There and Back Again – Day 1

It was never planned that last year’s Highlands to Home tour would include a complete JOGLE. But I did always intend to ride from home down to Lands End at some point. And as the mornings slowly grew darker and chillier, I’d failed to do any kind of distance riding during the summer of 2021. The idea of ticking this last piece off the list with a 3 day mini tour down to the bottom of the country started to take shape.

In between family and work commitments, free weekends were in short supply. I was doubtful of the chances of decent weather when I commandeered the earliest opening (17th through 19th September) and stuck it in the calendar. Luckily the AirBnB I found with 2 nights available in Truro had a generous cancellation policy, meaning I could take a view on the weather forecast on 12th September and pull out if it looked truly horrendous. Of course when it came to it, things were not quite as simple as that. The long distance weather radar had some strong bands of rain passing over – but the worst was late on Friday, with mixed and generally improving weather across the weekend. It’s all too easy to find excuses not to ride (the weather wasn’t the only one bothering me, but more on that later) – and the forecast really wasn’t that horrible if viewed overall so the decision was a ‘go‘. If I missed this ride, there’d likely be no other tour opportunity in 2021.

The concept of the tour was simple. Ride down as far as Truro on the Friday, taking an inland route across the high ground of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. Reach the B&B sometime early evening, hopefully before the worst of the rain. The overnight location meant I could offload all my overnight gear, as the next day I’d be riding down to Land’s End and back to the same B&B. Sunday I would load up again and take a longer coastal route home using ferries at Fowey and Plymouth. All told, the distance would be around the 550km mark (just short of 330 miles).  Predictions of rain aside, it looked like a simple and enjoyable few days on the bike at a leisurely pace without any super long days. What could possibly go wrong! Spoiler alert: a clue to that semi rhetorical question lies in the slightly different heading format to usual. I’ve also included the cumulative vertical metres of the ride.

0km – Sidmouth – 17 Sep 2021, 06:45 (0m)

I rolled out from home later than planned – a combination of last minute packing, seeing Ben was ready for school, and not really having any sense of urgency with the evening accomodation already booked. In fact I was so late leaving, I got caught up with rush hour traffic through Exeter and found myself passing the gates of Ben’s school at 8am, almost the exact time he would have been arriving with the bus. But our timing must have been fractionally out as I didn’t see him. Once through the city I hit the ominously named climb of Five Mile Hill.  The last time I rode this stretch of road was under the dark of a full moon around midnight, on the Old Roads 300km DIY Audax. I hoped there were no lingering omens from that ride, which ended with a painful DNF around 250km. I wasn’t sensing any though – in daylight, and significantly fitter, the climb was just a steady drag even on a heavily loaded bike. In no time at all I was onto the familiar rolling roads through Tedburn St Mary, Cheriton Bishop and out to Okehampton. I knew there were much tougher hills ahead, but at this early stage of the ride I had a more pressing thought in mind: where was I stopping for breakfast. Amongst the many thoughts a long distance cyclist juggles while pedalling, food is always pretty close to the top.

The obvious choices would have been the BP garage just before town – a venue I had used a number of times in the past. But being mid morning rather than the middle of the night offered me a far greater choice of venues than usual. And whilst route planning a more interesting optiom had presented itself. Studying an excellent write-up of a Lowestoft to Lands End ride had revealed a previously unknown (to me) gravel option that departed the main road just before the descent into Okehampton, and completely avoided the town by following a path alongside the railway to the start of the Granite Way cycle route. I was a little dubious on the trail conditions, although it had been dry recently and I was on a gravel capable rig so it seemed rude not to try. The reward for a little adventure here would be a highly rated bike shop and cafe/pub around 10km on from the start of the cycle route. All of which worked to perfection – the path was a delightful, dry amble through woodlands and meadwows. I rolled up the ramp off the cycle route, and swung back towards the cafe at a just after 11am. With an awesome morning’s riding in my legs, and about the same no delays beyond my late departure, I was ready for food and a break.

70km – Pump & Pedal cafe – 11:30 (1,091m)

The pasties were every bit as tasty as I’d imagined when I swapped messages with the owners about what food they’d be likely to have on offer. And the coffee was as good as you’d expect for a cycling enthustiast’s venue. I was the only person in the beer garden when I dumped myself and gear at one of the tables near the outside bar. But I’d barely got started on my food before other people started drifting in. I struck up conversations with a few of them. One couple from Yokrshire were visiting on holiday and looking for good walks. I passed on a couple of ideas of routes onto Dartmoor that we’d taken on a recent overnight stop nearby in our campervan. Another were interested in whether hiring bikes and riding the cycle route would be easy enough for them – a nearly flat 20km trail through stunning scenery wasn’t a difficult recommendation. Eventually though, after a second coffee, I had to drag myself away from the comfortable and now sociable surroundings. I may have been covered over a third of today’s distance, but I knew all the hard riding was still ahead.

