I’ve done the Black Rat Cyclosportive before, and this was to be my third time. However it’s been different every time. It was based in Portishead for my first in 2012, when it went around Somerset and also for my second, in its “Three Bridges” incarnation in 2014. This time The Black Rat had relocated to Clifton Rugby Club for a route that wouldn’t be dissimilar to last year but with less bridges and no Avonmouth to negotiate – so I was definitely up for doing it again.
Clifton Rugby Club is, however, not that easy to find. The satnav was convinced it was a car showroom. The entrance on the other side of the uncrossable dual carriageway wasn’t open, so clearly wasn’t the right one. Hm. So, I drove around circuitously a bit in the hope that I would find inspiration…which, when a black arrow hove into view I did. I followed it and found the entrance lurking on the side of the one way road that I couldn’t have gone done coming from the direction I’d arrived anyway. I gather there was a different postcode to use somewhere but clearly that had passed me and many others by. Some sort of signage would definitely have been helpful, and if it wasn’t for the marshals at the entrance I could use when I found it, it still wouldn’t have been obvious that I was in the right place!
Still, here I was, marshalled to park on a grassy field in the sun, where I would later be joined by both my Dad and Alan. In the meantime I headed off to register in the club building. Being early the event was still sort of setting up around me and there certainly weren’t any queues for anything. I’d remembered my 613 number so found the right place on the table to be given all the usual, and also a free High5 gel. With at least an hour in hand I had plenty of time to use the facilities and grab a cup of free coffee too.
The forecast was for pretty much the same as my last ride, sunny/cloudy/breezy/mildish, so I’d figured out what to wear already. Lightweight longs, toe covers, bamboo s/s base layer, merino s/s jersey, arm warmers, and gilet. Which made for a whole heap less faffing than sometimes. Well, apart from trying to get the bl**dy seat post timing tag on – not easy with my huge saddle bag! As I was sitting in the car wondering what to do next Dad walked past looking for me. And shortly afterwards Alan walked past on his way to register. And then there were three. Not three to ride together, as Dad was doing the short route, with some of his club members around. But Alan and I were both down for the 100 mile route, aka the Granfondo, his first in quite some time, and we were going to be sticking together for the duration. ‘Rah – company!
Having said that, I then managed to misplace Alan until just before they started sending riders off…I was starting to worry I’d be riding on my own after all! So with no time to waste, we joined the queue, and waited for our turn to be briefed and sent on our way. The rider briefing was a tad rambling but covered the usual bases, and we were on our way at 8:37am, up that one way road, and up the dual carriageway. Not for long though, very shortly we turned left into country lanes, at which point I found myself wishing we’d been let go in smaller groups as things got a bit clogged up. Still at least the rider traffic stopped us hurtling off too fast too soon right?
I’m often a bit blasé about sportives this days but knowing that I was doing it with Alan who’s done less of ’em than me, I’d paid more attention to the elevation of the route than usual so that I knew that with the exception of one lump, we were in for pretty flat times all the way until the Severn Bridge. I figured that lump would be a good test of my insides anyway, although since I was back to popping pills like smarties, I was already dosed up and not too concerned. So we bimbled our way around the country lanes, doing a reasonable speed but not pushing it, and that lump, whilst a bit testing on early legs, went fine albeit predictably slowly. Good start 🙂
Right, off to the (old) Severn Bridge. Which I love riding across. And today was no exception. You can see it shining white like a beacon from quite a way off, and it always cheers me up. After the wiggly cycle path to get to the bridge proper, we stopped for selfies and the like to immortalise the moment, before enjoying the scenic if slightly windy ride across to Wales. It sure was pwerty 🙂 Unlike the housing estates of Chepstow that followed, but they passed by soon enough. We then bunched up for a while at the traffic lights in the centre where the route split was last year, which have possibly the shortest “go” phase anywhere, though I’m pleased to say no-one was jumping them!
Wales is where the hills are. And oddly I like Welsh hills. They’re, mostly, long but not too steep. We climbed out of Chepstow past the racecourse and beyond and then flew back down to the Wye Valley to once more immortalise Tintern Abbey. By now I was having a serious case of déja-vù but hey, the abbey looks much nicer in sunshine, no? Shortly after the abbey came the route split. Which didn’t seem to be marked, and the marshal who was occasionally shouting out which way was which was more interested in his mobile phone than whether or not we were going the right way. Luckily I caught the tail end of his last holler and we went straight on whilst the other two routes went left. Suddenly where there had been lots of riders around us, there weren’t! And then we passed some signs marking another route split…curiouser and curiouser! We carried on our merry Granfondo way as indicated…
Today’s event turned out to be awfully like the Wiggle Wye Valley Warrior, with the addition of the Bridge, and the subtraction of Symonds Yat. Sounds good to me! I hadn’t realised quite how identical it would be but then even if I had, having liked that route, I’d probably still have done it 🙂 When I met an up I knew I knew I could do it, and when I met a down I knew I could properly get in to it. Lovely 🙂 It was however all new to Alan!
