After months of preparation the late May bank holiday arrived and with it the Tour of Wessex, a three-day sportive of over 100 miles per day, plenty of climbing and Team Shutt VR’s “goal event” for the year. Pete Bragg had very kindly arranged for a huge box of Bikefood bars, bidons and energy/recovery drink to be delivered to the team and also included a few Shutt goodies so we were well equipped for the challenge.
Saturday dawned early and misty, but luckily with no rain. [Side note: why do sportives start so early? I don't want to spend my bank holiday getting up at 6.30 every day to get to the start – even the Tour de France stages start just before lunchtime!] After the wonderful weather throughout most of April and May we had to bring our entire cycling wardrobe along and day 1 saw the team with covered knees, armwarmers & gilets. We’d got quite a crew together for this event: Team Shutt VR was represented by John Elkin, Richard Jones, Damon Largent and myself. We were joined by Ian & Sarah who’d done the event with Richard last year, and Andy & Tom from my second-claim club, Kingston Wheelers.
Having met and introduced ourselves at the skate park rendezvous point (and considered just spending the day on the half-pipe) we headed to the start just as the first group was setting off.
Waiting for our group to start Damon (left, in black gilet) said, “I feel like I’ve forgotten something. Oh yeah: training.”
We set off and after a bit of early confusion about who was who (bear in mind that most people in the group had only met one or two of the others before) we settled in and soon formed a highly professional train with John taking the lion’s share of the wind.
After 25 miles or so we arrived at the first major ascent, Cheddar Gorge. This turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant climb, mostly because the walls of the Gorge actually protected us from the wind for a change. As with all the climbs throughout the Tour we each went at our own pace – and as I was going for a good Strava segment, this meant I could spin off up the climb and then TT the flatter upper part of the climb. Damon found himself with a bunch of wheelsuckers, so put in a big attack to drop them, “with a grin on my face all the way” as he put it.
Shortly after Cheddar we got to the first feed stop where John was waiting. With the core Shutt group back together we settled into some well-drilled though & off, hoping to impress any lurking 2012 GB squad selectors.
Before long we came to the second food stop, which turned out to be the most civilised food stop in sportive history. “Lunch stop” would be more apt – it was inside a village hall and there were freshly-made sandwiches, sausage rolls, cake, and even tea & coffee served in china cups.
The rest of the day was a blur of wind, hills (including the very steep King Alfred’s Tower) and discovering that “-ish” had to be appended to any of the organisers’ estimates. The main (and annoying) example of this was discovering at 100 miles that the first stage was not in fact 100 miles in length, but 109 miles – another 9 miles of grinding into the wind, just when we thought it was over for the day. In spite of this we finished as a group in very good spirits to a warm welcome from John’s wife Joanne who had the patience of a saint and waited for us back at event HQ.
Day 2 dawned without rain, but still with plenty of wind. Everyone knew each other now, so we had plenty of banter as we went along but we were also much more disciplined as a group. Once we’d warmed up it was surprising how quickly our tired legs got fresh again and we got into a really good through & off. Fortunately today’s stage was the least hilly, but with the wind still high it was important to shelter from it as much as possible. We’d all obviously hydrated very well that day because as one all the boys in the group needed an urgent comfort break within an hour of setting off – much to the amusement of Sarah who ignored normal media conventions and took a picture of the peloton’s multitude of peeing styles.
After a glimpse of the sea at Lulworth we took in a nice climb around Corfe Castle and eventually made it to the second feedstop for lunch where Andy & Tom caught up with us after falling off the back and puncturing at one of the hills. There were no china cups for tea this time, but it was another very well-stocked stop with more sandwiches, sausage rolls, jelly beans – you name it. Richard may have overdone it on the coronation chicken at this stop, taking a DIY approach by scooping filling into a bread roll using said roll as the scoop. This tactic was to backfire on his digestive system for the rest of the day – in fact at one point he pulled off into a side road for what felt like half an hour while the group waited. He said this was to fix a puncture, but the view widely held in the group was that he’d actually stopped for a 30-minute poo.
In spite of the wind, day 2 was the highlight of the Tour – we all stayed together as a group and if Damon or Andy (our protected sprinters) dropped off the back then Rich, John and I would do domestique duty and drop back to tow them back on (John was feeling so strong that he even chased down a couple of moped riders who’d passed a bit close for comfort). As Rich said, “we all get to play today” – which could be the motto of Team Shutt VR.
It’s really noticeable in all of the event photos that the Team Shutt VR group were the happiest riders there – in almost all the shots we are either grinning or climbing. In a few of them we even manage both at the same time.
As we rounded the final corner of the day on the approach to event HQ someone yelled “sprint finish!” which was Andy & Damon’s cue to make the most of the Team Shutt VR leadout train as we all sprinted across the finish line into the event village, laughing our heads off as we got there. Joanne was once again there to greet us (much respect) and I’m sure she was convinced we’d just got back from the pub.
