A birthday surprise – perfect weather on Exmoor in September

For my birthday I gave myself the gift of zero responsibilities. This was mostly a gift from my wife who took care of business for the day while I skived off and went cycling. It wasn’t very “bikevcar”, but I decided to drive down to Exmoor for a long afternoon of cycling.

Glorious Exmoor

Glorious Exmoor

My previous cycling trips to Exmoor have been ‘sportives’, i.e. organised, mass-participation events. Today’s ride was the antithesis of a sportive – no early start because I do not like waking up early at the weekend, no other people because how can you enjoy the peaceful beauty of a national park when you’re surrounded by other cyclists, and no restrictions on my distance or route which was ideal as I hate being told what to do. It was perfect.

I parked the car at a place called Watchet, mostly because the name made me laugh but also because I’d had enough of driving. And then got on my bike and climbed straight up into the moors. The roads around Exmoor can be bonkers-steep – a 20% gradient seems fairly standard for these parts. At one point I almost fell off when the road ramped up so suddenly that I was caught with my hands relaxed on the tops of the bars and didn’t have time to switch to the hoods so that I could stand up. Clearly my concentration and bike handling skills still need some work.

Up up and away

Up up and … then round the corner and up some more

There were a few notable climbs that I’d wanted to find (Dunkery Beacon and the Porlock Toll Road) but other than that I had no aim. Just a photocopy of a road map to avoid getting lost and jersey pockets stuffed full of food to keep me going.

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The moors

The moors

In the end I managed 70 miles and around 6,500 feet of climbing. But it was just one of those days that I’ll remember for a long time. Exmoor in September in crisp, beautiful sun. A glorious 5 hours on the bike followed by a pint of ale in a classic English pub garden beside a river. For a man who loves to moan,  it’s fairly epic when I have a day with nothing to moan about!

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The White Horse Inn, Washford – post ride beer in a pub garden beside the river

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Frothy pint of ale – perfect day

Challenge complete

Last week I completed the climbing challenge which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. This was mostly because I’d completed a similar challenge last year while on a cycling holiday in the French Alps. Not to say that climbing mountains is easy, but having a weeks holiday to climb 4 or 5 mountains with your mates is a bit different to climbing the local hill 40 times while trying to lead a normal life.

To put the challenge in context, this year I have averaged about 70 miles a week with 3,000 ft of climbing. I went for 5 rides in the space of 8 days, riding 260 miles and climbing 29,000 ft.

All so that I’d have a little badge to stitch on my bag.

New badge on its way

A badge

A reader of this blog showed interest in my cycling badges (a blatant fabrication) and asked to see them (not true) and so here they are in all their glory:

Badgeman's bag

Badgeman’s bag

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Saumur-Amboise-Saumur was a 200km ride. Alpe d’Huez & Mont Ventoux were holidays in the mountains

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Previous Rapha Rising badges and more mountains 

It was only while taking these photos that I noticed this year’s Rapha Rising challenge was a lot more climbing than previous years. This gave me some comfort in finding it so difficult. I’m not sure why I have two Mont Ventoux badges, maybe one of them belongs to Winnie, the naughty bear?

I closed out the challenge by taking the little one up our local hill for a picnic. It was nice to be back to quiet and slow cycles with no purpose other than to just enjoy the ride.

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“Let’s not ride any hills this week”

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Picnic in the sun

New climbing challenge

Now in its third year, Rapha and Strava have once again teamed up to challenge cyclists to climb a dizzying height on their bikes. This year the challenge is 8,800m (28,870 ft) in nine days. This equates to three stages of this year’s Tour de France and is roughly the same height as Mount Everest. The prize for completing the challenge is a commemorative woven badge which has been quite rightly mocked by a club-mate for being a bit Boy Scouts, but sometimes you’ve just got to geek-out and stitch your badge on your cycling bag with pride.

