Jump aboard the Three Stop Pain Train
The Tour of Wessex in the biggest multi stage sportive in the United Kingdom and has been serving up competitive cycling in the quintessential English countryside since 2006. Each stage provides a unique mix of challenging, yet stunningly beautiful terrain, timeless history and ancient monuments. The event attracts riders of all levels and offers the standard 3 day route of 523 km (325 miles), a medium 3 day route of 355 km (221 miles) or the chance to participate in individual days ranging from 102 to 127 km (64 to 79 miles).
Historically Wessex is one of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, whose ruling dynasty eventually became kings of the whole country and its land approximated that of the modern counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset. The region also figures prominently in the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and where English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy set much of his work.
Stage 1 - 161 km - 1,900 m
Stage 1 would take us from Langport, Somerset through Wiltshire and back to the event HQ. For the first stage, I was joined by my Bigfoot training partner, Robb Cobb, and we lined up in the first group to be released from the start. The weather forecast was for rain and storms but it was still quite warm. Ten minutes before setting off, the clouds burst and it became suddenly very cold and we were left wondering whether a light race gilet was going to afford enough protection. The peloton set off at a ferocious pace as early race nerves seemed to dictate and perhaps there was a desire to ride out of the driving rain. I looked for Robb but he hadn't made the front group. I found out later, that he had been caught behind a guy who was unable to clip in and despite almost closing the gap to the lead group he didn't quite make it. I was enjoying being pulled along at almost 40 km/h but suddenly just before the start of the Cheddar Gorge climb around 35 km in, I slipped off the back having left too large a gap - I worked back on a couple of times before the elastic snapped and the peloton was gone. Left alone with no one behind, I climbed the stunningly beautiful limestone gorge in the Mendip Hills. The gorge is the site of the Cheddar show caves, where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, estimated to be over 9,000 years old, was found in 1903. It is easy to see why this popular climb was voted one of the UK's top 10 cycling roads. It is certainly not the hardest climb, at around 4% for 4 km. Nevertheless, I was glad I didn't have to race up it and started to see some benefit to being dropped.
I was eventually joined at the top of the gorge by a fast moving group of four riders and, soon after, the rain abated. By the time I reached the next big test, King Alfred's Tower, 85 km in and with short ramps of around 30%, the rain had stopped and had been replaced by warm sunshine. Despite this, wheels were still slipping at the top of the climb. But this was the final test of the day, and we motored through the descents and flatter rides towards Glastonbury. I was joined, near the end, by George Lewis, a friend I'd met on the Marmotte in 2017, and we finished the stage together. I crossed the line in 60th overall (30 km average) with Robb just seven minutes behind.
Stage 2 - 191 km - 2,300 m
Lining up for Stage 2 and we were again given an early drenching by heavier rain than the day before and the prospect of storms all day - several people huddled under marquees until the last moment and apparently around 15 people rode to the end of the carpark before turning round and calling it a day. This time, the start was far more sedate, perhaps those early 'race' nerves had gone and spirits had been tempered by the rain. A small group escaped off the front of our peloton, but the main group stayed together as we rode towards Swanage in Dorset and the Jurassic Coast, England's first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. There seemed to be a large number of riders puncturing in the wet conditions and the group started to thin down to around 20 riders. We were climbing, when I suddenly noticed sealant spouting from my front tubeless tyre. I watched intently, desperate to see the hole seal as I didn't want to lose the group. Fortunately, the sealant worked its magic and very little air pressure was lost from the front tyre. I was still in the game. We passed the ruins of the 11th Century Corfe Castle, built by William the Conqueror, and one of the earliest castles in England to be built at least partly using stone rather than earth and timber.
Our group was dwindling, and with 8 riders remaining, it was time to stop at the third and final feed station to take on water and other nutrition. With 80 km to go, we now worked even more effectively as a group, with constant rotation, no one sitting out for too long. We stayed together, very similar in ability both climbing and descending. The kilometres ticked passed and it seemed like no time before we crossed the finish line. I finished this stage in 15th overall and averaged 31.2 km/h and, because of the way we had ridden so well together, and the stunning coastline scenery, this was my favourite stage of the 3 days.
Stage 3 - 171 km - 2,800 m
The final stage had been billed as the toughest and, in this respect, it was not to disappoint. With 350 km of hard riding already in the legs and with the prospect of the toughest climbs to come, this was never going to be easy. The weather was great, however, and the sun cream was on. The pace was reasonably sedate at the start and I, perhaps foolishly, contributed too many turns at the front of the peloton. I paid the price as the hills of Exmoor took their toll. I was dropped on Quantock Hill, a 7% gradient for 2.5 km and I found myself riding solo, considerably dropping my average speed. We thankfully descended Crowcombe Hill but then Elworthy Hill, at 2 km and 10% average, took more strength from tiring legs. Sweat was pouring from every pore as I descended the viciously steep Porlock Hill with brakes fully on at times. I needed water and I as I entered the feed station, the main peloton was leaving. I was, however, content to suffer the biggest climb, Dunkery Beacon alone.
