Somerset Hills Gran Fondo
Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Over the hills and far, far away
Sands Challenge #2: Somerset Hills Gran Fondo, Sunday, 5th May 2013
Somerset is fabled for its ‘Levels’ - 170,000 acres of coastal plain and wetland, as flat as a proverbial pancake, and at times as windy as someone with a lazy colon after a chickpea curry.
So, to the geologically unfamiliar, the words ‘Somerset’ and ‘Hills’ probably go together like the ingredients of Rachel Green’s meat trifle. And the fact the Somerset Hills Gran Fondo slices right through the heart of ‘The Levels’ twice in this 120-mile loop ride, the scale of the challenge was very deceptive.
What you don’t realise, until you study the topography and total elevation gain of nearly 2,249 metres (or around 7,500 ft if you want to make it sound even better), is that this route is flanked by three sets of hills - the Mendips, the Quantocks and Exmoor. Far from the altitudes of the Alps and the Dolomites, of course, but not to be sniffed at for an amateur cyclist.
This was the second of three sportives I was attempting in 2013, and the one I feared the most. It was not only a big distance - and would be the biggest distance I’d ever covered in a single day, but the most climbing too. And to make matters worse, only a couple weeks before, I’d been in Cuba drinking my body weight in mojitos.
One of my fellow 2011-JOGLE buddies, Graham ‘McSteeley’ Steele had bravely/stupidly agreed to be my domestique (and front man) for this ride. We met on the eve of the ride in Clifton, Bristol (where I was crashing at Graham’s for the night) and met my parents the night before for a pre-cycle meal and a glass of red, to thin the blood, of course. An early night was the plan, but I ended up with about three and a half hours sleep in anticipation of the giant task that lay ahead on the Sunday.
After a hearty breakfast, we gathered our gear and loaded the car. We’d wanted to get to the starting point in Cheddar for 7.30am, but after a slightly delayed start and a detour around Bristol due to a 10k event that was on, we arrived around 8.15am.
We parked up, unpacked our gear, put the wheels back on the bikes and went to register. When we were back at the car, Graham popped his head up above the car door like a meerkat who’d spotted a hungry predator in the vicinity. In an almost ‘wouldn’t it be funny if...’ tone, he said; “Oh no! Nath, you’re never going to guess what I’ve forgotten?”.
Graham had forgotten his cycling shoes - the one thing you can’t really do without, especially when you only have cleat-compatable pedals. I could see how gutted he was.
Graham decided determinedly that he would rush back to Bristol in the car to pick up his shoes and that I should make a start at a ‘leisurely’ pace (I don’t have another pace, which he knows). He would then catch up with me as soon as he could, which wouldn't be too much of a task for him. But he only had an hour to get there and back before missing the start cut off time.
This was a less-than-ideal start to the challenge that lay ahead of us.
The only way is up
As I set off for the first mile of the 120, I immediately hit the first climb of the day - up the meandering Cheddar Gorge, with its sheer limestone cliffs guiding me up the hill. The ride down through the Somerset Levels was lovely, with some stunning views across the plain to the next set of hills on the far horizon. It was quintessentially English countryside riding.
As I neared my hometown of Bridgwater, I stopped for a quick chat with my auntie and cousins. It was a welcome rest at about 34 miles in, and it gave Graham another 10 minutes or so to close the gap between us.
After waving goodbye, I knew I had a long climb up through Enmore to the first pit stop / check-in at the Pines Café. It was a pleasant climb, about 6-10% on average, hitting a high of 17% at one point. It was a bit of a slog, but knowing that there was an opportunity at the summit to rest and refuel, and meet the 'support team', I found a burst of adrenalin to keep me going.
It was a welcome boost to see my wife, Jen, and my parents at this point. Jen came laden with banana cakes, kindly made by my two sister-in-laws, Kelly and Helen. I had a coffee, some bananas and banana cake, filled up the water bottles and chatted about the previous three and a half hours of cycling. Graham was only about 20 to 30 minutes behind now, so I knew we’d be away again by about 12.45pm. We had to check it at the 43 mile mark by 1pm to remain part of the official race, so time was of the essence now and we were the last cyclists to leave the Pines Café.
