Another month, another 600k perm. This time an old favourite, the Hellfire from the wonderful WessexSR series. I’d tried and packed on an icy attempt in December. Would this effort be any more successful ?
There have been several Wessex-based rides over time, some of which have faded into dusty memory. Each bore the stamp of their creator’s personality. The Dorset Coast 200 is a survivor and a popular, long-established ride. After developing the Hard Boiled 300 and then the Porkers 400, a Wessex 600 was logically Shawn Shaw’s next step that would complete a Wessex SR series. Shawn’s take on this stuck to his style of taking in such delights as “a few favourite corners of my ‘backyard’: the Blackdown Hills: the Mendips and the Cotswolds: with Bulbarrow and Blackmore Vale: with Salisbury Plain and the Somerset Levels: with the Wylye, Nadder and Ebble Valleys: with the North Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase.” A few of these are absent in the crowning WessexSR ride – the Brimstone 600 – but only a few. The Hellfire is the permanent version of the Brimstone, and contains only detail changes to ensure that distance, elevation and proof of passage requirements are met.
I’ve ridden both the Hellfire and the Brimstone before. They each have their own character due to the differences, but owing to family commitments I’m less likely to ride the Brimstone nowadays. To spread out my rides more evenly over the year, I’ve resorted to riding the Hellfire before the audax UK season really gets going. Last year I rode it in mid March, this year it was on February 22nd, starting after work at 10p.m..
So, with the work day complete, I rode down from Bath through a beautiful, pale dusk to Poole and started the Hellfire in the dark after a greasy, expensive Domino’s pizza in Upton. It contained plenty of calories though – I’ll give it that. After riding over to the Longfleet BP garage and getting an ATM receipt, I was finally off on the ride itself.
Poole to Abbots Ann:
The first stage is one of the longest, and could be thought as unremarkable until it gets nearer to Salisbury Plain. Some hills, but nothing special or too challenging – bumps compared to what’s to come. It always seems to take a long while to get out into proper darkness. Sometime around West Moors is the first time you’re not being lit up by stark orange street lamps. The night was clear. Only a half-lit moon, but the stars were out. It was going to be another cold, starry ride. The occasional deer, roadside rustle and owl screech were my overnight companions from now on.
On the verge of Salisbury Plain I was amongst many military installations either derelict or still in use. It’s an odd area – so full of military secrets and history, our country’s weaponry – all sitting amongst many neolithic sites.
Abbots Ann – Codford:
A quick selfie at the Abbots Ann village sign and then off westwards to Amesbury. This section differs from the Brimstone in that instead of controlling at the Hawk at Amport and crossing the A303 to go through all the ranges and the bland Army housing estates at Tidworth and Bulford, the route skirts south of the busy A road and ambles through Cholderton instead, re-joining the calendar route at the A303 junction at Amesbury. It’s quite a sight at night when you climb up to overlook the depots and services at the busy junction. Whenever I ride this route I chose to forego the lengthy climb on the A303 in the official route and go through the lanes to join the busy dual carriageway at the top of the climb near the start of the slip road. The less time I’m sharing that death trap with speeding articulated lorries, the better.
The Costa coffee machines in Solstice Services 24hour Co-op have an aura about them in my imagination now. They quickly serve hot, decent-tasting coffee at the press of a button at any time of day. What’s not to worship? In the dead of night none of the staff say anything about me wheeling in my grubby bike and guzzling two strong coffees. Glaciation is quicker than the 24hr McDonalds staff nearby. I don’t bother with them anymore.
Quickly back on the road to avoid losing too much temperature, there’s a climb to get the juices flowing again straight after. Over a climb or two and I was into the Wylye valley where the temperature really started to drop. It’d been below zero since Poole but by Codford it had dropped to -7C.
Codford – Beaminster:
After a failed attempt at the usual proof of passage (ATM receipt), I quickly took another selfie to email Shawn. The garage’s ATM had run out receipt paper. I didn’t hang around – it was too cold for that. A few quick squirts of natural yoghurt from a Coghlans camping tube, a mouthful of veloforte bar and a fruit pastille and I was back on the road.
