I’d not had a great week. Various sh*t had hit various fans. I’m on a new drug, along with the others, making for a different cocktail. And my usual weekend pre-sportive prep routine went to hell in a hand basket. But I was pretty cheerful when Guy picked me up around 7:00am on what was a fairly sunny morning. I was less au fait with the weather forecast than usual. Thanks to some serious incompetence on BT’s behalf I was devoid of broadband, and had been for days. (it’s back now – clearly – took 6 days though!). What I had gathered led me to believe it was going to be fairly mild, somewhat cloudy, with a chance of meatballs later. Well, a chance of rain anyway 😉 After last week’s failure to be warm, I really didn’t want to make the same mistake again – and though my kit choice may have been similar, it most definitely included leg warmers this time! Leg warmers, toe covers, shorts, s/s base layer, heavyish s/s jersey, Cyclosport arm warmers & gilet, neck collar, head tube, and waterproof for the saddle bag. I had a few other options with me too, so as to have something to debate, fret about, and faff with later though 😉
It only took half an hour to get to HQ at Clifton Rugby Club which, obviously, is NOT in Clifton…because that would be far too simple. It’s actually at Cribbs Causeway. With a nifty little detour to get around the one way street that stops getting there being too simple too. Being early we were, of course, marshalled to park nearly as far away from the club building as possible, and also on the grass. Which I remember from last year’s event – when my feet were wet before I even set off. But today the sun was still shining, and it’s not exactly a long walk, so, with Gaz having arrived ahead of us, off we all walked to register.
Which wasn’t massively well organised. The signs for which queue you should be in were a bit high up if you weren’t paying attention…and when you did figure out where you should be, there weren’t enough members of staff to deal with everyone, so the short queues were growing. Not that it took long to be dealt with when you did get there though. So…find the queue for the Granfondo – that being what I was signed up for. Quote my number, 113 as it happens, be given a laminated number including timing chip for the handlebars and two cable ties, a bit of spiel as to where tea/coffee were, and job done. Time to nip to the toilet, where there were once again queues, even for the Ladies, which however in this case was a good sign – it’s always nice to see more women at an event.
On the way back to the car, carrying my free cup of coffee, we bumped into organiser Jeremy, who recognised me, and we had a brief chat, which was nice. OK, so maybe the Cyclosport kit gave me away…;) Enough with the chatting though, time to put bikes together and debate layerage. I was already kitted out, and nothing out there was making me decide to change. It was sunny, but a little fresh, and, as previously stated, there was no way my leg warmers were coming off, even if I had to throw them away half way around if I couldn’t find anyway to stow them away! Visual checks around the car park for comparative reassurance came up short, as many were in shorts. Guy eventually decided to stick to the just shorts option and, all ready, we all headed back to HQ to mill around in the sunshine, queue for the toilets again, and take the usual photos. It felt pretty warm just standing there, but it was too late for changing now!
Today’s plan was to do the Granfondo, which entitled us to be in the first group away at 8:20am or so. There was no grand announcement, and no-one seemed to know quite what to do, so we just sort of queued, and shuffled, until the point where there was some sort of concerted movement in the right direction. Then there was Jeremy, mic in hand, officially asking us all to move forward. So we did, which brought us right up near the front, where we listened to the usual rider briefing before being sent on our way.
This initially sent us up the main road for a little bit, which felt quite busy and industrial estatey. And then we turned left and suddenly it was all countryside. Narrow country lanes, the odd bit of rolling, but pretty flat and rather nice really. And it could have remained that way all the way to the Severn Bridge, but there was a gratuitous loop to do to get there instead. This involved a short steepish up in Tockington, before going out to Alveston and back. Well the up certainly warmed me up a bit! I guess they were making sure the long route was properly 100 miles? It was less bright now, clouding over a bit, but still not cold, and we were flying along most of the time. My legs were feeling good, and we were chatting, and I had to remind me, and us, to rein it in a bit. Hurtling off at the beginning of a sportive is never a good idea!
