Isn’t that the sound of gunfire in the distance? But it is 6 am on a Sunday in the sleepy Isle of Purbeck and it is the day of the Dorset Coast. After a hearty breakfast (including black pudding) the four of us ride off to the start in Wareham. Mark and Jane are in their Willesden CC strips and Robin and I in our Audax Kernow colours. Mark is in his usual early season good shape (which is quite visible). Outside the HQ control I say hello to Keith Matthews, the first organiser of the event in 1978. In those early days of few AUK events across the country the numbers for this event often exceeded 200 (or even 300 perhaps?).
The usual mass start takes place when it seems impossible to find where your mates are in the bunches which develop. The answer is they are usually not far behind you. The initial dash to the ferry at Sandbanks is mostly adrenaline driven and good fun since the only pimple on the landscape to climb is the railway bridge in Poole. At the ferry the event controllers are enthusiastically vigorous with their demands to mark our brevet cards before boarding. A very brief catching of the rays on the upper deck during the crossing as we decide whether it is warm enough for shorts or not is followed by a crafty fast track escape off the ferry while the main bunch have to wait for all the cars to disembark. You can’t beat the experienced veteran.
Now the serious stuff begins. There are three proper hills between the ferry and the next control in Weymouth. There is still quite a lot of adrenaline pumping in a lot of riders. But we may not see them again today. The sun is warm but there is still a cool headwind. We could enjoy the spectacular panoramic view over Poole harbour but our focus is about ten feet in front of us as we climb. We are rewarded at the top with a fast long winding descent to Corfe Castle, which is one of those old ruins that Oliver Cromwell knocked about a bit. Our plan for the ride is not to get into the same state.
At the top of Creech Hill the road across the MOD firing ranges is closed and the red flag is flying. We put two and two together and reckon that Dorset separatists have seized control of our route beyond the barrier so we have to take a detour round the area to the next climb at Daggers Gate. We pass signs which warn us of “Sudden Gunfire”. Our fears are confirmed. We ride faster and keep our heads down until Daggers Gate where we see no one in unmarked uniforms, just unmarked lycra.
There is a nice long steady climb to the ridge above Weymouth (76km) and from there we enjoy another fast descent followed by some fast relaying amongst the cars heading for the promenade. People are enjoying the warm sun on the beach and the café control is humming with riders from both the 200km and the shorter 100km Coastlet event. The sight of so many bikes outside is impressive. We however retire to a small Italian café we know for a bit of space, steak, salad and chips and a glass of the amber nectar. We know what’s coming in the next 60km. You cannot beat real food and drink.
The route has some truly spectacular scenery. The sea is often in sight from a high point. There are pretty villages. As you approach Abbotsbury the view of the swannery, with its surrounding reed beds, the sea sparkling beyond and a backdrop of a chapel on a hill, looks positively medieval. This picture is quickly forgotten though as we climb the hill out of the village. Probably the hardest hill of all on the route “Abbotsbury” feels all the more brutal with day-tripper traffic disturbing the equilibrium. But our reward awaits at the top – ice creams! It just hits the spot as we look back along the expanse of Chesil Beach towards Portland Bill. Then a long and at times very fast descent to Bridport.
Now it’s time for the seriously serious stuff. You could call it the Four Ridges. There is no respite. It is continuously steeply up or down, one hill after another. The only reward is that the main A35, which is often narrow and very busy, is avoided. Again the scenery and views are wonderful if you can take your eyes off the tarmac. The first climb leaves the town for a tiny place called Higher Eype, before a brief and fast descent on the A35 through the speed camera in Chideock before turning off again and climbing up to another tiny place called Ryall. Then a sharp descent to Whitchurch Canonicorum, another pretty village. The third climb takes you over the next ridge to Wootton Fitzpaine from where the fourth climb goes up to Raymond’s Hill. Very often there is no traffic at all which is a relief because these lanes are almost too narrow for any passing. We have got a bit spread out by the time we get to the Axminster control (134km) at a primary school where the parents provide excellent juicy sandwiches just made for cyclists plus a choice of soups and cakes and gallons of tea. I think we deserve it!
There are still 70km to go but only two huge hills to climb and quite a lot of ordinary rolling country to get through. The control is closing as we leave, and we suspect that we are now the last ones on the road, the remaining nine riders having either packed or abandoned earlier. Robin has already decided to go on ahead since he’s “getting into his stride on the hills” and has to sample a few more of the local ales at the finish. But another rider, Dave, has filled the gap and asks us if he may ride with us. He mentions that he rode the Hard Boiled 300km yesterday and has left one or two items at home including his route sheet, lights and warm clothing. He nearly weeps when we tell him the next hill is the infamous Sector Lane. “But I did it yesterday on the Hard Boiled!” Life just isn’t fair is it!
Sector Lane is hard and we are relieved we have triples, except for Dave who does not. To those few souls who are riding fixed my admiration is extended – as well as my sympathy. It may be fun but it does not look it. I think one of them was event organiser Peter Loakes.
After we get to the top there is another twisty downhill through Marshwood Vale. The shadows are beginning to lengthen as we pass through a very pretty little valley above a stream at Loders. We reach the beginning of the last serious climb at Spyway. This is a climb that goes on and on as it ascends towards the ancient hillfort at Eggardon Hill. This is the highest point on the whole ride and there is another magnificent panoramic view back over the sea. It’s time for Mark to break out the Bakewell tarts from his magic saddlebag. “C’est dans la poche” someone says. Now it’s fast along the old Roman road to Dorchester (181km) and the penultimate control. The Top of the Town café provides some fine blackcurrant pie and custard and mugs of good tea, as it has done ever since the first event nearly 40 years ago.
Since we are definitely the last riders on the road there’s no need for a burn up on the last flattish section across the tank country, unless we encounter some “Sudden Gunfire” in the forest. We don’t meet any bandits and there’s a one man sprint for the Wareham town sign. Old habits die hard I suppose. We finish with 15 minutes to spare. We claim the lanterne rouge once again. It’s been another great Dorset Coast in good company. And no gels! You just can’t beat it.
*Jane Swain will be attempting the Lands End – John O’Groats ladies trike record starting on Monday 4th August at 6am from Lands End.