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Dorset : Big Ride

Stu Bowers
10 Aug 2015

Cyclist heads to deepest Dorset to take in the views and landmarks on and around the Jurassic Coast.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and certainly this can be true for cycling as in is in any other area of life. The bike you’ve ridden for a few years is less appealing than the one in the shop window, not necessarily because yours isn’t as good, but simply because you know exactly what it’s like. The same can be said for roads. You get used to the routes you’ve ridden a hundred times and can become almost blind to the quality around you as you crave something new.

That’s not always the case, however. I’ve lived and cycled in Dorset all my life and, despite having also been lucky enough to ride in some of the most spectacular places on earth, my local roads never fail to make an impression on me, both in terms of beauty and the physical gauntlets they throw down to even the fittest of riders. So when the editor suggested we did a UK Ride in Dorset, I was first in the queue, to the surprise of some of my colleagues. 

Dorset cycling steep hill

But there are several very good reasons that Dorset an ideal location for cycling, the first being that a sizable chunk of its perimeter is given over to coastline, stretching for 88 miles from Christchurch to Lyme Regis, and offering spectacular sea views. It also enjoys a sparse population relative to its size, largely because of the fact that half its inhabitants live in the seaside conurbation comprising Bournemouth and Poole. This means that if you explore further inland by bike and to the west of the county, away from the urbanisation and into the area referred to as ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, you’ll enjoy rich pickings. Many hours can be wiled away in the lanes, blissfully traffic free (there are no motorways in Dorset). This is where most of the hills are located, and while the altitude is minuscule compared to the Lake District or Wales (the high point of this ride is only a little over 200m) the profile of a ride in this area will rarely be flat, if ever. That’s what we – that’s to say, myself and local Merida Race Team member Kim Little – have to look forward to as we prepare to pitch ourselves against some of Dorset’s most challenging gradients, both inland and along its famous Jurassic coastline.

Everything on a plate 

It looks like we’ll be well fuelled for today’s ride because every time we mop up the last remnants of the breakfast in front of us we’re offered something else delicious to refill it. Our starting point for the ride is the On The Rivet luxury cycling retreat in Beaminster, near Bridport, and over breakfast, company founder, Jim Styrin, is taking us through some final checks of today’s route on the map. Jim and I have combined our knowledge and while I’m already familiar with many of the roads we’ll be covering, there will be a fair amount of virgin territory too. I’m particularly excited about the latter part of the loop, a coastal stretch promising panoramic views back across the shingle expanse of Chesil Beach and out to the Portland peninsula. 

Rain is currently drumming on the skylight above my head, contrary to the weather forecast that promised overnight showers would die away. I use this as an excuse for another coffee and a further portion of homemade bread smothered in locally made preserves, to see what the next 20 minutes will bring. Thankfully, just as my stomach can take no more, the rain abates. 

Game time

Swinging my leg over the saddle and rolling out of Beaminster it’s still damp and the skies remain cloudy, but we’re itching to get going. It’s one thing getting wet on a ride, but Kim and I agree that actually leaving in the rain is a different matter, as we turn the cranks gently for these early strokes. Our Garmins chime almost in unison, informing us the GPS has found us on our route, and so it begins. 132km to go. 

Dorset cycling ford

Those effortless pedal strokes don’t last for long as we’re practically straight into White Sheet Hill, a steep and unforgiving start to the day, with pitches up to 19%. Conversation briefly stops as we both deal with the gradient with what feels like wooden legs, as our muscles have been denied a proper warm-up. 

Thankfully it’s a short climb and soon we’re into the kind of surroundings that will define this ride, flowing along narrow lanes and ducking in and out of secluded rural villages as we travel east. It’s a rollercoaster profile, but pleasantly so. The downhills allow us the luxury of carrying sufficient speed to make the uphills less daunting. In what seems like no time we’re soaring downhill, crouching our bodies tightly, towards Cerne Abbas, the first of the key landmarks on today’s loop, which we briefly stop to admire. My disc brakes ‘ping’ as the metal rotors cool from the heat generated
on the steep descent a few moments ago. 

The sun is trying to burn off the cloud so we’re soon back on our way, and once again we need to call on the help of our inner chainrings as our mechs simultaneously scramble up the cassette in readiness for another steep ascent. Piddle Lane takes us back up onto the ridge and it’s tough going, the type of climb that progressively steepens and hits hard at the very crest, with a gradient that has both Kim and I craning over the front of our bikes in our smallest gears. Spurring me on is the knowledge that once we’re over this we can fully let fly on the long, fast decent down into the Piddle Valley – home of the amusingly named Piddle Brewery – with long lines of sight making it safe to stay off the brakes. 

