Tuesday, 12 November 2013

South Somerset Screamer Sportive - 10th November '13

As we placed the waymarkers, the rain tumbled from the heavens, and the last dirty vestiges of daylight dwindled. Spray splashed from the roads, and placing the markers near the drainage ditches in the gathering darkness of the levels became a hazardous occupation. We wondered quite what tomorrow would bring. As the riders assembled at 07:30 though, the stage was already set, and the anticipation was building. A 180 degree blue sky smiled down upon us, and a buzz passed through the start line with a minute to go until 08:20, 84 miles across some of the UK's finest countryside... and a perfect day on 2 wheels lies ahead.

This, the inaugural Adventure Café South Somerset Screamer had a sign up of some 60 riders - a very respectable turnout for a first event, but a manageable number for a mass rollout down West Street and into South Petherton. The peleton stretched out as we rode across the levels to Muchelney Abbey, and by the time we had made the short but stiff climb up to the historic Hanging Chapel at Langport, and then on to High Ham, everyone had worked the early excitement and over exuberance out of their systems. Over to our right Glastonbury Tor gave us a cheeky wink from across the levels in the distance - near enough to touch, but a long and challenging ride lay ahead before we would reach the Tor.

Blitzing through the chicane of High Ham, the riders pick up speed down the fantastic downhill to the moors, and then across the first long flat classic Levels straight. With Heron and Egret beside us, and withies rising from the drainage channels, set against a crystal azure sky, riding quite simply doesn't get much better. But just as one settles into a rhythm, the Polden ridge looms into view, and gives riders a kick in the quads. After this brief undulation, we scream down through Shapwick and Westhay, bound for our first feed station over one more blip, in the quaint Somerset village of Wedmore - also known as the Queen of the Moors. 'Mmmm, Doughnuts.... mmm Pastries' the late breakfast was appreciated by the assembled group, but not for too long, the warm sunshine made it too easy to linger, but ahead, the famous Cheddar Gorge was calling.

From Wedmore, an easy 4 miles brings us into Cheddar Village, where riders carefully negotiate aimless, wandering tourists, before passing a handful of cheese emporia, and entering the towering, gaping Gorge. The hill itself is not as fearful as one might imagine, with only a couple of truly steep sections, but it winds on, and on, climbing some 193m over 5.1km. With some 3500 Strava Riders visiting this climb, it rates as one of the UK's true biggies - behind only the legendary (ahem!) Box Hill and a few others. But without a doubt, this is a very special piece of tarmac, winding through millions of years of Geology, smattered with walkers, riders, climbers and cavers, this is, to coin a phrase... Epic!

When we emerge from the bowels of the earth, we are once again bathed in sunshine, stop the Mendips, and we ride through the perfect village of Priddy, before we all too quickly leave the Mendips behind, descending carefully on leafy roads into Wells. The smallest city in Britain is left behind in a flash, and we climb up and away. Anyone with any energy left at this point might have caught a glimpse of the cathedral back and behind us, it too enjoying the midday sunshine, as the riders ploughed on. Our road continues to climb, and then, the standout view for me of the ride follows, as we reach the crest and descend once more towards Glastonbury, now finally the Tor comes back within range. The Tor stands alone, surrounded by lush green farmland, gently pulling us in, one of Somerset's finest sights.

By way of a nasty shock, one of the toughest short climbs awaits beside the Tor, climbs up the anonymous side street of Bove Town, and  is a tricky little customer, especially when everyone is expecting an easy passage on easier ground across the levels once again. The descent is no easier, and is a twisty, slimy affair that doesn't allow you to regain any momentum. But after completing almost a full circuit, we ride beneath the Tor for a fleeting moment, and then away South once more, homeward bound.

The final section of the ride treats riders to some tricky undertyre conditions, with some finest rustic terrain, as we head down through the villages of Butleigh, and Compton Dundon, before a brief joining with a faster B Road to reach the historic capital of Wessex - Somerton. Tired, hungry, riders stave off low blood sugar at the final feed station, now with the final 20 miles or so in their sights.

