Cotswolds 16 April 2016: Shades of the Donner party

Jane Moore: I went to Cirencester with a former Chelmer club mate, Chris Regan, to get in a long ride on the usually benign Heart of England 300. Unusually I was on two wheels. It would have been my fourth outing on this event but nothing prepared us for what followed…..

Not long after we left Cirencester it started to drizzle. We stopped to put rain jackets on (yes, Mr Brooking. Lesson learnt.). The rain became more persistent and the temperature plummeted from a not very warm 8 deg to close to freezing. Soon, rain turned to sleet. The first leg of the HoE is hilly with some steep climbs and some technical, laney descents which are tricky in the dry. In the wet they are not much fun. They became even less fun as rain turned to sleet.

At first we didn’t think this would last and so continued but by the very aptly named Snowshill it was blizzard like. We were with a group of about six riders, including two guys from Winchcome on a tandem. We passed them fixing a puncture and carried on, seeing a few riders passing us heading back to HQ. We thought if we could get over the top we’d be okay but the further we went the worse it got. We couldn’t ride uphill as the ice under the snow just caused wheel spin and we dared not ride down as it was treacherous and brakes were ineffective, and with snow smacking into your face, you also couldn’t see a thing especially as sky and ground had merged into a whitewash of nothing.

I was terrified of anything going down and more than once had had to use left leg and a bank/drift to actually stop. As Chris and I were deciding what to do, a hardened older rider came towards us shaking his head and saying it was getting worse and the descent to Broadway was too dangerous, even for walking, he was going back. That decided us. We had been planning on getting to Broadway and making a decision there in a warm cafe.

So, we started walking back and as we did one of the other group we’d passed fixing the puncture was walking towards. Paul said he was local and lived about five miles away in Toddington. He suggested we head to his house. He phoned his wife to tell her to prepare for five frozen souls and through a combination of walking – stamping feet to keep them from freezing – and riding very carefully when that was remotely possible (after first removing the ice from btw wheels and mudguards so they would actually go around and bashing ice off derailleurs, pedals and cleats) we made our way there.

Descending by this point was potentially lethal. Brakes weren’t working and blocks fast running through. Ice lay under snow and my hands were too cold to work properly. I tried going down on the drops as it required less force to get some braking and on the last descent into Toddington it gave me just enough control to get down. Where it got steeper near the bottom though, Chris had stopped having metal on metal now with his rear brake, so I did too and we walked that bit which was awful as cars were tearing past us causing massive wakes of spray that soaked us. We got on the flat and back on the bikes thinking now we’d lost the tandem when a few minutes later a car appeared on the other side of the road with a shouting cyclist in it. It was Paul. He’d come to find us and we followed him back to his house a few hundred yards away.

When we got there we dumped the bikes and were ushered into a big kitchen with wood burner going. I was so cold I couldn’t work the zip on my jacket or the helmet strap but Paul’s wife, Sarah quickly did that, handed us towels and some dry clothes and we got out of the wet stuff. On the stove she had a pot of hot cocoa going and we sat around the wood burner with the others and got warm. At first there wasn’t a lot of chat but as warmth returned and shivering stopped the chatting started. And the humour. “So this is what apres ski is” piped up one rider.

Paul was clearly a man who did not leave his “troops” in the field. We’ll never forget that he got in his car and came back out to find us and make sure we got out of the cold. He took control, got everyone’s names and called them through to the organiser. By then we were the 20th and up abandons. After we’d spent about an hour warming up he then the guys back to Cirencester to get the cars and I stayed with Sarah, the two Jack Russels (who ended up on my lap) and the six 6-week old puppies.

Without Paul things would have gone from rather serious to desperate. Even if we had got over the top and down, we were so cold that going on and into a night already frozen, on roads that would become icy was far too risky. I was already seriously cold and it was a good two hours before I could function properly. This was a lot worse than even the Beast 2007. And those desperadoes at the tail end of that will know just how bad that was.

Apparently there were 78 entries, 50 starters and 32 notifications of abandons (and probably more who never called in) before the first control. The ones who got through were the fast ones who missed the worst of the snow but still had a hard ride when the temp fell at night on the way back.

We got all of 30 miles into a 191 miles but it felt like we’d done a 200k. On the positive side I’ve learn how to handle a bike in more weather than I hope ever to have to face again on a ride but we made friends with a small band of people as you do when things are really difficult. We look forward to welcoming the Winchcome on some of our audax rides later in the year.

Like the Beast 2007, we’ll be able to dine out on the story of this one for years.

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One Response to Cotswolds 16 April 2016: Shades of the Donner party

  1. Pingback: April training round up | Paulbuckleyfollowingthelongroad

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