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Today’s ride was a full tour of the steep Mendip hills

Knowing that time-constraints later in the week will probably lead me to the evil but efficient practice of hill-repeats, I started off with a ride I’d been contemplating for some time. A complete circuit of the Mendip Hills going up or down every road I know. It turned out to be a 62 miler, but the horizontal distance was inconsequential. The real result was over 6000 ft of climbing. This took me four hours and provided some spectacular views of Somerset and the Chew Valley. It also left me battling the mental challenge of the oncoming ‘bonk’ for the last hour as my energy reserves depleted.

Somerset Levels

Heading down towards the Somerset Levels 

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I may need to replace my brake blocks after this challenge

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Another narrow, windy descent

Towards Blagdon

Towards Blagdon Lake in the Chew Valley

Cake consumption was the immediate priority on my return home

Cake consumption was the immediate priority upon my return home

After today’s 62 miler returned 6000 ft of climbing, and yesterday’s 35 miler gave me 4500 ft I’m about a third of the way into the challenge. Tomorrow I will be giving the legs some much-needed rest, knowing that there’s still some way to go before I can reach for the victorious needle and thread.

The naked stem

I’ve been riding my bike almost every day recently. But I’ve been doing so without my Garmin strapped to the stem. Initially this was because I was riding the same route to work and I knew the distance. But also it was because I was getting bored of strava and the need to electronically document every ride. I think in future I will use it purely as a training tool and not every ride. This week I decided to mix things up a little and altered my route via a hill which takes me about 15 minutes to climb. The weather’s been warm and I found satisfaction in watching the sweat dripping off my nose and chin and splattering my bare stem. It feels good to be concentrating on the road, the rotation of the pedals and the gradients of the hills rather than a distracting bunch of numbers.

the chew valley

Climbing challenge complete

This week I completed the challenge to climb 7000 vertical metres. Sunday started with a long ride to set me up for the week ahead. Monday involved a few hilly detours en route to work and the same back home to hit a climbing total of 900 metres. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were more of the same with just a little extra to hit the 1000 metres per day total. But by Thursday evening I realised I could save my bum, brain and legs prolonged punishment by signing off the challenge with a mega-Friday of 1400 metres of climbing.

My wife was confused when I kissed her farewell an hour earlier than normal, as were my work colleagues when I arrived half an hour late (they weren’t lucky enough to get a kiss). It turns out that “hill repeats” is an unusual but acceptable excuse for lateness. These are this week’s elevations to meet the challenge:

Day 1: Sunday – 76 km, 1490 metres climbed

Day 2: Monday – 59 km, 911 metres climbed

Day 3: Tuesday – 65 km, 1035 metres climbed

Day 4: Wednesday – 63 km, 1005 metres climbed

Day 5: Thursday – 63 km, 1030 metres climbed

Day 6: Friday – 75 km, 1425 metres climbed

This gives a total of exactly 400 kilometres over the six days. It took 16 hours giving an average speed of 25 kph. All of the above sounds impressive until you remember what we were all attempting to emulate by participating in this competition:

A genuine king of the mountains

A new climbing challenge

On Wednesday, the superhuman athletes in this year’s Tour de France will tackle the infamous ‘Circle of Death‘ climbing a total of 7000 metres in one hard day. With this is mind, Strava & Rapha have challenged people to attempt to climb this altitude. However, as mere mortals we have been granted a week, this being the length of time the Tour passes through the Pyrenees.

Our new home is situated at the foot of the Mendip Hills which are designated as an area of outstanding national beauty, and are also an area of outstanding bike-suffering opportunities. This morning the challenge began, and I had arranged to meet Andy for a ride. I was ready a little early, so decided to ‘warm up’ with a climb up onto the Mendips. Within a minute I was warm and within two I was suffering. At an 11% average gradient for 1.5km this particular hill had been a poor choice of hill to get started on. Looking down I took inspiration by my new customised stem cap, ordered after a recommendation by the ‘all seasons cyclist‘.

How can you ever take your foot off the gas with this question in your face

With Andy we went for a 80km ride that included a total of 1500 metres of climbing. We took on Burrington Coombe, Cheddar Gorge and Old Bristol Hill. In total I climbed the Mendip Hills five times.

