Thursday 20 February 2014

A touch of March Madness mid February

On the 18th February 2014, Ron and myself thought we’d like a dose of March Madness. This dose of madness came in the form of a Black Sheep audax – namely, ‘Mr Pickwick’s March Madness’. This was a hilly, 200k event organised by Mark Rigby (aka Black Sheep) and Ron and I had the pleasure of route testing.

Ron and I started the event at Black Sheep HQ. Just as I was about to knock the front door, it opened revealing Mrs Black Sheep donned in her cycling gear. Great, I thought. Sadly, Mrs Black Sheep was not joining Ron and me – she was going on a club run. Once inside HQ, Black Sheep issued us with our brevet cards and kindly checked internet services to check on possible flooding and the likes. This search indicated that there was a possible fallen tree on route and maybe some flooding near the Fownhope area. Mark suggested a possible alternative around Fownhope. With suitable information in our heads we left Black Sheep HQ for a wonderful adventure.

The day looked promising from the start. My front wheel had a slight buckle but nothing major. A newly fitted (bodged) mud-guard at the rear was sure to keep my back dry and a new fibre-flare light would keep my rear end illuminated too. I toyed with the idea of wearing water-proof socks but decided against this as the weather folk only predicted light rain and my shoes were waterproof gore-tex anyhow. Strangely, Ron was wearing waterproof socks which must have been a first for him.

As we left Tewkesbury, Ron and I felt great to be cycling a 200k event together at last. For once the rain was holding off and the skies were bright. When we had cycled only 8k though, we faced our first obstacle – flooding! This flood was not predicted and so deep was the flood that the road was just swallowed up. I think this area was called Longdon Marsh but Longdon Lake would have been more fitting! Now I know why Ron was wearing his waterproof socks.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Quoting Black Sheep, quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

As is our style, we faced our obstacle head on. My feet were soaking wet, the water had simply gone over and into my shoes. Brr, cold it was too. Ron and I were not the only ones to be sailing along, a beautiful swan was having a good float out too. This water way continued for about 1k and then a little island appeared before another waterway followed. At least my back was dry!

Once we had completed our passage through the depths, we did not encounter anymore flooding on route. We faced more obstacles though, these being the many hills. The first hill of note came during the first stage and could be seen way before it was tackled. This hill led up to the base camp on the Malverns. The Malvern Hills were beautiful and could be seen hiding behind some cloud as we made our way towards them, almost as if the clouds were hiding the horror that lay ahead. The climb was tough but a nice zig-zag road led to the summit and once at the top it felt great. Then followed a butt clenching descent with a sneaky right turn to almost take us off guard. We were headed for Flowerdew’s café and the thought of a nice sit down and cup of tea kept me cycling along. In my wisdom, I had packed a spare pair of dry socks and was looking forward to putting them on. Boy, my feet were cold.

When we reached Bromyard – horrors! Flowerdew’s was not open! We cycled around looking for a café but none was found. We did however find an amazing patisserie (a few yards away from Flowerdew’s on opposite side) and indulged in the most scrumptious pork bap ever. Yummers! The sausage roll was equally special too. We couldn’t sit down here and hence I couldn’t change my socks but the grub was so great that I didn’t much care.

Leaving Bromyard we headed towards Fownhope and half expected to experience flooding. Thankfully there was no flooding but the damage of recent flooding could clearly be seen. Whole areas were flattened and looked desolate. As we passed a war memorial near Withington it reminded me of a permanent event I had previously cycled (forget which) as said memorial was used for an information control. We chose not to stop at the Moon pub control (despite it sounding like an awesome place and reminding me of my daughter 'Lunar') but stopped at the Post Office 2k further ahead. The folk in the Post Office were slow to serve us and the content of their chatter was quite disturbing – they were talking about how the floods had damaged this and that. The woman who served me must have been away with the fairies – she gave £5 extra when giving me my change (good job I’m a conscientious sole). After a quick drink and a snack, we left this control and my mind went back to thinking about my cold feet.