This section is a long one – 80km or so again. The landscape varies and mixes downs, valleys and nondescript farm land. In the dead of night you have all of this to yourself – that and the cold, empty sky.
Heading south west through the Deverills and over the hills to Mere I was on the look out for ice. The roads were mainly dry and dusty, but there were occasional black patches amidst the usual ashen grey road surface. The black patches were where water had run across the road and by now, it was frozen solid. Getting over it was straightforward enough – arse off the saddle, relax the grip on the handlebars and ride over it straight and upright with a light touch – but it still made me nervous each and every time.
Through Sherborne, skirting Yeovil and the lake at Sutton Bingham, and the sky was starting to lighten. I’d gone through the cold night and was ready to welcome some soul-warming daylight. The pale hues of the early sky are something I’ll never tire of riding through. By the time I reached the leg-sapping climb out of Corscombe the sun was up and I could feel its warmth. There were a few hair-raising moments crossing sheets of ice on fast descents, but soon I was in Beaminster drinking fresh coffee and gorging on continental style pastries at the newsagents.
Beaminster – Exmouth:
Leaving the bustling metropolis of Beaminster during the school run, I was soon back out onto sketchy lanes and heading for the coast. This section is the hilliest and for me, it was also the iciest. There was frozen run off all over it which was starting to melt in the sun’s rays here and there.
At the coast the climbs become really quite relentless. Up Charmouth high street, down a bit and then up the hill overlooking Lyme Regis, descend into town and then up and out of it via the steepest climb Shawn could find, I imagine. The roller coaster A road then leads you through Colyford where I abandoned in December having foolishly thought that Schwalbe’s Marathon Winter tyres would be fine on a 600K randonneé.
I flew through it this time, and still going at a reasonable average speed. I had time in hand, and although I hadn’t been getting as much advantage from the tailwind as I’d hoped, I was still going well. Soon I was descending into Sidmouth and nervously looking forward to the knee-busting climb out. It was all over quicker than I’d remembered though. It’s not easy, but I didn’t suffer as I’d expected. Things were looking up.
After some lanes filled with tractors, delivery trucks and cars unable to move, I was nearing the final climb up to Exmouth. A quick lunchtime three-cheeseburger refuel at McDonalds and a trip to Halfords for AA batteries, and I was up and out – on my way to the next control.
Exmouth – Taunton Deane:
Through some heathland north of Exmouth – surely a dogging hotspot by the looks of it – I was back into nondescript farmland, the occasional village and some more crazy climbs. The climb up to Hembury Fort is particularly trying, coming as it does after 300K. After that there’s Dunkeswell and the climb up onto the Blackdown Hills out of Hemyock. They loom before you, taunting you before they then start extracting the vigor from your tiring body. Surely it’s akin to self-inflicted torture ?
After a fast descent at the derelict Merry Harriers, the M5 soon comes into earshot. Shortly, I was sneaking in the back of the motorway services at Taunton Deane. Another McDonalds ensued – ice cream, coffee and doughnuts this time, for some reason.
Being gawped at in a motorway services is a part of audaxing. I quite enjoy it – particularly the confusion and the British way of not going up and asking about the how’s, why’s and wherefores. But this time someone who clearly ‘got’ why riding a bike a long way is worthwhile, just came up and started to chat. It transpires that there are more of us out there – they’re merely disguised as normal people!
Taunton Deane – Bristol:
This stage is testing – mentally as well as physically. There are more actual hills and some ‘Dutch hills’ too – the exposed Somerset levels – and the hills are the Mendips … My horrifically mistaken routing through Taunton via busy roundabouts and dual carriageways was a bit of a shell shock after the rural splendour south of the services. That was a challenge I hadn’t expected. Thankfully, I was soon out and back into the countryside.
Daylight faded and the temperature dropped again as I entered the levels and the headwind picked up. I then witnessed the magical spectacle of a Starling murmuration. They swirled all around me, filling the sky for several minutes like a mutating black cloud until they all then suddenly dropped to the ground as if directed by a magician. Spectacular. You’d miss all that sitting in your warm armchair on a winter’s afternoon. It reminded me why I go out on such rides at such apparently unusual times.