A hard day’s climbing, but only 20% of the “Circle of Death” climbing

We rode together up Burrington Coombe but Andy completely left me for dead on Cheddar Gorge. He overtook me like I was standing still and disappeared into the distance. My heart rate was hitting 185bpm but I didn’t see him again until the top. On getting back home I saw that I had set a personal best up this climb which made his electrifying pace even more terrifying. I did manage to beat him up Old Bristol Hill, however this was purely down to the fact that his gear cable snapped and he was forced to ride up the last kilometre at a 15% gradient single-speed!

Not sure what happened to my camera but this is a fairly accurate portrayal of my perspective as my heart hit 185bpm

Back up on the Mendips for the 5th and final time

Single speed up Old Bristol Hill

Coincidentally I received a parcel in the post this week. It was the commemorative water bottle for completing the last Strava climbing challenge. It looks good on the bike.

Tour of Wessex – Day 3: Somerset & Exmoor

Knowing that the organisers of the Tour of Wessex had saved the toughest day for last, we awoke on Day 3 slightly apprehensive about how our bodies would react to another long day in the saddle. The 180 kilometres ahead of us would contain 2500 metres of climbing.

At least we would have 35 km to warm up our knees before the hills began

With most of the hills confined to Exmoor National Park we were looking forward to some great views over towards Wales

On top of the usual breakfast feast I also ate a few eggs and an extra cup of coffee. It wasn’t until I reached the start line with a slight stomach ache that I realised I’d hardly drunk any water since waking up. I consumed both bottles on my bike within the first 40 km thankfully easing my stomach pains before refilling at the first feed zone.

I wasn’t the only cyclist with a full tank of water. Probably the most spectacular pee Gatesy’s ever enjoyed

We blasted our way across Somerset and into Exmoor National Park in North Devon. The hills became very regular but we were rewarded with some amazing views.

On the top of the moors

“That looks a bit like Barry” “Who’s Barry?” 

We cycled up. We cycled down. The sun was shining. The views were spectacular. The hills were long but gentle. We were in a big group and everyone was enjoying themselves. Somebody was laughing. Then something in me switched – I was at the back of the group as we pulled our way up a long hill and I just started working up a rhythm. Before I knew what was happening I was past everyone and off the front of the group. I’m not sure it was a conscious decision to escape but it felt exhilarating and I just kept on pushing. Part of me imagined I was in a race breaking away from the peloton. Part of me just enjoyed the hard work. I rode on my limit overtaking a few other riders further up the road and told myself I would slow down when I was caught. In the end I was on my own for about 10 miles and was completely shattered when the group finally reached me.

“And an unknown rider in blue has broken away from the peloton….”

Gatesy celebrates reeling me in

I knew I’d never actually escape Gatesy, but I also knew he’d be extremely pissed off by my antics which obviously spurred me on! Fortunately I was caught at the start of the descent off the moors giving me ample time to recover.

I had no idea what this sign was supposed to mean but I knew it was good news

This was soon followed by a feed zone where I refuelled and accepted my mocking for embarking on such a fruitless and selfish waste of energy.

A much needed feed zone in a local village hall

Back in the pack and sucking wheels to recover

From the foot of the moors it had looked like an easy last 40 km to the finish line. However the organisers had one last trick up their sleeves with an unadvised additional 15 km. We pressed on and thankfully saw the signs to Somerton just as Gatesy leapt into his early sprint finish. Not wanting to be outdone we followed suit for one final hurrah and crossed the finish line together with much hand shaking and congratulations.

