This article is about my first-ever 600km event, in 1995. The Brimstone, allegedly, was named after a butterfly. Here it is:
This may be one of Shawn the organiser’s little jokes. The permanent version of the Brimstone is called the Hellfire. There is no butterfly called the Hellfire. Now read on…
When I got into the guard’s van at Reading station there was already a purposeful-looking and well-tended bike aboard. With lights—must be an audax machine. I didn’t see the owner until we got out at Poole. Eyeing my machine as he wheeled his own out, he said chirpily, in a strong Mancunian accent: “Going for a bit of a ride tomorrow?”
So there would be at least a field of two for the Brimstone 600. But not very many more, I feared. Not only was this a 600 with 2 and a half AAA points, Shawn Shaw’s route sheet came complete with all sorts of cautions, stopping just short of recommending that entrants make a will before riding…
I had been intending to ride the Welsh 600, which appeared quite hard enough, thank you, for a first attempt at the distance, but when my entry was returned I’d decided with some trepidation to go for the Brimstone. My trepidation increased when Shawn’s route sheet arrived. I spent three hours attempting without success to trace the tangle of lanes on the map, and goggled at the dire warnings (“a toughie,” “65 percent of finishers,” “this ride could break your health if you’re at all unsound in wind or limb,” etc). Then I discovered that there was nothing except information controls between Taunton Deane at 321 km and Leigh Delamere at 452 km. I decided that this would definitely be biting off more than I could chew: I wouldn’t ride.
The next day, however, a brown envelope landed on the doormat: a letter from Shawn offering breakfast before the off and promising a new control with food and sleeping space at the top of Cheddar Gorge. I decided it would be churlish not to ride after such personal attention from the organiser.
Judging from the pre-start banter over breakfast at Shawn’s, I wasn’t the only rider suffering from butterflies in the stomach (more like tap-dancing rhinos in my case). The field of 30 or so included several more rejects from the Welsh 600. The good news was that there were also a few survivors of last year’s Brimstone who’d returned for second helpings. The bad news: Yes, they included those notorious hill-hounds Ian Hennessey and Mark Houlford, whose ideas of recreation are a little eccentric. (Thrash round the Elenith, then drive from Kidderminster to Poole for the 2 am start of the Hard-Boiled? Mmm, nice relaxing weekend!) But even Ian and Mark were not loopy enough to attempt the Brimstone on fixed. Unlike Steve Abraham and Alan Pedliham. Needless to say, there was also a tandem trike, captained by Mark Brooking and a large grin.
As we rolled briskly out of Poole I thought I’d pick Mark H’s brains. What’s the route like? “Not too bad. It gets a bit hilly after Halstock.” Hmm, this was from a man who, if pressed, might describe the Elenith as “undulating.” I tried Ian: “I had about 700 km on the computer after last year’s event, and I was riding with Shawn,” Ian said, then muttered darkly about never forgetting the section around Bradford-on-Avon.
This was no time to fret about what was to come. The sun was shining and the Brimstone was taking us through some idyllic (and slightly lumpy) corners of the New Forest. As I approached the first control at Abbott’s Ann, my seatpin subsided gently in the direction of the bottom bracket. Eager for the day’s second breakfast, I hauled it back out of the seat tube and retightened.
At the cafe randonneurs were hoovering up beans on toast, exchanging cheerful insults, and applying sunscreen. I encountered my companion from the Poole train again. He’d visited a local pub the previous evening, and, when the reason for his trip south had emerged, had been plied with beer. He appeared to be thriving on this unorthodox preparation.
The next leg took us across Salisbury Plain and along the picturesque Wylye Valley to Sutton Veny and the day’s third breakfast. As I emerged burping from the control Andy Sevior (may he always have a tailwind!) rode up with my wind-top, which had unhitched itself from my rack bag a few miles back.
It was on the next stage that things began to go awry. I was riding with Mel from London, who was going through a bad patch. The undulations developed into a bona fide hill as we crossed the downs towards Mere, and Mel, who was entertaining gloomy thoughts of packing (he didn’t, as it transpired), urged me to go on. Which I did, though, as it turned out, not on the correct route. My detour took me several kilometres along, and quite a few metres up, before I realised my mistake in Maiden Bradley. At least, I told myself through gritted teeth, it’s going to be downhill all the way back to Mere.
On the descent I intercepted half a dozen other riders heading in the wrong direction. The culprit: a missing sign for Gillingham on the outskirts of Mere.
