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“Oh Christ,” I think as we pedal away from Bristol’s Mud Dock Café at the start of the Rapha Prestige. Sprinting around a couple of teams on the first hill of the ride before we’ve even gone a couple of kilometres, I immediately regret the large wodge of fruitcake I’ve just eaten. It rises up from my stomach towards my mouth. No, Rapha Prestige is not a competition, but take four female road and crit racers, set them off on a checkpoint ride and it’s only a matter of time before a competitive element emerges.
The fact that three of us are ex-couriers (and former alleycat racers) makes it all the more inevitable, so despite the night’s previous resolution to pace ourselves at the start we’re doing anything but. My legs are cross at the rude awakening and I’m a teensy bit worried. Of the four, I’ve only ridden with Corinne before and she’s told me the other two, Liz and Alicia are ‘total smashers.’ And someone mentioned prizes. Eek.
The Rapha Prestige is a self-navigated team checkpoint ride that in some ways is like a very cooler and rather exclusive kind of sportive, where feed zones double as checkpoints. The rides generally involve some gravel sections and plenty of climbing, but what makes it all the more interesting is the fact you can choose your own route between checkpoints and mandatory sections as long as you avoid any forbidden roads.
Teams are sent a ‘safe’ route 48 hours before the ride and actively encouraged to figure out short cuts. Through some messing about with mapping software we reckon we’ve chopped 30km from the original 180km. Whether the new route is actually faster or even rideable is anybody’s guess, but Alicia and I have uploaded it to our Garmins are will attempt to navigate from it.
As we’ve set off behind most of the other teams, the girls want to make up a bit of time. We have a lovely time whizzing along a series a bike paths heading out of the city before forming a pace line and giving it some beans through the countryside. It’s amazing fun as our synchronised train thunders along, slipping effortlessly past golden fields of wheat. We only come unstuck at the first village when we find that riders are coming towards us. Looping back round we rediscover our route, head into the lanes and find our pace once more. We pass some friendly faces for a second time (they didn’t go the wrong way) and seeing us settle into formation, hands on the drops, they chuckle. “It’s not a race you know.”
At some point the guys from Wiggle and Ben Simmons, racer and brand manager at Ale catch up with us and ask us which way it is, so we immediately lead them the wrong way (accidentally of course). You’d have though that might have given them some indication of our navigational prowess, but no, they stick with us the fools!
The first of our ‘short cuts’ leads us off down a grassy bridleway, something I wouldn’t normally ride on my skinny tyred carbon road bike, but this being Rapha Prestige we’re all game for a little off-roading. Our new pals gamely follow us along what turns out to be the most ridiculous unrideable track, filled with rocks and deep, mud filled channels and everyone gets bummed out about their fancy shoes and bikes getting muddy, which I totally understand, but it’s still pretty funny. It takes us about half an hour to slither, walk and ride about 2km then no one can even get their cleats back in their pedals as they’re so clogged with dirt so. We fart about taking photos, cleaning rims and eating energy bars. We decide to forget about racing as we’ve wasted so much time and we’re having too much fun.
At checkpoint one in Shepton Mallet we shove more energy bars in our mouths and jerseys pockets then head off towards the coast. Though we’re not racing, we still don’t want to go slow so we power through the drizzle tucked in a neat line to avoid a nasty headwind. Coming from a place (Devon) where you’re nearly always climbing or ascending, I absolutely LOVE speeding along the open, relatively flat roads that link the hills on the way our to Weston-Super-Mare – I could ride like that for miles after mile after mile without blowing up. It’s only the big hills I find tricky – despite plenty of practice I’m just crap at climbing and have to be careful to pace myself on long rides as it’s those hills that kill my legs.
On the beach, we have our cards stamped, eat ice creams, drink Cokes and feel awesome. I love the English seaside, love riding bike, love this. We start recognizing members of the other teams as they drift in and out and refuel and chat to riders from Australia and Japan. As I also love food, I stuff in a couple of pastries for good measure. We pause for portraits then it’s back on the road, this time heading towards Cheddar Gorge. It’s epically beautiful, gloriously sunny and we feel fast and strong. Life is good.
The village of Cheddar, at the foot of the gorge is absolute mayhem – I’ve never been before and had no idea quite how many coachloads of tourists are deposited here in the summer months. We begin our ascent by trundling along behind a coach as it’s belts out clouds of dark smoke before encountering several car drivers who are absolutely OUTRAGED that cyclists are riding up. Quite why you would drive up Cheddar sodding gorge if you were in a hurry is beyond me. It’s a bit of a buzz kill. Once the cars and coaches are out of the way I settle into a rhythm and enjoy the climb until I round a bend and find a motorcyclist sprawled on the floor.
Cards stamped once again, we carry on from the top of the gorge turning off on a ‘short cut’ when everyone else goes on straight then dither back and forth wondering whether we are going the right way – up until this point we’ve generally had our friends from Wiggle and Ale within sight. We wrestle with Corinne’s stuck chain for an age, take lots of photos and ride the rolling hills towards -----reservoir. And that’s when the savage climbing begins – just as everyone is getting tired.
Another of our ‘short cuts’ seems to head up a near vertical, grassy bridleway and after our last off-road experience we decide to ride three sides of a square in order to avoid it, figuring it will be quicker. It’s the first time anyone shows any signs of grumpiness. Luckily, I’m riding the new mid-width Cambium C13 with a cut out, so my legs are tired but I’m not sore in the saddle. There’s more slow progress up steep hills all the way to the Bristol airport checkpoint, then after some brief respite we head straight up and over yet more hills before spotting Bristol below us. It might have been quicker to go round the bumps but it’s so pretty that I’m glad of our route.
Walking back into Mud Dock café, our ride completed we’re surprised to find no beers, food or party taking place yet. Where are the other 120 people? Despite walking through mud, looping back on ourselves, farting about at the checkpoints, taking snaps, having mechanicals, giving ourselves extra hills to climb and just giving up on racing, we’re the first female team back and seventh out of thirty so the post race shenanigans have yet to officially begin!
I’ve had beer on my mind for the last, say 30 km, so we waste no time getting to the bar, feeling comically light-headed after half a bottle– I’m as bad at drinking as I am at climbing hills. After a couple of pleasant hours eating, drinking and chatting in the sun we’re presented with our prize (although it's not a race, so we haven't won, right?) – a wheel of cheese and a mini keg of ale and automatic entry to the Women’s Prestige next month in London. Happy days!
P.S. Apologies for the crappy phone photos – my camera is being repaired!