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?