But its not an easy final leg, still some surprises lay in wait. The road rises and falls gently once again right down to almost sea level, through Long Sutton to Long Load, before the final series of small climbs begin. From the scenic crossing of the Yeo at Long Load, we push ourselves on through the villages of Ash, Tintinhull, and the incredibly pretty Montacute complete with its Stately Home, Country Park, St Michael's Tower Folly, and the by now extremely tempting Phellips Arms, it is surely worth a return visit on a more relaxed day? But in a matter of seconds we have blurred through, and out into woodland again - now heading to our final obstacle. A sharp left turn confronts us in the centre of Stoke Sub Hamdon, and the road rears up - a mini wall of tarmac - Ham Hill surges ahead. With heavy legs, I slip backwards, and my riding partner pulls agonisingly ahead of me - drawing out a lead of some 30 seconds, as we crest the Iron Age Hill Fort. I glance to my right, at the stunning view across to Norton, and the Blackdown Hills in the distance - but there's no time for that. I need to catch the man ahead. I push the pedals harder, and try to accelerate down the hill, ploughing through the final 'special stage' passing the muddy roads of Over Stratton, and across the roundabout at Lopenhead... but its too late, a glorious day of riding, and 84 miles has reached its crescendo. The Adventure Café tent welcomes us in, and checks our times. Tea and cakes await in the offices. Just remains for me to remind my riding partner that although he arrived 20 seconds before me, I actually set off 5 minutes after him.... competitive... moi?


Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Transfagarasan Highway

As we rode up from Bucharest my heart akipped and my mind raced, full of memories of previous encounters and battles with mountain passes. From riding the Grossglockner Strasse in Austria, through to my first Himalayan High Road - riding from Siliguri up to Darjeeling, and then on to more and more high passes around the world, I think there is little to rival the excitement that builds in the ride to the foot of a world classic climb.
These roads are world renowned.  These roads are beautiful beyond compare. These roads have been crafted by skilled engineers and by suffering and hardy workers. But for us, the best of these roads offer names to conjure with, and the promise of more endorphines than an Ironman could want for.

The road from Bucharest is pan flat, not too busy, and we work together. As is common when riding beneath a range of mountains, there is a prevailing wind that repels us ...  but luckily our team of 8 are a good bunch... and we rotate the lead, each taking our turn.. The sun shines and a huge blue sky arches overhead, as we whizz by village folk watching our dayglo colours streak past. The children wave, the adults slightly aloof, but still interested. As the road climbs and we leave the city of Pitesti behind, there is an air of reaching tourist country, as the houses smarten up, and people around about seem in jovial mood.
We ride up to the small village of Capateni slightly unsure of how high we have to climb, but we roll into Pension Dracula in goos time, ready for a good hearty Transylvanian meal...

Friday, 12 April 2013

Snow in April?

So, I think it's fair to say it has been a strange start to the year. Not great for runners, or riders. It has either been wet, or if it has been dry, it has been freezing beyond being fun... but we felt sure that come the beginning of April, our first London to Paris would be fine! Warmth would surely break through those winter clouds, and we would have a sunny and pleasant pedal to Paris... How wrong could we be?

Standing shivering in Dover Harbour, awaiting boarding the ferry, I wondered how we had got so unlucky with the weather. I also wondered whether I would ever be warm again. But on the plus side, at least the roads were dry. Small compensation for numb fingers and ice filled bones :-)

The French side faired little better riding along the Cote Opale. I could barely raise much enthusiasm for the beautiful rolling ride across Cap Griz Nez and Cap Blanc Nez, in fact it really took until the final morning pushing off from Beauvais, until we all felt some warmth return. Approaching the River Seine just after Pontoise, the mercury just nudged ten degrees.... for a matter of minutes. But that combined with a few rays of sunshine was enough to lift the spirits.

Thankfully, like all successful challengers, the team from Jubilee Halls, were troopers. Despite the temperature, they never once let their spirits drop. Smiles and determination won the day, and as you can see, on arrival at the Eiffel Tower, the team let out one almighty cheer (well several actually).

And of course... once the bikes were safely stowed at the hotel. The team celebrated with celery juice and oatcakes (ahem!) ... in time honoured fashion, the afterglow of a fantastic 280 miles of riding gave the team all the energy they needed to get fully stuck in to Paris' best hospitality... culminating with some fairly surreal dancing antics in a Student Venue beside the canal... look out Strictly!

Next trip departs in May, then further trips in July, August, and September. Both 4 day routes, 3 day routes, and even the extreme 24 hour version are all available. For more details click here: