Wooler Wheel Borderlands Sportive – Saturday 16th May

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                     172.6km/107 miles with 2,593 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                             6:58 hours

Group size:                                            8 less 2 (then 5, then 2, then 1)

Weather in a word or two:               Changeable

wooler wheel

No Club Run this week, as a bunch of us found ourselves getting up at an unfeasibly early, God-forsaken hour of Saturday morning to travel Even Further North™ in order to start the Wooler Wheel Borderlands Sportive at 7.30am.

For those who are geographically challenged, or lacking an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hidden rural enclaves of deepest, darkest Northumberland, Wooler, according to the event manual, is located in the far north-west corner of England, “perched perilously between the steep foothills of Cheviot and the Milfield Plain”. Strange, it didn’t seem all that dangerous a place when we got there, and I don’t recall much seismic activity in the Border Region from my Geography ‘A’ Level. Mind you, since I achieved that I think we’ve actually entered a completely new geological time period, so maybe things have changed.

Climbing out of Wooler, the route bends east to the North Sea, then turns quickly north before we get our feet wet, to run parallel to the beautiful Northumbria coastline for a while. Climbing over the border into Jockland, it then runs west along the Tweed Valley, climbing steeply to Scott’s View, dropping down into Teviotdale, and then climbing again, up and over the Cheviots to return to Wooler. Hmm, I’ve used climbing four times in that paragraph – that seems about right.

The Event HQ was located in a cattle market, which, although providing plenty of space and parking, did leave me with a somewhat sacrificial feeling, as we were herded through the dark and empty cattle pens to sign on, slipping and sliding down the same concrete ramps that I’m sure give our hooved bovine friends a similar feeling of nervous uncertainty.

From parking, to sign on, to fitting numbers to the bike, to lining up at the start gate, I managed to find, lose, find again, partially lose, search for and then find all 8 of the club lads and lasses set to ride, as well as a few others who were doing the shorter 100km route. Organising cyclists is an utterly thankless task, much akin to herding spooked cats in a thunderstorm. It was unsurprising therefore that by the time we’d rolled through the start gate minutes later our numbers were already down to 6, with 2 riders AWOL and never to be seen again. Maybe they fell foul of the hidden perils of the Milfield Plain?

The weather was bright and breezy for the most part, occasionally interspersed with sudden heavy showers, and a westerly wind that seemed to gather in strength as the day wore on. This necessitated several stops to pull on and take off rain jackets as the squalls blew past. Other than that the day was warm enough to go without overshoes and just arm and knee warmers.

Out on the road, and one of our number started romping up the first serious hills like a supercharged and enraged Armstrong chasing a Simeoni break, but I wasn’t remotely tempted to join in. It’s been over 30 years since I’ve ridden over a hundred miles so I adopted a much more cautious and conservative approach, dropping to the back and matching pace with our slowest rider as I tried to casually spin out a low gear. It was surprising to find cyclists already walking up the hills, I hope they were on the shorter route.

We hit the coast for some spectacular views of Holy Island and the Farnes, and our first headwind, slowing progress and demanding a bit more grunt, but were still clipping along at a decent pace and chattering merrily as we crossed the border into Scotland.
The first water stop was an opportunity to recharge bottles. Luckily mine was still fairly full as the group taste-test concluded the replacement water was “minging” and tasted heavily of chlorine. The contents of several bottles were summarily jettisoned when we called a quick pee stop.

Our first marker was at around 36 miles, where I reckoned we’d completed the first third of the course. It was at this point that I realised just how far 107 miles actually is and how long the ride was going to take. It was around this time that we lost the first of our number who, deciding the pace was too high, sensibly dropped off the back to continue in a more leisurely manner.

50 miles came and went, and the chatter in the group became less and less while legs became heavier and heavier.

75 miles and we’re mainly riding in companionable silence, occasionally stopping to don or doff rain jackets as the weather couldn’t make its mind up. We’re now faced with a series of ramps that lead us onto the climb up to Whitton Edge and the 301 metre highpoint of the route. Up ahead, in what appeared to be an argyle chequered jersey of white black and purple, a rider was weaving across the road trying to keep his momentum going as he struggled with the incline. He ran out of road and shuddered to a halt on the verge. I rode around him and followed his companion, also clad in argyle like a Garmin-Cannondale negative. This rider had bright pink fluorescent socks (why?) that looked so absurd that I was momentarily distracted from the pain in my legs, and I followed him to the top.

A quick chat with a photographer at the water station there confirms there are only a couple of serious climbs left, and we tip over the summit for a scary-mad, narrow twisting, descent down to the valley floor. For the first time all day I’m in the big chain-ring  with enough momentum to carry me over the a few minor hills without changing down and I take a long pull on the front.

Now I’m fixated on my Garmin and the slow countdown, always having to add 7 to the quick calculation of 100 minus however many miles the computer shows that we’ve done. I’m beginning to really hate those extra 7 miles, and whoever was so untidy or just too lazy to devise a ride with a nice round number, and I’m becoming a little too fixated on them.

Several cruelly hard ascents follow. They would normally be nothing to fear, but given the distance we’ve covered already and the “grippy” road surface, they have us slowing to a sustained and painful crawl. 100 miles come and go under our wheels, and there’s just that awkward, bastard, tail-end, untidy, cast-off, the uncalled for and damned inconsiderate runt of 7 miles left.

I note 102 miles tick past, ride some more, look down and the screen still resolutely shows 102 miles. I ride some more, telling myself not to look, and then I do, and it still says 102 miles. Maybe I’m cracking up?

Finally, agonisingly the screen ticks over to 103 and we’re on the last leg. We’re strung out along the road now, heading in and burning whatever meagre supplies of energy we have left. I’m clinging to the rear wheel of the first rider in our group as the miles squirm past. 104-105-106 miles and now the road is pan flat, but there’s a savage headwind. I’m slowly detached from the wheel in front, but as I turn into the finish strait my companion has slowed and is waiting (what a gent!) and we freewheel across the finish line together reminiscent of LeMond and Hinault conquering L’Alpe in ‘86 – although I suspect our ride was much harder.

The Wooler Wheel – like Alpe D’Huez, only harder.

All that was left was to collect our (rather tasteful) T-shirts (immediately bagged by daughter number#1) and enjoy a traditional pie and peas meal (haute cuisine to us Northerners, and a welcome savoury break from sickly sweet gels and energy bars.)

All in all a great day out, and a fantastically well-organised event with clear sign posting and marshalls on all the major junctions to not only point the way, but control what little traffic we encountered. The countryside was somewhat wild and remote, but beautiful and the weather decidedly changeable – I was very surprised to find I had sunburned calves at the end – thankfully tiredness numbed the pain.

YTD Totals:         2,160km/ 1,342 miles with 23,474 metres of climbing


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