Up and Down

There’s doubt as to whether the expression “May you live in interesting times” is actually an ancient Chinese proverb, or a more recent, and possibly accidental mis-translation. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a more apt phrase to sum up the unusual times we find ourselves living through. As cyclists, it’s certainly been a challenging time, with many of our favourite events and races cancelled. And, depending on exactly where you live, also affecting how often and how far you can ride. In the early lockdown stages, here in England, we were allowed out just once a day, with an emphasis (although not an actual hard rule) that those rides should be close to home. Other parts of the UK and Europe were far stricter – limiting distances to as little as 2km from home in some cases. My riding buddies back in South Africa had it even tougher – for many weeks they weren’t allowed to ride at all. And when that restriction was lifted, riding was only allowed within a 5km radius from home between the hours of 6am and 9am.

Thankfully, such limits are gradually being eased around the globe. Although, speaking personally, that is something of a double-edged sword. At the height of the lockdown, practically no cars were out on the roads. So light was the traffic that I felt comfortable riding on normally busy A-roads. It was a delight to enjoy these new variations to my regular riding. As the lockdown lifts though, I’m pulling back to country lanes, paths, and other, less busy, byways. With no  rules as to how far we may travel now, I’m also hoping to rack up some longer days too in preparation for my planned (albeit now delayed) Highlands riding adventure. My body badly needs some 150km+ days to become familiar (if not exactly comfortable) again with many hours of saddle time. One thing that is sadly still off limits is any overnight trips, and at present all Audax rides are still on hold (although that is under review). So without any of those to journal, it seemed a good idea to jot down a short account on the remaining two I took part in last year.  Both of these, it’s fair to say, are physical and mental reflections of our local landscape, which is to say full of “ups” and “downs”.

Utterleigh Butterleigh

A 104km Audax UK ride that started 10km from my front door and included a cream tea at the end was pretty much irresistible to me. Although on the day, I wimped out of riding to the start on the basis of an unavoidable 20% gradient to get there. I wasn’t worried about tackling it on fresh legs in the morning. But on tired legs after the ride, there was a sizeable risk of me calling home and begging Yoli for a lift home. Another bonus of taking the easy way to registration, was time for coffee and a bacon roll before the start.

Somewhere in the pre-ride notes was a comment about intentionally including a number of fords to get cross some of the many rivers on the route. The first of these came at the foot of a steeply sided, narrow lane before we’d even left Budleigh Salterton. From memory, most of the riders around me followed the organizer’s advice to take the small footbridge rather than risk any submerged potholes hidden under the water flowing across the ford. Soon after, we were climbing out of the woodland on the edge of town, and up onto the bracken and gorse covered open moorland of Woodbury Common. It’s a truly delightful expanse of countryside, with views down to Exeter and the Ex estuary on one side, and back to the Budleigh coastline and out to sea on the other. The road itself is a main artery, normally busy with traffic, but as we rolled across it just a handful of cars passed us. We swung left and started racing down a steep and narrow lane towards Woodbury itself well before any level of Sunday morning traffic managed to find us.

Somewhere at the bottom of this long descent, around 12km into the ride, we wound through the village of Clyst St George. Left and right of the road riders were stopped, hastily filling in the details of this Information Control onto their brevet cards. I quickly did the same before rolling back onto the route. Just beyond was the next of the fords, although I seem to remember this one was almost completely dry – just a damp trickle across a tidy herringbone mosaic of brick insets that made up the base of the road where it crossed the path of the stream. About a kilometre further on we took a less pleasant detour into the busy traffic of the A3052. It was necessary though, to get across to the quaint village of Clyst St Mary and back onto more quiet lanes. Around here I was struck by the common sounding names of so many of the villages we were passing through (up ahead was Clyst Honiton & Broadclyst, amongst others). One of the riders nearby confirmed that they all derive from the River Clyst, which at this stage we were following, roughly.

