The Inaugural Bristol Rally: Best of the South West

Earlier in June Joe Sasada joined a group of 50 riders tackling the inaugural Bristol Rally, an unsupported 300km mainly off-road loop designed to celebrate some of the most iconic riding and historic sights in South West England. Read on for the ride report, whistlestop tour through 5000 years of history, and some musings on why the Rally format works so well for the broader cycling community.

Call me biased, but Bristol, South West England, has to be the best city in the UK to be a cyclist. With prime and diverse riding on our doorstep in all directions, there is something to cater for all tastes across the cycling spectrum here, with everything from quiet country road riding right through to technical downhill MTB all within easy striking distance.

With a buzzing outdoorsy-folk community, the city is home to more cycling clubs than you can shake a pedal wrench at, and we are really spoilt for choice in terms of where, what and how we ride, with clubs out pretty much everyday of the week.
One such group to form over the last couple of years has been All Terre Adventures, brainchild of local cycling community stalwart Claire Sharpe, with a women-led focus centred around more adventurous and exploratory rally-style off-road riding.

With Claire’s rep for planning banger routes, it was unsurprising that tickets for the inaugural Bristol Rally sold out in under 24 hours, with 50% for the tickets ringfenced for people who identify as women. The premise was simple: A 300km loop designed to show off the best gravel routes and culturally significant sights around the wider Bristol area. A classic rally format with a mass start/finish, riders self-forming into smaller groups of old/new friends, with an emphasis on vibes over speed, and autonomy on where/how to camp/bunk each night.

“A classic rally format with a mass start/finish…with an emphasis on vibes over speed”

After a quick rider briefing, 50 riders (and one dog in a basket!) rolled out through the city in dribs and drabs on an array of gravel, touring, and hardtail bikes, with those a little more new to the scene provided with stylish luggage from Bristol-based bikepacking equipment superstars Tailfin Cycling.

Crossing the famous Clifton Suspension bridge out of the city to the west, it was wonderful to watch the childlike giddy excitement of some of the non-Bristol residents who got to experience those views for the first time. That feeling never gets old! We were quickly into north Somerset on rolling country lanes, forest tracks, and proper “English Gravel” (read: rock garden), and I was feeling quite smug with my choice to ride the route on my Mason Raw hardtail.

After a couple of hours we enjoyed an unofficial checkpoint pitstop hosted by Leigh Rose, the community manager at local non-profit Trash Free Trails, who handed out prompt cards for us to consider and share how we connect with nature through our riding. Very wholesome stuff.

The first real highlight of the route was Cheddar Gorge. The village is renowned internationally as the birthplace of the eponymously named cheese, but it’s the plethora of cake shops at the bottom of one of the most iconic road climbs in country – snaking through a dramatic limestone gorge – that makes it a classic for riders.

After some more punchy climbs and some mandatory English summer slop-fest mud across the Mendip Hills, we dropped down into the historic city of Wells and lunch was taken in the shadow of Wells Cathedral. Built around 800 years ago, this was the first (but by no means the last!) landmark on the route which really strikes home the depth of cultural heritage we enjoy in this part of the world. Indeed, shortly thereafter came the silhouette of Glastonbury Tor on the horizon, home to the mythical King Arthur (and perhaps even the sight of the Holy Grail, if you believe that kind of thing).

The final section of the day passed through the grounds of Longleat Estate, an opulent 16th-century stately home famous for housing the UK’s first safari park in the grounds. The monkeys are famed for vandalising visitors’ cars (RIP windscreen wipers), but fears around snack theft proved unfounded as we enjoyed an eerily empty approach road to the main house and sweeping views from the climb on the other side.

 “The perfect ratio of smiles to miles”

I got split up from my riding group (the afflictions of being a bike photographer) and enjoyed the last hour back into the city in solo contemplation about the merits of riding in these kinds of Rally events. For me, they really showcase the best of what it means to be part of the broader cycling community. The non-competitive nature of the format fosters a spirit of fun and inclusivity, which was really notable on the Bristol Rally with its protected gender split.

The 300 km distance over 3 days offered the perfect ratio of smiles to miles with no time pressure, facilitating the chance to ride side-to-side in small groups, connect with new and like-minded people and really soak up the route along the way. You could ride it as fast or slow as you like, with the benefits of semi-supported race structures (checkpoints, route planning, etc) without any pressure.

I get that for many people, the competitive edge of the racing scene is alluring, even if it’s never been something that I’m overly interested in myself. It does strike me though, that there’s a slight imbalance at play here. On the one hand, it feels like there is an all-encompassing focus on the ultra-racing scene from brands/on social media. But (I would assume) the greater proportion of the cycling community is actually less interested in covering absurd distances with no sleep and no chance to enjoy all the rest of the off-bike things that make bikepacking and touring so much fun. Each to their own though, and probably it’s true that the racing guys sell more bikes/kit!

So anyway, it’s really refreshing when people like Claire come along and put on events with a broader appeal. Chatting to her afterwards at the finishers event at local brewery Left Handed Giant (where the Rally crew merged with another popular Bristol club Newtown Park for a post-ride extravaganza after their own Sunday Social), she remarked, “I just wanted to create the kind of event that I would want to ride myself, to show off the best of what this amazing city has to offer the cycling community here, and for people to arrive back with smiles on their faces.”

Cheers to that, I say. Pedalling home, leaving a healthy amount of revellers still celebrating in the sunshine, my cup was overflowing with the joy that only a weekend of bike-centric connection brings. I’m already looking forward to the next installment of The Bristol Rally next summer!