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In our ever-ongoing attempts to enlighten the general public to the wonder that is professional cycling, we've been singing the praises of the Tour of Britain down the pub. One common reaction - other than "blimey, are you still banging on about that?" - is "isn't that a bit boring? I mean, we haven't really got the mountains here, have we?"
|Taunton's parish church, rising high
over the County Cricket Ground
The race starts in Taunton, a village in Iron Age times and later a city of some importance during the Saxon era when it had its own mint and, from 710 CE, a castle (though it was destroyed just 12 years later to prevent it being taken over during a rebellion). It became the County Town of Somerset in the 15th Century, just in time to play an important role in the War of the Roses and the Cornish Uprising - it was here 1497 that the Cornish army surrendered, their leader Perkin Warbeck having panicked and fled when he heard the King's soldiers were on their way to the town. Many were executed as an example to others of what fate awaited those who dared oppose the monarch - perhaps giving rise to the various ghosts allegedly seen around the buildings.
Today, Taunton enjoys Strategically Important Town or City status, permitting it to apply for large-scale funding to pay for regeneration and improvement projects. Part of this includes efforts to support sustainable living and transport, hence the new cycle paths granting off-road access to virtually all parts of the town. The Taunton Freeriders, a community mountain bike project, are working alongside the Forestry Commission to build world-class downhill and North Shore-style facilities nearby; a project that, going on the record of various similar projects around the country, will bring considerable income to the area.
As ever, the stage begins with a neutral zone to ensure all riders are rolling and ready to start racing without the mass pile-ups and carnage that tend to ensue if the entire peloton set off from a standing start. It begins on East Street near the County Walk shopping centre, right in the heart of town and near the corner with North Street (51° 0'51.97"N 3° 6'2.10"W), which the riders will travel up and over the bridge before turning right onto Station Road. They'll then turn right again and cross back over the river on Priory Bridge Road and head past the first roundabout to take the first exit at the next onto the Obridge Viaduct. When they reach the roundabout on Priorswood Road, they'll turn right and ride along the A3259 through Prior's Wood and Minkton Heathfield to the A38; then move onto the A361 towards the bridge over the M5 motorway. The racing begins 200m past the entrance to Durston Elms garage (51° 2'53.06"N 3° 1'26.47"W), having covered precisely 8km since East Street.
|Gargoyle, North Curry (© Celiakozlowski CC3.0)
The roadbook seems to take a little departure from reality at this point, instructing us to turn right at the T-junction on the A358 0.8km after North Curry. The only problem is, the A358 comes no closer than 3.86km - this, obviously, confuses matters somewhat. We think that the route planners arrived at the T-junction in the village and saw a sign directing traffic along Windmill Hill towards the A358. It then instructs us to turn left at a junction 100m ahead onto a road called Greenway, which proves entirely possible, and stating that we should arrive at a T-junction with the A378 2.3km later for a left turn towards Langport - this also turns out to be possible, so it looks as though we're on the right route.
|Burton Pynsent Monument
(© Pam Goodey CC2.0)
|The Hanging Chapel, Langport (© Pam Goodey CC2.0)
The village has been settled and of some importance for a very long time, as made evident by the numerous Roman villas found nearby and the value placed upon it in the Domesday Book, which estimated the total worth of the village, manor and property to be a hefty £70, 10 shillings and sevenpence. Langport is famous as the site of an eponymous Battle in 1645, one of the most decisive of the Civil War as it saw the destruction of the last effective remnants of the Royalist army who attempted to escape by setting fire to the lower town, thus preventing the Parliamentarians from following. Visitors who appreciate ancient architecture should not miss the Hanging Chapel, built on the site of a gateway through the defensive earthworks in the days when Langport was a Saxon village. The present building was constructed at some point during the 13th Century. Having falled out of use as a chapel, it later housed a grammar school, then a Sunday school, then a museum, then an armoury and, since 1891, a masonic hall. The deep gouges in the stonework were caused by a truck in 1998.