Bringing up the rear
After Graham arrived and had chance to refuel, we set off for what was going to be a difficult leg – a fast descent down into Bishop’s Lydeard, then a long, draining climb to the edge of Exmoor. A mile after setting off, one of the marshals was trying to direct us on to the shorter 'Medio' route (the middle distance event) and told us we were too late to do the Gran Fondo - the longer distance route we were aiming for. As we arrived before 1pm, we basically told her that officially or unofficially, we were going for the big one, so off we went. The organisers kindly hung on for us for the remainder of the day as we were the 'Lanterne Rouge' of the event.
There was a really tough, unexpected climb at Elworthy Hill which basically started a very steep 11-mile climb to the very top of Exmoor. By the time we got to the summit, the sun was really shining and it was a lovely day for a ride, with stunning views across Exmoor to the left and right out to Cardiff across the Bristol Channel.
After spending about an hour and a half slogging at those 15 or so miles, we had a speedy descent, winding down the other side of Exmoor through tree-lined country lanes, towards the coast and covering the same distance in just 25 minutes.
We powered down through Dunster to Blue Anchor at 73 miles which was our second pit stop. We met Jen and Mum for a quick catch up, had a few photos and refilled the water bottles. My calf muscles were done. I had no power in them by this stage and we still had nearly 50 miles to go. All I kept thinking was; 'we’ve still got the worst climb to come' and after chatting to one of the marshals, our confidence wasn’t exactly boosted.
The sun was blazing hot by now, which made for a beautiful ride along some lovely country lanes (this is what summer bike rides in England should be like). Even though it got a little too hot on steep climbs, I’d take that over wind and rain any day. I felt like I had no energy left at this point. And still so far too go.
As we climbed out of Blue Anchor for a steady seven miles or so, we thought we were approaching Crowcombe Hill, so we stocked up on jelly babies and awaited our destiny. But we’d peaked too soon. The landscape had fooled us and the road undulated for another 4 or 5 miles until we finally reached it - the dreaded Cromcombe Hill - a vertical wall of tarmac unlike anything I’ve ever seen while on my bike. At a mile long and an average of 15% gradient (20% - 25% in places), it was the only hill that's ever beaten me. With 35 miles still to go to the finish line, Graham and I made the tough decision to walk it. And that was hard enough, especially in cleats.
On top of Somerset
Once at the highest point in Somerset at the top of Crowcombe Hill, it was a lovely descent down the other side and finally into Spaxton where we met my brother and my Mum, where they had some water waiting for us. We didn't stop long as we really wanted to push on, given how far behind we were. We then skirted around Bridgwater, through Puriton (where the final pit stop crew had long-gone home) and zig-zagged across the Somerset Levels, all the hills now firmly behind us. The psychological impact of switching back on yourself rather than taking the direct route ‘as the crow flies’ to the finish was taking its toll. We had a good tailwind though, so it could have been worse. We were just running on empty by this point which made for a very long 18 miles.
At the penultimate section, a few miles from Cheddar, we must have had our heads down, focussed purely on getting to the end, we missed a turning. Jen had been waiting to surprise us on a road on the route about 5 miles before the end, but we never passed her, due to our navigation error. She caught up with us in a lay-by and told us about our wrong turn and said she'd go on to the finish and wait for us there. Well, we got to the finish, but no Jen. The organisers had left every sign up on the 120 mile course, but the finish sign. So Jen unfortunately missed our finish. She was so disappointed. I felt like going back a mile or two so that she could see us come through the finish again. When she arrived we were tucking into some cake and tea.
As we were the last two back, Graham and I got a whole leftover cheesecake each. Jen and I gave Graham a victory cigar and a bottle of Havana Club rum that we'd bought back from Cuba as a thank you for his company on this gruelling challenge. Then it was back to Combwich for a victory pint and a large plate of Mum's beef stew.
Massive thanks to the support crew
A huge thank you to everyone for the support throughout the day with messages on Twitter and Facebook. A special thank you to Jen and Mum for following us around Somerset and supporting us so well. And a very special thank you to my wing man for the day, G Dog. It was great cycling with you again mate, couldn't have done it without you!