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Total distance: 218 miles (348.8 kilometres)
Not a huge amount of planning went in to this year's CircumCycle trip, partly because the team is now only three strong after Jon moved house and dropped out, we are pretty much blase about planning stuff now, and partly because we were very much concentrating on the Coast 2 Coast ride which was completed the previous month. The route was set, but the accommodation wasn't sorted until fairly last minute, and this resulted in an easy first day, a really nasty second, and the dreaded cheddar gorge on day three. So perhaps if you're doing this route you should start where we finished day one?
There was also the possibility of Andy S (from the original Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire rides) joining us, but he bailed at the last minute, so the three remaining BOTTOM riders - BT&M - met up at Barney's house after work on Friday evening, loaded the bikes into the back of the van and headed west to Frome where we had booked overnight accomodation at the Full Moon pub in Rudge.
A very pleasant evening meal at the pub, followed by a good night's sleep set us up for the first section of what was expected to be quite a challenging ride around the borders of Somerset.
Day 1: Frome to Chard, 72.5 miles
The pub kitchen wasn't open at crack of dawn the next day - unlike the insomniac cockerel somewhere close by - but the chef from the night before had very kindly offered us a sort of packed breakfast of bacon roll, fruit, crisps and a drink to get us going in the morning. We decided to pack these and just get going, so we set off just after 0700 in the chilly, misty dawn along the road to Dilton Marsh.
Lights and waterproofs were both required at first, but there was little traffic, and we made our way gently southwards past Chapmanslade and Corseley, meeting up with one of our earlier ride routes on the way past Longleat, and then to a small village called Maiden Bradley where we took our first stop.
We normally take breaks every 10 or 15 miles on these longer rides as Leo becomes irritable if not fed, and the bacon rolls and crisps were calling. The mist was still thick, and the drops of water hanging off the many cobwebs in the hedges by the church in Maiden Bradley were very atmospheric. Setting off after breakfast we continued South past Sandford Orcas, but Graham's gears were not behaving properly. His bike had just come back from a major service, having been given a complete overhaul including new bottom bracket, chain, freewheel and chainrings. We stopped to try and sort the gears out, but the cause was not immediately apparent, so we just adjusted the brand new gear cable and carried on to Stoford, where we found a nice wall to lean our bikes up against while we had lunch at the Royal Oak pub at 49 miles in to our route. The sun was out, but it was still fairly chilly, so we were the only ones eating outside that day. No prawns for Graham's baguette meant he had to settle for a ploughman's, but all the food - and the beer - seemed very tasty.
Leaving at 1415, we had around 25 miles still to go, so took another break at a crossroads on the A356 after what seemed to be the first of the real hills on the ride. The route has 24 categorised climbs, so was set to be one of the hardest we've ever done. The fact that we'd already covered 50 miles out of 220 odd didn't bode well for the later sections, where there were sure to be many more climbs.
Graham's gears were still not behaving, and we had to adjust the cable again. Now, though, his left pedal also needed tightening. There definitely seemed to be something wrong, and his new bottom bracket was now making strange noises as well. A call to the shop where he'd had the work done seemed to be on the cards once we finished the ride, but for the moment we tightened everything up and continued riding.
By the time we reached the overnight stop near Chard we had covered 72 miles, and it was 1715. The afternoon was far harder than the morning, with many deep valleys and steep hills. Perhaps the second beer at lunchtime had been a mistake...
The Lordleaze hotel, just Southeast of Chard, has 25 bedrooms, and is very welcoming to tired orange people on bikes. We were allowed to store the bikes inside in the 'staff only' area, and then retire to shower and change for dinner before watching the England South Africa rugby world cup match and heading for bed.
Just under 6.5 hours riding time gave us an average pace of around 11.5mph for the day.
Day 2: Chard to Watchett, 85 miles
With the longest and hardest day's ride stretching ahead of us, we set off at 0715 on Sunday morning from the hotel. Nobody else was stirring, and we'd had to make do with a continental breakfast tray in the rooms rather than anything hot since we were leaving so early. We hit the ups almost immediately, with the Blackdown hills giving us plenty of exercise on the way to Yarcombe. After an hour and a quarter we had covered a little under nine miles, but it seemed that at least 8 of those had been up one hill or another.
We crossed the A303 at the junction with the Corfe road, and then headed off down a fairly agricultural farm road towards Churchstanton. At this point Barney, in an uncharacteristic error, took us a short distance in the wrong direction down a very steep track, and on the way back up to the proper road was rewarded for his mistake by getting a puncture. This took a little while to repair, and then we set off again.
Shortly after this, half way up yet another steep hill, Leo and Barney heard a wail of despair from Graham, who was around 100 metres back down the track, and off his bike. They turned around and went back to see that his pedal had come off completely.
This seemed to possibly be a terminal breakdown, but in fact turned out to give us the answer to the problems he'd been having with his gears. It wasn't the gear cable stretching, but the pedal being loose, and the bottom bracket being incorrectiy fitted that had led to his pedal axle gradually moving to the right, and misaligning his chainrings.
A bit of percussive maintenance on the axle and as much hand-tightening of the bottom bracket as possible let us reattach the left pedal and realign the gears yet again. This clunky fix would allow us all to continue riding, but Graham's bike was definitely going to need another new bottom bracket by the end of the ride as we were unable to set it in place with enough torque to stop it gently moving with each pedal revolution.
We continued on, and up, past the Wellington monument, getting some miles under our belts at last, and during a break in Bampton decided to have lunch at East Anstey, which was around 10 miles ahead at around 45 miles on the day's route.
A couple more really hard climbs later we arrived exhausted in East Anstey to find that the pub was now a house, and there was no alternative but to keep going to the next pub which was another 10 miles or so up the road in the middle of the Exmoor National Park.
