The Road Goes Ever On (Part 2)

As mentioned in Part 1 of this entry (which seems, and is in fact, months back now), our family’s relocation to the UK went surprisingly smoothly and pretty much according to our plan. So much so, that after a couple of days unpacking our new home was looking, well, homely. It’s not that there weren’t still a ton of jobs left to do, but they were mostly small, the sort of jobs that take longer in trips to the shed for tools than to actually do. I knew I’d get to them eventually, if not actually before Yoli got frustrated with me ignoring them. But my mind was craving a proper escape. For months we had been planning, decluttering, packing, unpacking, and realising that half the stuff we hadn’t decluttered was now either redundant, or just plain didn’t fit in our suddenly smaller spaces. I needed some alone time and lurking in the garage was the perfect answer in the shape of three of the boxes still to be unpacked. That shape being, of course, long and rectangular, and sort of bike sized.

I’d only intended to unpack maybe one or two of them, just so I could go out and ride. But minutes flowed silently into hours as I lost myself in the sheer pleasure of unpacking frames, wheels, axles, pedals, saddles and handlebars and carefully tightening the Allen bolts that joined them all together. By the time I stepped back to admire my work, the afternoon was gone completely. Stood there though, in front of me and propped up against various surfaces, were my three trusty steeds, gleaming in the dipping rays of the summer evening sun. It was satisfying, and also a bit of a slip up – I’d run out of time to actually go ride any of them. Instead, they just got wheeled back into the garage and locked up for the night. The passion didn’t go to sleep with them though. I stole myself away later in the evening to check out the Audax UK website for a possible ride. I’d already signed up for the Utterly Butterleigh in September, and the Dartmoor Devil in early November. It occured to me though that there may be a local ride before then. I wasn’t disappointed

Dartmoor Ghost

A 150km ride, starting at 10:30pm, and criss-crossing Dartmoor under the light of a full moon. I couldn’t have written a better script for the contemplative solitude I was craving. Except for two small problems. The first was negotiating the time with Yoli, although as usual that really didn’t turn out a problem, especially as I’d only be gone whilst here and Ben were sleeping. The second part was rather less small, as Yoli pointed out, but of which I was also painfully aware. With almost no real cycling time for the first half of the year, leaping suddenly into a lumpy 150km wasn’t exactly getting back into things gently. It was too tempting to resist though – overnight rides are some of my favourites, even without the attraction of exploring Dartmoor by bike for the first time. I could always turn back if it proved tough I explained to Yoli, although when I said it I had no idea those words would come back and haunt me in the dark hours on a ghostly moor.

Bovey Tracey, 22:30, 0km

A route check on Ride With GPS confirmed that although the overall vertical gain wasn’t too bad (2,500m), what the climbs lacked in distance and altitude, they made up for in gradient. The planners had avoided the positively insane inclines, but there were still enough in the 10 to 15% range to convince me to go on a bike equipped with the full gamut of crawler gears. So it was that I found myself pedalling the Niner RLT9 Steel slowly up from the Car Park in the top of town to the house where our ride co-ordinator was hosting us. Bikes and riders were propped all around, and pizza and teas and coffees flowed out in abundance through the low door of the old stone townhouse. It was jovial, and social, and even though I didn’t actually know anyone, it was a great feeling to be surrounded by fellow Randonneurs. The evening was bright and clear, just the occasional cloud scudding across the sky, but the temperature was already dropping and I began to worry that maybe I had under dressed. A couple of the other riders confirmed that with wind chill, and low cloud, it could get really chilly on the tops. Luckily the only rain forecast was light showers. With bikes beginning to line up for the start it was too late now to alter my choice of kit now, I’d just have to tough it out.

The light had been fading slowly since I’d kitted up at the car and by the time we rode out of the little driveway by the house it was almost fully gone. Our procession of blinking lights rolled down the short steep lane and wound through the town streets. Night had fallen fully before we’d even reached the outskirts of town. I was already at the tail of one of the last groups on the road – intentionally I should add. I knew there was no way I’d be fit enough to keep up with most of the riders, and there was every chance I’d be alone at the back, which was fine by me. It was what I expected, and in many senses was looking forward too. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the chatter in our group as we spun over the opening kilometres, but a big part of the joy of night rides is the sheer solitude.

