Monday, 26 March 2012

The epic

Rising early on a Saturday morning is not alien to me, but to be driving around the lanes of Surrey at 6a.m. it did feel strange to not be on two wheels. Nevertheless, Selene and I had loaded up the car after a long week at work and driven across London to pick up Clive from his place in Chertsey. After a boisterously friendly welcome from Rooney (his Jack Russel, who looked disappointed not to be joining the trip), and squeezing a third bike into an already jam-packed boot, we set off on the drive to Bath. Selene very quickly lapsed into her usual car mode (eyelid-inspecting), and after a quick stop at a service station to fuel up on breakfast, we arrived in a leisure centre car park in the middle of Bath.

Unpacking the bikes got us a few funny looks from the parents dropping their kids off for swimming lessons, but this was nothing compared to the stares and stifled giggles that came from the waiting area when two gents emerged from the changing rooms in full lyrca and tottled out, trying their best to walk on cleats. Cyclists really don't look normal without a bike.

Ready for the day - or so we thought...
After several false starts, trying to work out exactly which way the GPS wanted to take us (they really aren't made for city navigation - trying to negotiate traffic while simultaneously also trying to look at the computer mounted on your stem is a recipe for going head first through the back window of a car) we made it to the base of Weston Hill. Rising out of the suburbs of the city, it starts innocuously enough but then gets steeper and steeper until your legs are screaming for the summit. It's on a busy road out of town, and the noise of car engines in first gear help amplify the magnitude of the hill, if taking something away from the views when you do reach the top. Even if those views do give you an idea of what the weather was going to offer that day...
Clive summiting Weston Hill
Heart rate to 180bpm, 20% gradients and 700 feet of climbing: all in the first 4 miles. What a way to warm up the legs. Descending back into Bath (Weston climbs up North, and we were heading South) we soon hit the small lanes of Somerset and soon discovered that this was truly farming country. Road surfaces were terrible, and also covered in mud, which was manageable until we came to a dairy farm which had decided that the road a mile either side of the farm entrance would make an ideal slurry pit. With liquid cow shit several inches deep covering the tarmac, we had little choice put to push through, wheels slipping all over the place and just praying that we didn't end up on the floor - the next 90 miles would not have been pleasant...Needless to say, when we emerged on the other side, our bikes and kit were an absolute state, including having almost zero brake function thanks to the strange properties of the muck which made it both incredibly sticky and slippery at the same time. The picture (or the under-stated road sign) really doesn't do it justice.