Very briefly, we pulled out of the meandering, leafy back-roads to get across the busy A30 dual carriageway (luckily by bridge!), and around the industrial estates of Exeter Airport. The area was busy with construction, white and red striped barriers and roadwork debris all around us. Fortunately, we were quickly beyond it and even though we still had to cross the M5 motorway, were largely away from built up areas and traffic beyond this point. Pleasant as the riding was though, it was also where we left the easy riding behind us and began to climb. From the point we rolled across the motorway bridge, to the top of the hill was around 8km – all of which was up. The overall ascent may have be under 300m, but it got progressively steeper until hitting gradients over 14% for the final stretches. More than a few riders were walking before the top. By now I was riding in the company of a couple who had travelled from somewhere distant (maybe Guildford?) to do the ride. They’re on a pair of lust-worthy Mason Bokeh bikes, one a fiery orange, the other an understated grey. The pleasant (if breathless) conversation, and the fact that I’m now a local and therefore have a duty to put up a good show, were more than incentive enough to keep me pushing to the top rather than taking the soft option. Luckily, this early in the ride my legs were still fairly fresh, which helped.

We rode in company down the fast flowing descent into the valley beyond, which turned out to be immediately followed by another steep climb across open farmland before diving down again into the town of Tiverton, and the first full control. The run in was scarily steep, pitching down at 20% in places, and with a road surface that was hard to judge under the dappled shade of trees. I was so relieved to reach the bottom safely that I forgot to shift gears, and dropped my chain as I pullws across the road. Shaking off my rather unimpressive arrival at the control, I found a space to prop my bike and trudged into the garden to get my card signed and fill up water bottles. I was tempted by the idea of food, but the tables and grass banks were packed and it was clearly going to be a significant wait. So I opted for a snack bar and water instead. It was possibly a mistake, given how much energy the rolling hills had drained already.

Leaving Tiverton, we were on main roads for a while. The couple by now clearly feeling stronger than me and, without the legs to push into the slight headwind, I accepted my fate and slowly dropped back to own pace again. I knew there were more steep inclines ahead, at least one of which I had failed to climb already on a previous solo ride. I was under no illusions that it would be any different today.

The climb began at the turn off to Broadhembury. It was a steady haul over the first half into the village itself. From there on though, the remaining 2km became more serious. The last 750m hit over 16% in places which, as expected, was enough to see me off the bike and trudging. On fresh legs I’d have managed it, but after the thrashing so far I just didn’t have enough drive to keep pushing upward. This was really the last hill of any consequence though, and I knew at the top there was a fast run down into Honiton. At a random road intersection, I stopped briefly to jot down the required details for our second Information Control, taking the opportunity to also adjust my clothing for chillier air on the descent.  In no time at all, I was pulling into the tea garden in Honiton for the next full control. Despite being fairly much at the back of the field, there was still quite a gathering of riders there. The couple with the Mason’s are at one of the tables, and I join them with a large coffee and slab of cake in hand. We chat a while, but they’re keen to get going well before I am finished enjoying the cake. It’s entirely possible I went back for seconds before tearing myself away and back out to the road.

The last 20km was on quiet, rolling lanes, many of which were familiar. The organizers did  show us a pleasant route via Fluxton and Tipton St John, avoiding the busy main road back through Ottery St Mary. None of the remaining riding was steep, but a nagging cramp struck me on the last ramps towards Otterton. It was sufficiently bad to see me unclip, and practice some one footed pedalling up the very last incline. By now, I was firmly with the tail end of the ride: a group of friends, one of them on a single speed (impressive given some of the gradients we had seen); and a rider who’s name may have been Stuart (I really need to get better about remembering names!) I did at least managed to grab his Garmin off the tarmac just in time to avoid it being crushed by a car behind when he suffered a mount failure thanks to some particularly ugly potholes.

Finally, we rolled out along the Budleigh seafront and back through the town to the Arrivée. The promised, and by now much anticipated cream teas, were luckily still in plentiful supply. Mine was enjoyed in the company of the Mason couple, exchanging some last stories before we headed our separate ways. I was very glad mine was via the convenience of my car, given the persisting cramp in my legs. Lack of recent riding, the likely culprit.

Overall a delightful ride and, being local, one I will definitely do again.

