Dundry, Parsonage Lane, Blagdon, Draycott, Shipham, Wrington, Belmont

I’ve been trying to rebuild my base endurance after it took a walloping due to illness and other factors. this involves the same sort of training as normal, but with some extended weekend jaunts out into the mendips, taking in at least a few hills. Today i tackled a ride i usually favour during a ‘build’ period. it’s not one for the faint-hearted or faint-legged, for a couple of reasons. The total elevation tops out at 5000 feet, hitting that all important 1000 feet per 10 miles marker. There are 6 particularly unpleasant climbs, interspersed with some opportunities for recovery. It’s really hard work and maintaining any kind of average speed above 15mph is very difficult, requiring considerable exertion on the ups and and on the flat.

The route starts with an ascent over the steep side of Dundry, and it’s very steep. It takes around 4 minutes, oscillating between 10 and 20% with not much inbetween. The hairpins are also very steep. It’s a wall. Parsonage Lane is much gentler, at around 6% for about 0.8 of a mile. After that, Blagdon looms large. It’s the nastiest way to get up the north side of the Mendips, rising up from Blagdon Lake to the highest point of the hills in 1 3/4 miles. The elevation pitches up to around 15% at various points and is never particularly shallow. It’s a climb I really like but it’s never particularly easy, just tipping over the edge of steepness to make it hard to find and maintain a rhythm. It’s used in the Colin Carfield road race where the action generally explodes.

After a brief recovery and descent of West Close – a hill climb course used this year by Team Tor and for the National HC in 2000 – it was time for the hardest, nastiest, most revolting climb in all the Mendips: Draycott Steep. It’s a climb most people avoid on account of its unremitting savagery. it’s hard to explain precisely why, but it could be because of its unassuming nature. Essentially, it heads up out of Draycott to the very top of Cheddar Gorge in one straight, steepening line. There is no opportunity to gather breath or recover. The climb is a mile and a half long; once it pitches up to 15% it doesn’t slip back down for about a mile. Instead it gently pitches up to about 22%; the increased incline isn’t immediately evident, you can’t see it looking up the hill, but it’s evident when you start pedalling in squares and the front wheel becomes light and unstable. I find the climb exerts a curious allure, it’s a challenge and every now and then i head down and have a pop. I’ve never had a good climb on Draycott, my only memories are struggling up and wishing i had something else other than the 39:25. It’s simply too steep for too long to get any kind of rhythm.

The hostelry at the top of Draycott

Once i’d reached the top of the Mendips my legs were a bit ragged. A rapid descent of the gorge and blast through Cheddar allowed some respite. I’ve never seen quite so many cyclists coming up the Gorge, small groups and individuals enjoying the glorious weather; i probably passed around 25 riders. I’ve always preferred descending the gorge to climbing up; it’s not much of a climb, to be honest, and the scenery is more impressive when you plummet down through, remembering only to ‘think goat’: watch out for the bearded ruminants who line the cliffs.

two cyclists dwarfed by the towering cliffs of the gorge

Shipham is a main road rhythm climb, rising out of Cheddar and back up the side of the Mendips. It’s not particularly nice because it heads past a quarry, but it’s relatively straightforward. After that I hopped up over Wrington, a short and very steep climb with amazing views across to the Mendip escarpment, then rattled back into the city, pausing only to direct some leisure cyclists (aren’t we all?) onto the railway path and point some day trippers towards Clevedon. A quick ascent of Belmont and super fast descent of Clarken Combe finished off the ride. Average temperature, even at 8am, was 78 degrees. Very very hot. In an unprecedented development I drank two full bottles of jungle juice. I feel like my legs might be returning.

Closed Road Hill Climb

Base club is very much back on and we have a couple of new members, including the mighty Glyndwr and Tom ‘Zone 2’ Illet. It’s been a purely Bristol South affair; I can’t remember last year if we had any interlopers but the last couple of weeks have been unsullied by the colours of lesser clubs. The roads this morning were populated with lots of cyclists, no doubt swept along by the unceasing enthusiasm for cycling in the UK as it continues its remorseless grip on the mainstream, and also emboldened by resolutions. You can spot those not used to cycling at this time of year by the woefully inadequate kit. I would say the absence of mudguards, but there are hard-bitten racing snakes in the South who refuse to embrace the mudguard. As any fule kno, they ride at the back.

Tom was aiming to stay in zone 2 for the entirety of the distance. This plan was scuppered by our initial ascent of Blagdon from the lake to the top. Kieran hit his max heart rate. I wasn’t far off. I had a better day than earlier on in the week where I wheezed my way up Rhodyate and my legs lost any sense of being independent and fully-functioning limbs. For all sorts of reasons i forwent the extended base jaunt down onto the levels with the chaps and turned right to head back up the Gorge. I had intended to scuttle up Draycott, but it’s a climb that can destroy an entire ride in about 9 minutes: discretion won the day.