“Is it over? Please say it’s over”

Gatesy shortly before his head exploded under the pressure of 17 gallons of drained lactic acid

I don’t think there’s any way to sum up my three most enjoyable days of cycling and really do it all justice. I think I’ll just let the tan lines do the talking:

The road cyclist’s badge of honour

Paul looking incredibly pleased with the sharpness of his tan lines 

Tour of Wessex – Day 1: Somerset & Wiltshire

Along with three other crazed cycling friends, 9 months ago we signed up to the 2012 Tour of Wessex: a three-day event covering a total of 545km (340 miles). And after 9 months of not knowing whether it’s actually possible to train for such an event, the day had suddenly arrived. The event took place over a bank holiday long weekend giving us three days to cycle and a fourth day to then complain to sympathetic wives and girlfriends about hurting from head to toe.

Day 1 Route – Somerset and Wiltshire

Base camp for the event was the village of Somerton where by Friday evening we had all arrived, pitched tents and set up the barbecue. Excited anticipation was mixed with the obligatory downplaying of recent training.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of coffee, porridge, jam, bananas, oranges, figs, brioche and just about any other carb-dense foodstuff known to man. By the time we rolled on to the start line 20 minutes early it was difficult to tell whether we were all overcome by nervous energy or just a massive sugar-rush.

The first course of breakfast being prepared

The start line on Day 1. “Where’s everyone else?”

We set off in the first group of 50 and despite an agreement the previous evening to ride even tempo we were quickly caught up in a exciting group of a dozen or so riders thrashing it across the country lanes of Somerset. We took our turns pulling the group before dropping back to recover in the slipstream. A conversation during one of these moments revealed that many of these riders were just there for the one day and could afford to go hell-for-leather. Approaching Cheddar Gorge we realised that our average speed was too fast, and regardless of the fact that it had been assisted by drafting it was clearly not going to be sustainable for over 20 hours so we let the group go.

We were fortunately blessed with some unforecasted fine weather

Cheddar Gorge was the major climb of Day 1 and also happens to be in my back yard. Knowing the climb gave me the ability to pace myself appropriately. It isn’t a particularly difficult climb once you get through the first two steep bends, but past experience has proven that attacking it too hard can lead to some serious suffering further up. I took the two corners at a steady pace and then worked up a good rhythm for the following 3km of gradual ascent. The first feed station of the day was situated at the top of the Gorge and we stopped briefly to top up bidons and grab a few handfuls of jelly babies and flapjack.

A quick feed at the top of Cheddar Gorge

The route then took us down an exhilarating descent of Old Bristol Hill where I hit a top speed of 76km/h and was just beginning to question my sanity when I was overtaken by someone else. I feel that descending shows me up as a novice, but is also probably result of having entered cycling at an older age. Had I started at the fearless age of 18 then I’m sure I’d fly down hills without constantly touching my breaks and saying “woah, woah … woooooooaaaaaaaahhhh …” to myself. Maybe once you get past the age of 30 there’s unfortunately no escaping this fear-factor.

The rest of the route went to plan and we were either riding in our own small group, or within a larger group of adopted riders of similar ability. Taking turns to pull the pace line before dropping back to draft your way back up the line was great fun and made a huge difference in maintaining speed and conserving energy. And after 170km of riding with nearly 2000 metres of climbing, we crossed the finish line in an overall time of 6 hours and 1 minute which included 12 minutes of stopping to refuel.

Finished! Well, for today at least …

Back at Basecamp we ate a first dinner of takeaway Chinese before tragically attempting to erect a tarpaulin to shelter us from the threatening clouds. We spent over an hour unsuccessfully trying to secure the sheet between two trees and two cars and when one of these cars was then edged forward causing an opposite corner to rip we noticed that we had been providing great entertainment to the rest of the campsite. Fortunately we were then assisted by our neighbour’s eleven year son who pointed out how to erect a simple and robust shelter. We consoled ourselves by agreeing that he was almost certainly a cub-scout.

If you plan to camp in England in the summer you need to know how to erect a simple shelter. If you lack these basic skills then ask a small child for help

Following a second dinner cooked on the barbecue we spent some time stretching, groaning and surveying the next day’s route before heading back to our tents for an early night’s rest.