On Day 3 we got some bad news as we got to Somerton: John’s ankle had swollen up overnight (too much moped-chasing, perhaps?) and Joanne had very wisely prevented him from riding the final day of the Tour. That didn’t stop the two of them from coming to HQ to see us all off – what absolute stars.
The rest of us set off in full wet gear, as it had started raining by now. We spent a fairly grim couple of hours getting cold and wet (at least the first part of the course was flat) and made sure to keep Andy & Tom on the group when they dropped back briefly. “We need them” said Rich, to which I replied “yes, for food”.
There was a hill at 25 miles where Tom had a low-speed off, and shortly afterwards when we got to the feedstop Damon caught the kerb and tipped over, scratching his new bike and hitting his shoulder hard. Luckily there was a café at this stop (which also doubled as the 3rd stop) so we all had a warm drink. Damon, Andy & Tom also had breakfast rolls (i.e. a full English breakfast in a bun). This didn’t look like the sort of food to take them another 75 miles and shortly afterwards they took the sensible decision to head back along the final 25 miles of the route. Like Andy said, “with all the hills ahead there’s nothing left for us sprinters, and we want to save ourselves for the Tour.” Damon was justifiably proud of riding 280 miles with 17000 feet of climbing, keeping up as well as he did, and applying rule #5 when it was needed. His transformation from struggling to ride 60 miles in a day 12 months ago to riding almost 300 in 3 days was remarkable.
That left just four of us to carry on: Rich, Ian, Sarah and myself. We set off into the 2nd quarter of day 3 somewhat cold & wet and actually looking forward to the hills to warm us up a bit. Annoyingly, the first section after the stop was a long descent which chilled us even more – from this point on the rain actually stopped but everyone kept their rain jackets on for a bit of extra insulation.
The great bit about riding with Ian, Rich and Sarah who’ve all done the Tour of Wessex before is that they know the landmarks, and in this case that meant that they knew when we were at the foot of the Dunkery Beacon climb, the biggest climb of the whole Tour: 400 meters of steep ascent coming after 250-odd miles in 3 days of riding. We stopped for a while before the climb to eat a gel and get rid of any excess liquid weight, and then we were off: nearly 30 minutes of climbing, almost all of it over 10% gradient and getting steeper as we got near the top to finish with a 20%+ kick just before the summit. We were deep in the pain cave, searching for a suitcase of courage, but we all made it to the top without putting a single foot on the ground, which is more than many managed, and we felt really chuffed with ourselves at the top.
It had taken us 5 hours to travel 50 miles at this point though – the final day was taking its toll, and unfortunately we’d just missed John & Joanne who had been waiting on the beacon to meet us (and I say again: they are absolute stars).
The next section of the course was our reward for all this hard work – a series of incredible descents at some seriously high speeds (over 70km/h in my case). Then came the unexpected sting in the tail – Cothelston Hill. Just when there was almost nothing left in the tank, one more climb of 250m with gradients of 10-20%. There were only two available emotions for this climb: despair, or sheer bloody-mindedness.
Luckily, shortly after this climb we were back at the café for the final feedstop. By this time we had some blue sky and some of Rich’s friend and family had turned up to wish us well, and a couple of them even set off with us on the final leg back home. A nice long descent in the sun with friends was just the ticket to lift our spirits for the homeward leg, but at the bottom of the descent I noticed a problem: I couldn’t get out of the smallest cog on the cassette. The rear gear cable had snapped. Bum. One of our group called a local bike shop – they were just closing, but offered to come out if we needed them – but this is where the Pendragon team scored: I called the Tour’s emergency hotline number, explained the situation and they immediately contacted their roving mechanic to come out and help us. We relaxed in the sun for half an hour or so and waited for the mechanic to arrive.
With my gears working properly again we got some serious pedalling going, overtaking almost all the people we’d seen going past us as we were waiting for the mechanic. We were still laughing and joking all the way until we finally crossed the finish line side by side just over 9 hours after setting off that morning.
The general consensus was that, apart from the approximate nature of some of the GPS maps and distances quote, the Tour of Wessex organisation was, as Damon put it, “excellent throughout – calm under pressure, great signs and routes”. Everyone loved the feedstops, although some of us wished they were a little more evenly spaced – the lunch stop on day 2 seemed to take an eternity to show up.
The best comments of all were reserved for Team Shutt VR:
“Would go ride anywhere with them again, no questions asked.” – Damon
“Great idea that’s working well. Good folk who mixed well and had a good time. Best fun I’ve had for a long while.” – John
“Couldn’t have wished for a nicer bunch of people, am looking forward to next year already” – Rich
“A great weekend’s cycling, loved every minute! It was good fun working as a paceline and I enjoyed the banter amongst a great group of guys (& gal).” – Ian
“Massive thanks to you and your chaps for a great weekend – great riding with all of you. I have to say you pretty much saved our bacon as it would have been a very hard and dispiriting slog with just me and Tom.” – Andy
“I want the kit you guys had on at the weekend but there isn’t a woman’s version!!” – Sarah
P.S. Thanks to everyone in the team for their help in producing this blog, and to Mark Cox of coxcreative for permission to use some of his photos.