On the Hellfire the climb up onto the Mendips is via Cheddar Gorge instead of the Brimstone’s Draycott Steep. It has an easier gradient, but it’s much longer and still steep in places. The gorge is amazing in the dark. I always forget to look up when I start riding through it at night. It’s only when you finally look up you realise that the cliffs have gradually become higher, closer and more vertical without you noticing. It’s an odd sight – high cliffs topped by stars and a bright, sepia tinted, half-lit moon. Another worthwhile spectacle.
After the long drag out of the gorge I started to ride into that wintry headwind again. By now I was starting to feel the distance in my legs. I’d been going for more than 24 hours and needed a rest. Over familiar roads and hunkered down in an aero tuck on the TT bars, I was soon at the next climb – out of Chew Magna to the wonderfully named Norton Malreward. A quick info check and I headed off to my sleep stop in Bristol, some food and a few equipment changes.
After more than a year audaxing with my Carradice Barley, I reverted to my small Apidura saddlebag and a bum bag for the Hellfire to try and save weight, improve accessibility and reduce stopping time. At my rest stop in Bristol I ditched the bum bag for good. I’ll keep it of course, because it ‘might come in handy one day’, but that’s it for long distance bike rides. It kept on slipping down & I suspect it caused numbness in my lower back. Once I was wearing it I couldn’t access food in it or the jersey pockets beneath it either. For the remainder of the ride, I switched to putting frequently accessed food and electrical stuff into the Apidura pouch, other essentials (phone & Brevet etc) into my jersey pockets and all the rest out of the way in the saddle bag.
Bristol – Malmesbury:
After a good dose of food and a randonneur’s sleep (in other words, nowhere near enough), I was back out on the road. By this time, (1 a.m.) the temperature had dropped further and that evil north easterly had picked up.
There was more tricky night ice around Doynton & Dyrham and that stiff north easterly all the way to Malmesbury. This is where the TT bars paid back their additional weight. I tucked myself out of the wind as much as I could and kept the speed as high as I could sustainably manage, and watched as the average speed started to creep back up. By the time I reached Malmesbury though, the wind chill was hurting my fingers – despite having three layers of gloves.
Malmesbury’s Lloyds bank has an ATM lobby, in which I thankfully faffed awhile out of the wind. Its ATM was out of action though, so I resorted to yet another selfie for proof of passage.
Malmesbury to Nunney:
Back on the road, I bowled my wind-assisted way southwards but started to suffer from the dozies near Chippenham. I couldn’t stop for a snooze though because it was just too cold, so I started going slower and slower … thank Torq for caffeine gels! One did the job: I became more alert again and had an energy boost too.
Dawn broke when I was in Warleigh/Conkwell wood. Even in leafless midwinter that wood just seems magical to me, although I can’t say why. There’s just something unreal about it.
Daytime gave me a new lease of life and as I started to warm up, I started to be able to put out more power. The average speed, although still poor, and continually being dented by hill after hill, was at least going up. The wind direction was in my favour and definitely helping.
Nunney to Poole:
The north easterly was a very generous tailwind on the last leg. The route predominately heads south so, as with most tailwinds, you never notice it unless it’s in your face as a headwind: you just feel invincible and assume you’re on top of your game and a beast on a bike. It’s only when you briefly change direction that you remember the stiff breeze coming from the north east and realise that your legs are mashed weaklings after 500k of Wessex hills and lanes. There are hills aplenty even on this stretch though. I might have forgotten the climb out of Fontmel Magna from last year, but it very obligingly reminded me of its awkward gradient and profile this year – so much so, I had to stop and remove more of the night’s layers of clothing because I was rapidly heating up.
This stretch is another longish one at 80km, but it soon flies by as the hills are easily made up for by the flat valley roads and the extra kick I always seem to get at the end of a long ride. I was soon in Poole and back at the Longfleet BP garage’s ATM.
Then there was the added bonus of meeting with the maestro himself, Shawn, and chatting about the ride. It’d taken 38 & 1/2 hours which isn’t great, but what with the extra darkness, the cold weather and all the associated faff involving gloves and other layers, I’m happy with that. Going into such a ride after a full day’s work, a 100k ride to the start and no sleep, doesn’t help you go any faster.