Rather disconcertingly, by the time I got split from this final group, I could still see their tail lights up ahead taking what looked like a somewhat different route to mine. I decided they must be local and know an alternative route through the village we were passing, although by the time we came out of the other side there were just two remaining binkies very far off up the road I was on. The eTrex was still showing me on track though, and there didn’t seem any real reason to start second guessing it. A short way further along, after a short rise and a very welcome long freewheel, the route showed a right turn off in the village of Bickington. I knew from studying the map earlier that this took us to the first information control before climbing up and over the moor.  Information controls are used on Audaxes as a way to ensure no shortcuts can be taken, but without the overhead of a full control. In this case, the “information” to be gathered was a numbered Audax UK sign stuck on the concrete wall of a bridge under the busy, rumbling highway above.

My card updated and safely stowed away in case that “chance of showers” actually materialised, I started out along the narrow, twisting lane. The riding was simultaneously delightful and somewhat daunting. Already the relentless upward grind was sapping my untrained legs and out of condition lungs, and this was still the easy bit. Illuminated by the combination of the brightest of moons, and the stupid-giga-lumens of my front light, the lane was at least gorgeous, in a uniquely British way. Which is to say, that the road surface was horrendous – two narrow strips of mostly clean tarmac flanked a wider central lane that alternated between stretches of mud, cow dung, and gravel. Meanwhile, the sides of the lane varied from more gravel, to treacherously deep potholes. The effect was completed by steep sided earth banks topped with towering hedges that rose a good couple of meters above me. All of this would have been horrible to ride with traffic, but near deserted, alone, and at night, it was sublime. The two or three cars I did meet had to completely stop so that we could pass safely, and even then my left arm was scraping along brambles and twigs to do so. I guess, in fact, they didn’t have to stop, but all of them were courteous enough to do so.

It wasn’t all fun, scenery and interesting country smells though. As I plodded steadily along, the climbing became significantly tougher. Through patches of woodland, and past the occasional brightly lit cottage, I ground on at the slowest of paces – frequently slogging along in my lowest gear. Eventually the lane ended at a short, steep ramp up to a Y shaped junction with a main road. The eTrex indicated left, up onto the open moor. But a nagging voice that had been gradually building inside of me was saying “Go right. You’re not in shape for this“. Already feeling knackered, and with only 14km on the Garmin, it was pretty hard to argue with that voice. Only the thought that I never feel great over the early stages of a ride prevented me from listening to that comfort seeking inner voice. Well that, and the knowledge that if I still felt crap after the next 27Km there was another bailout option.

The main road rose steadily upward. As I followed it up onto the moor, my senses suddenly sharpened in a way I hadn’t felt since riding out of Oudtshoorn that December night in 2016 riding with Nico on the Cape Beast.  As on that night, the vast black expanse around me was anything but empty. Far off in the distance was the faint glow of towns, although the wrong direction for Exeter. Whilst alongside me, the eerie grey shadows of massive granite tors loomed out of the night. Filling the void in between was the smell of heather, and fresh, clean earth, dampened by the lightest of rain that had begun to fall. I might have been the only rider out here at that moment, but the feeling I had was of being alive, not alone.

The showers sprinkled me half-heartedly as I rolled up and down across the moor, but not enough to make me any wetter than the sweat from the climb up there. Combined with a chill breeze sweeping across the exposed high ground though, it was enough to make me shiver and hope I’d be dropping down the other side soon. I was beyond the range of my recollection of the route by now though, and just following the track wherever it told me to go. Eventually, I came to the point where it crossed the path of the track later in the ride, which confirmed that I was at least half way over the moor. My mind turned over the same debat about turning back, but this time more half hearted. This had to be some kind of mid-point on the moor, so surely there’d be some restful downhill coming soon. More troubling than the doubts over fitness was that I wasn’t completely confident over which of the four purple tracks in front of me to follow. I started out fine – obviously not left, that was to the far loop of the ride, or back the way I had come. So instinct said to go right and then left at the next split. All was OK at that stage. But the plotted track must have had a strange glitch in it somewhere. After a very steep descent into the charming looking village of Chagford, I reached another junction where the track seemed to split. This didn’t make sense. The only divergence I could think of further along the route was to the control, and that should have been at least 5km further away. Had I gone wrong at the last junction, or miscalculated my distances? Did I now need to go right to get to the control, and then return back along this way. The track made no sense – which at approaching 1am, completely on your own, on roads you do not know is a little unsettling. I decided to follow instinct, and swung left. I was definitely on some part of the route still. Worst case, I might miss control two which would invalidate my ride, but not totally ruin an otherwise pleasant night of riding. Over the next few kilometers I kicked myself for not bringing my Wahoo Elemnt as backup. Unlike the simple “follow me” track, the Elemnt removes any doubt over the direction of your next turn. Eventually though civilization loomed up out of the night ahead of me. A brightly lit roundabout signalled the entrance to Whiddon Down, banishing my fears. The Garmin screen showed a clear and short loop out and back to a marker just down the road. I’d made it to the first full control which, in true Audax fashion, was of course, a garage with a 24hr shop.

