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Guest post: Tackling "Wild West Country"


We're welcoming a remarkable guest writer to our blog today, Jess, a London-based cyclist who "rides her bike insane distances whilst constantly questioning her ability to do so". Despite being quite new to cycling, she is unafraid to tackle new challenges, conquering her first 100km ride her first year and jumping right into the world of ultra events the next. Kicking her 3rd season off with the 837km unsupported Wild West Country event across the southwest of England with 12,000m of climbing, she recounts this hilly and demanding ultra adventure for us below.


It was sometime around 10pm on Friday night and the only audible sound was that of my laboured breathing and questionable life choices. I was pushing my bike towards checkpoint one at Dunkery Beacon - a merciless 3km climb with an average gradient of 10% - and already doubting my ability to reach the finish line, an inconceivable 600km away. 

I’d signed up to Wild West Country, an 837 km fixed-route event with over 12,000m of climbing, late last year whilst in the honeymoon period of peak fitness. It was an event known for its punishing climbs - with consistent 20% gradients offering a different kind of torment - whilst promising plenty of scenic riding, from dramatic Dorset coastlines, to quaint Cotswold villages. Hills had been my personal nemesis since I’d started cycling three years ago, so I naturally thought: what better way to obliterate my legs as well as the ceiling of what I deem myself capable by committing to yet another unthinkable challenge.   

This was fast becoming a common trend: find something that feels impossible, and do it.

Fifty-two of us were unleashed from Stroud earlier that morning and were immediately routed up Briscome hill, a 1.4km climb with an average gradient of 9%. “Only 836 km to go!” I joked to Sean, my riding partner. He returned a smile, but I could only manage a grimace. 

As is the case in any event, the start was fast and furious. Fresh legs, adrenaline, and a sprinkle of ego meant that everyone was pushing a little harder than they probably wanted to, determined to secure their place in the front of the pack before settling into a more sustainable rhythm. For us, however, the universe had other plans. After a (relatively) quick ascent of Briscombe hill, Sean immediately swerved off the road and came to an abrupt stop, his brow furrowed, expletives falling from his mouth. A puncture. We were only 6 km from the start. 

10 minutes later and we were back on the road, trying to keep ourselves composed whilst also trying to hunt down those who had sped past us as we fumbled with a tube. A dangerous predicament. “It’s not a race” I said out loud to no one in particular, as I tried to squeeze an extra 5 watts out of my thighs.

The next 150 km towards and out of Bristol were relatively flat. The sun was shining and spirits were high. And then came the Quantocks. Coming from London, I need to make it clear that our idea of hill training is heading out to Epping Forest to do repeats of Mott Street, or occasionally challenging ourselves with a loop or two of Kent. In other words, we had no idea what ‘hills’ truly were - and this was about to be a baptism of fire. 

The legs slowed, the heart rate quickened, and the self-doubt surfaced. What made me think I was capable of riding such an event? I’d only completed my first ever 100km ride a mere two years before, which, at the time, was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done. I remember being 7km from the finish and giving myself a stern talking to - out loud - as I watched my Garmin tick down the metres one by one. Anguish soon turned to euphoria as I shed a layer of insecurity and shifted the boundary of what I deemed possible. Since then, I found myself repeatedly setting new challenges, cowering in self-doubt, and then miraculously emerging - albeit mentally bruised and broken - on the other side. I was consistently rupturing and reassembling who I knew myself to be. And this event was to be no different: an adventure so big and insurmountable that, yet again, I found myself enveloped in uncertainty.


The climbs were relentless. Endless 20% gradients drained the legs, and worse, the mind. Checkpoint one suddenly felt very far away. All I could do was keep my legs spinning and hope for the best.

A small amount of respite came in the form of leaving the Quantocks and enjoying a fast descent before the real star of the show made itself known: welcome to Exmoor. More 20% gradients passed in a blur of delirium and double digit temperatures. This was hell. Hours passed and the sun eventually started to dip below the horizon, signalling 12 hours in the saddle. Checkpoint one was now only mere kilometres away. Unfortunately those mere kilometres were straight up towards the highest point in Exmoor. “It’s not a race” I say aloud again, as I get off my bike and start to push.