Riding up Cheddar Gorge turned out to be brilliant. Several of the other base clubbers had been up over Christmas and found a closed road, devoid of traffic but full of gravel and water. Steve mentioned how it had been the best bit of his ride back from Somerset to Bristol. I crept through the barrier and rode up in silent isolation. I felt the need to stop and observe, to breathe in the experience of being somewhere incredibly beautiful but with the rare luxury of silence and solipsism.

At their steepest, the sides of the gorge stand ominously on either side, two towering periglacial walls. I gazed up at the crows and jackdaws circling above the parapet of the cliffs and was struck by the majesty of the surroundings. With startling speed and ferocity a Peregrine Falcon swooped down in front of the cliff edge and attempted to take a bird out of the air. It was the sound that made me look up – of the swoop echoing against the limestone battlements,  the air rushing past the tucked body of the bird hurtling downwards at anything up to 200mph. 

The Falcon then climbed up out and circled around the top of the Gorge for a few minutes, scaring and harassing the other birds. I’ve been taking my nice camera out on rides lately, but this morning opted to leave it at home. I managed to get some phone shots.

Hurtling towards the murder of crows
Chaos and a scattering

After a few more moments of awed twitching, I pressed on up the Gorge and made my way back to Bristol. Nothing before or after compared with the peregrine falcon.

Base Club – Geared Up

Today saw the re-emergence of base club after a two week hiatus. the weather was pretty horrid; damp and muddy with a seriously unpleasant and blustery wind blowing in off the bristol channel. I could hear it whistling through the letterbox at 6.30am and it took all my willpower to even get out of bed. it was one of those days where i lay there, unsure if i could physically move from the warmth of the duvet at stupid o’ clock on a saturday, until suddenly i was upright, as though my body did the moving and i happened to be in it at the time.

i dressed according to the forecast, taking a pacamac thing that stuffs into a half-water bottle. I opened the door, although i use the word ‘opened’ in the loosest possible sense, i turned the latch and the door blew open as the wind invaded the house, marching through the gap without ceremony or even a hello. The rain sliced across in sheets of drizzle, so i quickly changed into a more robust jacket and went back out. It took a lot of effort to close the door again. it was an inauspicious start.

we met at the tobacco factory, a group of slightly damp and nervous bike riders. steve rolled up ten minutes late. i should add at this point that we waited for him, despite not knowing if he was coming or not. this is a point i will return later in this post. as with all big headwind days, we opted to ride out into the claws of the beast, thus hopefully gaining on the return leg when our legs began to tire. the route took in clarken coombe, clevedon and churchill, before climbing up shipham and dropping down to cheddar. from cheddar we rode back up the gorge and across, coming back into town through whitchurch. it’s a standard base club ride, with a bit more main road than usual because some people were on their bestest, newest bicycles. i was on my condor which i have equipped with SKS race blade longs. i shall let you know the outcome of this experiment in a forthcoming post.

cheddar gorge is an incredible place. the steep sides of the gorge tower above the ribbon of road like silent sentinels. there is a peculiar sense of geological time, of forces over and above what we can understand from within the finite and utterly transient time scales we have available to us. it’s awe-inspiring, and was used as the National Hillclimb in 2006. There’s a steep section in the middle followed by a long and generally fast ascent of around 3%. it’s not my favourite climb in cycling terms, but it is a fantastic place to ride though, if that makes any sense at all. Today the wind favoured us, giving a gentle push all the way up. if i wasn’t trying so hard to take pictures i might have had a real go at it and see what sort of time i could do. as it was i got stuck on the really steep bit (it’s 17% near the bottom) with a camera in my hand just as the headwind suddenly reared up and channeled down the gap between the enormous cliffs on either side.

base club climbs the gorge

later we really upped the tempo, riding with the wind as we hurtled through the lake side villages of bishops sutton and chew magna. all was well until I sat up to eat a banana. the others didn’t notice at first and a gap opened. i ignored it and ate my banana, confident that i could close it fairly easily. My confidence was misplaced, it went out to around 70 metres and we turned back into the block headwind; i was completely adrift; the front four were working together (and not waiting) and i was have a really tough time and chewing stem. it made me realise why road races get so edgy when the wind blows – once you’re out the back, for example after a corner, you’ve pretty much no chance of getting back on again. I sat up in the end, and felt sure they would wait. they didn’t. it took near enough three miles. i unleashed some mock indignation. they said they thought i was taking photos or something. steve later tweeted:

“softlad wants us to stop so he can eat a banana. have trouble getting yer bib on or summat?”

it’s now an apocryphal part of the short history of base club. in the end we managed the 45 miles, with 2500ft, in about 2hr 40 minutes; roughly 17mph average. it hurt a bit and was the hardest i’ve ridden over distance since last season. which is a good thing, of sorts.

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