Tuesday Ride IV: The Mountain Stage

A text popped up on my phone this morning, it was John Hayes “It’s the mountain stage today”, gulp! Was he going to take me up Brassknocker Hill? The Alpe d’Huez of Bath and North East Somerset? Thankfully not, he did, however, take me up every other hill available in the area. This was, in John’s mind, to honour the start of the Tour De France, but he was four days early. No matter, The Highway Cycling Group was up to the challenge.

The sky was semi-clear as we met up by the mill and ambled up the road, sporadic showers had been the characteristic weather of the day, but the clouds currently floating overhead seemed to be uninterested in delivering rain. We crossed the A36 and rode at a gentle pace through Norton St.Phillip towards Midford, only speeding up on the downhill into Midford village. John had fitted a new bike computer, he hit 44 mph on the descent and I hit 40 trying to catch him up. What he didn’t tell me was that we would be climbing Midford Hill as soon as we were in the village. I had just pedalled like mad in my highest gear to catch up with him and arrived breathless at the base of the longest hill of tonight’s ride. Damn! Next time we do this route (oh yes John, there will be a next time) I will work out the length of the hill because it seemed to go on for ever. Round about halfway up my mind started wandering as it often does on a steep hill, anything rather than thinking about how much further there is and whether or not I’ll make it. I couldn’t find a comfortable position on the bars, hands on the brake hoods? Hands gripping the straight part of the bars? Hands near the stem lightly touching the tape? One hand off as I tried to stretch my back? I began to think back to the birth of my first son, five years ago. By the time my wife had got to the birthing bed she was in so much pain from the contractions all she could do when they came was wriggle her legs around. She said later that her body was desperately trying to find a position that eased the pain, I think I was trying to do the same thing with my hands on this hill. Not that I’m equating climbing Midford Hill on a bicycle with the pain of childbirth you understand, more that it was one of those situations where I felt that if I tried to keep my hands moving it would hurt less, for the record I don’t think it did.

There were stretches of road where we stood on the pedals and ground away, there were strecthes where we could sit, spin and take on water, but mostly it just seemed to be somewhere in the middle. John was in front all the way, when we reached the top I took the lead and gave him a brief respite from the headwind. We turned right at the double roundabout by Coombe and stopped at the beginning of Bradford Road for some Mint Cake and a photo.

Myself and John.

Then some fast riding through the outskirts of Bath, over the junction at the top of Brassknocker Hill, then onto Claverton Hill. The trees at the top of the hill curled and crowded over the road forming a dramatic archway, a maw about to swallow us down into a screamingly fast descent replete with hairpins and variable road width, true Tour de France stuff. Again John shot on ahead, he really is a fearless descender, particularly in the face of uncoming traffic, I just can’t open the bike up like that. On joining John at the bottom he told me to touch the wheelrim, the constant braking had left the rim incredibly hot, too hot to touch for anything more than a split second. A quick conference and we decided to head back along the A36 to where the Iford road joined, head across the valley to Westwood then turn for home. I decided to lead on the ’36, setting a cracking pace into the headwind (we decided that the wind changes as we ride, we always seem to be going into a headwind. Always!), but John reminded me there was one more hill before the turn off. Just after the lights on the crossroads at the bottom of Brassknocker Hill, the A36 winds it’s way up the hill past Freshford. I forgot how long the hill is and after timing the traffic lights perfectly I started taking it at 14mph, burbling on to John who seemed to have gone quiet, pretty soon I was down to 12 mph, I looked behind and John was in the distance. I had totally misjudged the length of the climb and now had to tough it out to keep my momentum. As articulated lorries heaved their way round me, throttles full open, I ascended seemingly ever upwards, John was a long way behind but my speed was dropping fast. John had said at the base this was our Ventoux, and I very nearly became our Tom Simpson, the post mortem would have shown large intakes of caffeine, bananas and two ibruprofen. We made it, regrouped, then John took us left off the main road and pretty much back down the hill (again John with the speedy descent) into Freshford and on a search for the mysterious ‘third road’ into Iford (see previous post). The road surface rapidly deteriorated and we were soon cycling through mud and gravel in the middle of the tarmac, the width of the road was diminishing at an alarming rate, particluarly considering the reckless speed we were going. An overgrown cast iron signpost with white paint peeling into flecks of rust told us we were headed the right way, and it wasn’t long before we were resting by the bridge under Britannia’s imperious gaze, admiring the manor house at Iford. More mint cake was taken on, fortifying us for the final and possibly shortest, but certainly steepest climb of the ride, the road out of the valley and up to Westwood.

We started well although it got steep terrifying quickly, all I could see in my head was that 17% gradient sign at the top. Then the strains of a string orchestra started playing, I asked John if he could hear it too, thankfully he could and the applause that followed told us there was a concert in the folly at Iford Manor. John suggested we imagine the applause was for us, he laughed, and lost concentration and momentum enough to have to put his foot down. I crawled on ahead, determined not to use the granny ring (it’s called Begging the Granny), in any case, I wouldn’t be able to get into it without stopping the bike, and stopping the bike would mean I was walking the rest of the hill. Unlike the other side of the hill which I rode up last time I was here, there is a bit of width to the road so I could move side to side on the tarmac, making the ride slightly longer, but also fractionally less steep. So zig-zagging away and breathing like an asthmatic hound I managed to get to the top, where I spent a good few minutes wheezing until John rode up.

We were spent, legs like jelly we rode through Westwood, parting at the crossroads outside Bradford-on-Avon. An excellent ride, but not one I would want to do on a regular basis.

I said to John, and I’m saying it here, that we will do Brassknocker Hill sometime during the mountain stages of the Tour de France. There John, I’ve said it, it’s here on the internet. We cannot back out now.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] a double chainring machine, if the forthcoming hill was daunting to him, what did that mean for me? I had ridden Midford Hill with John before and it was bad enough, but on that ride the traffic hadn’t seemed so angry and the road so […]


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