We were also being nice, and polite. Saying hello to those we passed, be they on two wheels or on two legs, or even four. Some of the groups that passed us however… Hello? Morning? Manners don’t cost anything you know! I have to admit to the odd sarcastic remarks having passed our lips, in the directions of the posh pelotons passing us, determined to get ahead at all costs…even should that be at the cost of those they were passing! Enough p’s for you? Cos I can think of at least one more…
Time for my favourite bit. Crossing the Severn Bridge. There were some interesting bits of cycle path to be negotiated at either end, and crossing the bridge itself involves quite few ramps, metal covers, and so forth – none of which are conducive to speed – so we were slowed down somewhat despite ourselves. And we got separated by other riders too. So, on my own briefly, I bimbled a bit, and took photos, looked out across the Severn to the other bridge, and generally enjoyed it as much as I always do 🙂 Well, apart from the fact that the weather over Wales was looking a tad ominous – I wasn’t enjoying the thought of what that might mean…
Hello Wales! Wales isn’t flat. But I’ve ridden around this area a lot, not just on this event, and I know I like the climbs here. The first of which comes from the bridge up to Chepstow, through what is essentially housing estate. Lots of speed bumps, parked cars, road furniture…so no going fast, even if you could! After negotiating the centre of Chepstow, complete with traffic lights to obey, and city gates to admire while you did so, we were out the other side, on an generally upwards trend, climbing up tree covered roads. I realised I knew where I was. Which was good as, amongst all the gradual climbing, with occasional downs, there’s a little kick up to the Racecourse which, being totally prepared for for a change, I nailed 🙂 Overall I was climbing well, and also enjoying it. And after this long climb was finished, we got a long long flying downhill, down into the Wye Valley, which, again with the familiarity, I set off to enjoy. Given happy legs and this? Bliss… 🙂 I hurtled my way off, leaving the guys behind, to have a blast. All the way down to Tintern Abbey. It’s easy to fly past it, which is a shame if it happens, but as I knew it was there I stopped to both take photos and wait for my compatriots. It took a while for them to catch me, and when they did, also flying past, it took me a while, thanks to traffic and other descending riders, to get back on the road and catch up with them. Partially because I was trying to make sure to enjoy myself while I did so – it is just so pretty around there 🙂
I found the guys were waiting for me at the route split, and the long route option had us going straight on, not turning left, so as I approached Guy waved me on, and shortly we were three again, heading off into the Welsh blue yonder. Well. Not for long. It turns out Gary wasn’t feeling the love today, and he thought he’d head back and take that turning after all. B*gger. I don’t like it when groups fall apart 🙁 Guy and I decided that we were still up for the long route though – after all, that’s what I’d set out to do, and he eats miles for breakfast. So sadly there was a parting of the ways. And just two of us carried on along the Wye Valley.
As we carried on, the weather slowly deteriorated yet further, and spots of rain started falling. Just in time for the first really big climb of the day. Which made deciding what to do about waterproofs tricky. Stay dry or boil in the bag? I love this climb, up to St Briavels. Initially it’s long, and slow, and pretty, and I was really enjoying myself, even as the rain got heavier. At some point Guy stopped, probably wisely, to put his waterproof on, which inevitably made the rain go away for a bit, and left me ahead of him. Towards the end the climb gets much steeper but I even enjoyed that, and not just because lots of other people obviously weren’t enjoying it 😉 Having reached the top by pedalling, with hint of smug face, I took shelter under the large trees around the castle and church to wait for him, and take photos etc. As it turns out, I’d probably have been better off waiting for him at the food stop which turned out to be just down the road!
The town hall being used had toilets, which was great, as I needed one. There was High5 drink, and food, but that on offer, with the exception of some big pretzels, was all of the slightly limited sweet variety. I topped up my bottle, ate a pretzel, and tried to get the water off my camera and sunglass lenses… Not that I should have bothered, as not long after we set off again, the rain set off again too.