Dartmoor Devil

Honestly, when I entered the Dartmoor Devil I wasn’t totally sure I’d actually be riding it. The first weekend in November is far from a weather-sure bet for riding, plus at around 2,500m of steep climbing I was more than a little daunted about the scale of the task. As the ride date approached though, the forecast looked progressively more optimistic – mostly clear, with a chance of some afternoon rain and wind. Chilly, sure, but decent apart from that. There was still the small matter of the hills, but there was only one way to get past those.

I opted for the later of the two start times – 9am gave me more time to get to Bovey Tracey, and grab a cup of coffee before the off. Rather fittingly, we started in the same café where my last Bovey ride had finished. In fact the route began by winding back up the short sharp hill past the house where we had set off on the Dartmoor Ghost a few months back. The last few meters of the road were punchy. Out of the saddle and sucking in air, it was a good warm up. Though any delusions I might have had that this was classed as one of the hills were soon banished. After a short spell of main road we turned right onto something properly steep. According to my GPS log, this twisting lane hit an utterly savage 26.5% gradient in it’s middle section. I managed to battle up much of it, but the legs just weren’t in shape for the whole thing. Still within 5km of the start, and I was already walking. Any doubts about that elevation were now dispelled – it was going to be a tough day on the bike.

We passed a pair of reservoirs at the top of the hill, and out across rolling country lanes. The morning was bright and clear, and the views were utterly sublime – a long valley of farms and fields towards Moretonhampsted on our left, and out across moorland, and deep woodland in front and to the right. After a small intermediate ramp, the route rose sharply to the first control in Drewsteignton. In comparison to the previous onslaught, this short 17% section seems barely worthy of a mention.

In proper Audax fashion, the control was actually in a bus stop – albeit a rather fine example. A sturdy wooden shelter, closed from the elements on three sides. More importantly, there was cake along with water bottle refills. And a collection box for a local cause of some kind – which naturally was contributed too. At this point I realised I was pretty much, if not absolutely, dead last of the field. In fact one other rider came through the control whilst I was there, and over the next few kilometres he and I passed each other frequently as our respective speeds varied with the terrain. The riding and scenery were glorious – and in places more than a little “interesting”. Almost the only photo I took on the day was a flooded section that resembled a stream more than it did a road. I was sure I’d drop a wheel into a pothole and end up soaked, but somehow managed to stay upright and mostly dry. Soon after this spot we descended what was in theory a lane, but in reality was more of a slippery, muddy and rocky offroad descent. Even on 30mm+ mixed terrain tyres it was sketchy – I wondered how those on narrow road tyres had faired. There were a few suspiciously flat and smooth patches that could have been marked out by falling humans.

The gravel and mud ended in a stream at the bottom, after which a long, but very picturesque slog of a climb began towards the village of Manaton and back out onto open moorland. To my left a steady procession of hikers were meandering up to the unmistakeable outline of Haytor Rocks. It was all so lovely, it was almost possible to ignore the ever upward 20% wall of road that was slowly grinding down the remains of my kneecaps. 

The top of the moor was an utter relief to the legs. As I sped along, I made a mental note of some interesting looking standing stones to mention to Yoli. One of them a tall and isolated pillar, jutting randomly out of the middle of a farmers field. Once across the moor the road descended rapidly towards the second control. Although again, as it dipped lower, it’s questionable whether the term “road” is strictly accurate. What started as a small trickle across the tarmac, rapidly became a full blown, bubbling cascade at least a centimetre or so in depth. It was a relief when the sight of the hotel appeared on the right. I was beginning to think I’d need a canoe to get much further safely.

Soup! Yes! Just what a tired and chilly body needs on a strenuous ride. In hindsight though, I should have gone back for seconds, or even thirds. Too concerned with the clock, I needlessly cut my visit short and in doing so made the fatal mistake of not fuelling properly for the level of exertion. That mistake was compounded soon after with another gruelling hill up out of Ashburton (alongside a pretty river were people were actually canoeing!). The worst was still to come though – as I rose up out of the woods again, the moorland bore no resemblance to the sunny open spaces of less than an hour before. Not a patch of blue remained, replaced on all sides with dark, ominous looking clouds. I slogged on, certain of the knowledge that the slight drizzle was going to turn into a full blown storm before it eased up. Doubts crept in and my resolve began to weaken.