It was close to midnight as we descended from Dunkery Beacon and turned our thoughts to sleep. Our eyes scanned through the darkness - into fields and past hedges - trying to find the perfect site to roll out our bivvys. We had now been riding for close to 15 hours. My body was demanding rest whilst my Garmin mockingly started to count down the metres to the next heinous climb. All at once everything felt a little too much. I couldn’t stomach another 20% ascent so we resigned ourselves to the mossy bed of a church graveyard for a few hours’ kip.

Kitty Dennis (@bluberrysmoothie_photos)

I blinked and it was 4am. My phone alarm was ringing from somewhere within the bivvy, even though I was adamant that only minutes had passed since I’d closed my eyes. A quick check of the time and I begrudgingly accepted my fate. Time to get back on the bike.

The first few hours we made slow progress, with yet more sadistic climbs cruelly routed one after the other. A 15% gradient here. A 25% gradient there. But what goes up must come down, and we eventually found ourselves descending towards the coastal village of Lynmouth and the lure of a hot breakfast. However, dreams were quickly quashed as we rolled into a ghost town. In London, we were used to cafes opening at the crack of dawn: fuelling inner-city commuters with their morning caffeine hit to get through the day, but Lynmouth was not London and the only thing open was my mouth, agape at the number of “closed” signs draped across windows.

But then, a sudden beacon of hope: the clink of cutlery coming from a nearby doorway. We peered inside to find the ornately-decorated dining room of a swanky hotel: the perfect place for two sweaty, sleep-deprived cyclists to get their caffeine fix. 

Fry-ups inhaled, we soldiered on. Up, down, up, down, up, up, up. “We are choosing to do this” I had to remind myself. Fifteen million climbs and only 2km later, our water bottles were empty. The heat of the midday sun had now materialised and was threatening to sap energy that we didn’t have to spare. Finding the closest village shop, we raided the shelves in a frenzy: water, coke, red bull, and chocolate milkshake - the four horsemen of ultra-distance cycling.

I sat on the floor outside, legs splayed, stuffing bites of a cheese and onion pasty greedily into my mouth. This was getting hard. Things were starting to hurt, and ache, and chafe, and all the other words that describe the result of spending 20+ hours on the bike. Why were we doing this? I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and took another mouthful of soggy pastry. “Only 500 km to go!”


Flat, smooth, or a tailwind. You can only ever pick two. This was what I had learned as we carried our broken bodies and fully-loaded bikes across the South West of England. Smooth tarmac and a tailwind? You bet it’s going to be hilly. Flat terrain with a tailwind? Please enjoy this decrepit cycle lane. Such was our experience as we rattled along the Tarka Trail on our way towards checkpoint two.

At 393 km, Tavistock was our next target. We had decided that spending two consecutive nights in a graveyard would put us firmly in the camp of ‘needs psychiatric help’ so instead opted for a proper bed - or more accurately, a bunk bed (who said that ultras aren’t the height of luxury?)

Another four hours of sleep and it was yet again time to move. This time, into Dartmoor.

We commenced the 20km ascent up to Haytor Vale to secure our second checkpoint. The climb was relatively gentle (or so I naively believed), and the views over the moors were bathed in the pink hues of dawn. Barely day-old lambs pranced across the grassy terrain, the threat of one hurling itself under my wheel a constant (yet totally adorable) threat. And then it got lumpy. OF COURSE it got lumpy. When would I learn that lumpiness is exactly what I had signed up for here?

As the gradient kicked upwards, so did my breathing. The lambs suddenly became significantly less cute, and the once-striking scenery quickly turned sour. I pushed hard on the pedals, every downstroke threatening to throw me off balance if I didn’t maintain a consistent pace. My eyes were firmly focussed on the ground ahead; I didn’t dare look up in fear of how much further I’d see I needed to climb.

After what felt like eternity (but had probably only been a handful of minutes) I finally emerged, checkpoint two now directly in sight. I huffed and puffed my way towards Sean, who had been waiting patiently at the top for an embarrassing amount of time. Our eyes met as I wiped the sweat from my face: “I freaking hate hills”.

