At some stage in the middle of the night, an enormous crash made me jump out of bed for fear someone had hopped over the fence and was stealing my ride. Only as I finished up in the bathroom in the morning did I discover the real cause – the soap shelf had detached itself from the wall and crashed to the floor. The bike was, still safely parked outside, covered in a fine layer of ice cold dew. As I pottered around repacking and mounting the fork bags the decision to backtrack my route from home was firmly set in my mind. You’d think that might mean a less interesting or adventurous day ahead, but cycling is never like that. The same route in different conditions can feel very different, and in reverse, looking at the landscape from the other side, it often bears no resemblance to the previous ride. Today’s journey had other surprises in store for me than just a different viewpoint though.
338km – Truro – 06:35
Truro centre was quiet as I slid through – just the occasional person here and there, out walking dogs or clearing up around the shops, perhaps where market stalls had been. It was chilly and I was under dressed, but the first ramps up and out of town soon shook the cold off. The morning could not have been more sublime – the deep woodlands through which the lane ran a picture of late summer splendour, shafts of pale yellow light breaking through the thick canopy and picking out swirling patches of mist in the clearings. I noticed a skidding set of narrow tyre tracks running through a deep mound of mud in the middle of the road. I was fairly sure that was the spot where I had nearly lost control and slid out descending in the dark and the rain two days ago. How completely different it now looked, on a bright Sunday morning.
Woodland gave way to open farmland as I approached the top of the ridge. Shortly after rounding a corner where roadworks marked a recently abandoned junction with the A30 my progress paused for a large caravan pulling out of a campsite. It was Sunday, and vacationers would be returning home. As we got underway I tucked myself into the slipstream behind the massive slab sided rear of the trailer and hitched a free ride down to the A39 crossing. The driver and I swapped greetings at the bottom where he pulled over to check something on his rig. From memory, he was heading home somewhere back up north – Yorkshire comes to mind, although I may be imagining that now. I do recall we joked about which of us would be home sooner. I wasn’t in a rush, or going that far, but who knows what traffic horrors lay in wait on his journey.
The short stretch of cycle path alongside the A39 was more of a haul than I remembered from the freewheel down. The lanes which followed also rolled up and down more than I recalled. In hindsight, these were all warning signs, I just wasn’t noticing them, my attention distracted by the delightful lanes and scenery rather than sheets of rain. It wasn’t my memory that was faulty, but latent fatigue building up in my legs from the last couple of days of riding. Without realising it, I wasn’t just heading home, I was speeding towards the classic “day 3 bonk“. Had I been aware of it, I’d have pulled into the Starbucks or McDonalds to top up my fuel tanks. But at just 25km into the riding, it felt far too soon to be stopping – and at this stage, the tiredness hadn’t surfaced. I was enjoying the feeling of heading home, and the body was feeling OK. I sailed on through the empty streets of Indian Queens, grabbing a few bites of snack bar before tackling the A30 roundabout at the top of town. Not that there was anything to tackle really – devoid of traffic, it was just a featureless expanse of tarmac beneath the carriageway over pass.
The road back up to St Denis was also much steeper than I was expecting – I was down in my lowest gears, and sucking in air by the top. I did contemplate trying to pick up the Goss Moor Trail that I’d skipped in Friday’s bad weather, but my instincts were calling me to take the easy way home, without any additional adventures. In the clear conditions, the ridge on which Roche sat was visible from far away, although the lane from this side was no more than a steady, gentle climb up. The riding across this section was some of the nicest of the trip – a succession of almost traffic free rolling lanes, across interesting and scenic countryside. I kept wondering when I’d drop down to the little ford from the journey out, but after crossing a railway bridge that felt out of place, I started to realise that although I recalled many landmarks clearly, my mind was jumbling the order. Mental confusion and poor decision making is an early sign of fatigue, often appearing long before the body feels tired. That poor decision making part surfaced again as I tentatively hopped across the now much quieter Bodmin main road roundabout without even thinking of heading into town for breakfast. Instead, I’d decided that the BBQ shack would make a good stop on the return journey too. In theory, at 70km of distance for the morning, this might have made sense – on fresh legs, or with flatter riding. But my mind had erased the geography between here and there.
The landscape, though, had not forgotten – no sooner than I dropped down from Bodmin than it punished me for my faulty reasoning. At Fletchersbridge, I swung left onto a narrow lane and ran straight into a wall. My legs and lungs caught fire battling up the ferocious cliff of a road that rose out of the town. Rounding a bend, I remembered greeting a rider slogging up here on Friday as I sped down. My respect for him grew, as I battled slowly onward. Somewhere in one of my pockets I found a slightly soggy Mars Bar, saved from who knows what earlier stop. Had this ramp been the only one, it might have been enough to replenish me. But at least three more punishing climbs lay between me and my food stop – which was three more than I remembered. None were as long as the opener, but all were steep and energy sapping. The Garmin read just 68km when I finally rolled into the Golitha Falls car park, but the body felt like I’d ridden over 100. At least food and coffee were now on hand to revive me. Except, unfortunately, that is not how extreme fatigue works.