When it comes to carb-loading it’s important not to ignore any potential energy source

“Is it weird going to bed at 9:30pm on a Saturday night?” “Yes – but not as weird as cycling 6 hours a day for three days in a row, so get some sleep!”

(with Meg)

Despite a series of inconvenient and consecutive ‘real life’ events like a stag-do, a wedding, a family birthday celebration, a Champions League Final and packing up our lives to move house, I have also managed to fit in some cycling.

Firstly I completed three long rides back-to-back after work last week. These extended commutes were as much mental as they were physical preparation for the imminent Tour of Wessex three day cycle event. April’s insane Strava climbing challenge now seems a long time ago, and regardless of the fact that my cycling ability has vastly improved, there was still a nagging sense that an easy month of May could have been softening both my legs and my spirit. In total, last week I rode 253 km (157 miles).

On Sunday I had planned to take the new bike for its second ride. Unfortunately for the bike (but fortunately for the writer) a certain team in blue only went and won the biggest trophy in club football causing the rider to consume vast quantities of alcohol including a rather unnecessarily extravagant bottle of champagne at midnight. Needless to say the new bike stayed indoors on Sunday.

However, Ms BikeVCar was itching to get out on her bike on Sunday and I decided to scrape myself off the sofa and join her … but only on my old bike. I had a feeling that the unmerciful Merckx would have made me sick, again! We rode 34 km in 1 hour 51 and climbed a total of 460 metres. This was some good climbing for Ms BikeVCar and included the infamous Belmont Hill.

“Really? Why on earth did you climb that 17 times in row?”

At the top of the climb, a fortunate fist-full of my jersey prevented her first clipless pedal capsize, before she then demanded to know why I had climbed the hill 17 times in a row. Apparently, “Strava said to do it” was not a valid excuse and only further proved my stupidity.

I generally try to avoid stereotyping the sexes, but there seems to be a bit of a difference between ladies and gents when it comes to the pure enjoyment of combining statistical data with an obsessive competitiveness. The fairer sex do not seem to share this completely irrational pleasure.  So while Ms BikeVCar was later back at home feeling pleased with her enjoyable Sunday ride, somebody else was uploading his data from the ride along with the carefully caveated title “Sunday ride with Meg”. This rather innocuous title was later laughingly pointed out, along the lines of: “is that last bit just in case somebody thinks you rode slow on your own?” Clearly there is some sad truth in this, but I hope that at least half of my readers might have some understanding …

This evening I finally unleashed the beast and took the red Merckx out for its second spin. I rode just over 30 km in exactly an hour which included 350 metres of climbing. And I completely smashed most of my Strava records. It mostly hurt but I could feel I was flying and just kept on pushing. There was no need to add any shallow caveats after that ride, but also no need to bore Ms BikeVCar with every single statistic. She’d only think I was more weird than I am.

Climbing challenge complete

The climbing challenge is all over – I completed it with 2 days to spare. With 2200 metres still to climb this morning, I decided to make the most of some fair weather and finish it off before the storms return. I decided to climb the final metres in the most efficient way possible – hill repeats of the steepest local hill.

Today's route map looks decidedly lame

Today's profile looks completely insane

As well as the few hills on the way there and a small bump on the return, I climbed Belmont Hill 17 times today. It typically took me about 10 minutes to climb and descend which means I spent 3 hours stuck on the same damn hill. It was strangely hypnotic, and like most routines it became easier when I let my brain run on auto-pilot and zoned out, just focussing on turning over the pedals. On Belmont Hill, the road is well maintained so pot-holes and gravel aren’t too much of an issue. And it isn’t a major road so the cars are generally going slowly and give plenty of room for cyclists.

To make it more of a challenge I tied a road sign to the back of the bike

However, as fond as I am of Belmont Hill, I won’t be climbing it for some time now. In fact, I plan to have a few days rest from cycling altogether and then generally avoid hills for a while and get back to enjoying cycling without such a focus on slow suffering.

And from the responses on Strava from today’s ride I think I may need to adopt a more ‘normal’ approach to riding before the men in white coats come knocking: