The Dean Ultra Challenge - 200 miles

Club Riders Peter Booroff and Chris Matthews provide their accounts of an epic ride:

"This was the brain child of an unhinged person who wants something a little out of the ordinary. A challenge, and that was what it was. Just a little over 195 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing. What else would you want to do on a Sunday."

Peter Booroff, NRC


Peter writes: Ten fit and athletic looking cyclists assembled in Newbury Market Place at 5:30am on Sunday 9th May. Well actually, they still looked half asleep. The sky was grey, but not cold and only light rain or showers forecast later on in the ride. Never ever believe weather forecasts, reality is totally different. We set off in two groups, one of four and the other of six, hopefully based on ability.



Bampton at 30     Miles
Bampton at 30 Miles

We headed off up the Lambourn Valley and then headed North to Bampton for our first pitstop at 30 miles. This was just a quick refuelling exercise of snacks at the roadside. Just after leaving Bampton, we had light rain that continued for over half an hour. Nothing was forecast until 10am in this area and we should have missed it.


We continued heading North until we

Down the hill to Winchcombe

reached Milton under-Wychwood and then started to head West towards Stow-on-the-Wold. We continued in a Westerly direction with our first real stop at Winchcombe at 65 miles. The cafés were now open and a cuppa and bacon baps were the order of the day. This was a third of the route complete and with the majority of the hills and a 30mph gusting headwind to come I was beginning to think if this challenge was a good idea.

Anyway, off we trundled, continuing in a Westerly direction to Newent. Hooray, the sun came out and things warmed up quite a bit. Off came the rain jacket and on show was the Newbury anniversary club kit. Newent at 88 miles was another quick pitstop in the market place and a visit to the local Nisa store. A refill of the water bottle, a bottle of cola and a big bag of Jelly Babies for an energy boost was needed. Still not halfway yet and still thinking if this was a good idea.



Newent

Shortly after leaving Newent, we headed South through the Forest of Dean heading towards Chepstow for our next stop. This is when we headed into a 16 to 18 mph headwind gusting up to 33mph. If the hills weren’t tough enough, we now had a headwind to contend with for the next 30 miles. Not sure if there were any flat bits on this section as every thing seemed to be up or down. That might just have been a bit of fatigue and my imagination.

We got to Chepstow at 15:40, about 80 minutes behind the fast group. This was 118 miles into the Challenge and we still looked pretty good, considering. This was to be a café stop, but as we were behind schedule and unlikely to finish before it got dark, we decided to make it a quick pitstop to save a bit of time. We boosted Superdrug’s profits by buying up most of their stock of sugary soft drinks and bottled water. A bit of food consumed from what was being carried and we were ready to set off again. I had eaten half a protein bar and I’m sure I was still chewing it for the next five miles.


There was a challenging climb to get out of Chepstow and this is where the heavens opened up into what can only be described as a monsoon. Normally, I would stop for

Old Severn Bridge

the customary photographs going over the Old Severn Bridge, but this was not one of those days. The photo below does not do it justice and convey the amount of water falling out of the sky. The cycle crossing is on the North side of the bridge and we were protected from the South-westerly wind by the road deck being a few feet higher. It rained for the next hour.


There were a couple of small lumps to get over on our journey to Malmsbury. On the whole this was a reasonably flat section and ridden at a slightly faster pace. These things are all relative and after doing 150 miles it was probably my mind playing tricks. Again, this was just a quick pitstop for what we were carrying and no time to visit a shop, even if we could find one that was open. Here we split into two gruppetto’s of four and two. The slightly faster group being the four.


The next stage took us to Marlborough at 172 miles, but in between lay Broad Hinton and Hackpen White Horse Hills. Thanks, Gideon, for saving the best till last. I thought I was going to struggle up those two but remained in the saddle and conquered both. My companion and I stopped at the Esso garage for a refuel of four-star cola and Jelly Babies. With 23 miles still to go, and the light fading, on came the bike lights. Two on the front and two at the back. Be prepared, that’s my motto. OK so it’s the boy scouts not mine. Thankfully I knew the roads back to Newbury from here, but not all the potholes. There are a couple of bits of the male anatomy that don’t like the surprise of potholes.


We got back at 21:55 and there was no greater sight than the Newbury signpost along the Enborne Road. My stats for the day were 195 miles and 11,020 feet of climbing with 19 classified climbs according to Ride-with-GPS. I don’t think there were any punctures or mechanicals, so the rain gods looked after us in that respect.