Beside the seaside

Dorset cycling deckchairs

We skirt the southernmost tip of the ancient market town of Dorchester and resume a direct path south towards the coast, where Kim and I are keen to push on to, knowing we’ll have covered over a third of the distance and earned a coffee. We meet the coast in Weymouth, a quintessentially English seaside town with its deck-chair-lined promenade, seagulls, ice creams stalls, shops selling candy floss and sticks of rock, plus the familiar noises escaping amusement arcades. It’s got the lot. Not to mention its miles of golden sand. 

The sun is finally dispersing some of the cloud, so we’re keen to maintain the flow and reach the heights of Portland before we stop for coffee. On the map the route looks a bit like a cartoon thought bubble, and we’re now entering the pointy bit. By virtue of its out-and-back nature we could choose to bypass this segment, but we’d be missing out. To our left is the shimmering sea – scene of the 2012 Olympic sailing events – and on our right is the giant mass of pebbles that forms the spectacular Chesil beach (famous from the Ian McEwan novella On Chesil Beach). In just a few minutes, at the top of the next climb, we’ll be treated to a much better perspective on this phenomenal seascape. 

The climb has Kim and I puffing and panting in perfect time, grinding out a low-geared rhythm, heaving our bikes left and right up the ascent that’s at least broken up by a couple of hairpins as we scale the headland. The view is as predicted: spectacular. A monument to the Olympics stands proudly at the viewpoint on the summit above the coastline we’ve just traversed, and we stop to take pictures of our bikes leant against the iconic five rings. 

Dorset cycling olympic rings

We continue on our loop of the Portland peninsula towards another iconic landmark, Portland Bill lighthouse. It’s still a fully functioning lighthouse, standing 40m tall, which has been a warning to coastal traffic since 1906. In centuries past the beaches and inlets around Portland Bill were a haven for smugglers. Today, though, they’re more of a haven for rock climbers, who flock here to scale the vast sea cliffs. 

As we continue around Portland there is one more stop to make: finally that coffee. With some relief we reach our recommended stopping point, Cycleccino, which is part cafe, part bike shop, where Kim and I indulge in a banquet of caffeine and calories.

Refuelled and ready, we descend the hairpins and are once again treated to an amazing view as we retrace our route back along Chesil Beach and pick up the road west that hugs the coastline. In around 30km we’ll be back in Bridport and, as in the first quarter of the ride, we find ourselves flowing through idyllic, picturesque villages of stone cottages and tiny village stores. Visible on the far right is another famous Dorset landmark – the Sir Thomas Hardy Monument – that sits atop the open landscape between Portesham and Dorchester. If we were feeling particularly perky it would be a great climb to add to the route, taking us back up to over 200m. Today, though, we pass up the opportunity and keep on track for Abbotsbury, a place renowned, as far as the tourist brochures are concerned, for its beautiful swannery, but as far as cyclists are concerned for the big climb out of the village.

Fading fast

Dorset cycling junction

As I get stuck into the climb I know it’s going to peak at 17%, so I try to keep something in reserve, but I can feel my energy fading fast, and my body slowing down, like a robot running out of battery power. The man with the big hammer is looming over me, heckling me, teasing me. I’m about to bonk in spectacular style. I know this because I’ve started sweating behind my knees, something that weirdly I know my body does in the moments before the mushroom cloud goes up. My legs have faded completely and I’m holding up a line of traffic that is patiently building behind me. I might not have reserve battery back-up to help me but I do, however, have a cunning plan. I know full well the top of this climb is going to deliver some of the best and most spectacular scenery so far, with far reaching views back across the coast line. ‘No panic’, I think to myself. I call a halt to proceedings in the next layby so I can ‘admire the view’ (and scoff a quick energy bar).

It’s practically all downhill from here to Bridport and any rises are tackled with momentum so my recovery can continue a while longer. As we freewheel through Bridport’s pretty high street we’re only about 10km from the finish, and with no more big climbs we’ve broken the back of this ride now. 

As so often happens on long rides, our only near accident of the day happens when we are just a few kilometres from home, when a narrow corner unexpectedly tightens just at the point the road surface is covered with a mix of cow excrement, straw and gravel (something else that Dorset’s rural lanes are renowned for). Thankfully we survive unscathed, and in hindsight the incident, plus the big shot of adrenalin now coursing through our veins, was probably helpful to deliver us back to base with broad smiles on our faces after what has been a day to remember for so many reasons. I can’t wait to come home and ride it again.

Thanks to Jim and Deborah at On The Rivet for excellent hospitality that went far beyond the basics of accomodation and meals. You can view the route on Garmin connect here: Dorset cycling route

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