was matched with a slightly less steep hill. We were essential going over a course that looked like a load of sharp teeth. Each tooth getting slightly smaller. Yes it ran alongside the river but it certainly wasn’t the easy coast in to Dorchester we were hoping for.

As the power drained out of our legs, what had started the day as 15mph was no struggling to keep 10. We rolled in to Dorchester just over 11 hours since we’d started. Luckily we’d learned from previous years, set off in good time and kept our breaks to a minimum.

We may have ridden our longest one day ride ever (87 miles) but it was now time for a quick shower in the Purple Palace as we had to be out the door quick to fill our rumbling tummies and to satisfy Chef’s need for a beer.

With only two people drinking we were clearly not on for a big night, we just needed to refuel and collapse. John S had started talking crazy, about leaving the ride tomorrow and heading home. Jumping on a train in Dorchester. We suggested he slept on it, were we about to have the first abandon in Team Pannier history?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

So I Rode My First Sportive

It seems a rites of passage, after buying a road bike that you need to do a sportive. Not to prove your worth, more to allow your bike to do what it was designed to do. So with much trepidation from me, Rich and I represented Team Pannier in the 65 Roses Holme Moss Classic.

Handing over the £25 online was easy but what do you need to do next? What do we take with us, food, water, clothing? Normally we'd have our sturdy hybrids weighed down by panniers and so taking the items you need for one day required a different mindset. Information on their (and British Cycling's) web site were patchy to say the least. There would be refreshments and food but where and how much was not very clear. I remember reading Mark Cavendish saying he always took food along with him during races as then you wouldn't be relying on anyone else.

The weatherman wasn't much better, changing his/her mind daily as to whether we'd be having wind, cloud or rain. Normally on a long ride like this it would take us all day with our panniers and we'd be stripping off and redressing more often than a Spearmint Rhino employee. We wouldn't have that luxury this time, perhaps I could scrunch up a light jacket in to my saddle bag?

So come the day, with a bit more information, we were pretty sure there would be sunshine and there would be two food stops. Now all we had to do was ride 65 miles pretty much non stop. Something I'd not done before on my road bike and actually hadn't done on my hybrid without having at least a one long lunch stop.

Arriving at the start felt quite normal, not dissimilar to a half marathon start, registering and putting on a number, just it was the bike not me that wore the number.

Looking around at the other cyclists I could see some cycling club jerseys, some mates riding together and lots of bikes. Luckily my knowledge of bikes is limited and so I couldn't be put off by thinking everyone had a better bike, or vice versa, I wasn't worried people were viewing me as "all the gear no idea" mainly because I had no idea.

Last minute toilet stops done and I probably ate something before we headed over to the start. Original plans to have a mass start had been cancelled as they couldn't close the road to other traffic so we were let off in batches of what appeared to be anything from 20 to 50 riders at a time. Being at the back meant we had no idea what they were saying over the megaphone apart from "wave if you can hear this" which I duly regretted doing.

As we were let loose on the roads of South Yorkshire we found ourselves in a ground of maybe 40 riders, making our way out of Rotherham.  Riding in a group was great fun, we could pretend we were in a real peleton and to all intents and purposes we were and no one was going to tell me otherwise. It actually was quite easy and not much different from normal riding in our Team Pannier groups of 4-6. People seem to wave at the floor a fair bit (this was to point out pot holes / bad surface) and there was the odd loud shout "GLASS" - thanks for that in my ear Rich. My favourite though was a gesture to say this whole area of road is bad which generally looked like they were trying to waft away a bad smell they'd just dropped.

These kind of actions are normal to people who ride with cycling clubs. There was also shouts such as "car right" when going on to a roundabout or the "car up" / "car down" calls that confused me so much on previous Team Pannier rides. Still it was good to be riding as a group even if I did feel a fraud.

Driven on by the group we were doing a quick (for me) average speed and it felt good. We were ticking off the miles but surely this speed couldn't last. Suddenly we were an hour in and it didn't feel like we'd settled in to a rhythm. Still grouped together with a lot of other riders we hit a hill that turned out not to be just another blip but a steady continuous rise. This strung the field of riders out and settled everything down.

At this point we were holding our own and passing as many riders as those who were passing us. We'd settled in to a rhythm and now were starting to recognise who was riding at the same pace as us. A couple of guys with Digitec on their backs turned out to be boss and employee of Digitec and we yo-yo'd back and forwards passing each other periodically.

Just over 20 miles in we reached the first food stop in a pub car park and they'd kindly allowed riders to use the facilities there. I however was more interested in what refreshments were available. Luckily for me (and them if they didn't want a stroppy man in Lycra to deal with) the selection was fantastic. Cake, cake, CAKE! Victoria sponge, chocolate cake, Mr Kipling slices, oh it was good. Not quite the rocky road we'd been spoiled with on the C2C pointed out Rich but it didn't stop me filling my face. They was also some odd but much more sensible and healthy options. Plain rice cakes (pass), cooked potatoes in their skins (pass) and bananas (go on then). With topped up bottles and emptied bladders we cracked on probably no more than ten minutes after pulling in to the car park.

