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.
I am a Level 3 Cycle Coach with British Cycling & the Association of British Cyclists.
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