The Black Rat Three Bridges

How to prepare for an sportive which inevitably starts early in the morning?  Go and stay with your folks who live conveniently down the road, and besides which, your Dad is riding it anyway.  How not to prepare for a sportive, early or otherwise?  Arrive there in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon and spend the afternoon and well beyond drinking white wine, eating food, and putting the world to rights…  Oops :/.  Ah well, on the upside it was a relatively early night and sleep wasn’t a problem!

I’ve done the Black Rat Cyclosportive before, at least once, and it usually tackles the Mendips *yawn*.  However this year they’d totally changed the route – as you will see…which is why I was doing it.  Well, I’m not much into getting out of bed early to ride up Cheddar Gorge these days – the novelty has worn off!  Sorry, a bit blasé I know.  Still, this brings us to alarm clock time on Sunday morning.  7:00am – to allow an hour for the pair of us to eat, faff, get in each other’s way, and leave his house by 8:00am.  Which was far too long – I must remember I have this down to a fairly fine art by now, and it takes me 45 mins max.  Still, that just meant time for more coffee, which probably counts as a good thing.  In fact definitely does.  So that was that.

What a way to leave.  OK so the weather forecast had been fabulous, and the views from the window, over the Severn where we would later be riding, were gorgeous, but it’s not until you get outside that you really get a feel for what it’s like out there.  I was in shorts, leg warmers, short sleeve jersey, arm warmers and gilet, and it became obvious very quickly, going uphill (the only way to leave their place) that that was going to be more than sufficient.

I should make a brief detour here to talk about shorts.  Ever since last year’s Tour of Wessex I have been a massive fan of Skins – both their compression wear and their cycling kit.  I needed to buy some more shorts, as you do, so duly ordered some which arrived last week.  And today was clearly going to be a shorts day.  But, there’s this thing, that you should never wear new kit on an event – not until its tried and tested.  However its not like any of my shorts, old or new, have been tried or tested this year, now is it?  And they felt comfortable on, and I get on with their longs and their pads so…I risked it.  Well, if they really do help performance and/or recovery, and with the Tour of Wessex looming once more next week, I figured I could take all the help I could get!

So, back on track, off we went, in the early morning sunshine.  I dropped Dad – because hills are hills and done at your own speed, but we both had a lot of fun going down Valley Road t’other side, though I’m not sure that made up for it from his point of view.  That done, it was only a short ride to HQ for what is now called the Black Rat Three Bridges, at Gordano school in Portishead.  I was led to believe that arriving this way is a good thing, because it would appear that car park management was a bit chaotic, as cars for both this and the football tournament down the road all tried to get to where they were supposed to be.  Queues galore…which of course, we had avoided.  Dad had registered us both the day before, so even had there been a queue for that, another bullet was dodged.  All I really need to do was process all that coffee…only to discover upon following the sign to the facilities that they were locked, and the only one, yes one, available was in the gymnasium, and really, I decided I’d manage out there until I couldn’t manage any more!  Btw, timing today was by Stuweb, which involved one of my less favourite forms of tag – the bl**dy great big one stuck around your seat post.  Which, as most of you know, is where the Tardis otherwise known as my saddle bag sits on my diddy frame.  No room at the inn!  I did my best, but if it hadn’t registered all day, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  Not sure why it couldn’t go on the helmet or even in the rider number on the handle bars but hey, I’m no timing geek, I’m sure it made perfect sense if you are.

getting ready the start line

Some of Dad’s mates were around, part of the PAC Tri lot mostly, and we joined them waiting with everyone else near the start line.   Not exactly a hardship, what with the warmth.  My leg warmers were already in the saddle bag!  There was a brief rider briefing, which I couldn’t really see amongst the riders but at least I could hear him over the PA system, and then we all gradually, gingerly rolled on our way, a bit ahead of schedule.  Which took us out around the natty little one way system and all the still queuing traffic for both events, not ideal by any means.  Though I suppose it does stop all your riders arriving and leaving at once? 😉  It was a relief to turn left at the mini-roundabout, leave the chaos behind, and finally be on our way.

toll  over the suspension bridge

This bit at least was fairly familiar turf, thanks to riding with Dad and various other events.  As we headed out of the Gordano valley the route briefly threatened to take us straight up Naish Hill which would have been a fairly rude awakening for the legs.  Luckily we went left, down the narrow country lanes instead, where I lost Dad amongst the rider traffic.  Sorry Dad!  I tried to hang back for quite a while, but as we climbed up (yes, up was inevitable really) from Portbury and all found our own rhythm, it became time to just get on with it really.  Once at the top there was a nice fast section along past Failand and then past Redwood Lodge, which triggered fleeting memories of the Mario Cippolini Gran Fondo fame and how Howie would have loved it out there today…*sigh*.  Anyway, this gave me chance to stretch out my legs my way, fast and flat, and also brought us to one of the Bridges of the day, and one of the two highlights: Mr Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge.

