If a one-day ride is just not enough of a challenge, the three-day Tour of Wessex offers the ultimate gruelling yet rewarding sportive experience
The three-day Tour of Wessex can surely lay claim to being the most challenging cyclo-sportive in the country. There may be single-day events that are tougher than each of the individual stages, but the cumulative effect of three long days in the saddle, and the fact that the hardest is saved for last makes the Wessex a real test of endurance and recovery.
Each day has a character all of its own, but together they give a taste of life in the villages and lanes of south-west England. The names on the signposts look as if they’ve fallen from the pages of a particularly romantic gazzetteer. Butleigh Wootton, Cannards Grave, Wookey Hole, Queen Camel. Marston Magna, Compton Pauncefoot, Cerne Abbas, then Puddleton. For every Lower Clatcombe there was a Higher Clatcombe, and the inevitable hill joining the two. Just as the riders began to feel hungry, they’d pass near South Cadbury or North Curry.
As evocative as the place names were, they could not summon the sheer majesty of the countryside at times. The first stage looped through Somerset and into Wiltshire, passing Glastonbury Tor, climbing Cheddar Gorge before tackling the leg-breaking hill to King Alfred’s Tower, the day’s chief difficulty. Stage two is an out-and-back trip to the south coast, with a tough hill at Cerne Abbas on the way out to the climb at Lulworth. Passing through Milton Abbas on the way home must have made the riders feel as if they’d pedalled into the pages of an illustrated edition of a Thomas Hardy novel.
But the third day was what it was all about, with Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in Exmoor, looming. There was a possibility the hill’s severity had been talked up, but those riders with two days’ of cycling already in the legs had every reason to approach with caution.
Previous editions of the Tour of Wessex have been blighted by bad weather, but this year the sun shone. The weather co-operated perfectly. Sunday was the hottest day off, but the temperatures eased slightly for Monday’s difficult day and the forecast thunderstorms stayed away.
More than 560 riders completed the first day, but as the weekend wore on, fewer took to the roads. A total of 205 riders finished all three days. James Richardson clocked the fastest time each day. He recorded 4-49, 5-10 and 5-17 for the three days. On Sunday, he was all but matched by Simon Burgess and Tim Hyde, who were also home in 5-10.
The organiser – Nicholas Bourne
A great weekend of cycling helped by superb weather! Our aim going forward is to provide an unforgettable experience for all those that take part in terms of the challenge, level of organisation, service, peripheral activities and atmosphere. However, we still see areas for improvement, such as facilities at the HQ, which we are told will be updated this year, and increasing the number of industry exhibitors that attend the trade village. In the number of new sponsors and partners for 2010 that will improve the overall experience for al that take part.
To find out more go to the Tour of Wessex official website
Sportive Sound Bites
All three days
“If the highlight was getting to the top of Dunkery Beacon, the worst bit of the weekend was the 25 per cent ramp at the bottom of the climb. The thing that made this totally different to other sportives was the fact it was three days. It’s one thing to ride hard for a single day, knowing the next day you can put your feet up, but it requires more from you when you know you have to ride three days in a row. Viewed in isolation the days are not that hard, unless you go flat-out, but I would strongly recommend riding all three days because it’s a very different experience, and a more rewarding one. The route was wonderful, in particular because each day was so different. You have an inland loop, then a trip down to the south coast, then the last day in the Quantocks and Exmoor. They are three contrasting types of ride.”
Saturday’s ride, 6-39
“I rode Saturday’s event with my father - our combined age is 106. We completed the course in 6-39. The countryside was superb and the weather was good. The highlights were the ascent of Cheddar Gorge and the fast, twisting descent towards Blagdon. The next section was challenging, especially the brutal climb of King Alfred’s Tower. It was a great sportive, with a challenging and picturesque route. It was well signed and supported with motorcycle escorts. Probably the smoothest organised ride we’ve done, and tougher than we’d expected. Any bad points? Only that we had to leave and couldn’t do the following day.”
All three days, about 20-30
“The highlight for me was on the second day, about 60 miles in, we were riding along an amazing ridge with stunning 360-degree views for miles. Then there was a superb, technically difficult descent. Unfortunately, a fellow rider and friend fell and broke his collarbone on one of the descents. However, the organisation could not be faulted and everything ran incredibly smoothly. The motorbike marshals were spot on, and the refreshment tent and hog roast were appreciated. Each day was on a par with other sportives I’ve done, such as the Hampshire Hilly 100, but the back-to-back three days made this more challenging. My backside was not overly happy to be reintroduced to the saddle on the third morning.”
Saturday and Sunday, 7-03 and 7-48
“Both the weather and the route were fantastic. A small group of us from the Clapham Chasers running and triathlon club did the event, so it was great to get out of London to see what the English countryside has to offer. The route signposting was spot on, the registration was easy, the feed stops were well placed and there was plenty of food and liquid. Having the marshals pass at regular intervals was reassuring.”
My Cyclo-Sportive – Lionel Birnie
On Sunday evening, after the second stage, my mobile phone rang. At the time, I was standing in Somerton high street wondering why all the restaurants were shut, and becoming mildly concerned that we were about to miss dinner, when I’d spent the afternoon fantasising about filling my face with protein, in the form of steak, and carbohydrate, in the form of several potatoes.
It was the man behind the Tour of Wessex, Nicholas Bourne, checking how things were. “You sound remarkably chipper,” he said.
“We’ve been taking it easy.”
“Good thing, too. You do realise that tomorrow is by far the hardest day.”
The use of the words ‘by far’ seemed unnecessary, but as it turned out, he was not wrong.
Monday’s third and final stage was tough, but the fact it came after two long days in the saddle made it a real challenge.
I quickly came to realise that a diet of one-hour crits and 45-mile road races were not the ideal preparation for a multi-day marathon. My powers of recovery were tested to the full. My club-mate Andy Brown and I had set a modest goal, to get round. That didn’t prevent us from getting caught up in a mini peloton of more than 80 riders on the Monday morning, covering 23 miles in the first hour, before coming to our senses and easing back before the Quantock hills started to bite.
The route was designed to test endurance and recovery. Stage one was hilly, but not stupidly so. King Alfred’s Tower was steep and long, foreshadowing Dunkery Beacon on the final day. The second day was just that little bit longer, and in the grand scheme of things those extra ten miles caused you to go a little deeper than you ideally wanted.
Come Monday morning, the legs felt like they’d been pulled from their sockets, wangled about a bit and then replaced loosely with a carefree ‘that’ll do’.
Dunkery Beacon almost cracked the spirit. The most soul-destroying aspect was that there were still 53 miles to go, with a climb over the Brendon Hills and another sortie into the dreaded Quantocks.
I got round, and felt stronger for having done so, although on reflection I regret dithering quite so much at each of the feed stops. It was harder than any five-day training camp in Majorca, tougher than any single-day sportive I’ve done, and I tip my cap to everyone who completed all three days, but particularly those who attacked it like a road race every morning.