The Wessex Ridgeway

The Bearbones 200 is looming on my event horizon in less than two months. The simplest way to describe the event is “hard”. Set off from a Welsh location with your bike, ride 200 kilometres of serious hills and try to get back within 24 hours. I’ve never partaken of anything so silly before and therefore need to make sure that I’m mentally and physically ready for the challenge. The best way to do this is to ride 200km of hilly mountain biking in less than 24 hours.

My original plan was to have a go at the Lakeland 200 route set by Alan Goldsmith, however the Lake District weather forecast for my proposed weekend had  “shite” written all over it. So I turned my attention further south and found something called the Wessex Ridgeway. The route runs from Tollard Royal to Axminster and is 63.5 miles long. Tollard Royal is 70 miles from my house. I formed a new plan, Friday night train to Axminister, bivy somewhere out of town and then ride all the way home. 

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Packing was lean, just about everything was left behind apart from a sleeping bag, bivy bag and air mat. I managed to stuff all of this into a seat pack and there some random bits of food from the kitchen cupboard into my frame bag. The journey to Axminister by train was relatively uneventful baring the final leg. South West Train kindly laid on entertainment for this dreary hour in the form of a completely pissed up skateboarder from the Isle of Wight. He spent 45 minutes regaling his life story to a woman sat next to him,. Fortunately she was oblivious to his pissed-upness as she regaled hers to him simultaneously. I pretended to read a book whilst silently chuckling at their conversation that rollercoasterd from Dr Who charity work to the fact that the lady in a dress a few seats up was judging us all. The woman left at Yeovil and I was then compelled to take up the baton. Fortunately I posses a set of Kryptonics so was able to keep the conversation focused upon the skate scene in the eightees. 

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I disembarked at Axminister around 9pm and found a chippy. A greasy faced Dave set off up Lyme Hill at 9.30pm hoping to camp in the woods at Wootton Hill. Two hours and fifteen miles later I finally found a semi-suitable spot somewhere near Pilsdon. The journey there was fraught with issues.

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Firstly it was dark and signage was difficult to follow. The GPS trail I’d downloaded was piss poor and had clearly not been ridden before. 

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Secondly, Devon farmers clearly hate rights of way. The vast majority of them were overgrown, I had two massive diversions due to large fields of corn blocking my way and one huge swearing session at a path that was simply a bush.

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Thirdly, I had company. Cows and sheep everywhere. I don’t mind domesticated animals but they mind torchlit idiots interrupting their doze with a Hope Hub and mild screaming. Heifers are the worst as they HAVE to investigate and at times I felt like a bovine pied piper. Somewhere near midnight I found a cow-free field an snuggled into my bivy bag for a night properly under the stars.

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I awoke at sunrise to a glorious vista of dewy grass and an amazing daybreak, look at the wonder in my eyes.

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Flapjacks for breakfast and then a proper daylight tangle with the Wessex Ridgeway beckoned.

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In my mind’s eye I had pictured this as a high level traverse over the beautiful scenery of Devon and Dorset. Reality had other ideas.

I dragged my bike through overgrown bridleways and up stupidly steep unrideable grassy hills. An occasional nice section of riding would sooth the pain before another mountain biking disgrace took its place. 

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All ideas of planned average speed (9mph) went out of the window as I fought my way along the trail. The selfie below describes the mood well, a sort of sweaty pent up anger.

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Signage continued to be terrible as exhibited by the bridleway sign below. 

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I prostrated myself below this cross begging it all to end, then remembered I’m an agnostic so any deity listening would smugly tell me to fuck right off. It finally sort of ended at Tollard Royal, but the pain didn’t with a huge great byway climb.

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Things improved as I made my way home. The riding become a lot less extreme as I’d taken care to pick my way back through Wiltshire on its fabulous network of byways. The main problem was that I was bollocksed and had  to measure my effort to manage the numerous inclines.  

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The other problem was foliage. Every track was lined with overhanging brambles or nettles. I constantly snagged my hands/arms/legs/nuts/ears on these and was pushed away from the best lines in a vane attempt at avoidance. North of Salisbury a bramble refused to let go and ripped most of the skin from my little finger. The extent of the damage became clear as I paid for a coke and crisps at the next pub stop and bled all over the landlord and his bar. 

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I vaguely knew the route home from Shrewton, fifty more miles to go and three hours of light remaining. Head down, camera in the back pack I ground my way on. A tail wind flattered my wreaked legs and I was 20 miles from home when darkness engulfed me. The last section included a bridleway known locally as “Mud Lane”, I know this well and also know that it is the brambliest/nettliest few miles that Wiltshire has to offer. My hand convinced me to divert around and take the road, which I did. Ending my trip with ten miles of disused railway between Swindon and Marlborough.

I fell through the door at 10pm and drank three beers. Fifteen hours, 122 miles and a lot of ascent. Physically I was ok, I’d not quite done the 200km but looking at my stats I had *if* one counts the period between 9.30pm the night before and 24 hours later. I’m well aware that the Barebones 200 is a lot harder, but I’m hoping  the cornfield thrutches, bramble grabs and grassy 20% inclines will act as reasonable preparation.

As for the Wessex Ridgeway, it’s an absolutely crap mountain bike ride that every rider should do. The best analogy I can come up with is sleeping with Janet Street-porter or Michael Gove. At the end of it, everyone will ask you “why” and you’ll have no rational explanation. But some dark recess of your being will make you glad that you did, just so that you’ll never have to do it again.

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3 comments on “The Wessex Ridgeway
  1. Robin Birch says:

    Fabulous effort though I am intrigued as to why you know what it’s like to sleep with Janet street porter ?

  2. PedalPlodder says:

    Love reading the blogs – only a complete nutter would tackle that terrain at night!