Would I do it again? Well, I guess it’s a bit like childbirth, once the pain has gone you think why not. Just not just yet.


Peter Booroff 11.05.2021


"At the end of last year I started having discussions with Gideon about adding a 300Km Audax route to the list of club events. He had already cycled it, and it sounded like the ultimate (i.e. ridiculous!) challenge, so we pencilled it into the diary."

Chris Matthews, NRC


Chris writes: 6 months later, it suddenly all became a reality and started to sound daunting, as it is a 195-mile route with over 11,000 feet of climbing. To put that in perspective, that’s more than three, hilly 60-mile rides back to back, in one day. Even so, with the ride put on SPOND, 10 people signed up to do the ride, including a number of last minute additions. And the weather forecast was positive, so it was actually going to happen.


Preparation for the Ride


Based on an average speed of 15mpg, this meant at least 13 hours in the saddle, plus time for breaks. We scheduled stops every 30 miles to break the ride into 6 more-manageable chunks. However, with dawn on the Sunday at 05:30 and dusk at 20:40 this allowed less than 2 hours for breaks to avoid cycling in the dark. It was all a bit tight!


Preparation is everything on a ride like this, and extensive Googling showed that top tips are to:


1. Ensure the pace is right (not too fast and take it easy up hills)

2. Get the nutrition right. We would burn around 7,000 calories on the ride, so it’s important to replenish calories and carbohydrates. That means a lot of eating and high calorie food such as pork pie, malt loaf, etc. as well as gels and energy bars!

3. Ensure you stay hydrated, so plan for 2 bottles and regular refills


Choosing the right kit was also hard, as the BBC Weather site showed a temperature range of 12-16 degrees with a South-Westerly wind of around 17mph and a low chance of rain. Shorts or tights? Long sleeved or short sleeved top? Rain Jacket? Overshoes? Mudguards or not.

Eventually I went for a long sleeved ‘1925’ club top, bib-tights, gilet, long-fingered gloves and mudguards, but had a rain jacket, fingerless gloves and loads of food stashed away in bikepacking bags on the bike.



On Sunday the alarm went off at 04:30 and I set off for the Market Place at 05:00. It was so quiet and just starting to become light. We assembled in the market place and you could tell that everyone was a bit apprehensive about the challenge facing us. We quickly learned that across the 10 riders there was a ride range of abilities and previous experience. One had ridden over 250 miles in a day before, but a number (including myself) had never managed more than 120 miles, and nowhere near the amount of climbing – so it really was a trip into the unknown.


At 05:30 we set off in 2 groups.


Section 1: Newbury to Bampton – 30 miles and 347ft of climbing

We headed out on the valley road towards Lambourn before heading in the general direction of Wantage. The first real climb crossing the Ridgeway was ridden at a sensible pace with a tailwind, before we descended into Childrey. The terrain flattened as we went along familiar roads through Stanford in the Vale before arriving at Bampton on schedule just before 07:30. No shops were open, and there were only a few dogwalkers around, so we had the first round of snacks in the middle of the village.


Section 2: Bampton to Winchcombe – 35 miles (65 miles from start) and 2,359 feet of climbing


The second section was much more challenging that the first as we entered the Cotswolds. We rode through the pretty village of Minster Lovell before the hills really started near Stow on the Wold. We were surprised to encounter rain here, as the BBC site had shown this as a low possibility – isn’t that always the case! Many of the roads would be familiar if you have taken part in one of the Club’s Cotswolds Rides.


The 15 miles of undulating (i.e. hilly) riding put us slightly behind schedule and we arrived at the historic old town of Winchcombe just after 10:00 for our planned first coffee stop at Food Fanatics. This turned out to be a lovely café / deli, serving delicious bacon rolls and coffee, but the service was extremely slow. After 65 miles (a typical Sunday 60-ride) we all still felt fresh, and the thought of doing the same distance and elevation twice more seemed feasible.


Section 3: Winchcombe to Newent – 23 miles (88 miles from start) and 1,071 feet of climbing


Leaving Winchcombe we had to tackle a steep climb almost immediately and then entered unfamiliar territory for most of us as we headed west into Gloucestershire. The terrain here was pretty flat, with very few towns or villages, but the countryside was beautiful with stunning views, and we made good progress. We all started to overheat so we stopped to take off layers.


At around 12:30 we arrived at the medieval market town of Newent and had a snack stop in the old marketplace, surrounded by ancient, oak-framed buildings. At this stage it became apparent that some of the group were starting to tire and didn’t have enough food, so we re-stocked again with food and energy drinks at the local Co-op.


