This was my fourth year riding this iconic event which is epic in scale and celebrates a moment in our history that stirs our pride as a seafaring nation.
The Trafalgar Way is the historic route taken by Lieutenant John Laponetiere RN (1770 – 1834) in November 1805 to report the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson.
The official despatch from Admiral Collingwood was brought to England by Lieutenant Laponetiere aboard HMS Pickle. It contained the news of victory over the Spanish and French Fleets off Cape Trafalgar, Spain on October 21st 1805. Following an epic sea voyage where a severe storm required the ditching of four cannon to save the ship, HMS Pickle arrived in the English Channel where unfavourable winds dictated a landfall at Falmouth rather than Plymouth.
Lieutenant Laponetiere then started a journey overland by post chaise – a coach and four horses – to deliver the despatch to the Admiralty and King George III. The journey took 37 hours to reach the Admiralty Building in Whitehall, London. There were 21 changes of horses at Coaching Inns along the route and cost £46 – equivalent to £4500 today. The factual record of horse changes has allowed the route to be recreated today – as far as modern road infrastructure allows.
The victory at Trafalgar in defeating the French and Spanish fleets secured Great Britain’s safety from imminent invasion from Napoleon Bonaparte and established British naval supremacy for more than a century.
Ride the Trafalgar Way is a challenging sportive developed by Jim Bellinger. The full challenge, Colossus, is 500km (307miles) with 6,795m of elevation to climb, mostly in the first two legs to Exeter and Salisbury. The challenge is to complete the distance within 24 hours.
Four years ago I rode the Defiance route from Falmouth to Salisbury, followed the next year with Thunderer from Exeter to London. I then had a go at the full Colossus route in 2017 with my pal Neil. Riding as a team saves a lot of energy and we just made it to the Admiralty Building in Whitehall with ten minutes to spare on the 24 hour target. That year my computer read 498km so I rode down Whitehall to Parliament Square and back along the Embankment to Trafalgar Square to make the 500km!
So why ride it again? I love the history involved and have cycled in Spain visiting Cape Trafalgar. I live on the Isle of Wight with HMS Victory, Nelson’s Flagship, just across the water in Portsmouth. I have ridden numerous sportives over the last five years and Jim and his team have organised one of the very best events with fantastic support along the whole 500km route. This time I was riding it solo which promised to be a tough day in the saddle.
Cape Trafalgar, Spain – the sea battle was off this Cape and many ships were wrecked in the storm that followed
Race briefing was held the evening before at Penryn University Campus. The main message was the need to keep well hydrated in the hot conditions forecast for the weekend.
I stayed at a local hotel where the owner left me a good breakfast for my 0500 start. We gathered at Pendennis Castle at 0530 as the sun rose over Black Rock and Carrick Roads. This is a nostalgic headland for me having sailed my boat in the AZAB Race (Azores and Back), double handed, in 2007 with the start line between Black Rock and Pendennis Point.
We collected our tracking units and gathered for a start line photo before the off at 0610. I think we were all quite thoughtful about the twenty four hours ahead given the clear blue sky and early warmth of the morning sun already evident on our backs. The wind was forecast light and from the south west slightly following which was a big bonus.
Jim counted us down to the start and away we went with an steady ride down from the Castle and through Falmouth toward Penryn and the first main town of Truro. It took 25km before we cleared the upper reaches of the Fal Estuary just above Truro and there were a few short sharp climbs along the way to remind us what lay ahead. Truro was a bit of a ghost town as I climbed towards the first pit stop at Fraddon. My plan was to stop and refresh at each of the eleven pit stops placed roughly at 50km intervals along the route. A quick stop at Fraddon for water and some snacks was followed by meandering minor roads and climbing towards Bodmin.
Through Bodmin the route headed due East crossing the River Fal and on towards Liskeard before turning North East skirting the southern edge of Bodmin Moor and the first good climb to 300 metres. Upton Cross at 88km, at the top of the climb was a welcome stop for water, fig bars and a banana.
From the South East corner of Bodmin Moor the Trafalgar Way turns North towards Launceston and the Cornwall/Devon border at the River Tamar. I stopped at the Devon county sign for a quick photo before heading up the short sharp climb and on toward the Lewdown pitstop for more water and food. A real feature of this ride is the friendliness and support of Jim’s team at the stops and along the way. Ever present too was Jonathan Warren with his cameras and words of encouragement.
I rode for a while with Lorena who was the first woman to complete the Colossus ride in 2017. It was good to have some company to help wind away the miles. Sadly Lorena scratched later having had limited training time in the months before RTW.
Pictures – Jonathan Warren
I had the pit stops logged on a small laminated card with target times based on last years timing when Neil and I made it within the 24 hours. By now I was already behind schedule.
Riding into Devon towards Oakhampton, lying on the northern edge of Dartmoor was another solid climb, not steep, but about 20km in length. Once through Oakhampton the motivation was the pit stop at Whidden Down at 146km where hot food was being served. Jim had a sports nutritionalist planning the food and a great cook laid on sweet potato, tuna and baked beans, a much needed energy boost.
