We delve into the rapidly-developing world of off-road ultras, as Steve Shrubsall takes on the inaugural Cotswolds 200
The Cotswolds conjures a picture of old English perfection. An expanse of gently rolling countryside through which small country lanes carve an insignificant furrow. A sprinkling of quaint towns and villages boasting atmospherics and architecture plucked straight from a Jane Austen novel.
And the place names… Little Sodbury, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bibury et al. A more twee selection of titles you probably won’t find.
But beneath this exterior beats the heart of a seriously sinister landscape – particularly to those who’ve been brave enough to tackle the region’s latest ultra mountain biking route.
Off-road ultras began gaining exponential popularity after the 2020 pandemic lockdown. Being unable to ride with friends or indeed race, lone riders would embark on mammoth outings on self-plotted or already-established routes to either break or set an FKT (Fastest Known Time). These courses vary wildly in distance, terrain and technical features: from the GB Divide which takes in some 1,200 miles with 90,000ft of vertical ascent, to the 104-mile and 10,000 feet’s worth of Trans Cambrian way.
Did someone say cake?
The Cotswold’s 200 sits on the lower end of the distance spectrum but with 20,000ft of elevation, much of which is descended on technical singletrack, you’d call it easy (by comparison) at your peril. Two hundred miles might sound like a cakewalk to the seasoned ultra cyclist, but the double century pieced together by MTBEPICS – taking in Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire – kicks harder than Cheltenham racecourse.
This is no regular out and back, more of a series of snakes, ladders and singletrack
Straight out of the gate a lung buster up and out of Bath – the ride’s start and finishing point – sets a turbulent tone. The following few kilometres then add to the cliffs notes for the rest of the ride; rocky downhills (coupled with flowing rainwater during the inaugural event) make you rue your choice of a hardtail – if, like me, you brought the equivalent of a Dairylea triangle to a chilli-flecked Double hard Gloucester of a ride. Although there’s no perfect bike for this event; whichever way you slice it, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride…
But with light starting to fade – the race having started at Midday – the bright lights of Cheltenham hove into view, and, buoyed by the thought of a slap-up feed amid the unrivalled ambiance of a petrol station forecourt, you begin to make peace with the brutality of the terrain and finally open your eyes to the stunning scenery through which you’re traversing.
As Matt Jones from MTBEPICS says, “the Cotswolds are a lesser-known gem for off-road riding in the UK. The whole escarpment covers a host of varied terrain treats for riders from classic British bridleways to man-made singletrack.”
Having skirted Cheltenham and taken in the sunset and sweeping views of the city from Cleeve Hill, helmet and bar lights are turned on and the night riding section starts. And it’s dark in more ways than one.
Although atmospherics are at an all-time high – with barn owls using your light for hunting and badgers rapidly dispersing, disturbed from their crepuscular foraging by the rasp of disc brakes – the night offers no let-up and the climbing continues as do the descents, all in slow motion.
Although lights these days can spray a 7,000-lumen floodlight over trails and singletrack, the mental and physical fatigue accumulated over the prior hours of riding make every ascent an Everest and every descent a Mariana Trench. Indeed, it’s slow going at night and many riders decide to bed down for an hour or two to recharge mind and muscle fibres, and perhaps ask themselves what the Chipping Sodbury they’ve entered in to.
Rocking round the clock
Reaching the halfway point at Chipping Campden, which is completely closed for business at one o’clock in the morning, the ride starts to head back to Bath. Bridleways, the occasional length of tarmac, and custom-built mountain biking trails provide the means of meandering to the finish line, intertwining with the outbound route as it goes.
This is no regular out and back, more of a series of snakes, ladders and singletrack.
The Cotswolds, you’ll come to realise in the wee hours of the morning, isn’t exactly littered with 24-hour petrol stations and convenience marts, and churches and town halls in the region don’t appear to be provisioned with exterior plumbing facilities.
Which is why, if this rider’s disorganised cues are followed, you may well find yourself crawling through residential enclaves in the hope that an early-morning dog walker might allow you access to their outside tap. This eventually came to pass at around 6am in the little village of Upper Dowdeswell where an unsuspecting water tap became the subject of some pretty fervent gulping; the house occupants wide-eyed at the window as a feral, sleep-deprived cyclist got intimately acquainted with their garden hose.
With the night having been successfully negotiated, the sun starts to shine, the shops start to open, and the power slowly starts to increase. Back level with Cheltenham and the route snakes ever southward, taking in small villages like Brockhampton and Upper Coberley, as dreams of the finish line start to tease their way into your brain.
But this deep into the race, heads – and stomachs – need to stay strong, as the new FKT holder Andy Deacon tells of his run into the finish.
Fastest in the Cotswolds
“The toughest bit was the last 35 miles as I’d been so sick in the morning on the second half, I couldn’t eat anything at all,” shares Deacon. “It turned out the rest of my family had the same sickness bug! Deploying a ‘keep moving’ attitude, I began feeling a little better towards the finish at bath, the sun was out, and all my wet kit from the evening before had dried.”
And so finally to the finish which is happily located at The Boathouse Pub and Hotel, providing the holy trinity of beds, beer, and beef and onion crisps.
A smattering of finishers amid a host of DNFs suggest that this is a route that could become a popular fixture on the off-road ultra cycling calendar. There’s little point in taking on a challenge if it’s easy to complete, which is why the Cotswolds 200 should be on your list if you’re the type of creature that likes mind, body and soul stripped down to the bare metal.
Some call it type 2 fun, others call it soul searching. Ultra riders call it ‘the weekend’.