The next few miles were two-wheeled farce, with riders converging on each other, doing U turns, and poring over maps at every junction. (I think this bit of the route sheet may need clarification!) By Horsington I was beginning to pine for a good old main road bash. By Sherborne the idea of riding on a motorway hard shoulder was becoming attractive. But then, with almost no more wrong turnings, I was in Halstock polishing off breakfast number four, and repelling Ricki Goode’s teapot raiding party.
Vowing that there would be no more wrong turns, I set off a couple of minutes after Ian (the turbocharged Geordie). Before long the road was grinding upwards, and, recalling Mark H’s words, I braced myself for something “a bit hilly.” A succession of long and steepish climbs soon put a curtain of sweat between me and a series of vistas over the sunlit Dorset downs. A hair-raisingly bumpy and gravelly 1 in 5 descent to Musbury was the prelude to more climbing, as the route turned along the coast towards Exmouth.
After the 1 in 6 out of Colyford I found I was casting longing looks at every pub I passed, but I told myself sternly it was only a few more kilometres to the next control. Ian the Geordie popped up at my shoulder—he’d had another excursion off route—then, with a faint whistle as his turbocharger kicked in, vanished down the road.
The coastal scenery between Salcombe and Sidmouth was tremendous, but barely registered: I was now definitely in zombie mode. As I began to climb gently out of Sidmouth the needle on the fuel gauge hit zero. Lacking even the energy to get off the bike once I had halted, I rummaged in my bar bag and wolfed down bread pudding and dried apricots. A bottle or so of Isostar and, yes, I was beginning to feel semihuman again. Gingerly I set off, only to discover at the next junction that the climb turned into a monster 1 in 5.
Fortunately a couple of hundred yards up (and I mean up) the road someone was wheeling a mountain bike. This made it a matter of honour. I engaged the emergency gear, gritted my teeth, popped my eyeballs, and attempted to assume an air of casual sang-froid as I passed him before lapsing into gasping oxygen debt at the crest of the hill. The sea views on the descent into Otterton were among the finest of the whole ride—there had to be some payoff for the Hill from Hell—but the last few kilometres to the Exmouth control seemed to take an age.
As I freewheeled into the 24-hour garage in the chill of the dusk, I was at quite a low ebb. I knew I needed to eat, but was too tired to decide what. Geordie Ian and a handful of other riders were sheltering from the cold in the shop, among them Mark Waters, who instantly spotted that a man who was spoilt for choice in a garage shop was in no fit state to ride through the night on his own; he insisted I ride the next leg with him.
Five shivering randonneurs, wearing all the clothing they could muster, headed into the gathering dark. Shawn’s route considerately kept hypothermia at bay with a steady climb onto Woodbury common, where distant vistas in the fading sunlight rewarded our efforts. Then there were four, as a lad from Manchester, in agonies with his back, decided to pack and head for Ottery St. Mary. Robert from Basingstoke, on his second Brimstone, took on navigation duties, Mark appointed himself morale officer, and with good conversation as a distraction the miles began to slip painlessly by. And not too painfully up.
By midnight or so we were at Taunton Deane. The food at the motorway service area looked delicious—I was clearly beginning to hallucinate. I thought I saw two giggling and flirtatious teenage girls videoing a large Evesham Wheeler with a lamp lashed periscope-like to the top of his helmet. I was just reflecting that randonnées of 400 km or more ought theoretically to be banned as Class A drugs when Mark pointed out two giggling girls videoing a cyclist with a periscope on his helmet. Ian opted to get a couple of hours sleep in his girlfriend’s car, so then there were three.
Spurred on by the thought of a few flat miles, we set off across the Somerset Levels. Before long, Mark decided he could do with a bit of a break in a bus shelter. We’d ride on until we found somewhere to stop. Eventually we halted opposite a garage in the middle of nowhere.
Mark draped himself over a farm gate. “That looks a really comfortable gate,” I said enviously. “It’s not,” Mark said, subsiding onto the verge. We expressed disgust at the lack of enterprise shown by the garage owner. Didn’t he realise the custom he was missing by not staying open all night? Before long the cold made resting an even less attractive idea than getting back on our bikes, so we set off again.
We plodded on, and made the discovery that not all the Somerset Levels are. “Perhaps Shawn had this hill specially imported,” I said. We neared Cheddar with a mixture of anticipation (it meant we were getting close to food, warmth, and possibly sleep at Tor Hole) and trepidation (it meant we had to ride up the gorge first). Into the village, past the deserted tourist traps, then it was granny gear time again. After a couple of steep bends where I did my best to ride into the rocks, the gradient eased to the point of semi-bearability, so we could begin to appreciate the grandeur of the gorge as the sky began to lighten. Towards the top I suggested a brief halt (to fully appreciate the grandeur, of course; knackeredness had nothing to do with it), then had a brainstorm as we moved off again, veering into the undergrowth.