After I got through the first steep section, a group of knowledgeable bystanders informed me I was only 40% up. My legs were weary as a rider passed me, who also heard that even more pain still lay ahead and he complained vehemently under his breath. We ground up several more steep sections of unrelenting 17% gradient and it was some relief to crest this monster of a climb (by far the most difficult section of road in the whole event) and start the long, more gradual descent. The route cut back on itself and I saw several riders coming the other way. I felt some sympathy that they had some brutal climbs still to come. I seemed to be alone for a long time but was then caught by a fast moving train from Norwood, south London. I jumped on this group, thankful for the company. Cothlestone Hill may only have been 1.2 km but at 10% this late into the event it hurt. Once crested we knew it was mainly downhill and flat and the boys from Norwood put the hammer down. I tried to do my bit at the front but realised I was on my limit and got to the back of a group of around 9 riders and hung on for all my worth. We finished the last 20 mile section in an average of 34.2 km/h and this helped me to finish 25th overall for stage 3. I was more than thankful for their selfless efforts.
The Tour of Wessex is an amazing event, which was extremely well organised and took in some wonderful riding. It is definitely very tough and saves it's hardest day for when you are most tired - but in many respects, the scenery on this last day is the most sublime. I camped for the three nights and the Organisers provided the best portable toilets and shower facilities I have ever known for this type of event. There were even flowers in the loos - real ones! If you are looking to participate in a road stage sportive, this would be an event I would strongly recommend signing up for.
Beauty and Pain served in equal measure with brilliant sunshine in the Yorkshire Dales
The Tour De Yorkshire was born from the success of the Grand Depart of the Tour De France in 2014. In its inaugural year in 2015, an estimated 2.6 million people lined the route of the professional race. The Sportive offers the chance for amateurs to ride much of the final stage as the pros before they do, including the last 50 km, final 2 climbs, the intermediate sprint and the pro finish line. Distances range from 49 km, 84 km and 129 km and combine the Tour De France delivery with Yorkshire hospitality, amazing crowds and the stunning beauty (and cycling pain) of the Yorkshire Dales. The event copies the format of the Tour De France's 'Etape du Tour' by varying the route every year. In 2015, the route left Leeds, in 2016 it was Scarborough, in 2017 Sheffield and in 2018 it returned to Leeds.
Belgium, Greg van Avermaet was crowned the overall winner of the 4 day stage race after a thrilling sprint finish on the final day, which was memorable for a heroic solo attack from Frenchman, Stephane Rossetto, who held on for the stage 4 win after attacking with 120 km of the brutally tough route still to go. Rossetto later said, "I did it in a race that is growing in stature all the time, has more history now, and an amazing crowd. It's been like riding the Tour de France over the last four days.
Before the above scenario was to play out, it would be the turn of the amateur fraternity to take on a 129 km route which contained five category 4 and two category 3 climbs and over 2000 metres of climbing. Shortly after 6.30 am, the Maserati riders, who were part of the event's headline sponsors, were released from the starting pen and then, my group, representing the first wave of a total of 5,000 riders. The pace was fast from the start and it wasn't long before we had caught most of the riders ahead. A group of about 10 riders formed and we were working well together, perpetually rolling over at the front and sharing the workload. After 30 km we had passed Harrogate and the first two, longer climbs of Rigton Hill and Hartwith Bank had reduced this group to just 4 riders. Following the next kilometres of undulations and fast descents, the group swelled to around 10 riders, many who were now just hanging on.
Most were, not surprisingly, keen to stop at the second feed station at Pateley Bridge, and now there were three of us climbing the Cote de Greenhow Hill, the first of the Pro Course climbs. As one of author, Simon Warren's, 100 Greatest Climbs, Greenhow is no easy ascent. Four sections of climbing of up to 18% deliver the rider to the top of the moor. At this point, I looked round to spy my colleagues but they had been dropped and so I was alone. I rode on for the next 30 km, passing more and more tiring riders, I presume from the Maserati first wave.
Now, over 100 km in, a small group of riders hit the climb of Otley Chevin. Crowds were now making their way up to the top of the hill and offered their support or, perhaps, commiserations. At 1.4 km in length and an average gradient of 10.3%, this is another tough climb but I was rolling well and, once again, I was alone up front during the ascent. But suddenly, as I was about to crest the climb, a rider I recognised from the group I had been in before Pateley Bridge came flying past me. It was Bryan Steel, dressed in the colours of his coaching organisation, a former British Olympian and track team pursuitor from four successive Olympic games. I immediately jumped on his wheel and we powered through the rest of the course, including an evil intermediate sprint zone, located on Black Hill Road at an average gradient of 7.2%. As we entered the finish section, a swelling crowd started to bang voraciously on the barriers and I could not resist sprinting against a younger rider across the finish line.
Although I grew up in Leeds, I was not yet a serious cyclist and I was unaware of the beauty that surrounds the city. Yorkshire is truly 'God's own country' and it was in fine fettle, serving up the hottest May Bank Holiday on record, the heat of the day avoided after clocking up a satisfying 4:30:35 and an average speed of 27.9 km/h. If anyone is searching for an event in the UK which is both tough and stunningly beautiful at the same time and allows you to soak in the atmosphere of a professional race then look no further than the next edition of the Tour De Yorkshire.