The route continued in its undulating, but mostly hilly style. We knew from the outset that this was going to be a hilly affair – the route scored 1.5 AAA points. A quick look at the hilliness profile demonstrated just how hilly this event really was.
Hilliness profile of Mr Pickwick's March Madness
After passing through Mitcheldean and Abenhall we reached Soudley. Soudley strangely sparked off conversations about the soup dragon. Perhaps we could have soup at the control at the Dean Heritage Centre?!
The soup dragon
The Dean Heritage Centre was a real welcome break. We had our first proper sit down and eat stop here. I was so pleased I could take off my shoes and in an attempt to dry them out, I stuffed them with the free newspapers at this centre. Better yet, I was able to dry my insoles on the radiator and partially dry my wet socks. My feet felt so cosey with new dry socks slipped on. As for our feeding, well, we had soup. Ron had a nice broccoli and stilton soup and I had a nasty vegetable variety. My soup looked like troll snot which I guess would have tasted nicer. The mug of tea was a decent brew and washed down said soup.

Leaving the Dean Heritage Centre more hills were climbed. The climbing appeared relentless and harder now that our bellies were full. The climbing took us up to Chepstow where thoughts of the Bryan Chapman and Brevet Cymru events filled my head space. After a final climb the Severn Bridge graced the horizon. What an awesome bridge which we finally crossed and I am sure I will never tire of crossing this work of art. For a change the wind was still as we crossed the bridge on this occasion. Almost as soon as we were over the bridge we had reached the control.

Severn Bridge services was the aptly named control. These services offered a Costa or Burger King (as well as a WHSmiths). I opted for a tea but did not partake of any cake – at £2.99 a slice, does anyone indulge?!

Leaving the Severn control also meant we had left the hills behind. All the hills except one that was. We cycled through a place called ‘Hill’ but ironically there was no hill here. Bonus!  Ham was another interesting named place we passed through. With relatively flat roads and warm feet, I felt all was going great. Then all of a sudden psst, I got a visit from the puncture pixie. No major menace – I had a spare tube. Typical that I punctured having a newly fitted tyre (Continental 4 season too).  After this quick fix we set off again along some pot-holey roads and it was only a matter of time before psst, I had punctured again. No major menace – I had another spare tube and a spare tyre. Decided to fit the new tyre (a cheap Vittoria one) which stayed inflated for rest of adventure. Due to these ‘mechanicals’, we bounced the next control. Stables café appeared closed anyhow, but the pub opposite tempted me.

Leaving control we had some cyclo-cross action and sped along some tow-path. It was now dark and a few puddles, random dogs and a granny had to be safely passed as we rocketed along. After a brief period of navigating some road, we were back on canal paths that led to some docks. I found this very pretty but Ron was wishing for daylight. We had reached Gloucester and the Cathedral looked majestic (am sure the bells were chiming). It was difficult to follow the GPX and route sheet here because of the many twists and turns and we felt like urban rats in a maze for a while. It would have been easier for us to just follow road signs sign-posted ‘Tewkesbury’, which was essentially what happened next. The last 20k was a fast stretch mostly along the A38. I would have been happy to cruise along knowing the arrivee was near but oh no, I was following Rocket Ron. I was working hard to keep up with Ron as he was zooming along playing his ‘stay on my wheel game’. Not sure why but Ron often feels a sudden urgency to finish when reaching the end of an event. I quite like better value for money myself but with cheap brevets I had no argument (plus the Black Sheep pair were waiting for us).

And the next thing you know, we reached the arrivee! Our final control was the 'spoons pub in Tewkesbury where the Black Sheep pair were patiently waiting for us. A splendid feast and a great catch up ended our adventure in style. 
GPX track log
ps At one point on our adventure we were following Hedwig for a stretch. Indeed, some beautiful owl with a lengthy wing span was flying just ahead of us for some distance in broad daylight. Nice. 

All those waiting for the 1st March, the calendar event, are in for much fun.

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