Whiddon Down, 39km, 01:10

Rather more surprising than the control itself was the discovery that it was manned. Instead of the usual “get a receipt” self validation, there was an elderly couple sat at a table in the café section greeting riders and cheerfully stamping their cards. I was rather impressed. I’m not sure how many of my friend’s parents or grandparents would have been happily sat in a random service station in the middle of the night just to check in a bunch of cyclists who may not be entirely sane. In fact one of the few other riders still there definitely had a larger question mark as to which side of “entirely sane” he was living. Apparently, he had been late starting on account of his flight being delayed, and having then had to drive some distance to the start. I’ve encountered the occasional raised eyebrow and doubting look when mentioning I was planning to cycle through the night, but I’ve never started that journey on a plane from some distant land, and then a car before even throwing a leg over my saddle. The rider himself showed no evidence of any of that – he’d already caught up the two or three of us tail enders still chatting or drinking coffee.

I rolled out of the garage and back out into the night feeling refreshed & relieved. As expected, I was definitely going to be the last finisher, but I was still on track to be a finisher. After a short ramp back up to the roundabout the route followed main roads for a while. In daytime they’d probably have been unpleasant, but devoid of traffic they were fun and fast. A succession of sleeping villages sped easily by and in no times I was on the outskirts of Okehampton. At this point the route planners craft kicked in, delivering a succession of wonderful sections. The first was a winding path out of the town alongside a stream, babbling noisily and unseen somewhere in the ravine to my left. Rising up away from the river, the sound of water was replaced with a deep rumble of traffic from the busy A30, carving it’s own path across the valley whose sides we were now slowly climbing. I knew we were due to join a cycle path at some point, but I’d missed the fact it was a disused railway line. The road ducked under an old, single span brick bridge before the route turned off the road and headed up the embankment onto a tarmac path. These are always bittersweet trails for me: undeniably delightful to walk or cycle; but impossible to do so without thinking of the steel tracks that once joined communities, but had succumbed to the ruthless axe wielded by Dr Richard Beeching. Industrial and social vandalism on a national scale, which no amount of money or effort is ever likely to fully reverse despite recent initiatives. Accepting what I could not change, I rode on enjoying the positive part of the legacy left behind, but mindful of what had been lost along the way.

Railways have to cater for the engines which run on them, which means the inclines are gradual and curves sweep in majestically large arcs. Perfect for maintaining a good cycling speed, although even with both light beams on full blast I still had to duck quickly to miss low branches I’d failed to spot, or swerve around lumps in the path. None of this detracted from the glorious feeling of flying effortlessly through the night with only the distant hoot of an owl or bark of a fox to break the silence. I turned off the railway path too soon – not according to the route, I was following that track diligently. But I had a strong feeling as I peeled off onto the adjacent B road that this was the section I’d overheard a couple of riders discussing at the start. I kicked myself for not studying the route more carefully as the B road rolled up and down, where the railway path would almost certainly have given me a faster and more direct connection. At one point, where the road crossed the line, I was sure I could here riders beneath me enjoying the free passage. There was really no consolation either in having this suspicion confirmed in the village of Lydford, where a sign marked that end of the Granite Way. At least I now knew the name of the lovely section of cycle path, and resolved to come back with Yoli and Ben at some stage.