Having entered the via Bow Bridge, the riders start the first of the day's sprint sections as they pass between a clock on the left and Langport Travel on the right (51° 2'15.37"N), the keep left to follow the road up into the town and around to the right until they arrive at the junction with the A372. The first 0.95km of the road as it passes through town is straight and unchallenging, but the very tight 90 degree bend at the end could prove hazardous especially during or after rain. There are two more difficult bends, a medium right after 0.9km and a medium-tight left 0.16km later on the way into Huish Episcopi (yes, a great name - one of our favourites) and Pibsbury before the road continues past Long Sutton and Catsgore. After 31.3km, just south of Kingsdon, the Tour arrives at a junction with the B3151 and turns a tight left to head along the road which is much narrower, thus potentially causing problems when the peloton have to slow and take turns finding a place in the new longer, thinner peloton that will be necessary to continue. There's another right bend, medium tightness, 0.64km after the race emerges from the woodland a short way on.
|Somerton (© Liz Martin CC2.0)
The race keeps left as it passes the town, soon arriving at Littleton and then Compton Dundon. Reaching a five-way crossroads 1.9km later, the peloton take the second left onto Cockrod Road which will no doubt amuse some riders and fans. The remainder of the road stretches for 4.8km until it arrives at the A39 when the race turns left, passing south-west of Ashcott and arriving at a turn on the right after 2.3km leading onto Shapwick Hill. The drinks station begins 1km later.
4.2km ahead, a left turn leads onto Burtle Road and into Burtle. The road kinks slightly to the right, becoming Mark Road which remains almost perfectly straight for the following 1.44km, then turns a medium left before running straight for another 0.44km to a medium right. 0.25km later it enters a tighter right followed immediately by a narrow bridge - another potential hazard if riders pile up at the entrance.
|St. Michael's, Blackford: the perfect English village church?
(© Dave Lowther CC2.0)
At the centre of the village, the road bends sharply to the right and becomes New Road for 0.25km, then changes name again to Sexey's Road. Yes, really. 0.7km later, at the crossroads, the feeding station ends and the peloton continue straight ahead towards Wedmore, once home to Britain's first mental hospital; established by Doctor John Westover in the 17th Century. It appears that Dr. Westover had remarkable beliefs for his time as to how the mentally ill should be treated, dealing with them compassionately rather than condemning them to the harsh punishments and squalor found in asylums of the day. He also kept careful record of changes in their condition and illnesses suffered by the people in the village, a system that may well have allowed him to make valuable insights and perhaps achieve far more success in improving his patient's lives than other hospitals which were frequently little more than prisons.
Having followed Pilcorn Street through the town, the riders arrive at Church Street and pass by the grand Church of St. Mary where a hoard of 200 Saxon silver coins were discovered in 1853, arriving presently at a T-junction with the B3151 where they turn left onto Cheddar Road. They keep right as they pass through Cocklake (stop sniggering please, this isn't even nearly the funniest name so far on this stage) then arrive at the A371 after riding 80.8km since the start. Turning right, they pass into Cheddar and after 0.2km arrive at a left-turn leading onto another section of B3151 and take the second exit at the roundabout a short way ahead.
|Real Cheddar cheese, maturing deep in a cave at the Gorge
(© Gary Bembridge CC2.0)
The village is famous for its cheese which, often in sadly reduced and flavourless form, has become the most popular cheese in Britain. People who have not experienced the real Cheddar cheese, however, will be surprised by the powerful, earthy, nutty flavour of the real Cheddar which is still made here by the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company who age their product deep in caves along the Gorge.
