Friday, 7 March 2014

Winter Sportive Review – The Rawlinson Bracket 2014

Looking for some early season punishment, I recently completed the Rawlinson Bracket sportive. As with most things I'm a little tardy with the write-up but finally here it is -  2 weeks post event. Grab an espresso….actually make it a large a flat white and get comfortable….


Like you perhaps, I'd never heard of the Rawlinson Bracket and only did because my Father-in-law-to-be passed on some blurb he received at work. I'm sure he was looking to inflict some pain on me for stealing his eldest daughter and I think this is how he knew he could hurt me without me even realising it. Got to love the man's work.

I was looking for something to keep me riding through the winter to add to the Tour of Pembrokeshire sportive and, upon seeing it described as a "hilly sportive in the wilds of Warwickshire", it was a no brainer - It's local, it's hilly and it’s for a good cause so what's not to like? I signed up immediately, as did some cycling chums, and I promptly went about the rest of January (and most of February actually) getting fat and unfit in preparation for 52 miles and 4500ft of ascent. I’ve taken in the bpm raising delights of Edge Hill and Sunrising Hill a few times before, but even I was surprised at just how lumpy such a short route in Warwickshire could be. Kudos to the organiser Steve who clearly has a talent for course design!

timing_chips Timing chips at the ready

On the day, things didn’t quite pan out as originally planned. My neighbour and his wife were planning on doing the longer, hillier ‘Top Bracket’ route with me and I was relishing my chance to dish out some hurt. Having waited for over a month for their return from Whistler, I was in need of some motivation and what better way than jostling with your weekly cycling partner to see who could unleash the most carnage! However, this wasn’t to be since Matt had an injury and had to change to the shorter ‘Bottom Bracket’ at the last minute – Rule 5 Matt, Rule 5. This was a shame from a competitive perspective but I’d also hoped we’d bash it out together as an eager little unit and share some of the work whilst basking in ‘team spirit’! Gutted, I was to go it alone and fend for myself in the bad lands of Warwickshire.

Both courses started and finished at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, with the Top Bracket riders departing first. Having signed on, got my timing chip and number, I lined up outside in the damp, chilly air to await the start. The atmosphere among the groups of riders was a mix of banter and nervous anticipation as each group of 20 or so riders were ushered over the timing mat and onto the course. I set off with a lad who knew my neighbour, Trevor, who was looking to get around in a reasonable time. We agreed we’d start out together, see what our paces were like and go from there. We set off in the next group to the sound of cleats clipping in to pedals and Garmin’s beeping out of sync with one another. There was a  bloody awful wind that had been brewing for days and today it seemed intent on making things difficult. As soon as we were out onto the open road it was apparent it was going to be a tough day for a large part of the route but it wasn’t raining so I silently thanked the Gods and got on with business of laying down some Rule 5 and as much hurt as I could muster.

Trevor and I  stuck together for about 20 minutes or so but my eagerness got the better of me and, moving to the front of a small group, I unintentionally managed to lose him and the group altogether! Surprised but feeling good I decided I’d just trundle along and see if I could catch some other groups in between the climbs. They’d be going much quicker than me in the wind but on the hills I could make some time up and use them along the flatter sections.

burton_dassett_bottom Start of the Burton Dassett Climb

Burton Dassett, the first hill of the day, soon emerged into view as the tarmac ahead just seemed to suddenly point skyward. I’d not ridden this hill before but from the profile it had a steady first section, followed by a false flat centre and then another kick up towards the top. Chasing the wheels ahead soon saw me roll over the top where it was blowing a proverbial gale! The view is one to savour but today in the wind it was a serious effort to keep my line so I moved back into the big ring, got my head down and after fairly short descent later, and now fully warmed up, I spent most of the time on the flat section anticipating the next hill!

rawlinson_bracket_2014-1Me, grinding up the first climb.

As the road straightened and levelled I could see a large group in the distance and it felt like an age before I was able to catch them. The wind was pushing against me, sapping all my energy and ruining my efforts to make up time. Each time I’d get up to a cruising speed, a huge gust would slam into me and the bike, noticeably slowing my speed and forcing me up the gears. In the interests of Rule 9 and stubbornness, I gritted the teeth and got on with the work and before long I’d caught up to a rider wearing a Rawlinson Bracket jersey.  He’d started in the first group with the ride’s Patron Brian Steel, but was now settling in to his own pace and had let them go on ahead. We agreed it was a slog on our own and worked together to catch the group – which we did just as Edge Hill loomed into view.