Off and across Ingbirchworth reservoir full of sugar it felt great. The weather was amazing. No need for the jacket that I left back at the car. We'd been blessed. Heading off at different times from others that had stopped we were suddenly riding with different people and chatting to one guy we nearly missed one of the not so obvious arrows marking the way. Turning just in time we headed on and across busy roads marshalled by volunteers.

Heading down towards Holmfirth we were now heading towards the big event, Holme Moss. Having ridden up it previously from the "easy side" with Team Pannier we were to attack it from the other side - the same way the Tour de France had! Weaving through Last of the Summer Wine country we seemed to be one of the few riders who stopped at traffic lights and believed in staying on the road.

I remember thinking when we previously came down from Holme Moss heading towards Huddersfield that the downhill went on and on. I wasn't wrong as we headed back the other way. Rich, having ridden it before had warned me that it started with a kick and it did as we began to climb out of Holme Bridge to Holme and saw The Moss.

Having been sad and looked up the Strava segment for the climb beforehand I knew from Streetview where the official start was. At that point I started to push on but could feel the 20+ miles we'd already covered in my legs. With an unusual sunny day it was warm from the get-go.

Rich stomped out a good tempo and as we hit the start of the segment we could see a spread out field ahead of us, most riders in single file, scattered ahead and behind. Slowly I started to pull a few people back, it was great to have people ahead to aim for. As I struggled to get in some of my lower gears (not my bottom one thankfully) a couple of riders passed me, reminding me there were certainly people out there moving quicker than me. (My local bike service in Bristol guy has sorted my gears out for me now).

The climb is certainly not hidden and you can see what is ahead of you most of the time. Whether that's good or bad I'm not sure. It does however let you pace yourself and with quarter mile markers all the way up you could really judge your effort. With a quarter of a mile to go I upped my pace all I could and crossed the line giving all my energy.

Pulling over by the ambulance I was greeted by a friendly paramedic who offered me some very nice flapjack. Muching on that and grabbing a photo at the summit with Rich I turned to see if there was any more on offer. There wasn't and I wasn't keen on the banana alternative offered. Seeing my disappointment another lady from within the ambulance shouted out she had a Toffee Crisp - JACKPOT!

With that in my mouth we headed down the other side and how anyone can describe that as easy must be mad. I suddenly had flashbacks to blowing up attempting to climb it last time. Wow it was steep in sections.

On to the flat we had a quick stop to literally stretch our legs and then we were back on the main road and it felt like we were flying along. Dropping down hill, using each other's slipstream we were soon at the Flouch Inn. The next pit stop and a chance to thank the ambulance team for my Toffee Crisp! Wow they got there quick. They must have had one too.

On from there we were surely on the home straight. Soon we were off the main road, taking a right up a short climb instead of following it around to the left. Riding on from there we followed the road round to the right and down a great section of downhill. Down to a junction. With no arrows pointing the way. Ah!

This was not good, Rich consulted the route on his phone. A car stopped to give us directions "where are you heading to?" well we could tell him where we were heading but could he tell us the 65 Mile Roses route? We had no choice but to turn around and head back up the steep hill we'd just come down. These were extra miles and vertical feet we could do with out. As we pounded away at the pedals another cyclist whizzed pass us, no race number on the front but as I turned to watch him pass his number was on the rear of his seat. I called out to say it was the wrong way but I don't think he registered in time.

Arriving at the turning we didn't quite realise we'd missed it right at the start of the decent. Every inch of downhill had been retraced. We were now tired. Our pace had dropped as we felt the effects of the forty miles we'd already covered. We tried to take in the scenery and enjoy the setting. But when you're tired none of those things register, not even the nice weather. We just wanted to finish it now.

I took another energy gel, one last shot at getting some sort of pace going again. Whether it was that or the feeling of closing in on our goal but I started to get some energy back as we hit the outskirts of civilisation. We were no longer out in the sticks, we were riding in residential and industrial areas and it felt like we were either in Rotherham or close.

Stopping at two sets of traffic lights we were now a four, catching one rider in front, one catching us from behind. As a four we made our way through junctions, spotting arrows leading us back to base. We started to get a bit of a lick on, the old guy (not Rich!) complaining we were making him work to stay on. All in jest but it was a sign of how much the two of us had upped the tempo knowing we were not far away now.

Coming in to the home stretch we got a mini round of applause from the volunteers checking people back in which was much appreciated. "Are there many people still out there?" I asked breathlessly. "Not many" she said. "Oh" I said, a bit disappointed that our efforts hadn't left more behind.

Looking back it was a great experience, very tiring and, while a different kind of exertion, it was comparable to a half marathon. A great achievement and something I'd like to do again. As Rich commented, it put in to perspective our normal Team Pannier rides. Usually we do that kind of distance carrying our own clothes and supplies. Admittedly over a longer period of time but wow we've done some good rides.