“Why on earth am I doing this?”. I asked myself, not for the first time in my Cycling Career. It’s surprising how often that question springs to mind during the closing stages of a very long ride (i.e. virtually every time). We all know the feeling; short of breath, legs burning, hands sticky following the inevitable spilling of an energy gel and worst of all that loud beep that lets you know the garmin is about to run out of battery. For me one event will always perfectly illustrate this suffering. Yup, time for the yearly dose of Tour of Wessex.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the event is described as a multi stage sportive. Covering 330 miles over the course of three days with each stage presenting a unique challenge. Last year I committed to finishing the whole thing, spending the first half of my season training for it. The year before that it served as an important distraction from my impending A-Level exams, that time I was sensible in only opting for one stage – not that 116 miles can ever be described as easy. This year I was torn, doing three stages would have been great ‘fun’ but would have resulted in me having to take a few days off from training in order to recover. Not the best idea when attempting to prepare for a half ironman over the course of four months. With that in mind I opted for one stage only, all the suffering crammed into one day. Que the music.

For various reasons I decided on Stage two. One hundred and twenty miles through the rolling terrain of Dorset, the longest I have ever ridden. Luckily my Father also entered, these events always go by much more quickly when you have some company (i.e. someone who you can shamelessly draft if need be). It was never going to be easy – I hadn’t spent longer than four hours in the saddle since february and only allowed myself a couple of easy days beforehand, nothing to the two week taper I completed before last years attempt.

Bike choice was tricky. For long distances my Specialized Tarmac has always been the preference, it’s light, stiff and handles very nicely. Inspite of this it’s a very comfortable ride, a slightly lower grade of carbon providing enough flex to take the edge off. I’ve spend years adjusting the position on that bike, it’s now pretty much perfect – slammed enough to look and feel fast but not so much that my back will be in agony after 100 kilometres. The one downfall is the gearing, a 53-39 chainring up front isn’t always pleasant on steep climbs even when coupled with an 11-28 cassette.

In a classic twist of fate after years of good service one of the gear cables on the bike snapped two days before the event. During the process of replacing it I noticed that the bottom bracket was on it’s last legs. I wasn’t prepared to chance it – knowing my luck the machine would have fallen apart five miles from the finish line. My winter bike would have done the job if not for the fact that it’s in need of new chainrings. That left only one option, my Race Bike, very much set up for speed over comfort.

With a rare week of stunning weather I was optimistic that conditions would be good on the day itself. Sadly this is UK, of course rain was forecast for that particular afternoon – just what you want during the last few miles of an epic ride. Following a 6AM start and the worlds largest bowl of porridge I set off with a great deal of apprehension. Memories from the 2015 event came to the surface, torrential rain from mile 90 onwards – something for which I was woefully unprepared on the day. This time I was at least slightly more sensible, wearing a waterproof base layer and keeping a pair of arm warmers in my jersey pocket.

The ride itself started in much the same way as most Sportives, chaos. A combination of faster riders who (wrongly in my opinion) treat the event like a race and less experienced ones without much experience of group riding never fails to make the first ten miles nerve-wracking. I was glad to have local knowledge, knowing which corners to take cautiously and the locations of most of the major potholes. The chaos gradually died down over the course of the first thirty miles or so, by that point my father and I had found a good group.

At 35 miles the group splintered, leaving the pair of us riding alone into a headwind. It’s on those sections that you most feel the benefit of an aero bike, with the foil it was still possible to ride along at 20mph without having to over exert myself. A conveniently placed level crossing proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing a few riders to catch up with us – another group soon formed. The following 25 miles went by very quickly, culminating in the toughest climb of the day. The climb in question isn’t often open, sitting in the middle of an MOD firing range it’s usually closed for obvious reasons. As I expected it split the group again.

Miles 50-80 were easily the most difficult from a psychological point of view, the fatigue starting to set in yet the finish line still a long way away. My father and I found ourselves riding alone once again, that is until we were joined by another rider. I was impressed by his speed, staying with this guy would make it easier to get a fast time. Upon learning that he was doing all three days I didn’t have the heart to give an honest answer when he asked how much more difficult stage three was (it’s got close to 10,000 feet of climbing).

Nothing of note happened until the 100 mile mark finally passed. It was at that point where we made what seemed like a mutual decision to pick up the pace. It’s something at which every roadie will knowingly nod, one rider accelerates slightly and the others follow so as to stay on his or her wheel. As soon as the pace begins to slow another rider takes the front, accelerating again. This tends to carry on until the entire group is riding in the red with a combination of stubbornness, pride, ego and sheer madness making sure that nobody asks to take the pace down a notch.

Our group of three was soon working very hard, each one of us taking even turns at the front. It was immensely satisfying to pass several much larger groups along the way, by my estimation our average speed sat somewhere around 23-24 mph for those last 20 miles. No mean feat at the end of such a long day. It was then that the suffering truly kicked in, it’s rare that I’ve asked myself if I have the legs to go the distance when the finish line is a mere three miles away. Job done.

I’m now convinced I made the correct choice of bike. The Foil showed it’s Paris Roubaix winning qualities, handling the rough roads very well and being a very willing partner once the pace picked up. A refreshing versatility in this world of very highly specialised bike designs.

Five minutes after we’d crossed the finish line the heavens opened. Oh how fortunate it was that we were able to escape the subsequent hour long bout of driving rain. As per usual I told myself that I would never again enter the Tour of Wessex, knowing that in reality I’ll probably be back next year and for many years to come. Pain after all is temporary, glory (i.e being able to brag about how much you suffered) lasts for ever.

Thanks for reading.

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