The stage's second sprint begins outside the Cox Mill Hotel on Cliff Street at the 81.9km point and leading immediately into the first categorised climb - Cat 1 Cheddar Gorge. Immediately upon entering the Gorge, 70m past the tea shops and cafes at the south-western end, the road negotiates the first hairpin. It's a right-hander, not too tight or steep and leads into a twisty 0.6km section to the next hairpin, another right and also not tight but considerably steeper. The remainder twists and turns, though no bends are particularly hazardous due in part to the slow speeds because of the climb, to the climb's end 5.1km later at a lay-by near a junction.
The following 15.3km are straightforward, remaining on the same road as it heads through various crossroads and past some villages with fantastical names - Priddy (look for the nine round barrows, ancient burial mounds, in a field to the right of the route just past Nine Barrows Lane and the three mysterious round earthworks in a row in the field on the other side of the road), Red Quar (which sounds strangely like the name of a piece of music to Aphex Twin fans) and Green Ore - before reaching a crossroads at the A37 by a pub called The Olde Mendip Inn; at which point the riders have completed 102.3km from the start. Here, they turn right and then pass straight through more crossroads 1.7km later before arriving at Shepton Mallet 1.5km later.
|The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery (© David Ward CC3.0)
The roadbook says that the route follows the B3156 Waterloo Road through the town to the A371; but this is another error because Waterloo Road is actually the B3136. When the race arrives at the A371, riders take the third exit from the roundabout for Commercial Road and head into Croscombe (incorrectly spelled Crosscombe in the roadbook) 2.5km further on and staying left as the pass by Dulcote a short way ahead.
|Wells Cathedral (© seier+seier CC2.0)
The bishop's palace is almost the equal to the cathedral's grandeur - it was begun in 1210. The current bishop, now that priests are expected to be men (and women, in the more forward-thinking religions) of spirituality rather than wealth and power, inhabits only a small part of the Palace with much of the rest being open to the public. One of the most popular of the Palace's many attractions are the swans which live on the moat and have learned to ring a bell when they wish to be fed.
Upon entering the city, the peloton arrive at a roundabout and take the third exit onto Priory Road and cross what will become the finish line 300m later, beginning another sprint as they do so. Once it's over, the road becomes Broad Street for a short while, then changes once again to High Street before a left turn takes the race onto Market Place and Sadler Street. Turning right at the end leads onto New Street.
According to the roadbook, the riders need to turn right at traffic lights on New Street. This seems to be another error that should have been deleted prior to finalisation - firstly, a right turn leads away from the correct direction and makes the subsequent directions impossible to follow and secondly, it says that the traffic lights come 113.5km from the start whereas the feature before and after are at 116.3km and 116.7km. The latter is the left turn onto Old Bristol Road, and the final climb - Cat 1 Bristol Hill - begins right where Ash Lane joins from the right.
|Unfortunately, the route doesn't include Vicar's Close in
Wells. Dating from the mid-14th Century, it's the oldest
residential street in Europe. No other buildings have been
added since it was first constructed. (© Clive Barry CC2.0)
Turning right at the junction with the A361 leads the race onto Commercial Road, becoming Pike Hill before continuing into Croscombe and onward back along the A371 to Wells. At the roundabout, they once again take the third exit to pass onto Priory Road and into the final straight 300m to the finish line, 146km from the start.
Predictions: While we think Geraint will do well again, we don't think he'll try to win this stage - it's too late in the race and he'll be concentrating on putting in good rides towards a hoped-for overall GC triumph. So, who will? It's very hard to predict because none of the teams have fielded any really mountain-munching grimpeurs, so it's down to the not-so-well-knowns. Of course, it might not be a climber at all. Once Bristol Hill's done and dusted, the rest of the parcours is downhill all the way and that's an ideal opportunity for Cav to recharge his batteries before Highroad lead him into that final sprint; a finish that will suit him perfectly.
Weather: It looks like we're in for another perfect September day - temperatures between 15 and 18C, light cloud permitting plenty of sunshine. The wind may be a little stronger than the last couple of days with average speeds predicted to be around 19kmh, gusting up to 37kph - so echelons are a distinct possibility. Once again, we should escape rain.
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