At each junction, I started to try and recall which, if any, of the roads around and about might offer a shortcut back to Bovey. But under it’s dim blanket of cloud, the route may have felt familiar, but none of the turnings seemed to be heading in the right direction. The thin strip of grey tar wound upward ahead of me and disappeared behind a darker grey curtain of rain. Somewhere on the moor the route turned off and dipped steeply down through the hamlet of Hexworthy. In the valley bottom, the road arched over a quaint stone bridge. One branch of the river Dart flowed beneath in a surging torrent of white crested water. The irony of a sign outside the village church was not lost on me “always open, all are welcome” (or wording to that effect). I was sorely tempted to take up the offer. I was wet, cold, low on energy, and there was another 40km of hard riding on the official route. The next control point was a pub in Princetown. It was no more than 15km away, and there’d be hot food no doubt. But getting there carried a penalty. There would be another steep climb back from that point, and the time taken to eat would push me towards finishing the ride in the dark. Normally night riding holds no fears for me – I had lights, of course. But I really didn’t fancy trying to pick a safe line through anything like the lanes we had seen so far lit only by the power of my front light. That 9am start wasn’t feeling quite so smart by now.

At the T-junction with the B3357 I turned left and pedalled briefly in the direction of Princetown, but instinct told me it was the wrong call. A few meters down the road I made the decision. I stopped briefly, but there was no cell phone signal. I’d have to find somewhere along the road to let Yoli and the organizers know I was scratching. I followed a signpost off the main road towards a cafe in the hope of getting WiFi and maybe some food. But it proved fruitless – the tables were all full, and technology had yet to reach this remote corner of Dartmoor. As beautiful as the valley around Dartmeet was, it was hard to head back out into it with the rain belting down. Soaked and cold, I even tried to blag a ride with one of the few tourist buses in the car park. But my powers of persuasion had clearly also been dampened by the storm. With no other option, I slogged my way back along the drive through curtains of rain.

I was warm again before long. I may have been off the main route, but that did not offer any respite from the reality of the landscape. I was still on the far side of the moor to Bovey Tracey, and the only way back was a series of stiff climbs still. Somewhat surprisingly I came across another Randonneur who had misread the routesheet. There was a pained expression as he  turned to go back down the hill we had just slogged up. For me though, I was now on a more direct route, I’d be back in daylight if I kept pedalling. On one of the higher points I managed to get cell signal and make the necessary calls. Soon after I cut across towards Widecombe and back onto the main route. I began to see other riders. One group were roadside fixing punctures, and another beginning the final climb up towards Haytor Rocks. As an added precaution to my phone call, I asked one of the riders to pass on a message of my scratching. And with that, and the last climb behind me I began the very welcome descent back to Bovey.

The drama wasn’t quite done yet though. The combination of a lack of energy, damp clothing, and the breeze of a long, fast downhill left me utterly freezing by the time I reached the car. Even though they had closed, I managed to convince the café owners where we had started to let me change into dry clothing in their toilets. It barely made any difference though. With the car heater turned up full, and wearing everything I had that was dry, I was still shivering uncontrollably an hour later when I got home. It sounds a bit dramatic to suggest I was on the edge of hypothermia, but I’ve been there once before in my life and this felt scarily close. You are cold from the inside out, and just can’t find the energy to warm up. It takes a very long time for any heat from the outside to change that. It’s a precarious position, and vanquished any lingering doubts I had over scratching. Another 2 or 3 hours of trying to ride in that condition might not have ended well.

Despite the DNF it was still a great day out and a valuable lesson (re)learned. Take on board more fuel on tough rides in harsh weather. Like the title says, Audaxing in the UK seems to be a definite case of ups and downs.

With thanks, and credit, to Graham Brodie for the use of some of his photos to make up for my own woeful performance in the photography department.

2 Replies to “Up and Down”

  1. Rob, I am beginning to think the object of these rides of yours over there is to not take any food with you on the bike but to rely solely on tea and cake stops along the way! Although I have to admit, you had me at that bacon roll 🙂

    1. Haha – you may not be wrong there Will. And yeah, the bacon roll was pretty good. Assuming it is on this year, I’ll be having another crack at the Devil – just better prepared, including more on-bike food!

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