As we carried on, the Wye Valley was just as beautiful as ever, though the bluebells were a little past their best by now. It really is pretty around there. Of course you have to climb out of the valley eventually, which was a new climb to me I think, up to St Briavel’s Castle. It has a Moat Society and everything, who knew?! The first food stop came at the 50km mark shortly afterwards, where we were marshalled over a timing mat, so they’d know who’d really done which route presumably. The stop was in a pub car park, a pub which had very salubrious toilets, and outside there was plenty of food on offer, both sweet and savoury. Although being me I just had half a banana *grin*.
Off we went again, with more familiar roads. The next big up. The church at Staunton. Monmouth. And once again, espied from a distance, Lydart or Trelleck Hill. Again! But I was doing well on hills today. Well full stop actually. I was feeling really strong, which was…unprecedented? I actually left Alan behind going up and he didn’t catch me until near the top when things were easing off. My best time up there ever I’ll have you know. Two minutes faster than two weeks ago! 🙂
Time for the second food stop, at 80km in, at another pub, in Trelleck. They were waiting on a delivery of more food but there was still a range and enough to go around. And they still had bananas 🙂 I was keeping my bottles well topped up today, but with the food stops so well spaced out it probably wasn’t essential. We had a bit of a chat with one of the organisers, and checked up on the rest of the route with him. I thought we’d done the four hills that I was expecting so far, so there was due to be a flattish/rolling section before one last big one, which he confirmed. Always good to know. And, for a change, I wasn’t asking because I was hating the going up bits, I just wanted to be prepared 🙂
We headed off once more, but Alan seemed to be flagging a bit, although he reckoned I was just haring off a bit. Yep, I was still feeling strong 🙂 I did suggest he took another gel though, and I reined it in a bit and tried to make sure he was always on my wheel – it’s always easier to follow a wheel, right? Shortly after the stop and a bit more up came the next route split, a very sharp right turn, a bit out of the blue, and again not that well signposted. We had to retrace a little bit and locate/check the signs so as to take our right turn rather than head straight back to Chepstow. Which also took us down possibly the best descent of the day. Fab views but steep and fast and not technical so no photos I’m afraid! So much fun 🙂
As promised the next section was indeed more on the flat side, with views, windmills and bridges – I do like having something definite to photograph 🙂 Again I was riding within myself, with Alan behind me. All of which took us to the third and final foodstop, once again at a pub, with the same selection of food. Alan was feeling it, and my left knee was playing up. Knowing there was a final big hill coming up even I thought a gel might be a good idea, not to mention it making a change from bananas 😉 And that final hill, the long slow interminable climb up from Usk towards Chepstow was just as tedious as it always is! Although better in the dry and sort of bright than in the rain to be sure. Knowing it was the last climb of the day and that the rest of the route would be down or flat was motivational too.
It was as billed. There was a long, long, long, enjoyable downhill and then we had to deal with Chepstow before we could go over the lovely bridge again. There was some confusion regarding signs and directions around the racecourse and also at the beginning of the bridge, but after some debate with other riders we all took the right path and crossed the by now distinctly windier bridge, but on t’other side this time. Which was still fun, even if Alan doesn’t look like it was. This left us with around 16 flat miles to do. Into a killer headwind. It has to be said, this was not fun. Alan was on my wheel with little left in the tank, my head was down, and yes, we were dragging our average speed up nicely, but man, it was hard work! And when we missed a right hand turn sign somehow, it being small and not that obvious on the pole on the RHS under a tree where it was, and we had to stop, deliberate, and retrace again? I did have a minor sense of humour failure. Still, it did mean, whilst stopped and trying to check GPS maps, that I took the final dose of pills that I’d been putting off taking since we were so nearly back, so it probably had a silver lining. Head down again, route relocated, we continued to eat up the final few miles until finally we were over, or under, the Finish line and sitting in the sun with a well earned pasty and some cider. Result 🙂 Black Rat done!
Cycling time: 6:44
Distance: 100.7 miles
Avg: 14.9 mph
ODO: 9442.6 miles
I was so pleased with how strong I felt out there. Really, I was on one, which is very rare. I’m really pleased we both did the 100 miles as planned, and company made the whole thing practically pleasant. In fact time/speed wise it’s one of my best centuries in quite a while. Go us! As events go I like it. I like the route, I like the hills, I like the organisers, I like the foodstops, and I loved the free cider afterwards – especially when they had too much and we were encouraged to fill up bottles and take it home with us! But I think the signage needs some work. One sign per junction just ain’t enough, and although there were some repeater ribbons, more would have been good. Let’s face it, it’s very rare that I go off course on a sportive…and I’ve had some experience of these things *grin*. I’d still do it again though – and I’d also recommend it 🙂