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Black Rat Challenge REVIEW

by Jennifer Trotman

Black Rat Challenge

Essentials: Date: Sunday 20th May
100km (1346 metres climbing).  Food stop at 27 miles
100 miles (2472 metres climbing)  Food stops at 27 and 70miles
Entry fee: £25.00, entries closed Monday 14th May
Start: Gordano School, St Mary's Road, Portishead, North Somerset, BS20 7QR
Catering: free tea/coffee at marquee near the start, chilli/rice at finish (£3.50), free
Black Rat cider for finishers. 
Participants: 388 entrants
Timing: Rider numbers with disposable timing chips attached to seat post - by
Signs: small signs - black arrows on yellow background, with some caution/slow signs.
Roads: A mix - mostly quiet rural lanes, with some busier suburban roads in between.
Photos: by Craig Smith at
Goody bag:  Two gels, Black Rat half pint tankard.

The event

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Welcome says it all

This was supposed to be a weekend off.  Something to do with resting.  However it turned out that I was going to be home alone, with time on my hands, so I might as well be riding the bike, right?  I did make one concession though, I decided to opt for the shorter of the two available routes. Various people were laying bets as to whether I'd stick to that plan, so it's just possible that one of the reasons I did so was to prove them wrong. However I did have better reasons - I have a lot of big events coming up, I've done a fair few events already this year, I hadn't really prepared properly this week, and the two big hills on the longer route didn't appeal. 

Still, the split point was at the top of Burrington Combe, so I had plenty of time to change my mind, and it was still up in the air yesterday.  Another local sportive, another practically civilised alarm call.  Once awake I ate my muesli and pondered which layers to wear this time.  Just the usual degree of faffing which resulted in new shoes, socks, legwarmers, shorts, Galibier short sleeved jersey, long sleeved winter jersey, and Cyclosport gilet.

Turns out I got it spot on; my saddle bag remained resolutely closed all day, and the only things that moved clothes wise were zips!My mate Guy and I were on our way to the start at around 7:30am as planned.  HQ was at Gordano School in Portishead, half an hour's easy drive away.  Marshals directed us into one of the school's car parks when we arrived, and once parked up we headed off in search of registration.

This was easier said than done, there being no signs of any sort, leading to the amusing sight of a small group of cyclists following each other around like sheep, presuming that the one in front knew the way, as we looped back around to precisely where we started, and someone finally asked the marshal at the gate which way we were actually supposed to be going. Having trekked around to the start area, it was a further hike to the shower/toilet block, which was completely lacking in toilet roll, unless you happened to be disabled.  I did tell a member of the team of my way out, but his only suggested solution to that was that I go and tell someone else at reception, which I have to admit I didn't do, and since I popped back there before we left, it was clear that no-one else got around to doing anything about it either.

The queue for registration was growing rapidly, probably because it was just one line being funnelled to the desks, which then actually had three different people working, depending on rider number as issued before the event.  Three queues would have worked better, and moved faster.  The rider numbers had changed during the week before the start due to technical issues and not everyone had paid attention to the emails about this, which probably wasn't helping.

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Some queue time before the ride

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Registration was pain free 

Once signed in, we were given a large brown envelope of stuff - two gels, fliers, etc and more importantly our numbers, which included timing chips, and had to be attached to the seat post, which is a new one on me, and wasn't going down that well around me - the amount of clearance there is very variable and it could easily interfere with the brakes and wheels etc.  There were also three helmet numbers which seemed a tad overkill, especially as they didn't do anything other than identify you.  I think my favourite timing systems are the ones with the chip in the rider number on the handlebars, or on one helmet sticker, but that's just me.

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An unusual place for it

Once again, what with this being a local event, there were plenty of people doing the ride that I knew, and who indeed belong to my local Axbridge Cycling Group.   Practically an ACG outing in fact, even if we weren't all wearing the uniform.  This definitely added a very sociable element to the event, which is often lacking when I ride sportives on my own. 

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Dad, Gary and Nick ready to go

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Start queue can take its toll

Several groups had already been sent on their way, but there was an inexplicably long wait ours was briefed and then underway, certainly not the every 5 minutes advertised.  Still, 8:50am and off we went.  Our little ACG group got split up as they called a break in departing riders not far behind me, leaving Dad behind us - oops!  Having been sent off as quite a large group, down the lanes of the Gordano valley, there wasn't a lot of hurtling off, more a leisurely warming up and slowly spreading out.  The first climb of the day was Failand Hill, which was more gradual than I recall it, followed by the fairly technical descent of Belmont Hill.  It's wiggly, steep, with patches of distinctly dubious road surface, and cycling scuttlebutt after the event suggests that at least one rider came off going down. In fact according to the post event email there were a couple of accidents on the day, one of which resulted in a broken collar bone, which isn't great, and I hope everyone heals up soon.    We headed across the flat section towards the next climb; past what is locally known as Motivation Corner, a personal favourite of mine and which clearly called for a group photo.