70km – Pump & Pedal cafe – 12:15

The easy riding continued for another 10km until the end of the cycle route in Lydford. But things became instantly more challenging once through the charming village. A 16% gradient down into a gorge is always going to be fun, but you know that there’ll be a price to pay somewhere further along. In this case, two prices: the first a short, almost as sharp haul back out of the gorge; the second a longer more gradual ramp up to the top of Brent Tor, it’s tower looming high on the horizon throughout the slog up to it. I knew Yoli would be interested in the ancient building perched atop the rock, but despite severral attempts I failed to get a decent picture of it, and ended up making a mental note just to tell her we needed to visit it at some time.

It was rather obvious the road would head downhill from such a high vantage point, but what I hadn’t realised during route planning was now laid out ahead of me. The route followed a long descent into a deep valley, and beyond lay another ridge of high ground  that I would need to climb back up and over. My wheels were already picking up speed into this impressive geological feature. the Tamar Valley. The river itself forms a natural border between Devon and Cornwall. These days, it’s just another county boundary, but in feudal times past Cornwall was its own realm, with closer ties to nearby Gaelic settlements than it’s immediate neighbour, England. The scenery and the weather were a near perfect accompaniment to the sense of history – deep, narrow lanes with dappled sunlight falling through canopies of ancient beech and oak woodlands. It was a truly sublime day to be out on the bike. I couldn’t remember if the somewhat daunting ridge ahead was Bodmin moor, or if another valley lay in between. For now though, there wasn’t much to do other than tear down this one towards whatever lay in the bottom.

Eventually, after way more freewheeling than I’d expected, the road took a last steep dip, passing houses and a pub before reaching the crossing itself at Horsebridge – an impressive series of old stone arches across the broad expanse of the Tamar River. I stopped to snap photos on both sides – once again though, I knew they wouldn’t really catch either the beauty of the day, or the experience of riding across the ancient, flowing divide between these two counties. Cornwall (Kernow) did not waste time letting me know that the riding was not about to get any easier. No sooner had I ridden past the sign, than the road pitched up sharply. Just past Broadgate, the road forked right and forded a small stream. Surrounded by woodland, it was a ridiculously pretty little crossing which I splashed through cautiously, not quite able to see whatever rocks or holes might be lurking beneath the calmly flowing water.

Once safely through, the road narrowed to a single track that rose relentlessly upward until it felt like my lungs were going to burst. This first climb up to the ridge alongside Callington wasn’t too bad – the stats show it as 240m of elevation over 6km, with a maximum gradient of 14%.  It had me puffing and blowing, but the low gearing on the Niner meant I could pedal all of it, albeit slowly. But this was just the start. The route dipped again, before starting the main climb up to the high point ahead. I started to recognise landmarks from our family holiday to this area the previous year: a sign to Trevethy Quoit, a Neolithic dolmen which Yoli had been delighted to discover quite by accident; and a sequence of villages and houses which looked vaguely familiar. All of this provided a nice distraction up the additional 9km of climbing to the road junction on top of Bodmin Moor.

The views from the top were reward enough for the effort. Sheep and cattle grazing on a broad expanse of gorse and heather covered moor – overhead a few patches of blue sky remained beneath the ominous rising walls of cloud. The rain that had been forecast was clearly on its way. Despite the weather portents, it was good to be on terrain I recognised. The local knowledge paid off when I narrowly missed the 2pm lunch cutoff at the Crow’s Nest village pub. I knew that over the next ridge was a BBQ smoke shack nestled in the woods at the car park for Golitha Falls. There was a little traffic on the unavoidable stretch of main road to get there, but they were still serving when I arrived and there were seats inside under their canopy to shelter from the spots of rain that had begun to fall. My rush to reach here meant I hadn’t stopped for photos at any of the abandoned mines or standing stones scattered across the moor. A shame, but that is often the case with long distance touring – you have to savour everything with your eyes, because you only have time to stop for a fraction of them.

119km – Golitha Falls – 15:10 (1,930m)

It has to be said, on any other day, the fire smoked pulled pork bun and hot chocolate would have been the perfect thing to sit and enjoy slowly surrounded by woodland, alongside a babbling stream. When the food arrived, I knew I should have ordered more, especially carbs. But the temperature was dropping noticeably, and the spots of rain were now beginning to darken the light grey tarmac of the car park beyond the canopy. Instead, I wolfed down the food and got on my way as soon as I could, figuring there’d be a garage stop along the way for some extra – worst case, I knew somewhere up ahead the Garmin would flag up a waypoint I’d added for a service station with both Starbucks and McDonalds.

119km – Golitha Falls – 15:45

In theory, at least in geographical terms, after the initial ramp up out of Golitha Falls it was downhill to the town of Bodmin. In truth though, in cycling terms, it was actually a succession of fast descents, followed by short, leg sapping ramps, each to a peak slightly lower than the last. One of these didn’t even pretend to be anything else – the town at the top was even called Mount. None of this would have mattered if this morning’s fine riding weather had continued. But it hadn’t. The scene from the top at Mount was dismal – a snaking slither of wet, black road, along a misty, cloud soaked moor. As much as I wanted to believe things might brighten up, I knew that in reality I had 60km of drenching ahead. There wasn’t a lot I could do other than ride off into it. Something which in itself, wasn’t entirely easy. One of several rookie mistakes I had made was forgetting to order new contact lenses – so I was riding in my normal glasses. This cancelled the normal option of simply taking off my riding sunglasses when they got blurry with rain and steam. I was blind without my glasses, and only marginally better off with them. My visibility of the road surface ahead was down to a handful of metres, and my view of the Garmin wasn’t much better. Instead of being able to race down the descents, I had to drag the brakes and crawl down to make sure I had enough time to react to potholes, or turn signals from the dim, watery screen. In additional to being a wet afternoon to my destination in Truro, it was also going to be a slow one.