Riding a few ultra distance events has taught me the value of good normal food rather than a diet of gels and bars which are best left for the occasional boost when needed. My favourite gel is the SIS Double Caffine – usually reserved for the that time towards the end of a ride when one is in real need.
On from Widdon Down there followed a 30km run, mostly downhill, to Exeter. A City is always a challenge especially on a busy Saturday and it felt a bit hectic after the quiet Devon lanes we had been riding.
Leg one to Exeter was 173km with 2973m of climbing and took 7hrs 50mins.
After a quick stop I worked my way through the City traffic towards the new industrial area near the Airport to the East and on towards Honiton. There was a good climb out of Honiton up the Blackdown Hills towards Stockland and another welcome pit stop at 210km.
A nice descent to Axeminster and the River Axe followed with a brief excursion onto the busy A35 before detouring into the town and then a good climb north before descending back towards the Dorset coast and Bridport.
The next 15km ranged along the spectacular Jurassic Coast overlooking the 29km long Chesil Beach and The Fleet, a narrow tidal lagoon, with Portland Bill in the distance.
Abbotsbury, at 260km, was another pit stop before a brute of a climb up Portesham Hill towards the Monument to Vice Admiral Hardy. Sir Thomas Hardy was the Flag Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson died in his arms saying the immortal words, “Kiss me Hardy”. The Monument stands proud over Martinstown and Dorchester in the distance and the road is a fabulous descent.
My sister Angela lives a few yards off the parcours in Dorchester and I called in for a quick hello and hug.
Onwards with 30km to the evening ‘hot food’ stop at Blanford Forum, I rode through the delightfully named Puddletown and Winterbourne Whitechurch as the sun started to dip down towards the horizon – still a warm evening.
A great spaghetti bolognese was served at Blanford by a lovely relative of Jim and her two delightful children. By now I was pretty close to the back of the field and heard of several riders scratching with fatigue and problems with the heat. My target time for Blanford was 1945hrs but I arrived about one hour down on that and although I planned some quick stops found I needed a little more given my own fatigue coping with the warm conditions.
The road from Branford Forum was a good climb North towards Shaftesbury before turning East at Compton Abbas Airfield and then due South and East to Sixpenny Handley and the road to Salisbury. By now the sky was turning blood red in the West as darkness fell.
After a welcome rest and food at Salisbury (355 km and 17hrs 30min) I got riding again about midnight as the TW team were breaking camp and heading for London. I was looking like being the last rider on the course – the Lantern Rouge!
The road from Salisbury followed the River Bourne valley north before heading East to Andover and then tracked the River Test valley to Overton and the penultimate pit stop for hot soup and coffee.
My lights were working well and I pressed on in the cooling night towards Basingstoke. The lower night temperature was a blessing after the scorching day.
All the big climbing was now behind me and I was soon pushing on through Hook and Camberley to the final pit stop at Bagshot where I was told all the riders behind me had scratched – so I inherited the Lantern Rouge!
The run into London from the West, into the rising sun, makes you appreciate the sheer size of the capital. Through Staines I rode south of Heathrow and under the early morning procession of approaching aircraft – how do people live under that flightpath?
On through Kensington and onto the Carriage Drive in Hyde Park and then Constitution Hill on the approach to Buckingham Palace. It was a bit special riding down the Mall and into a busy Trafalgar Square where they were preparing for the closed road London 10k Run. A quick right turn and in through the security gates of The Admiralty Building and the ride was done.
I finished just before 0730 with an elasped time of 25hrs 17mins for the 504km and 20hrs 55mins in the saddle. So a failure to make the 24 hour challenge but on reflection I was happy to be the Lantern Rouge and complete the Trafalgar Way route in what was one of my hardest days on a bike. There was a nice welcome from Jim, Jasmine and the team. They had all been on the go, up and down the course, for 24 hours and must have been as tired as the riders. Chapeau to the Trafalgar Way Team.
Kit, equipment and analysis
My bike was a Mason Definition 2 with Hunt 4 Season SuperDura Disc wheels. Bike and wheels had already carried me over 3,000km in June around Ireland and Scotland and performed perfectly. I ran a SON deluxe dynamo working with Exposure Revo front light and Igaro D1 power converter for charging electronic equipment coupled with an Anker 10,000m/amp power bank. Probably a bit overkill on the power side but it works well for me. The bike bags were Apidura.
Analysis of my performance data for the 20 hours in the saddle was interesting. Bearing in mind the first 10 hours contained the bulk of the climbing my average speed was 24kph for both the first and second half of the ride. Cadence was also similar but Normalised Power was down from 218watts (IF .76) for the first half to 180watts (IF .62) for the second. As is usual on ultra distance rides my Heart slows down as I go deep into the ride – Average HR for the first half was 123 while it fell to 105 for the last 10 hours. I can remember pushing hard towards the end into London and hardly managing to get my HR above 100. For the last two hours of riding my average HR was 98. I guess the body is simply telling me not to be so stupid!