The Perfidious Albion (@theperfidiousalbion)


We were now 424km into the route, a hair past half-way. I’m not sure whether it was the dawn of a new day, the vegetable gyozas I’d had for breakfast (true story), or the endorphins from making it to the top of the climb without having to get off and push my bike, but dare I say that I was feeling…good. Long distance cycling has a funny way of making you feel like you can’t possibly go on, and then a quick sleep, eat, or cry later you’re back on the pedals, having the absolute time of your life. 

Whatever the reason, I wasn’t going to question it. The moors were beautiful, the sun was shining, and I loved riding my bike.

We pushed past Exeter and down to Sidmouth, a tourist hotspot and gateway to the Jurassic Coast Heritage Site - as well as home to an alluring selection of cafes and public toilets. What more can a girl want? 

I sat on the warm brick of a coastal wall inhaling the latest haul of sandwiches and pastries, and for the briefest of moments it almost felt like I wasn’t 479 km into the most herculean effort of my life, but enjoying a tranquil day at the seaside. But moments never last long and soon the reality of my situation broke like a rabid wave as I sunk back into my sea of suffering.

Much of the rest of the day passed without incident as idyllic landscapes blurred into a mess of dirty browns and greens. I pedalled, I ate, I endured.

After a big push to get over Lulworth Firing Range we rolled into checkpoint three a dispiriting 20 minutes after the toll road had closed for the evening. It felt like failure; the negative self-talk confirming that no matter how hard I’d try, I’d never quite be good enough. This narrative wasn’t new. In fact, I spent the best part of most rides chastising myself for a lack of strength, speed, or other trait others seemed to find in abundance. “I’m not a strong cyclist” I would say whenever anyone praised one of my efforts. It was a retort ingrained within the very essence of my being, and here it was raising its ugly head once again at the mouth of Kimmeridge Bay.

Tired and defeated, we decided to call it a day. Neither of us had the mental fortitude in that moment to turn our wheels north and press on into the night.


After a few hours’ rest in Wareham, we once again found ourselves cycling against the backdrop of the dawn. This was it. The final slog to the finish. A casual 220km.

We’d been the leading pair for the best part of the last 24 hours and a gently-competitive flame ignited inside the both of us. “This is not a race” we reassured each other, and then agreed to push a little harder and stop a little less. 

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side and we spent most of the morning soggy and sombre. But I couldn’t complain; things had finally started to flatten out and our average speed much less resembled that of an injured sloth and moved closer to that of a pair of cyclists with over 600 km in their legs. Although the difference was marginal.

The absence of hills had also brought with it a tiredness that I’d never felt before. The monotonous spinning of the pedals, the dreary grey sky, the repetitive (yet soothing) patter of rain on tarmac: all conspired to plague my eyelids with a heaviness that even the will of victory couldn’t shake. I could feel my legs slowing and my optimism starting to fade. 150km suddenly felt very, very, far away.


As tends to always be the case, a quick stop to restore our food supplies and we were suddenly flying. Tiredness forgotten, it was onto checkpoint four and onto the homestretch. A munch of a doughnut here, a slurp of chocolate milkshake there - we were determined to keep ourselves fueled all the way to the finish. 

Cleveland Lakes gifted us a stretch of fast flat where the adrenaline really started to hit. We were 50km from where we had started our ride four days earlier and for the first time it felt like I was actually going to make it. And more than that, there was the possibility of us finishing as the first pair.

“I’m going to need you to push a little harder”, Sean said as he checked the GPS tracker; the second pair were only 7 km behind us and gaining ground at breakneck speed. This was it, the time to change the narrative and prove to myself that I was a strong cyclist after all. I turned up the volume on my headphones, lowered myself onto the aerobars, and pumped my legs like my life depended on it

We covered ground quickly and widened the gap. Everything was going well until it wasn’t. The undeniable stab of pain shot through my right knee. “Not again”. This was almost a scene-by-scene replay of what had happened during my last foray into ultra-distance cycling 12-months prior. I wanted so desperately for it to be a one-off grumble: an unfortunate twist of the knee that I could easily rectify in my next pedal stroke. I pushed down again, this time more tentatively, and there it was again. At first, a dull nagging, and soon, a sharp pinch. I couldn’t ignore it. Much like I couldn’t ignore the fact that, 30km from the finish, things were about to get lumpy one more time.

