The Westcountry Rapha Prestige on 13th August promised 110 miles of camaraderie and suffering; teams of four to self-navigate between four checkpoints as they see fit and compete for the best stories, best route choice, most cheese and pickle sandwiches consumed and, if you must, the shortest time away from the cache of beers at ‘race HQ’ (accrued from teams’ compulsory 6-beer entry fee).
Although billed as a road event, Rapha both has a deep rooted love of all things gravel and also a keen sense of humour. As such, the fairly free route description stipulated two compulsory sections; the first was a steep climb out of the historic city of Wells; no biggedy for the few hundred owners of the astonishingly bling bikes and string-lean, shaved-clean legs that turned up to the start at Bristol’s Mud Dock bike shop. The second, a gloriously muddy gravel stretch hidden in the Mendip Hills.
There are a few other Roubaix-a-likes cropping up now; there are ‘Roubaixs’ in Cardiff, Liverpool, Reading and Brighton not to mention the Tour of the Black Country and Cheshire Cobbled Classic. All purport to include sections of cobbles, gravel and just a tickling of mud. But none offer a prize for the ‘best dressed team’ or boast a startline with at least 80% of riders “dripping in Rapha”, as my teammate Carla gasped at the Bristol Prestige. (Surely the boys who rode with matching pink and white socks, jerseys and musettes should have pedaled home with that prize?)
So yes, Rapha has a sense of humour. The gravel section at 66km started in a fairly innocuous hardpacked Forestry carpark but deteriorated (improved?) quickly as it rolled fast, flat and straight through the trees. The morning’s rain had refilled the puddles, which often stretched from brambly hedge to head-high nettles with no tiptoe space. Horrified by the cloggy brown water, riders were forced into the uncomfortable position of choosing between bike and shoes. There was an even split, and I watched as a lot of pristine white leather turned grimy grey.
After the trees came The Descent. A stretch of slabs buried into the old bridleway had turned greasy in the summer showers, and cleated riders skittered down the slope with bikes balanced on their shoulders. The line, of course, was to the left down the grassy singletrack where the rugged thistles offered plenty of grip for slick tyres. “Come on!” I laughed as I rolled over the last few rocky sections before rejoining the main track (quietly wondering if my carbon wheels were tested for this kind of thing).
Splattered in mud, the Prestige riders impressed me by taking all this on the chin. In fact they soaked it up, and seemed to add it to the catalogue of intriguing, unique or special experiences from the day; like the ice cream and espresso check point on the sandy beach at Weston Super Mare, the cheese and pickle sandwiches at the top of the Cheddar Gorge climb and the post-ride party at Mud Dock, superbly catered with delicious salads and chilled bottles of beer.
If I’m honest, our team might have been tiny bit less like the Olympic team pursuit riders I’d been watching the previous evening than perhaps I hold in my imagination. But we made the most of our resources; sticking Chrissie Wellington on the front to do the windiest turns, having Carla lead us up the steepest switchbacks and Bryan Chapman survivor Kati Jagger pull us across the flat Somerset moors. My contribution? To fly through the mud and gravel shouting ‘yippeeeeeeeeeeee’…