In which 33Fuel's Head of Content and avid triathlete James rides an entire lap Somerset without checking how far it was beforehand. How did it go? Read on...
Like many, my key events during Covid-19 were cancelled so after a lot of moping, I went in search of a goal to keep me motivated.
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Wiltshire Circumference - 168 miles
Upon scanning a map of Wiltshire for interesting places to ride - and realising I’ve rarely ventured to the wild eastern plains of the country - I wondered what might reside on the far side of the A303 and decided a lap of the county could make a fun day out.
I jumped onto Garmin and plotted a route tracing the border. 168 miles. Nice. On a glorious early May day, I pootled around a hugely enjoyable and mostly scenic 168 miles. Just under 10 hours in the saddle was quite testing, but I loved the freedom, adventure and self-sufficiency of the ride.
So I went looking for another one.
An Elite Meal Replacement Shake with breakfast for this one was a no-brainer - James knew he'd need all the goodness he could find
Somerset Circumference - 245 miles
Logically, a circumference of Somerset was the ideal next step - it was nearby and completing a loop of both Wiltshire and Somerset had a nice ring to it. Then I found out it was 245 miles with 5,000m of climbing.
Unlike Wiltshire - where I knew barring any accidents or catastrophic mechanical failure I’d get round - I really wasn't sure about Somerset. It was way more than I’d ever done in one ride, in fact it was more than I’d ever ridden in a whole week.
Training for a 245 mile ride
James in more familiar territory - on a TT bike mid-race
While I’d like to say I crafted a carefully considered training plan… I'd be lying. I simply rode my bike more, banking about 10 hours per week for the four weeks before the challenge, tapered for a few days and then went for it.
The Big Ride
The night before the ride, after a good feed, I heaped oats, berries, almonds, chia seeds and an Elite Meal Replacement Shake into a large bowl, added milk and let them soak overnight. The alarm was set for 03:15.
I wanted to set off at 04:00 because that day - 31st July – was predicted to be the hottest of the year and I was keen to bank as many miles as possible in the relative cool.
Cheddar Gorge - James had it all to himself at 5am
Lights on, food packed and bottles filled, I left with a little trepidation – 245 felt like an awfully long way. But there was a definite air of excitement to be tackling something I wasn’t sure I could manage. I also appreciated the lack of external competition - I normally race and concern myself with beating others or hitting specific times. That wasn’t a factor here and I genuinely couldn’t have cared less how long it would take. I just wanted to finish it in a day.
Heading west, by 05:00 my arm warmers were off and I was riding in short sleeves and shorts – clear signs it was going to be a scorcher. I rolled into the Mendips and, 90 minutes after setting out, the sun peeped from over the horizon just as I began descending the magnificent Cheddar Gorge. I’ve ridden Cheddar many times, but never completely to myself. This was quite special.
Ploughing on west, I made a beeline for the coast until I hit a road closure. Bugger. I tried hopping fences but there was no way to make it and, with no official diversion, I got the phone out and searched for an alternative. On the image below (just to the right of the ’48’), you’ll spot the loop north I had to take to avoid what turned out in the end to be no more than a 50m road resurfacing project!
Spot the lengthy diversion near mile 48 for what turned out to be no more than 50 metres of resurfacing!
At 50 miles, I hit the coast and felt great. A gentle tailwind pushed me along and the roads were flat for a good 30-miles, allowing me to cruise at a great pace.
Despite the easy speed, I held back from pushing hard knowing the second half of this beast would be harder than the first. Not because of the distance, but because nearly all the hills came after the 100-mile mark.
And I knew all about them when they hit. As 100 miles neared the elevation profile on my Garmin profile went from a ‘flat’ green to a ‘severe’ red… Hills were approaching and not just any hill – the biggest climb of the day: Porlock Hill, the steepest A-road in the country.
I cannot exaggerate enough, Porlock Hill is a beast. Driving up (and down) is hair-raising as the car tilts ever more heavenward and you wonder how on earth the wheels will grip. So too on the bike, it took every ounce of power – and I really mean that – to ascend. After nearly 30 minutes – where I set my max heart rate PB – I reached the top.
Classic Somerset countryside
It really was a brute and I was so thankful for a little break at the top with my partner Kerry who met me with some bottles and food – a very welcome sight.
No hills for the rest of the day would match Porlock, but a long, dragging climb onto Exmoor came close. It was beautiful but the effort was starting to pinch.
Now with 120 miles banked the hills just kept coming and despite being relatively short (they’re all short after Porlock), they were savagely steep and often littered with grit or mud making rhythmic climbing impossible.
Course profile from hell: as you can see, the first five-hours were kind, then comes Porlock followed by multiple short, sharp climbs to the finish
I was fairly shagged by the time I saw Kerry again and stopped for lunch, having banked 140 miles and nearly eight hours in the saddle. Sitting in a chair, stretching my legs and eating warm food was joyous and prising myself off the chair back to the bike took some effort.
My decision to ride anti-clockwise, thus putting all the hills in the second half of the journey, was deliberate. I could have ‘got the hard bit out the way first’, but decided that hitting the easy miles early was smarter. Still, that decision provided little comfort as I slugged up the lumps that litter the East Devon/Somerset border in the Blackdown Hills.
I met Kerry again around Mile 170 where it was starting to feel like this venture would never end – 75 miles to go felt like an awfully long way.
I relied on a LOT of Amore Energy Bars to get me through this endurance feat (bee down jersey out of shot)
Past Yeovil and through Sherborne I headed north for Frome, the last town on the way home. Limping into Frome with 225 miles in the bank, just 20 miles from home, I stopped at some traffic lights and felt a sharp sting on my chest. Argh - a bee had flown down my jersey and was trying to sting its way out!
In the last 10 miles I was reaching the limit of my endurance and home couldn’t come soon enough, but there was one final kick in the teeth left - Masons Lane, Bradford on Avon’s well known steep high street. It felt like Everest to my exhausted legs. Arriving home, I keeled off the bike and collapsed in the drive.
The aftermath of a 245 mile bike ride
A sore undercarriage, in short.
Yep, who'd have thought? 14+ hours in the saddle and your touch points are all going to suffer. Of course, my undercarriage was sore, as were my knees, wrists, elbows and neck. But to be fair they all recovered fairly quickly and within 48 hours I felt physically fine again.
My energy levels took a little longer to return to normal however. I find the same after Ironman triathlons: that, aside from the muscle and joint soreness which typically only lasts a few days, the lethargy from low energy can take a week or two to return to homeostatis.
The joy of having completed the Somerset Circumference clearly made up for the physical (and emotional!) difficulties. It was such an adventure, and wonderful to be on my own path challenging myself. I didn't need anyone else (though Kerry was an immense support) and doing something that felt more 'expeditionary' than a triathlon was wonderful.
No doubt, there's many more of these to come.