The ground kicked up as our pace slowed. Garmin told us we had four more climbs to brave before it would all be over. Right now, four more climbs felt impossible: a new ceiling that needed shattering. Emotions flooded my body as I tried different ways of pushing down on the pedals, none of which were pain-free and none of which were successful at preventing the pair behind us from closing in. My face flushed hot as shame took over. We’d come so far - was I really going to let us fall at the final hurdle?

The sound of cranks turning behind me cemented the answer. After 36+ hours in the lead, we had been overtaken in the last 20km. “It’s not a race” I repeated over and over, but the damage had already been done. I’d allowed myself to glimpse a world in which I was the cyclist I was desperate to be: the cyclist who could not only participate in ultra-distance events, but who could finish at the front of the pack. My eyes grew wet. It was almost as if my body was manifesting my own self-limiting beliefs, afraid of betraying the very identity it had become so comfortable inhabiting. Who was I if I wasn’t the girl who lacked self–confidence? The girl afraid of putting her hand up in class. The girl who showed great potential

Perfidious Albion (@theperfidiousalbion)

I felt bad for myself, but most of all I felt bad for Sean. Without me, he could have completed this ride in two thirds of the time and would have been back in Stroud hours ago. But instead he chose to ride  unwaveringly by my side. Our only goal at the start had been to finish, and I reminded myself of this now as I remembered the girl who pushed her bike three kilometres up to Dunkery Beacon on a Friday night, questioning her ability to get through the next 600km. I reminded myself of this now as I remembered the girl who delivered stern words to herself out loud as she fought to turn the pedals, inching laboriously closer to the longest ride she’d ever done. And I especially reminded myself of this now as remote passageways turned to familiar roads and we rolled into Briscome Mill, 837 km after we’d started, finishers of Wild West Country.

Kitty Dennis (@bluberrysmoothie_photos)

It’s now been two weeks since that emotional crossing of the finish line and it’s taken the writing of this entry to show myself the kindness I should have shown to the girl in the picture above. I know now that she’s too hard on herself and belittles her achievements, when instead she should be shouting from the rooftops about what a badass she is. I’m also slowly learning to accept that ‘being a strong cyclist’ doesn’t always mean you’re the fastest, or the one with the most prominent quads, or the one who can push the most watts going up a hill. Sometimes it just means that you can keep going. Whatever is thrown at you, you persevere. Sometimes strength isn’t physical, but mental. It’s resilience. It’s courage. It’s being headstrong when your body is weak. I know that now. And I’m one of the strongest cyclists I know.

Wild West Country is an 837 km fixed-route event with over 12,000m of climbing. Beginning and ending in the Cotswolds, it loops through the southwest of England, an area renowned for its short, steep climbs and narrow lanes. Of 52 race starters, only 33 made it to the finish.

Final stats:

  • Total distance: 837 km
  • Total elevation: 12,858 m
  • Total time: 80 hours

Author’s note: I may have suffered from many things during this event, both physical and emotional, but one thing you won’t read about here is a return of the nerve damage that I suffered during my last ultra. A huge thanks to Redshift for their continued devotion to their products and their mission, and helping riders like me travel further, faster, and more comfortably on my bike. ShockStop PRO Endurance Seatpost | ShockStop Stem | Cruise Control Top & Drop Grips

About the author

Jess is a girl from London who rides her bike insane distances whilst constantly questioning her ability to do so. She started cycling three years ago and quickly began pushing the boundaries of what she deemed possible. Her most recent event was Wild West Country, an 837 km unsupported bikepacking race with over 12,000m of climbing, across the southwest of England. She is currently training for Northcape 4000 in the summer, her biggest adventure to date. Follow her journey on instagram (@in_the_jesky) or on her blog (