shady clifton the clifton suspension bridge

I’ve seen it complete many times, even if he never did, but not on two wheels 😉   I think the hike from the 50p to cross last year to what is now £1.00 is a bit steep though!  Still, cyclists don’t pay, and it was lovely to cycle across it, over the Avon Gorge, admiring the views and a still sleepy Bristol :).  It was equally pleasant to cycle around the Clifton downs, amongst the shady trees, past the exorbitantly expensive houses, and admire yet more views from on high.  But we couldn’t stay there forever, and after a brief confusion amidst road works, traffic lights, a lack of obvious signs, and a little u-turning, we were heading out of Bristol through Stoke Bishop, past the Blaise Castle Estate, and back to the countryside where this country mouse tends to feel a lot happier.  At one point around 100 Harley Davidsons went past us in the opposite direction, rumbling away, and throughout the day the roads were full of such people enjoying themselves on classic bikes, Harleys, donor cycles, and in a whole range of superb classic cars – I grinned at them, and frequently they grinned at me.  Sometimes we even waved at each other :).

first food stop slowly does it

I was back on roads that were familiar again, from the Severn Bridge Sportive which I did last year for exactly the same reason as I was doing this one.  I may be odd (yes, yes, get it over with…<insert your witty pithy remark here>)…but I really like riding over the old Severn crossing.  I’d ride over the new one given half a chance, but you can’t, so I don’t.  Shame, it’d be nearer home and take longer to cross…   Anyway there it was; tall, white (possibly recently painted?), its deceptively delicate pillars climbing up towards clear blue skies, all elegant and lovely and once more waiting for me.  However first things first, which in this case would be the food stop at Aust.  Nominally at Aust, it was sort of on the track/path route to the bridge, near Aust.  It was well stocked, in the process of being topped up with deliveries of water due to the unexpected heat, had very cheerful staff, and it also had two portable toilets which, by now, I most definitely needed!

time to cross over the Severn

However before I could use them, and after topping up my bottles and grabbing some giant pretzels to satisfy my increasing sportive cravings for the savoury, I was gently accosted by not one, but two cyclists who separately “knew” me!  Aw shucks, I love it when that happens, it’s so nice :).  First was Derek, who reminded me he’d chatted to me about the Maratona at an event two years back after I’d done it and he was considering it, and remembered me and, though I didn’t recognise him I did remember the conversation.  More of him later.  Then came Martin.  Or Martyn.  No clue.  Who rides lots of the rides I do and reads what I say about them afterwards and is off to do the Maratona.  Clearly it’s a Maratona thing.  He took my photo to mark the moment, which I doubt I came off well in!  Oh, and he is apparently defibrillator Martin who – after a slightly awkward moment where he placed my hand over his heart – showed that he actually has a permanent socket for such there, or has a replacement heart, or something, but certainly a something that makes his endeavours way more impressive than mine!  Chapeau! – and hello to both of you! 🙂  I made my excuses after a bit, to use one of those toilets, and when I emerged Dad was just arriving, which was nice.  He’d decided to stick to the 100km, I’d decided I had nowt much better to do than ride the bike in the sun that afternoon so I might has well stick to the 100 miles, so I left him there to refuel and headed off towards that beautiful bridge.

left or right fancy view

I still enjoyed riding across it.  You have to be a bit careful, the surface is interesting and there are ramps and bumps and the like, but it is very pretty, and there wasn’t much traffic, and there you are riding over the Severn properly enjoying the views, and the novelty value in crossing that way.  It takes longer than you think, but it still doesn’t take that long to get to Wales, and a rather interesting section of cycle path, with somewhat confusing “inbound” and “outbound” signs that had to be paid attention to rather than just registered.  Finally you’re not lost, and you are in Chepstow, playing with the traffic, and voilà; there’s the well marshalled route split.  Complete with tower/gatehouse to make it more memorable. Left for short, straight on through the archway for long.  As the group of riders beside me joked, it wasn’t a choice, short just wasn’t an option.  They had TMT, I’d just already made my mind up ;).

bluebells welsh hill climbing

Welsh hills here I come.  40 miles of them.  I knew what they’d be like – familiarity again.  But no contempt.  There would be lots of them.  Long slow sometimes seemingly endless climbs.  Views of the Severn.  Lots of signs to Offa’s Dyke, which I now know is apparently an earth work, but after the nth sign, I gave up looking for it and ignored them, other than to mentally suggest that I’d had enough already and Offa could stick his thumb in that Dyke for all I cared ;).  By now the gilet and arm warmers were also history, and it was just me and the sun and the summer and riding the bike as it ought to be; unencumbered!  At around the 50 mile mark, in what may have been the Forest of Dean by now, there was a small food/water stop that I wasn’t expecting, where I met up with Derek again, but left him again as it was his turn to answer the call of nature.  As well as climbs there were some great non-technical descents to enjoy – particularly after Coleford and into Monmouth.  Where we crossed a river on a bridge made of wooden parallel planks with gaps in between that my front wheel went straight into for a while, and I nearly had a train track moment, and I swore, and…*phew* made it.  Not amused; I have cause not to like such things!