Stunning Sportive in Spain's Cycling Paradise
Eight thousand riders, 312 km and approaching 5000 metres of climbing, the Mallorca 312 is truly an epic sportive. Originally conceived as a lap around the island, closed roads have made this original route impossible but the organisers have retained the heart and soul of the original event- the stunning Serra de Tramuntana mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ninth edition attracted riders from 52 countries, 36% from the UK, outnumbering the Spanish (35%) and Germans (11%), while over 20 media operators covered the event in more than 10 languages. According to the University of the Balearic Islands the Mallorca 312 sportive will have an economic impact of over 16 million euros.
Nine riders from the Bigfoot Cycle Club in South East London arrived to take on the Mallorca Gran Fondo. As the first real event of the season, this had been the motivation for our training through the long, cold English winter, with various intrusions by the 'beast from the east' weather system. As a group, we were reasonably well prepared with some longer 200 km group rides and a large chunk of turbo training. With warm up rides taking in Mallorca's finest routes of Sa Calobra and the Formentor Lighthouse, our comfortable base in a spacious nine man villa in Pollensa and the island's exquisite gastronomy being supplemented by our party's own exclusive chef, Lance, all seemed to be going well - but there were concerns from some with mysterious injuries and ailments which had sprung forth and the approach to the event was understandably cautious.
We arrived to find ourselves at the back of the starting gate, with thousands of slower riders to battle through in the opening kilometres. It actually took nine minutes for us to cross the start line but then it was a case of weaving through the riders ahead. It wasn't long before we had formed a group consisting of Jay, Robb, Lance and myself and we formed a train of four that hummed with the sound of speeding wheels. After 25 km and averaging high thirty kilometres per hour we hit the mountain climbs and our group quickly splintered. Jay led the way through the hordes of riders and after 55 km we crested the highest mountain in Mallorca, the Puig Major.
The descent is exhilarating, plunging over 800 metres into the picturesque port of Soller. With the roads closed, it was possible to use the full width of the smooth tarmac to pick the best lines through the corners for what was a 15 minute white-knuckle ride. We were soon climbing again through the historic township of Deia and on to the first food stop at Coll den Claret (93 km). An array of refreshments were available, but I was in no mood for a picnic, so I swiftly refilled my water bottles and continued on the next long descent. I was refuelling solely on energy gels and ensuring I had one every 30 minutes - I noticed no else feeding around me and knew that they would pay the price later in the day.
Towering mountains closed in to our left, as the view to the right opened out to sumptuous vistas across the Mediterranean Sea. These were roads I had ridden on a previous visit to Mallorca and are amongst the most stunning I've ever ridden. Coupled with the almost endless descending this was the most enjoyable part of the ride. Just before Andratx we turned east to face the final major climbs heading towards Galilea and Puigpunyent, before negotiating the numerous switchbacks through a canopy of trees to the Coll des Grau de Superna. The descent was steep and coiled viciously back upon itself and, at one point, my rear wheel skidded from under me but I somehow kept the bike upright. We hit the valley floor and the speed increased noticeably as groups formed to take advantage of riding in a peloton.
At the third feed stop, I was greeted by Jay, who was so shocked to see me arrive before him that he asked whether I was doing the shorter 225 km version. This statement was to prove extremely ironic considering what followed. We left together and Jay powered through the wind while I sat in behind. We were joined by a third rider who subsequently refused to work a turn at the front. Jay was furious and rode away at a pace too fast for me to follow. For the next 30 km, I had this rider glued to my wheel, and when others joined, he remained at the back, happy to suck energy from others. Meanwhile, Jay had forged ahead and somehow managed to miss the turn off for the 312. Instead he followed the 225 route and by the time he realised it was not possible and deemed too dangerous by the organisers to turn back and re-join. He finished his event by adding the Formentor Lighthouse Loop and clocking 312 km in his own unique way!
Mallorca has matured into a veritable utopia for cyclists with its terrain, climate, culture, exquisite gastronomy (it now has 6 Michelin-starred restaurants) and snooker table smooth roads. Money was pumped in to resurfacing the roads around the mountains months before the 312. However, the loop south east towards Manacor was less spectacular and the pot-holed roads more a memory of our training rides in Kent. Having started well behind the quickest riders, there was now no fast groups coming through and as I continued to catch tiring riders, no one was able to work with me and so my speed suffered as a result. After 285 km I re-filled a final bottle at Arta, a town renowned for its pavement cafes and quaint shops. There was a party going on, beer was flowing and it was almost as if the finish line had been transported 25 km south. I briefly soaked in the carnival atmosphere, before continuing to the finish. Our small group of four doubled in size and the pace quickened over the final 15 km as we hurtled into Can Picafort and towards the finish line at Playa de Muro. I crossed the line in an official time of 11.26 (11.10 moving time) in 250th position. Robb followed next, then Andrew, Graham, Dean, Lance and Ed, with Jay and Andy completing the shorter distance events (although Jay insists his version of the 312 should form the blueprint for Mallorca 2019)!
I am a Level 3 Cycle Coach with British Cycling & the Association of British Cyclists.
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