Section 4: Newent to Chepstow – 31 miles (119 miles from start) and 2,658 feet of climbing


Chris takes a breather in Newent - wrong kind of saddle!

Leaving Newent we turned south into the headwind for the most challenging section of the day. This took us through 8 miles of the Forest of Dean, which was stunning but hilly, and the cumulative effect of the climbing (almost 6,500ft) was starting to have an impact on the group. On a ride like this, you can’t afford to drop anyone, so although the group spread out on the climbs, there was frequent regrouping at junctions. While we were stopped at a set of traffic lights, some motorists seeing our kit couldn’t believe that we had actually ridden from Newbury that day!



The group was starting to become more separated as tiredness started to set in, particularly with the headwind. Everyone was just digging in and the level of conversation definitely dropped. As we approached Chepstow, we started to get views of the River Severn, and after a final descent we arrived in Chepstow.


Chen Xue enjoys a refill

We were now significantly behind schedule as the pace had dropped in the last section. Doing a quick calculation, anxiety levels started to rise that we wouldn’t be able to make it back to Newbury before dusk. Even though we had a scheduled café stop in Chepstow, we made a group decision to have a short snack stop instead. We replenished water, energy bars and other snacks in the Superdrug as this was the most convenient store available, ate quickly and tried not to think about the fact that we had 80 miles still to go.


Section 5: Chepstow to Malmesbury – 31 miles (150 miles from start) and 1,710 feet of climbing



Severn Bridge - keep smiling!

At this point we felt rain drops, so we all put on rain jackets ready to cross the River Severn. This quickly turned into a downpour as we rode over the bridge, and you could sense concern rising about whether we were going to make it to the end. Contingency plans such as cycling to Bristol station were going through my mind at this point.


We recognised that we needed to up the pace, and luckily the energy from the snacks (and Chen’s 2 cans of Red Bull) at the stop started to kick in. Through pretty miserable weather we headed east with everyone just digging into their reserves.



It was clear that some of the group felt stronger than others, so we ended up splitting into 2 groups to avoid waiting at junctions for others to catch for too long. The steep climb around Hawkesbury and the subsequent downhill into Malmesbury were probably the least memorable parts of the ride, as it was now all about keeping up a decent pace so that we could arrive home not too long after dusk. Our ETA was now well past 21:00.


Section 7: Malmesbury to Marlborough – 22 miles (172 miles from start) and 1,250 feet of climbing

We limited ourselves to a quick ‘splash and dash’ in the centre of Malmesbury, as there were still 50 miles and around 2,500 of climbing to go. That’s almost another Sunday ride, but the end was in sight. The terrain started to become more familiar as we rode through Royal Wootton Bassett, before we encountered 2 major hills. Broad Hinton Hill followed by Hackpen Hill were climbed through sheer determination by just grinding it out, and then there was a very welcome descent into Marlborough for the final stop.


Section 8: Marlborough to Newbury – 23 miles (195 miles from start) and 1,225 feet of climbing



NRC Chair Steve Dawes safely home

Another quick snack stop here, as dusk was approaching and the pressure was on to keep up the pace. The route via Mildenhall, Alford, Ramsbury and Chilton Foliat was completed with no dramas, before we arrived at Hungerford. It was starting to get dark now, so after a quick discussion about the best route to take we headed off towards Kintbury on the back roads. Even though we were tired, the eagerness to get home took over and we maintained a good pace on the final miles to Newbury and everyone arrived home by 22:00. We had completed the challenge!





Reflections on the Ride


The following day I felt surprisingly OK – not sore, just tired. The sense of achievement hadn’t really sunk in at the end of the ride, but reflecting on it the following morning, it felt like we had achieved something special.

Looking back on it 2 days later, I have started thinking about what I would do differently if I was to do the ride again.

Despite achieving our average of 15mph, we came in just under 2 hours over schedule. This was as a result of underestimating the time needed for stops. Lessons learnt are that faster turnaround is needed, and café stops are probably not realistic, so there needs to be more reliance on bringing food. The different pace of members of the team also needs to be taken into account as time spent waiting at junctions also needs to be factored in.

Having flexible kit options is important with the ability to adapt as temperatures rise and weather changes. Also, 200 miles in a set of wet bib tights is also not to be recommended and I’m researching Chamois Creams, as I’m sure these would have helped.

Despite all of this, there is a significant sense of satisfaction at having cycled more than 50% further and climbed more than 50% more in a single day than I ever have before. That’s definitely a tick on the bucket list!


Chris Matthews 11.05.2021