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Guy, Gary and Nick at Motivation Corner

Motivation is right (spot the sign behind Guy), and we were going left, as is ably illustrated here.  So left it was, through a couple of sections of seriously bad farmyard road surface, which would have been, and could have been, better avoided.  The original route had us going up the gradual climb that is Brockley Combe, around Bristol Airport and then down again.  Apparently however the road surfaces up there, combined with the nature of that particular descent, were considered to be unsafe at the moment so the organisers changed the route earlier this week and replaced it with Goblin Combe.  This was not a fair trade as Goblin Combe is a nasty long steep climb! In an attempt to explain away my slow climbing speed, I did my usual multi-tasking thing, and took photos - always a good excuse.  The rider next to me reckoned having to watch me multitask was an equally valid excuse.  I liked his thinking.

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Beautiful trees line Goblin Combe Climb

The bottom of the climb is steeper than you'd like, but constant, and then it ramps up for a bit, through some rather attractive trees, though judging by the looks on some of the other riders' faces, appreciating trees was the last thing on their minds.

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Steep, hard but still beautiful

This was followed by quite a nice descent.  Nice as long as you're aware that it ends, at the bottom of the steepest section, with a T-junction. There was a warning sign somewhere near the bottom, though I think a couple more earlier on might have been useful.  Another descent safely done, and Wrington, with bus to make it more interesting, negotiated.  Apparently one Combe in a day is not enough, and Burrington Combe was next on the list. 

Thankfully before having to go and climb that, it was time for the first food stop. 

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Lots of food to consume

Contrary to the instructions issued beforehand, we were not allowed to use the toilets at the Burrington Café next to Bad Ass Bikes, where the stop was, which meant trekking all the way across to the public toilets at the bottom of the Combe, and back. Which was not good in my shiny new cleats, so now I walk like a duck just like everyone else now.  Mind you, at least they had loo roll.

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The long walk to the toilet

At the feed stop there was a range of cakes and other sweet foods for those who prefer to fuel up that way.  Following some discussion, Guy and I decided that we would both indeed opt for the shorter route, leaving hardier Nick and Gary to the longer route.   I think that actually made the climb easier, probably because I now knew that I definitely wasn't going to be doing East Harptree and Ebbor Gorge so I didn't have to spare my legs too much.

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Burrington Combe begins

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Two riders pushing on towards the top of the climb

The route split right after the top, with several repeater signs to remind you which route you were on, in case it wasn't the route you were intending to be on.

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Keeping on the right track

We were on the right route, which, knowing these roads as we do didn't come as a massive surprise.  It was proper windy up there, and a bit of a slog as we headed east, before taking the right turn that put the wind behind us for a little while, and pushed us onwards to the descent of Cheddar Gorge, where the wind was every which way but useful!

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Strange to be going down instead of up

It may sound a little strange, but I actually prefer climbing Cheddar Gorge to descending it.  Less scary, less hazardous, and far easier to photograph as generally speaking I prefer to descend with both hands on the handlebars and ready to brake at any time.  Still, that would hardly give you an idea of what it looks like.

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Stunning fast descent

My stopping turned out to be a mistake as I was then over taken by two 4x4s who were even slower than I was when it came to the bendy bits and who I had to sit behind, on the brakes, for most of the rest of the way down.  Boring!  Luckily Guy had waited for me at on the road after the Gorge, otherwise I'd have been stuck doing the rest of the ride on my own.There is something odd about doing a sportive that actually goes past your front door.  Not quite literally in my case, as we bypassed Axbridge due to some event or other preventing us going through it (news to me and I only live there) but quite literally if you're Guy.  In fact his pit crew were even out waving flags in support as we went past his house and then down Winscombe Hill.  Very motivational.

The next section of the ride was pretty unremarkable, possibly because I know it so well.  Around the chilly, and wiggly back roads to Congresbury, through the ever traffic ridden Yatton, and then out round the lake lanes of Kingston Seymour to get to the seafront at Clevedon, complete with it's very elegant and historic pier.  I should probably mention the annoying headwind that wouldn't go away around all of this too.  I was very glad not to have an extra 40 miles in my legs and be facing that, and we spared a thought for those that would be facing it later.  In fact although we were going pretty well, I'm fairly sure there wasn't an Harptree or an Ebbor Gorge in my legs, so doing the shorter route was the right call all round. That's what instincts are for - listening to! 