My memory of the next section is somewhat clouded by the hour – roads, turns, hedges, and somewhere another information control all came and went but in the last hours before dawn after a night of riding my brain was on auto pilot. I do recall one stretch of road that headed directly into the bright light of the full moon though, although my attempts to photograph it fell short of Graham Brodies’s photo shown here. I can’t say any of the ride had felt especially ghostly up to this point, but this one moment seemed to capture the spirit of a moonlit ride.

Dawn is a special moment to savour on an overnight ride. As I wound through the outskirts of Tavistock and climbed up out of the town the first faint ribbons of grey light were creeping across the sky. The timing was near perfect. The route once again swung off roads and took to another cycle path. This time a delightful stretch through deeply wooded hillsides, bathed in a million shades of green made luminous by the early morning light. It was an impressive path too – a stretch of tunnel presumably converted from some past use for rail or mining, and a long viaduct spanning a deep river valley. Whatever council or other initiative that led to this had engineered something truly special. Somewhere before the end my heart nearly stopped. An enormous brown shape swooped out of the trees, and glided silently along in front of me. For the briefest of moments it was so close, I could make out every one of the feathery fingers spreading out from the edge of the buzzard’s huge wingspan. As quickly and silently as it came, it disappeared back into the sanctuary of the trees. Soon after the path also came to an unwelcome end. The only consolation was the knowledge that the second actual control was now close, with the promise of a cup of coffee and maybe something for breakfast.

Yelverton, 96km, 05:15am

The control itself was unremarkable – a church hall is a fairly common venue, and coffee or tea is generally on offer. But hot chilli wraps were a wonderfully welcome surprise. The lone, friendly chap hosting the control (who’s name is now embarrassingly lost on me) hadn’t managed to finish his sentence before I had accepted his offer and was stuffing a second helping into my face. I was the last rider to check in, but not the only rider there. In fact, I think it may even have been Graham who’s company I enjoyed briefly, and maybe one other rider was there. I was definitely the last bike to leave though, and as I did so I tried to put out of mind some of the comments about the stretch to come. It was only around 60km to the finish, but half of that at least was uphill. There was no ignoring it though, the route started climbing almost immediately. This was the second haul up onto the moor of the ride – now heading North-east across it, rather than the North-westerly traverse through the night.

Taking in the full majesty of the vast tracts of bleak moorland by daylight did at least offset some of the pain and fatigue from the unrelenting climb. The first sighting of a herd of wild Dartmoor ponies in the early morning light was a mental lift too. But there was no escaping the lack of distance in my legs, and the steepest of sections saw me dismounted and walking. In truth, I was a little surprised to have managed to ride up everything I’d come across through the night, so there was no disappointment in the realisation that I was going to end up on foot on the toughest parts of what was to come. The open moorland was punctuated briefly with a couple of delightful outcrops of human habitation – first Princetown and then the aptly named Two Bridges (the old bridge still in place to the right of the current path of the road).  The descent down into Moretonhampstead seemed to signal the end of the moor proper, although sadly not the climbing. A final harsh, uncomfortable climb had to be overcome before the last information control where the route turned right at Dunsford. The hills were thankfully done, although so it must be said was I. Luckily from here to the end the route was largely downward, following the twists of a scenic river valley back towards Bovey Tracey. The last section traced the same route I had driven in the evening before. By now, it was late enough in the morning to encounter light traffic, although I saw almost as many club cyclists out on the road as cars.

Bovey, 155km, 09:10

As expected, I was last to finish – and by over an hour at that. In fact, the ride co-ordinator mentioned they were beginning to get worried about me given how long it had taken me to get from the Yelverton control. I couldn’t have been happier though – comfortably inside cutoff, and a delightful ride in the bank. My first Audax UK ride since May 2014 had been a resounding success – exactly what mind and body needed, even if that body was now definitely on the sore side. As we chatted over the hearty breakfast (included with the ride fee), the organizers queried whether I’d been worried about riding alone in the night. I guess it’s a pretty understandable concern, but it had never really occurred to me. Quite the opposite in fact, it was one of the parts I’d been looking forward too. I was a little chuffed too when they commented that I’d rolled in looking fresher than a few of the earlier riders. I felt pretty knackered inside, but I guess the  simple pleasures of a wonderful ride must have masked that externally.

With thanks to Graham Brodie for the use of his images.

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