Judging by previous trip reports in the Audax UK magazine, the Brimstone sounded like a bit of a classic ride. I'd only done a couple of 400's previously but they hadn't thrown up any major problems, and I was keen to get stuck in to some longer events. The atmosphere on the 400s had been great, and I enjoyed the contrast between the different stages. There was the fast stages in the sun during the day riding in a pack and talking to people. Then the quiet roads on the night stages, often alone, which wasn't half as bad as I thought it would be. In fact it was fun, and you got into a great rhythmn. Then the contrast with the bright lights, commotion, serious eating, and friendly banter at the controls. And as the sun came up in the morning, starting to tire a bit, but pushing on and steadily working through the miles to the finish. So I was looking forward to more of the same on the Brimstone.
Roughly speaking, the Brimstone goes as follows: Start at Poole at 6am and ride 80km north to reach Andover mid-morning. Then turn sharp left and go 189km south-west, arriving in Exmouth in the evening. From there, head north-east during the night for 191km just past Bristol to hit Malmesbury on sunday morning. Finally, turn round and go south for 143km back to Poole for a well deserved rest. Any of the sections by themselves wouldn't be particularly difficult, but when you string them all together, together with the riding through the night, it makes for quite a hard ride.
I had done the Bryan Chapman (my first 600k) the weekend before, so this was only my second ever 600k. I had learnt a few things on the Bryan Chapman. Not least of which was the state of some of my body parts after spending so much time in the saddle. During the sunday, my backside was seriously painful, my knees were starting to ache, and the muscles in my upper back were tight and very unpleasantly knotted. During the week I stocked up on a selection of anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic creams and ointments to sort out these irritating ailments. The chemist had assured me of the strength of the creams which had only recently become available without a prescription. So I felt adequately tooled up for a more comfortable ride this time round.
The forecast had been for cloud and heavy rain. But standing at the start at 6am we had lovely blue skies. I heard a few people joking about how wrong the forecast had been. One thing that struck me was how little gear most people seemed to be carrying. In fact, some of them had less stuff than I would take if I was going out for a couple of hours. So I made a mental note to try and be more minimal next time.
I deliberately tried to take the first couple of stages at a relaxed pace, and fell in with a couple of other riders, including a scottish chap and a recumbent rider. They seemed reasonably experienced given the Paris-Brest-Paris 1200k water bottles, and the discussion of strategy for riding the Crackpot 1000k in a few weeks time. Soon we were on familiar terrain for me as we crested Dean Hill and I gave out some advance warning of the dodgy left hander at the bottom. Further on we just narrowly stayed on route as I spotted the small 'Badgers Wood' sign in the verge that was the cue for a right turn. Somewhere round here we got chased by a big dog accompanied by constant loud barking. It was persistent too and followed us for quite a while. The fact that we were on a gradual uphill didn't help since it made it more difficult to outrun it. Eventually it lost interest, and went back to find its next victim. At the George Hotel at Codford I didn't hang around, and after filling my bottles and eating some junk food, crisps etc, got straight off. The others were keen to stick together in a group and I felt a little guilty about pushing on by myself, but had a feeling that I might need as much time in hand as possible later on.
I don't remember much about the next stage, or even the next control, but I do remember stopping at a small shop as I left the control and stocking up on chocolate bourbons. They were going cheap, so I bought a few packets for the night sections. Good move. There was a long hill in and out of Sidmouth and then the route headed along the coast to Exmouth. It was around here that the rain really got going with very heavy downpours. I got a bit disoriented in Otterton, partly due to the amount of water on the road hiding the markings, but some locals put me straight and pointed me towards the 'Brick Cross'.
The weather was quite bad by the time I reached the next checkpoint in the garage at Exmouth. I ate some more junk food, refilled my bottles, put on the rest of my extra thermals, and got some plastic bags that I put over my socks. Quite a few people were packing in here. Taxis were arriving to take people to B&B's. As Norman Lazarus observed in his report of the event in Arrivee, "All the intelligent people pack at Exmouth"! The remaining riders seemed reluctant to leave the warmth and shelter of the garage. What passing motorists must have made of all these bedraggled figures was anyones guess. Eventually I took off by myself and headed up the hill. But first bad mistake, I took a right turn, followed by a long downhill back to a roundabout. It looked a bit familiar, not surprisingly really because it was the roundabout that I crossed on the way in, and completely off course. I tried to reassure myself that I hadn't lost that much time, as I made the pull back up the long hill. The next bit was where people lost a lot of time. Lots of small lanes, and many road markings were submerged or covered in debris washed onto the road. Plus an eerie dense fog had settled over the countryside so you could only see a few metres in front of you. However apart from the initial cock up I didn't find this too bad. I was by myself for a lot of this and eventually started coming across a few other riders and we rode together until wellington. The chocolate bourbons in my back pocket were going down well. Just before reaching wellington there was some excitement as out of the wet misty gloom, on a fast downhill, appeared a huge tree that had fallen across the road. We managed to screech to a halt, and fight our way past it, and rolled into Wellington, looking like a bunch of drowned rats.