derek and church climb back over the bridge

The inevitable climb out of Monmouth (well, what goes down, must go up…) went on all day.  Honest.  Derek and I ended up riding together at some point again, on and off.  I am reliably informed, and this is the compliment of the day, that I do not descend like a girl *grin*.  I do however climb like one, and he left me on that long long long…did I mention it was long?…climb!  But hey, it was sunny, every climb including that one came with trees, and bluebells, cow parsley, and the scent of wild garlic, and I pretty much stayed smiling the whole way around those hills – even when my knee gave up and I gave in and took pills.  It wasn’t as bad as last time, so that’s something.  It was manageable, I managed.

back over the pretty bridge

The hilly loop was finally done, with a little sigh of relief even if I had liked some of it, and it was back into Chepstow, playing with roundabouts, roadworks and by now busier traffic to get back to that bridge following the “inbound” signs now.  By now however the wind had got up, and the crossing was a whole heap less fun.  There’s quite a climb to get up to the main span this way, even if you’ve never noticed it in your car, and that and a really gusty headwind made it all a bit more hard work and also precarious and much though I love it normally, I was happy to get back to that foodstop again, which was a lot less busy this time around.  And what do you know, there was Derek again!  Which turns out to be have been a very good thing…

stretching before home quieter second time around

I don’t have a lot nice to say about the last section of this ride.  The last 20 miles were just no fun.  Large chunks of dual carriageway, main roads, and the bleak industrial landscape of Avonmouth, made only bearable by the sunshine and the fact that Derek and I were taking it in turns to hide from the headwind behind each other.  That and from the fast heavy and large logistics lorries going past us rather unnervingly – they weren’t really expecting us (there being few riders out there now) and I wasn’t expecting them!  The only novelty was getting up close and personal with the wind turbines there and cycling through them as they cast slowly moving shadows over the road, which was a tad surreal, but appealed somehow.

windmills in my mind

We were pushing it onwards now; he had a BBQ to get back to, and I’d just had enough and wanted to get this bit over.  I knew what was coming.  Over as in over the Avonmouth bridge.  Which I loathe with a passion.  It’s less of a bridge, more of a flyOver.  The cycle path is separated from the very busy thundering traffic of the M5 by a fence, yes, but it doesn’t stop the noise or that wind, the surface is nasty, and it was just put your head down and survive unpleasant.  Not unlike the little cycle path bit and the wiggles through deprived suburbia that followed it.  There’s also a nasty little kick up here in Pill, short and sharp and lethal if you’re not expecting it and are in the wrong gear.  Which wasn’t me, luckily…bet it caught some out though!  By the time we crossed over the M5 for the last time on the hard-to-negotiate footbridge, I knew we were practically home.  I was more than a little fed-up of slogging into a headwind now, but the last little bit through rural and relatively sheltered Sheepway way got us pleasantly back into Portishead and happily over the Finish Line without further incident.  Black Rat Three Bridges done!

get your time sunny glasses

I don’t usually eat Cornish pasties – they don’t like me – and neither do I drink while riding.  But as you can see, I made fairly short work of most of both!  Well, my body wanted it…right?  And it’s rude not to drink out of the souvenir glass 😉  Derek went on his way straight off (thanks for the company and the teamwork btw!), after we’d both printed out our times – a touch I always like.  I chilled (not literally) for bit in the lovely sunshine, and then had to face up to heading back.  It’s no wonder I was in no rush, it took me nearly 20 minutes to cycle back up that hill to Mum and Dad’s house – no QOM there for me today, that’s for sure!

post ride goodies all devoured

Would you like a summary?  It’s not a bad event.  Not the first two thirds anyway.  Even so, there’s a bit too much cycle path, track, traffic lights, main road, dual carriageway – I can’t imagine it being a ride easy to get a fast time on, if that’s your thing, and I think some of it is actively dangerous.  There could be a few more signs, especially repeaters for the longer sections.  The Welsh section is lovely, if a bit gratuitous since the hills never seem to get you to anything other than the next hill, but hey, don’t buy upgrades, go up grades (as the great man said), and I need the practice.  I gather from today’s follow up email from the organisers that next year they plan on moving the start nearer to Aust to eliminate some of the last section, which would be a very good thing.  If so, maybe I’d do it again…but not otherwise methinks.

I had a good ride though.  I have made a start on this year’s silly tan lines, which thanks to Riemanns P20 are brown not red.  I didn’t feel too bad throughout.  I ate the best flapjacks in the world (my daughter makes them, so don’t argue), bits of banana, those pretzels, a few gels, drank a lot, and so didn’t wipe out.  Oh, and those shorts?  Didn’t realise I was wearing them all day.  Now that is good kit!  Definitely a good day at the office :D.

Cycling time: 6:56
Official time: 7:25
Distance: 97.5 miles
Avg: 14.0 mph
ODO: 4712.8 miles

Oh, and I was 7th out of 15 women, 119 out of 173.  I’m pretty happy with that 🙂

me on the way out me on the way back