DISTANCE 64 miles (103km)
MAIN CLIMB Old Bristol Road
TOTAL CLIMB 790m
ACHTUNG! Careful on descent of Cheddar Gorge

The north-south divide has gone. There’s a Harvey Nick’s in Leeds, Liverpool is the European City of Culture, and Rapha Condor have joined Recycling.co.uk to form one of the most powerful pro teams in British cycling. It’s London brand-power mixed with northern grit. The Style Council with Oasis. Urban chic that might just stick one on you.

Basically, the team are Recycling in posh clothes. Rapha Condor bring Dean Downing to join Recycling big name Chris Newton and former Navigators rider Kristian House. Downing and House are recent Recycling riders, and most of the rest of the team are the Recycling young bloods that team boss Charlie Jackson and manager John Herety nurtured through 2007.

It’s Friday morning. Last night was the team’s glitzy London launch, but today, on a chilly Somerset day, a few of the team will get down to some bike riding. We are here to check out the route for the three-day Tour of Wessex, which will be held on May 24-26, 2008.

Event expenses
This is going to be the first event of its kind in Britain; a Premier Calendar road race at the front, with a huge cyclo-sportive event behind. A road event on the lines of the London Marathon, with elite athletes and weekend warriors riding over the same roads and over the same distance.

It’s the brainchild of Nicholas Bourne, whose company, Pendragon Sport, is behind many events in the South-West, and its can-do attitude is apparent in Bourne’s every word. “The cyclo-sportive pretty much pays for itself, but if you take out the policing costs, which we still don’t quite know the extent of, the race will cost a six-figure number to put on,” Bourne says, hinting that it will be a much bigger six-figure number when the policing bill is settled.
That hasn’t put him off though.

Bourne has gone out, got the sponsorship, and his race looks like being one of the high points of the season. “We had to get on board with this one,” John Herety says, while the riders get ready. “Rapha want us to be associated with a number of sportives, so we are spending two days looking at the route for the Wessex, then we are going to ride the Hell of the Ashdown sportive on Sunday. It will be like a mini training camp.”

The Rapha riders for this recce are Downing and House, the Bonser brothers, Ryan and Adam, and Graham Briggs. “We had a late night, but there was a great atmosphere at the launch, so we will take it steady today to recover, then do a big ride tomorrow, I think,” says Downing before joining the team riders, Bourne and a few of his friends to glide past Wells’s magnificent honey-coloured cathedral and straight up onto the Mendips.

The Bourne ambush
It’s a tough start, the hardest hill on today’s route in fact. The event manual calls it Old Bristol Road, the second King of the Mountains hill on the first stage, and on the steep bit out of Wells I can’t help thinking that it’s a Bourne set-up, as he revs ahead of the pros who are struggling manfully with cold legs and a lack of sprocket teeth.

Everything comes back together as the slope eases on the drag to the top, with House and Downing, who has spent part of the winter in Spain hijacking ProTour training camps, taking control. “Liquigas were shouting ‘piano’ when I went to the front,” Downing proudly recalls — the name dropper.

Across the top of the Mendips, down Cheddar Gorge and into a little bit of cycling heaven, the Somerset Levels. The county is really trying to promote cycling through initiatives like Bike Somerset, which is firmly behind the Tour of Wessex.

“Where else can you find the range of countryside that you do here?” Bourne asks. “There’s the Mendips, Exmoor, the Quantock hills, the Levels and a bit of coastline. Somerset has a lot to offer cyclists.”

The Levels are a world of willow lanes and weedy dykes, a whiff of Arthurian legend and the haunting site of Glastonbury Tor always on the horizon. We lunch in Glastonbury, Britain’s Woodstock. Beans on toast and tea, among the straggly hair and strange-scented roll-ups.

Back down to it
Back on the bikes and back down to business. The Rapha boys look at the stage finish in Castle Cary — it gets Downing’s approval. The Premier Calendar will be a big deal to him and Kristian House this year. “Chris [Newton] will be involved with the Olympics, so he won’t have the pressure of being team leader. We will just give him the race programme that is the best preparation we can,” Herety says.

That preparation includes a number of European races. “Things like the Tour of Brittany drop nicely for the Premiers, so they will be good for Dean and Kristian, and as a team we can hold our own in Europe at that level too,” Herety continues.

British road racing at Premier Calendar and Elite Criterium Series level has begun to look up in the last few years. The number of teams lining up for this season has increased, and the teams are stronger with at least three taking Continental status, which means they can take part in some good level European races too.

Details of all the Premier Calendar races will be in Cycling Weekly, and so will the Elite Criterium Series, where there are one or two developments and interesting new events in the pipeline. The Grand Tours, the Classics and the ProTour races are great to go and see, but we have good quality homegrown pro racing right on our doorstep in Britain. And instead of being in crisis, like European road racing is, the British scene is growing. If you get the chance, go and see one this year.

Note: since this article was written the Premier Calendar element of the Tour of Wessex has been cancelled for 2008

YOUR GUIDES: RAPHA CONDOR RECYCLING
* The team line-up: Chris Newton, Dean Downing, Kristian House, Graham Briggs, Ben Greenwood, Rob Partridge, Ryan Bonser, Adam Bonser, Dale Appleby, Matt Rowe, Simon Holt, Tom Diggle, Rhys Lloyd and Luke Rowe
* They ride fully Shimano Dura-Ace-equipped Condor Leggero bikes
* Also, Rapha clothing, Giro helmets and glasses, and Shimano shoes


WHICH WAY?
From Wells take the unclassified Old Bristol Road north. Turn left (TL) on the B3135. Turn right (TR) in Cheddar on A371 and TL on B3151. Take the 4th TL on unclassified after Wedmore. Follow directions to Glastonbury.

TL on B3151 and TL on A39. At the last roundabout TL on unclassified and ride around the bottom of Glastonbury Tor. TR on A361 and TL on unclassified then follow directions to Butleigh. TL on B3153, then TR on A371 and TL on A359. TL on B3081 in Bruton and join the A371 then A37 and A371 again back to Wells.