I’ve tackled Edge Hill a few times before but it still strikes fear into my heart each time. It’s not the distance but the acute nature of gradient (14%) and I always seem to hammer up it, get firmly into the red and not leave an awful lot for the rest of the ride.


rawlinson_bracket_2014-3 Me, under the illusion I was the caretaker of the keys to the hurt locker!

Today however, I was much more reserved and settled into a rhythm, passing the group at the bottom (and those who’d resorted to walking) and slowly tapping out a tempo whilst listening to my own rhythmic panting.  Towards the top, a younger chap (later I found his name to be George) from the group I’d caught at the bottom had followed me up along with another lad, so it made sense to work together as we moved into the flattish stage before the next hill. I was feeling good at this point but knew we still had the long drag up the Lady Elizabeth hill to come – though there was the feed station to keep me motivated. The pace was fairly good and we shared the work in a rapidly changing pace line until the gradient ramped up and we split to find our respective climbing paces once again. By the time the incline levelled out the hill had claimed a casualty, leaving just the two of us to cruise the rest of the drag to the feed station in the lay-by ahead. Two friendly faces handing out bananas and refilling water bottles were a welcome sight as the casualties of the hills gradually caught up to wolf bananas and take on fluids.


People were in quite a hurry and I found myself left behind trying to scoff a banana whilst stocking up on energy drink. I never look better than when being photographed chewing a banana so I’m glad that Audrey Laperre (today playing the volunteer photographer) managed to capture this for all eternity!


Fortunately the right turn immediately after the feed station was a nice flowing descent so I could drink, chew and open a gel in relative comfort. The speed of the others through the feed zone had made me feel like I’d lost valuable time and I found myself hammering along trying to catch up. Unbeknown to poor old George, he’d become Matt for the day and we would be handing out some pain to each other (and others) if I could catch him! The thing was, they weren’t messing about and were seemingly putting some work in, meaning it took a mile or two to catch them up and then recover from the effort. I was foolish for thinking feed stations were for stopping and feeding – what an amateur.

Another long drag at a steady gradient ensued, although the wind now felt off to our backs, and once again it was me and my 'hill friend' George left churning up the climb before a short flat section to mark the approach of Sunrising Hill as the final climb of the day. Helpfully, someone had removed the smooth tarmac surface of the climb and replaced it with what I can only describe as a 16% rumble strip. This meant that the last hill was not only a slow, grinding effort but it was done so to the joyful and energy sapping rumble of chewed up tarmac. It was a real treat for us all and something I think more climbs should be adorned with! George saw his chance to break me and accelerated past me cresting the climb first just as  photographer caught us both looking our very best.

rawlinson_bracket_2014-4 Me, internalising death behind George on Sunrising Hill

rawlinson_bracket_2014-5 Out of the saddle and in trouble

Reviewing the photo above, its no wonder I'd struggled so much - my ears aren't as aero as they could be and would surely have been costing me precious watts in the wind!

With that climb over we both recovered on the flat before the rewarding descent of Edge Hill at the opposite end of the escarpment. This section was like an agreed neutralised zone where neither of us pushed ahead or ramped up the pace and instead just took the time to regain some composure whilst attempting to hide our state of body and mind from the one another. We made idle chit chat until we arrived at the top of Edge Hill for the rewarding but short-lived descent.

The drag to Kineton from there is a false flat and gradually climbs to the centre of the village and the pubs and, just as important, the cake shop! Today however we had other things on our minds and cake would have to wait until the finish. At this point my legs felt tired and the fast, smooth road back to Gaydon wasn’t really registering as such and instead felt as though it was the longest road in the world. Taking turns on the front, George and I didn’t exchange words - everything had been said and it was about getting to the finish now.

Suddenly the tail wind delivered the calls and chatter of a group gaining behind us, which provided some renewed vigour to our cycling! It was soon apparent that they were happy to let me and George sit out this last section on the front and so what better way to finish a great day than giving it all we had so see who we could drop! Gallantly, everyone hung on until final turn into the Heritage Motor Centre where our group of 6-7 started to break up but made it across the timing mat within a few seconds of each other. Surprisingly, George and I were thanked for our efforts in dragging everyone back in those final few miles – which made the fact I was literally on the brink of cramp somehow  worth it!

Overall, a great day in the saddle, amazing organisation and a great cause too. The post-ride cake, applause and hot drinks that awaited our entrance into the event hall just topped it off perfectly.

A massive thanks to Steve Jefferies and his team of volunteers for a great day, the photographers who provided these photos free of charge and of course George who had a hand in this record suffer score:


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