Ernesto Colnago would be turning
in his grave...
Doing some basic cleaning to the drive trains and brakes with the best tools at hand (grass, twigs, and a muddy puddle) we pushed on and fortunately came across a garage owner who kindly power-hosed the bikes for us. His eagerness to clean was unusual and gave off the aura of a bike-hating driver who was too polite to turn down our request for help. Such was the gusto which he gave the bike the hose, not only was all the mud removed, but also all of the chain lube and the owner of the bike also got a soaking at the same time.
Clean bike; wet feet - Clive does his best to stay dry
Heading steadily West, we made our way past Chew Magna reservoir and feeling peckish stopped off in the town of Axbridge for a spot of lunch (early starts do play havoc with your body clock). Having demolished a couple of enormous beef pasties, we headed towards the second 'categorised' climb of the day - Cheddar Gorge.
Nom nom nom
On the way, we discussed the error of our ways in loading up with some heavy, starchy foods (not to mention the extra weight that a hefty pasty can add) just before hitting a big climb. I'm pretty sure that discussion was fairly short lived - the pasties were excellent, after all. Passing through the tourist shops of Cheddar, I noticed Selene perusing shops on the side of the road, and she took a few pictures on the way up before driving to the top to meet us.
On the way up, past one of Cheddar's famous Cheddar Caves
Team 100 climbs sport a Merc B-class as support car
The Gorge presented a tough initial gradient, but after getting past this it flattened out to a more manageable 10+% allowing for a nice seated climb taking in the view of the cliff-sides. It's eerily quiet between the cliff walls, with little wind and not much else except for the odd car and the skwarking of ravens - add in to the mix a number of climbers hanging by ropes off the tops and you have one of Britain's more unusual hills. A quick mechanical stop at the top (having a 'support car' is AMAZING!) and we were on our way across the top of the increasingly blustery Mendips. The descent down the ridge was hair-raising (we were both glad we didn't have to go up it) and the combination of gravel surfaces, 25% gradients and blind corners was reminiscent of the Belgian classics - earning it the name of the Muur du Mendip. The following flat section crossing irrigation canals and farmland, into a blazing headwind, was equally Belgian - proper head-down-and-chew-on-the-handlebars type stuff. Unfortunately, it was on the approach into Bridgewater that the weather took a turn for the worse (having been showery and blustery all day) and we were caught in a tropical downpour that soaked through both of us and had us shivering in our booties. Bridgewater is an uninviting looking town, so we were grateful that on the road out we spotted somewhere advertising hot tea and butties. At this point, not only did the rain stop, but the chef offered us free roast potatoes and pork crackling that was going spare from the day's roast. After 60 tough miles this was probably the best thing that could have ever happened and we gorged on warm greasy food while trying to regain feeling in our fingers and toes.
Hot tea in bidon = instant hot water bottle
(Greasy) Happiness in a tray
Still very wet, we continued on to smaller and smaller roads, similar to those we were on after Bath, and skirted around the South of the Quantock Hills. The last climb of the day (Crewcombe Coombe) was also the hardest rated and so I have deliberately planned the route to give a bit of rest bite before heading up, rather than taking the most direct (but hillier) roads. That said, we didn't have much option but to get up the climb at some point, as our B&B was directly on the opposite side of the range.
The Quantock roads had left me with
 plenty to take home...
Approaching Crewcombe, the rain had set in again, and we were both pretty cold. Stopping briefly at the foot of the climb, we set off to be confronted by a steep, steep, steep hill which didn't look like levelling off at any point. Not only that, but the rain got heavier and heavier, before turning into hail and bouncing painfully of everything it hit. Normally at this point into terrible weather I tend to have a little chuckle and push on to get to cover as quick as possible. Unfortunately the temperature meant that the hail was settling, and my 23c slick rear tyre wasn't too keen on gripping the road surface. This isn't too unusual for a steep climb and it's normally a case of trying to stay seated to grind your way up with as much traction as possible. However, when a car descending the road started to skid sideways towards me, I decided that enough was enough and I was going to have to walk this one. The mile and a bit walk up the road was painful (not only on the legs but also to the ego - I don't think I've walked up a hill since I first hit the Peak District as a wide-eyed fresher) and pretty difficult in cycling cleats. However it was probably the right choice, as all the drivers trying to get down the road cut their losses and left their cars on the roadside, instead opting to walk down the hill. The sight of shivering cyclists pushing their bikes up a steep hill in settling hail elicited less odd looks than the walk of shame out of the leisure centre changing rooms earlier that morning - I can only assume it's a common occurrence around those parts.
The view from the top - note the skidding tyre tracks
A brief stint of walking across the top of Quantock Common was enough for both of us to decide that the fading light and freezing temperatures were enough incentive to get back on the bikes and brave the ice. Not for the first time that day, we faced a steep and hairy descent, this time into the town of Nether Stowey. This probably wasn't helped by numb fingers, shaking limbs, and my brake-blocks being on their last legs (or, to put it more accurately, of f**k-all use!). One 'highlight' was speeding past Clive completely out of control, only for him to shout "watch out for the cattle-grid" followed by "aim for something soft". Making it down in one piece, we stumbled into the B&B to be welcomed with warm towels, a lovely rainbow (weather is always great when you're indoors) and Sally Lunn's World Famous Buns (see picture). Someone should tell Sidi to invent a 'cold finger' eject button for their shoes - those clips really aren't good when you are dexterously challenged...

P.S. Not to be defeated (and having a night to sleep on it) I decided that I would have to go back and climb Crewcombe after all. It was as hard as it looked, but it always helps forward momentum when your tyres are gripping the road properly ;)


  1. Well ridden Nathan, how you got up Crewcombe the next morning is beyond me. The west country should stay where it is - far away from me! Super-tough climbs but beautiful scenery. Like knocking your head against a brick wall - it feels good when you stop.

  2. I was waiting diligently in the cold to cheer you both on. Drive up the hill to help you fix up your bikes. Then drive back down to buy cheese and beer. I will accept my apology in the shape of a handbag. That is all.