Which explains the lack of photos for quite a considerable while. It rained. It rained more. It rained a lot. It rained so much that you couldn’t get any wetter. It was almost amusing? Like, you’re throwing all this at me, but I’m not cold, I’m still pretty much flying along, I’m still loving the ups, I’m still (albeit more cautiously) enjoying the downs. It’s just water, right? I thumb my nose at thee, weather gods! It wasn’t really conducive to much chatting though; overall everyone was a bit glum. I did meet another rider, Paul Hunt, in luminous pink, at some point. He spotted my Cyclosport kit and asked if I was the Jennifer whose blogs he reads. Well, clearly I was/am, so we chatted for a little while as we rode through the rain, which was nice. Hi Paul! Even with the rain it was still oddly pretty out there. All green, the smell of wild garlic, forests of many trees… Guy and I played the elastic thing – getting separated and joining up again as the very wet miles continued. I was soaked through but feeling ok, but Guy was rueing his decision to leave his leg warmers at home, and was really cold, so we didn’t do much stopping – just kept pushing on to keep warm.
So there’s a patch in the middle of this ride that is one big wet blur…but at some point, after longer than anyone would have liked, and soaked to the skin and beyond, things started to improve a little. I’d been recognising where I was on and off, and I’m sure I missed a castle that I usually see on the way, but there was a particular village and church that I seem to photograph every time I come this way so it seemed only fair I do so again. And not long after that I realised that the wiggles and rolls had led us to a long climb that I also recognised. I think I usually call it Lydford Hill, which today Strava calls the Monmouth – Trellech Climb. Guy went on up, on his merry way, and I settled back to bimbling up in mine. Slowly, steadily, happily, enjoying the views, taking photos, and generally just getting on with it.
It went on and on and on, splitting left by an old pub, with various chatting to riders from time to time, and I kept going up…and with my body happy doing it’s thing, my mind sort of wandered off in thought and………with an sudden shock I woke up and realised I’d actually fallen asleep on the bike. Holy crap!!! I’ve had the shock effect happen once before, driving home from a sportive, when I drifted off on the motorway and the rumble strip woke me up. It’s like someone has thrown a bucket of cold water over you whilst simultaneously electrocuting you; waking you up, scaring you because you know you shouldn’t have fallen asleep, realising you’ve just had a very very lucky escape, and telling you that you need to be awake, and be awake NOW! I know I’ve been woozy on the bike before, but I could have sworn you can’t fall asleep on a bike. Well, you can. I am very pleased I didn’t fall off! Man, how weird is that?
So, properly awake, and more than a little freaked out, I made it up the hill, where conveniently and usefully, Guy was waiting at the second food stop. I was glad to stop, unsurprisingly, and boy did I ever feel weird. Although the sun was now out, and I was drying out a bit, I was actually getting cold, which is weird considering I hadn’t actually felt cold even when riding through the deluge. Something to do with evaporation apparently, as Guy was explaining to a fellow rider…though I had to get him to explain it to me again later when I was actually in a state to pay attention. I was feeling all wobbly and dizzy and weird and Guy actually stopped me falling over at one point; my balance was completely off.
So I took myself off to sit on a wall in the sun on my own for a bit, ate odd honey wafer things, and took some time to get myself together. The food station was running low on pretty much everything, as the guys behind the tables were chattering about amongst themselves, so there wasn’t going to be much left for anyone who came after us… And I know we’re slow but we weren’t being that slow, so there were going to be a fair few of them. In fact I’d actually been feeling really on form until the whole falling asleep thing! Feeling somewhat more human, I popped into a portable toilet for the obvious before rejoining Guy. I still wasn’t feeling right though, with mild nausea thrown in, and having not been in much pain up until now, I was now. So I took some additional pills, and even though I was feeling like I could possibly do the next half, after chatting a while, we decided that it might just not be wise for me to push it, all things considered. Guy knows his way around here, thanks to various previous events and being audax king ‘n all, and reckoned he knew some short cuts that would get us back sooner. Sadly my first century of the year was going to have to wait… Which made it time to get going again. Not before, now that the rain had stopped, I put my waterproof on, to keep me warm. I know, I’m perverse like that 😉
So we headed off, still following the route for the meantime. It was getting drier and warmer, since the best weather always comes after you’ve finished a sportive, right? 😉 I started to feel better fairly soon, but when the route split came – right for Medio/Granfondo, and straight on for Piccolofondo, I was still set on my “head for home” course. Make a decision – stick to it! This also meant, however, that we weren’t going to need to go off piste and follow Guy’s route, we could just follow the Piccolo signs home which also, being pragmatic, I reckoned would probably mean we were still covered by the event’s insurance and support. So off we went. What with it being warmer and drier now, it got nicer by the minute. It may only have been the Piccolo route but there were still a few little ups to be be dealt with, and then a really, really lovely long flying descent back to Chepstow. This put me back on familiar turf, which today felt good, as it meant I kinda knew how far I had to go. Plus, after some traffic lights, traffic shenanigans (the motorists there really weren’t our biggest fans) and some cycle path wiggling, I got to go back over the Severn Bridge again. This time in sunshine and under mostly blue skies 🙂 And very lovely it was too. Although Guy thinks we should have been able to go back on the other side, just so as not to repeat ourselves…and to get the full bridge experience of course.