The control at Tor Hole was randonneur heaven, with fairy lights. For a while now I had had a nagging pain in my ankle, as though the top of my shoe had caused a blister. I peered at my sock—no blood, it must be okay—and flaked out blissfully on the floor. After an hour’s sleep, another breakfast, and half a gallon of tea we set out into the dawn sunshine with something like energy. This was fortunate, since after plummeting off the Mendips plateau the Brimstone served up a mammoth climb through Upton Cheney, with another five-star panorama at the summit. “This has got to be an OCD claim,” Mark said as the hill went on and on (and on and on).
Another couple of pints of perspiration brought us to Leigh Delamere services. Breakfast number six for me; Coke, pork pie, and HP sauce for Mark, who was clearly planning to get up the next few hills by jet propulsion. “The next bit’s quite hard,” Robert remarked. Oh yes, the section around Bradford on Avon.
I’ll draw a veil over the next few miles, for the benefit of readers of a nervous disposition. At one point Robert considerately explained that: “We turn left after the bridge, then it goes along for a bit, then there’s a really steep climb.” Sure enough, a little way after the bridge there was a wall of 1 in 6. “Is that it?” I asked hopefully. “No, we’re still on the ‘along’ bit,” Robert said.
By this stage we were automatically expecting any descent to be followed immediately by a vicious climb, so Mark and I were almost lured by a downhill stretch into riding up an off-route 1 in 5. But Robert, ever vigilant, soon had us back on the right road (1 in 4)… As we turned our backs with relief on the Avon valley we decided that an advert in Arrivée for voodoo dolls of Shawn (complete with pins) might find a few customers.
The grass outside the 24-hour garage at Nunney Catch was covered with randonneurs, some snoozing, some guzzling, some managing to do both at the same time. Breakfast number seven wasn’t on offer, so I settled for a cold cheese and onion pasty and the biggest tin of rice pudding the shop could provide.
Refreshed, or as refreshed as we could reasonably expect to be at this point, we set off on the final stage, which Robert described as a bit hilly (bit of a surprise there), but not too bad. We trundled on, finding increasingly frequent excuses for roadside pauses. Robert forewarned us of the climb up to Shaftesbury, which was quite reasonable really—for about a nanosecond I considered not resorting to the granny ring—and mentioned that there was just one more biggie after that. As we bucketed down into Melbury Abbas, Mark said: “Look over there,” pointing to the road climbing straight up the other side of the valley. I caught up with Mark and Robert by the roadside at the top, explaining that I’d been attempting to discover how slowly I could go while continuing to make forward progress. It may just have been that we were nearly finished, in more senses than one, but the view from the hills above Melbury was the most exhilarating of the ride.
In warm afternoon sunshine we pootled past more picturesque thatched villages with Tarrant in their name than seemed plausible. After we turned onto the gently undulating B-road for Wimborne we were passed by a supercilious roadie. Mark and I exchanged glances, and gave it some welly. We didn’t quite get on his wheel, but it was fun trying. “Funny things can happen in the last few kilometres of a 600,” Mark said.
Sure enough, as traffic built up on the approach to Poole (not even Shawn could come up with a route that was lanes the whole way), Robert was abducted by aliens. One moment he was on our wheel, the next he wasn’t. We pulled into a lay-by and waited for him to catch up. After a few minutes Mark went to look for him and didn’t reappear, so I covered the last few kilometres alone.
The aliens had beamed Robert down into Shawn’s living room where he was manfully trying to make an impression on a table groaning with at least 97 varieties of cake. He claimed he had merely been following the route and had not been abducted by aliens at all, but it’s well known that the little green men are dab hands at implanting false memories. Mark turned up a couple of minutes later. As he was buying his special yellow Brimstone medal (who’d want an ordinary one after a ride like this?) he indicated the loops on the bottom for date bars: “You might as well file those off now, I won’t be needing them!” I’m not so sure…
Was it hard? Extremely. (Shawn, if you’re ever tempted to run a 1,000, lie down until the feeling passes!) Was it worth it? No question: A beautiful and staggeringly rural route (when you could find it!) and a real adventure. Will I ride it again? I just might…
“Best-laid plans” department: The Brimstone was my last qualifier for PBP, but the “blister” turned out to be tendinitis (I must have reset my saddle too high), which lasted just long enough to stop me entering PBP. It then cleared up! Oh well, 1999 here I come.