Yesterday, Sunday May 24th, Dr Bike and I rode ‘The Tour of Wessex’. This is a 112-mile ride around Wessex. We were slightly worried before the event because 112 miles is a little outside our comfort zone – by about 70 miles!
Come the day we joined up with 3 other mates, Richard Mould, Jerry Fox and Nick Burrow. It was a perfect day, warm but not hot, no rain in sight, a slight breeze. The ride isn’t too hard – there’s a total of some 2,300 metres of climbing, about the same as the Dartmoor Devil, but over twice the distance. Think Dordogne rather than Tuscany – not too steep, not too long, but there are hills, so it’s not the Loire Valley either!
The format of the Tour of Wessex is that it’s a ‘Cyclosportive’ (we borrow from French cycling traditions to try and spice British cycling up a bit – like the ‘Etape du Dales’, that traditional Yorkshire day out). So it isn’t really meant to be a race. There are time categories, Gold, Silver and Bronze, and a ‘Broom Wagon’ sweeps behind at 20 Kmh.
If Captain Broomstick catches you up you’ve had it. He’ll have your ‘transponder’ and rider’s number off you, and you can choose whether you get in the vehicle or continue riding outside the event. But as he removes all the signs as he passes, that seems a bit unlikely. Also, if Captain Broomstick has passed you, it means you’re not going to fnish until 7.00 pm or later – realistically, he’s like the Grim Reaper. Once you’ve met the Captain, your ride is over!
But we met the Captain and survived! We had a bit of illness in our mini-peloton, and did well to reach the 2nd feed-stop intact. Our two casualties climbed into the Captain’s wagon, and three of us asked him if he’d let us carry on – he has the authority to insist, you see. “I haven’t seen you” he said. “Thanks very much” says I. “What for?” he said, “I never even saw you!”. So he’s not that much like the Grim Reaper after all. Thanks Captain, because we had a great afternoon after you didn’t see us.
There was some fabulous scenery – late May is beautiful in the UK, wild flowers everywhere, green fields and trees at their very best. We passed the Giant of Cerne Abbas, a traditional fertility symbol carved into the chalk of the hillside. If you can’t see the fertility reference have a closer look. We saw a snake, an adder, curled up in the road – more shades of the Dordogne, where I’ve seen quite a few adders and even run over one on the road into Les Eyzies. And we cycled up a hill through the beautiful village of Milton Abbas. It was a great day.
We didn’t see many of the other 2,000 cyclists throughout the afternoon. Once you’ve seen the broom wagon you’re obviously in last place, and everyone in front of you is a pretty strong cyclist anyway. If they’ve entered a 112-mile ride, they’re clearly pretty strong. So it was a couple of hours before we started passing people. It was a bit cruel when we passed our first person, who said to us “I thought I was at the back”, and of course we were able to tell her “You are!”. Cruel, but it gave us a couple of seconds of mirth.
With about 20 miles to go we caught a bunch of 3 youngsters and informally formed a 6-man chain gang. It was amazing – we absolutely flew. We were knackered, we’d already cycled over 80 miles, but we covered the last 20 miles in under an hour as we each took it in turns to ride at the front while the rest of us recovered in the slipstream. It was a revelation how much easier it is to cycle in someone’s slipstream, increasing our speed from an average of 15 mph to over 20 mph, when we were already on our last legs.
So, an exhilarating end to a great day of cycling for me and the good Doctor, with honourable mentions for Jerry, Richard and Nick. Now it’s back to the 30 mile rides that we average on our Chain Gang tours in France and Italy. That’s much more my level, and tends to involve more wine-tasting than the Tour of Wessex. Which in case you were wondering is a good thing.