Once back in Blighty, we knew the rest of the route was going to be pretty flat. Always motivational, no? Time to push on a bit then. I was now back to feeling good, and back on form. We took a brief stop at a little shop somewhere, where time was busy standing still, to purchase fizzy orange and the like. As we chatted outside, Jeremy (the organiser guy) pulled up in his car to check we weren’t lost. Which we weren’t…although to be honest, there weren’t quite enough signs today, and they didn’t stand out enough, so it could easily have happened. Having (finally!) stashed the odd layer, we carried on. Having missed the next right hand turning with Alan last year, I knew not to do it again. Besides, Jeremy was now there, standing next to his car, making sure that a) we didn’t miss this one, and that b) we didn’t miss the next one, which apparently had been being an issue. Not by now it wasn’t, as it now boasted about six arrows and also some cheerful bods pointing the way! So we turned right. As you do. Well, it would have been rude not to… 😉
Time to head for home. Which I was totally up for. In fact, my foot was on the gas, though not in a non-UCI approved way, and we fair hurtled along, for the last however many miles it was. I’m guessing at around 8 or so…? Lots of country lanes and warm sunshine, and I was having a blast. Sprint finish? 😉 Behind me Guy was heard to comment that you could tell I’d had my fizzy orange…*grin*. We even picked up a follower, who ended up clinging on to whoever’s was the rear wheel, all the way back! There was a bit of up to get us back up to civilisation, and then some suburban playing with buses to be done before there we were, back at HQ, sort of just like that. Man we flew back! 🙂 I think we’d worn our lanterne rouge out, as he sort of staggered in a little behind us, and was last seen walking away looking dejected…certainly too tired to say thank you for the tow anyway 😉
So Black Rat done. Half Granfondo, Half Piccolo. Which I’ll have you know still added up to 80+ miles, which ain’t too shabby, so there 😛 We stashed our bikes in the car, replaced the odd still damp layer with drier more civilised ones and headed back to enjoy the free pig roast, and the free cider in our free mugs. Oh and you could have a free bottle too, if you wanted one. Once again we had a bit of a chat with Jeremy who was wandering around, keeping everything under control, and fighting fires when they arose. I did tell him about the signage and the under stocked food station – it would have been rude to not say so then and then have him read it here!
Cycling time: 5:35
Distance: 81.3 miles
Avs: 14.6 mph
Overall, ignoring the obvious, I had a really good ride. I think I’m pretty much on form, and I’m definitely feeling better on the bike than I have for a couple of years. It’s just that sometimes my health issues get in the way, which is seriously frustrating! It’s also possible the new drug may be an issue too…if today is anything to go by. Anyway, the Black Rat is still a great event, mainly because the route is just lovely, and the scenery is beautiful. Not just because I get free cider at the end 😉 The organisers are great too, and I gather plans are afoot to organise it in tandem with “a large cycling club in Bristol” next year so as to have more bodies to help on the day, which sounds like a good thing. If they’ll have me, I’ll be back to do it again next year, and see if it is 🙂