We had obviously lost a lot of time because the control was getting ready to close. And the owner had even switched off most of the stuff in the kitchen. But he took pity on us, and managed to rustle up some beans on toast. The intrepid recumbent rider arrived a little while later. Again everyone seemed reluctant to get going again, and I headed off by myself. The rain had eased up a lot so the riding wasn't too bad and I didn't feel as cold as I had on the last stage. As I neared Cheddar, Steve Abraham flew by on a fixed gear and quickly opened up a gap going up the gorge. The weather had improved quite a bit by this point, and going up the gorge in the morning light was quite pleasant. And sometime after reaching the top I was struck by the realisation that it had actually warmed up a lot, and the sun had come out. I was confident enough that the rain had gone for the duration, so I stopped and stripped off my plastic bags and waterproofs. Now it turned into a very pleasant day. There was a good downhill to the secret control at Drews house where I filled up with more beans on toast, then hit the road again. Heading back up from the secret control I passed the recumbent coming down.
After the secret control, I don't remember that much about getting to Malmesbury, but I got the card stamped and then sat down for a few minutes in the centre of the village and ate some sticky cakes and drank a load of juice before getting moving again. The riding was really starting to drag on now. I managed to drop my chain on a hill, Steve Abraham went past and asked if I was OK. On hearing that it was just a spot of 'gear faff' he helpfully suggested that I should get a fixed gear. Further on I passed a rider asleep under a signpost on the grass at the side of the road! Two riders caught up with me and I let them go past. Then after about 5 minutes decided that I could really do with some company, not least of which to stop me going off course, and made a mammoth effort to make up the distance and catch them up again. They introduced themselves as George & Rob, who was on a fixed gear. I felt pretty wretched by this point, but riding with them picked me up a bit. Rob was doing OK on the fixed gear on all those relentless steep hills round Bath, so I wasn't really in any position to moan. And some of the hills round Bathford were particularly sharp. I wasn't conscious of losing time, or going slowly, but we only made Nunney Catch services with about 5 minutes to spare so we must have been dawdling a bit.
Despite the tiredness, the last section felt good, and the pace picked up quite a bit. Well apart from the hills round Shaftesbury which were a bit of a sting in the tail. After that if flattened out nicely as we went through the 'Tarrants', and then we hit the long avenue of trees on the A-road going past Badbury Rings. That felt good as I actually recognised where I was at last, and knew it wasn't much further back to Poole. We were going at quite a decent lick by the time we made Poole. Its considered bad form to quote audax finishing times but lets just say that there wasn't much change out of the 40 hour cutoff time by the time we rolled back into Shawns house! There were quite a few finishers still there, and a few people who had packed at Exmouth or Wellington had turned up too. I slumped in a chair with some cake and a cup of tea. At the other side of the table, Rob and Steve Abraham were discussing how they had found the event on fixed. Steve looked reasonably fresh, and was particularly pleased that he had manage to ride every hill on the fixed this year, impressive effort indeed.
In the end only 21 hardy souls (or complete nutters) finished out of the 52 starters. I found the Brimstone quite hard, particularly after doing the Bryan Chapman the weekend before. Some of these regulars may be able to crank out these 600s week after week with no ill effects, but I found it took quite a few weeks to completely recover, particularly my knees. On the Brimstone, the total height gain of 8150m is hard enough in itself, but I found the real killer to be the navigation on the night sections which slows you down, and requires constant concentration. Unlike the Bryan Chapman where I was able to cruise on auto control on most of the night sections. There is added excitement once one stage has gone wrong and you have scraped in close to the cutoff time, because then like the proverbial dominoes, you find yourself repeatedly fighting against time to make all the others. All in all though it is a fantastic event. A fully deserved classic. Its not easy, but I'd recommend anyone to do it at least once. Just get some good mileage, and good hills in the weeks leading up to it, pray for good weather, and if the forecast is bad then don't even think about skimping on extra warm and waterproof clothes!