405km – Golitha Falls – 11:15 (6,126m)
Under normal riding conditions, the adage of eating “proper food” works perfectly for long distance riding and touring. But it suffers a disastrous flaw, which I’ve experienced more than once in the past and recognised the moment it hit me sat at one of the BBQ shack tables. One moment I was tucking into the most delicious thick bacon roll, and the next the world started to spin as I felt every ounce of energy retreat inside to aid my over loaded stomach. Solid food, you see, requires energy to digest, and I did not have any to spare. I sat there on a bright sunny day, shivering and feeling light headed. I did contemplate bailing on the ride and calling Yoli for help, but the one benefit of having suffered it in the past was the knowledge that if I took it easy, I would be able to ride on and gradually recover as the food did begin to fuel my systems again. True, there were still over 100 kilometres of riding ahead, but really it was more about the next couple of hills. Once across the Tamar, and back up to Brent Tor again, it was mostly flat and downhill. There was less than 30km of hard riding before I’d be able to drop the intensity and cruise home. It was going to be painfully slow, but I had no doubts about being able to push through it. Before starting back off again, I left Yoli a couple of precautionary messages about my condition, so that she didn’t stress over my sluggish progress, and could also adjust her expectations of when I’d be back.
405km – Golitha Falls – 12:30
Fortunately, after a short haul onto the top of the moor, the immediate riding was easy – a long flowing downhill to Golberton. Even the ascent back up to the ridge at Kelly Bray, alongside Callington, wasn’t especially fierce. Along the way back to Horsebridge, I finally came across the pretty little ford – where it always had been, despite my mind’s attempt at moving it somewhere else on the ride. By the time the riding bottomed out at the Tamar, I was feeling rather pleased with myself. Not for today’s riding, but for my riding across this terrain on the way out. The hills I’d been ripping down were long, and often steep. I was impressed that I’d managed to get over every one of them in the opposite direction without resorting to any walking. I knew that was not going to be true of today, but I could settle for having done better on fresh legs. Sure enough, the initial ramps out of the Tamar Valley had me hiking their steepest sections. Combined with a ludicrously slow riding pace, it seemed to reach an age to reach Brent Tor – who’s outline had been taunting me for every pedal stroke along the way. I’d already figured the next part of my recovery plan – shandy and peanuts at the pub in the centre of Lydford.
448km – Lydford – 15:35 (6,913m)
I gave strict instructions to a couple at one of the tables outside not to stop anyone from stealing my bike – they’d be doing me a favour so I didn’t have to ride it any further. As I emerged with the necessary supplies though it was, sadly, still there. It was such a glorious afternoon, I contemplated a second pint – but time was getting on. I realised once back on the Granite Way that I was still seriously under fuelled. It was only 10km further along, but a glanced down at the clock on the Garmin confirmed I might be just in time to grab a tea and carrot cake. They’d worked wonders at Lands’ End, maybe they’d inject some energy into my lethargic systems again. The owners even offered me a couple of remaining slices of pizza, but for some reason they didn’t appeal. The cake and tea hit the spot and I decided not to risk another energy dump trying to consume more. Instead I made a plan to grab a bottle of coke at one of the petrol stations on the way back to Exeter. A quick and portable source of ready sugars to carry in my back pocket for the last leg home.
Despite having ridden this section, it was the first time I’d done the reverse journey from Okehampton back to Exeter. It was uphill out of town, and then again after dipping down to Sticklepath and South Zeal. But as heavy as my legs were, neither of the ramps trouble me. The Niner has a wonderfully low crawler gear, and I just sat and span as the sun slowly sank and the evening light faded through deepening shades of orange. As I pulled in for my quick snack stop at Whiddon Down, the day’s real climbing was pretty much done. There were still a couple of ramps to come, but probably the worst of these were on the very last section beyond Exeter. I was already looking forward to the long downhill before then that even the short inclines up to Cheriton Bishop and Pathfinder Village seemed to have no sting left in them. My body was tired, but the legs were beginning to spin easier again. The blast back down Five Mile hill was not the only treat the tour still had in store for me. In a strange twist of fate, my slower riding pace served up what is possibly the most dramatically beautiful sight I have ever seen from the bike. Crossing the fields towards Tedburn St Mary, the Vale of Exeter lay down below, barely visible now in the last rays of sunlight before me. Rising slowly above the horizon was the largest moon I have ever seen – it seemed to fill half the sky as it climbed into the sky. It suddenly came back to me, I’d heard on the radio that tonight was a Harvest Moon which would appear as one the largest and brightest of the year. And the only reason I was out here on this exact spot to enjoy it’s full majesty was because I’d ridden like a complete novice. Sensible riding would have seen me home by now, and I’d have completely missed this moment of utter beauty.
The descent into Exeter was rapid, and chilly. I was cold by the time I emerged into the sodium lit streets. I wasn’t entirely sure which way to head home, but eventually it was simpler just to retrace my path from 2 days ago. A few of the cycle paths on the way out of town were eerily dark – even with both lights on full beam, I felt slightly nervous to be on them alone. Once past the airport, and back onto dark country lanes I stopped one last time. Stood with the bike propped against a farm gate, I took the last swigs of coke from the bottle in my pocket. But that was not why I pulled over. With the city lights now behind me, the dark skies put on their display – even with the brightness of the moon, countless points of light twinkled across the perfect silence of the night. In truth, I wasn’t sure at this point how I felt about the tour – some parts had been sublime, but others had been way tougher than I anticipated. I wasn’t sure whether this was because they were genuinely hard, or if I was losing the appetite for long distance riding. I knew it was mostly just the fatigue talking, but part of me wondered if I’d be out riding many more nights like this. Either way. I didn’t want to squander the moment. I stood, quietly taking it all in for a few minutes before launching myself up the last two hills back to reality.