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Clevedon Pier

Anyway Clevedon was very pretty and very Victorian seaside, but it came garnished with rather too many people trying to either park along the seafront or cross between it and the various cafés and shops opposite it.  How dare they try and enjoy it at the same time as us, right? We climbed out the other side of the bay, and then were rewarded with a very lovely down to the road to Walton in Gordano.  That left us with just one last climb to do - up along the coast road to Portishead, which, being on the way to my folks' place, I'm very familiar with.

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Heading past the golf course 

Apparently cycling is the new golf, and since there were precious few, if any, golfers to be seen, maybe that's true?  Something to ponder during the nice long slow plod up along the coast.

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View from the Ship 

As you can see, it was a bit murky out there, and there was no sign of Wales, even though I can assure you it's over there somewhere.  I don't think I've even descended Valley Road before and I enjoyed it so much I was almost tempted to go back up and do it again.  With the emphasis on the "almost" obviously.  From this point there was no distance at all to be done to get us back to the start, or as I suppose it should now better be known, the Finish.  It wasn't precisely clear where this was, as the signage seemed to vanish, but luckily having ridden in that way to the school from our car park to start the ride, we worked it out for ourselves.

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A welcome sight

Cycling time: 3:41:08 hrs 

Official time: 3:59:33

Distance: 59.15 miles

Avs: 16.1 mph.

There was somewhat of an anti-climax to the end of the ride.  As we stood there at a bit of a loss, the timing guy came over and explained to us how to type in our numbers to get our timing slips.  It is nice to get your time straight away.  Turns out we made it in just under 4 hours including stops, which isn't bad.  There were a few other riders loitering around, but there was no one there to welcome you in, explain where to go and what to do next.  Being far from novices at this we guessed, and guessed correctly.

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Arriving back at HQ

Bikes parked, we headed back towards registration where we checked in, and were given our free Black Rat glasses, all the better for putting our free Black Rat cider in. 

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Black Rat Glasses

I'm thinking it would be rude not to, right?  Well it's eponymous and everything. 

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Black Rat Cider 

On that basis, I think I shall consider my glass half full. 

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Glass half full

I knew there was a reason I wasn't driving.  It went down a treat too, although I may have had to top it up as it inexplicably evaporated.  The picnic tables and, let's be honest, quite possibly the cider, made for a fairly sociable atmosphere in the long run, as more riders arrived.  There was chilli available, at £3.50 a portion though, and the rider sat with us for a while eating his reckoned it ought to have been free, considering the £25 entry fee. 

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Rest after the ride

As we sat there under inevitably brightening skies we were joined by various other riders, from one of our ACG own Steve, to Rapha fan Duncan, and last but not least, Dad.   It was good to know that Dad was back in one fairly happy piece, as I didn't really want to go home and leave him on his own out there.  OK, so we left Nick and Gary, who were still out there, but we did pass Gary on his way in as we drove home, so we knew he didn't have far to go, and I'm sure Nick wasn't far behind him.  

Looking at the official results they both put in some great times over the course. Although you can see the route online, it was quite nice to see the route laid out like this, it was a nice touch, and made a change from the many and varied route mapping sites.

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An old but effective method

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Satisfied rider

Here is what a Steve (shown above) thought of the experience:

"The signing on was a bit lengthy, as quite a few people hadn't read the previous emails about numbers changing, resulting in a bit of a delay.  The queue was quite long when I came out of the signing in tent, so I am not sure what time people who were at the back would of got going at.The course was well signposted apart from a couple of near misses where signs were a bit difficult to see or cars were in front of the signs (maybe the signs could have been a bit higher up?)I enjoyed the course apart from the last 10K, but that was more to do with my legs than the course. I think they could have found a way to stay off some of the main roads, but I've never planned a course so it is difficult to say why.Over all an enjoyable day, though some of the facilities were a bit basic at the start/finish this didn't ruin a good ride".

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Another happy customer

Duncan was doing his first sportive in six years, having taken a break from it, and had really enjoyed the ride, though he thought a few extra signs would have been useful especially at junctions that were easy to shoot past.   Apparently he's taking on Hugo Speer's role in a production of The Full Monty at Strode Theatre in October this year.  Whether or not this involves a Rapha hat remains to be seen.

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