My timing was pretty awful too. I pulled up to the roundabout that crossed the A38 on the outskirts of Bodmin at 5pm on a wet Friday afternoon. I stood there for minutes as a heavy stream of traffic gave absolutely no gaps to get across. A few metres along the road was a cycle crossing – but it’s lifeless broken lights offered no safer option. Eventually I just had to launch myself into whatever space I could find and wave at the cars in apology for not following normal roundabout protocol. The next couple of kilometres remained in rush hour traffic, but luckily the road was wide enough for passing, and pitched downward enough that I could mostly keep up with the flow anyway. Once across the B3268 at the bottom I was back on narrow, and mostly quiet lanes again. The next 12km or so were, quite literally a blur. I remember no real details apart from sploshing along under a constant, grey downpour. Eventually, at the road junction in Roche (French for ‘rock’) I pulled under a bus shelter to grab a snack bar and share some of my damp misery with Yoli by text.

The route had risen steadily, but fairly gradually since Bodmin, and Roche, as its name suggested, sat on top of a ridge. The rain was still pelting down, but now at least so was I. Up ahead was a delightful looking gravel section which I’d borrowed from the Lowestoft to LE route, but I wasn’t really feeling for what could now be a muddy, waterlogged slide. Luckily, I’d anticpiated this possibility when checking the forecast, and zoomed out the Garmin display until I could see the loop of lanes southward down to St Dennis, and then back around to where the routes would meet up again in the interestingly named town of Indian Queens. Apparently, there are several theories to its origin, but the popular one being that it was visited by Pocahontas. My soggy visit drew much less attention as I dripped and sploshed my way through – although navigating the trucks and traffic at the A30 roundabout on the way into town was unnecessarily exciting, and not in a good way. I glanced at the garage and fish and chip shop as I rolled past, but my desire for food was less than my desire to stop and get cold, and arrive even later than my vision impaired slow progress was already suggesting. Passing the A30 service station a little further on I faced the same decision – only this time, I knew turning in would reveal the Starbucks and McDonalds. But even those couldn’t tempt me into sitting shivering wet whilst I tried to enjoy one or both of them. Plus I was close enough to Truro now that coffee wouldn’t be a good call in terms of getting some decent sleep. So I pushed on, through a solid wall of wet under an ever darkening sky. 

Most of the remaining 25km were unremarkable: a strange little dogleg of cycle path took me down to a safe crossing over the A39, and then back up again onto back lanes into Truro itself. I was tempted in this section to follow a cyclepath sign into Truro, but it looked recent, and temporary. I had no desire to be scrabbling around in the dark on a route I hadn’t plotted when the signs got bored and ran out. Plus my planned route actually took me to the B&B, whereas who knows what area this would lead too. I did question my decision a couple of times – even with both lights on full beam, I could barely make out the assorted crud and crap strewn across the narrow lane. Never ideal, but made more so by the speed of the descent towards the city. Several times I hit an unnoticed branch or pothole, and on one particularly scary moment I found myself sliding fully sideways. I could only guess at the cause – it felt like deep smooth mud, which I figured must have mounded up in the middle of the lane. I was very glad the combination of such a capable bike, and some rudimentary MTB skills saw me safely across it. Just before reaching the houses and lights I came across a red ROAD CLOSED sign (maybe the reason for the new cycle route sign). A massive tree fall had ripped out half of the tarmac, but the narrow track which remained was easily wide enough for a bike. Finally, there I was, emerging from the darkness of the lanes into a yellow urban glow, racing down to the river and the brightly lit main roads of Truro.

188km – Truro – 20:15 (2,964m)

Getting to the B&B was pretty easy, after an initial wrong turn, and some slippery cobbled streets around the shops in the centre. I stood right outside where the B&B was though for several minutes before figuring out (with the assistance of some passers-by), the way to the back alley which acted as it’s entrance. I had read the instructions previously, but it was dark now and my brain was tired. The accommodation was ideal though – a self-contained studio at the foot of the garden of one of the terraced houses. It had its own entrance, meaning I wasn’t disturbing anyone as I clattered my way in. It felt pretty secure too, and once inside had everything I needed – including a small drying rack for gear. The owner had even thoughtfully put all the heaters on too, meaning I was toasty as I sipped on hot chocolate, showered, and stuffed my face with one of the freeze dried meals I’d packed into my fork bags. Possibly not the most exciting meal option, but it was tasty and loaded with calories, allowing me to eat and crash rather than slog around in the wet looking for a takeaway. Finally, before sleep, I offloaded the luggage I wouldn’t need on the ride down and back tomorrow – hopefully drier as well as faster than today.

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