Not being able to eat when your whole being has been focussed on that goal for 10 miles of grindingly tiring hills made morale reach rock bottom at this point. We took a cereal bar break anyway, and then climbed back on our bikes to try and reach the next pub before that closed as well.
The ride through Exmoor was bleak, but grand. Although the mist had largely cleared the sky was still grey and visibility wasn't great, but the wide open vista of moorland, with bracken and gorse-clad hillocks interspersed with peaty dips and hidden vales, stretched out on both sides of the road. The wind swept unchecked across miles of moor, and, unusually for Barney, helped us on our way by blowing from the South East. We were all tired now though, and slightly demoralised by the lack of available food, so the 10 miles more to the Sportsmans Inn seemed to take forever.
Once there, we found a sign outside saying that they stopped serving food at 1400, and it was now 1445, however Barney enquired within and found that, largely because they were hosting a 70th Birthday party, all the staff were still there, and there was the remains of a carvery into which we were invited to dig. The chef offered fresh vegetables, the roast meat was still warm and tender, and the beer was still flowing, so the Sportsman's Inn on Exmoor gets the thumbs up from the CircumCycle team.
The afternoon's route was supposed to take us even further West, and then North before turning East across the Quantock Hills and through Minehead, but with the early technical problems, Graham's knees (which hadn't fully recovered from his possibly ill-advised half marathon the weekend before), and the fitness levels of both Graham and Leo, we decided to cut the corner a little and start Eastwards a bit earlier, going through Exford and Dunster instead. This would shave approximately five miles off the route, but more importantly would also reduce the number of climbs we needed to do, and should allow us to reach our overnight stop at a reasonable hour.
We duly set off after lunch, heading for Simonsbath and then reaching Exford with 65 miles on the clock, but the time was already 1730 and even with the route change we had nearly 20 miles still to do. The revised route kept us more on main roads, so there were more cars to deal with, but after a horribly long climb out of Exford there was a very useful long stretch of downhill towards Dunster, during which we managed to bring our average speed up a little way.
Barney was saying motivational things like, "It's all flat from here," but he was proved patently wrong when the coast road out of Blue Anchor became a 1 in 8 over the headland which stretched off into the gathering gloom.
By the time we got to the top it was fully dark, and after making our way down the other side of the hill into Watchett finding the B&B we were looking for came as a huge relief for both legs and minds.
We eventually arrived at the door of "The Mariner's" at 1955, after 82.5 miles, with a riding time of just over 8 hours. The pub across the road refused to serve food after 2000, so we went to the Indian restaurant next door and ate most of a curry before calling it a night and tumbling into bed at 2200.
Day 3: Watchett to Frome, 69 miles
Most people who know Leo will say that he is not a morning person.
The owner of the Mariner B&B doesn't know him, but she too, would tell you he is not a morning person, having seen the proof herself this Monday morning.
The room was lovely, the shower was hot, the pillows were soft, the bed was nice and firm, the night was too short.
By around three hours.
We got up and had breakfast at 0745, and left at 0830. The wind was mostly Southerly, and was bringing rain with it. Almost straight out of Watchett and we were back in the hills, the first of which was called "West Quantock's Head".
We were heading East, so forboding probably wasn't enough - Leo had a sense of at least fiveboding, if not more.
Day three legs are always a little more tricky to get warmed up than day two or one legs, but by the time we reached Hinkley Point Leo's had gone through warm and were nicely on the way to rubbery.
We stopped at 15 miles just before 1000, meandered our way through Bridgwater, past Cossington and on to the Somerset Levels.
Leo had been wondering a little about the flooding that was reported in recent years in Somerset. Up to this point on the route there just seemed to be so many hills that floods could never happen. Once on the levels though, floods became much more understandable. Mile upon mile of completely flat marshland with drainage ditches, sluice gates and bridges instead of hedges and fences separating the fields. We took another look at the proposed route during the morning stop and decided to cut the corner off once more, removing Cheddar Gorge from the route and again reducing not so much the overall milage, but more some of the steeper climbs. We decided to head for Wookey and Wells instead of Cheddar, which would allow for a slightly earlier finish time, and hopefully let us get back to Frome before nightfall.
Lunch in Panborough seemed like a good idea, except this pub had a for sale sign outside. The next one, three miles up the road was shut on Mondays, and the next in Wookey was the same. We eventually got to Wells where we were fairly sure there should be somewhere selling food even on a Monday, and sure enough by the cathedral we found the Crown Inn where they were not too unhappy about letting slow moving orange clad cyclists eat at 1345. The morning's ride, much like previous days, had covered 46 miles, and with the route change we reckoned on around 25 for the afternoon.
We left Wells as the cathedral bells rang 1500, just as the rain started to set in properly. There was a really nasty hill up through West Horrington, and then we continued through several ups and downs through Chilcompton, Kilmersdon (apparently the home of Jack and Jill from the nursery rhyme), and then we found the old Sustrans rail path near Upper Vobster which took us almost all the way back to Frome.
The rain became incidental, except for the drips coming from the sweaty lining of Leo's cycle helmet and making their unerring way directly into his eyes, temporarily blinding him and forcing him to cycle with one eye completely shut for around five miles, and the wind dropped almost to nothing.
With a sense of 'nearly there now' reaching out almost close enough to touch, we dropped off the end of the rail path and into Standerwick, from where it was just a short hop up to Rudge, the Full Moon, and the van, which we reached at 1720 after just over 69 miles, with a riding time of six and a quarter hours.
Being sopping wet, but having a change of clothes in the van we decided to change and have a drink before heading off home, and we also managed to find the landlady and thank her for allowing us to leave a vehicle parked there for three nights.
Overall statistics show us covering 226 miles in just under 21 hours riding time.