Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

20th July: Devon Coast to Coast

This weekend saw my second annual cycling expedition with school-friends Dean, Rob & Stu. Last year was a circuit of the Isle of Wight on our MTB's where despite being on an island we never once touched water. This year we were to start and finish in water with a cycle from north to South Devon, the only county in the country with 2 independent coastlines.

We would be starting on the Saturday morning from Ilfracombe with an overnight stop in Okehampton before continuing from there to the finish in Plymouth the following day, with a rail journey on the Monday from Plymouth to Barnstaple before cycling the last 15 miles back to Ilfracombe.

We all gathered on the Friday evening at the house of Rob's parents who had retired to Ilfracombe a good few years back which gave us an ideal starting point and we all enjoyed some pre-ride carb loading of fish & chips and beer watching the sun set over the Atlantic ocean before retiring for the night.

Spot the difference.
Bright and early we readied ourselves and rolled down the hill to the harbour in Ilfracombe, starting our ride by the Damien Hirst statue ‘Verity’ and a quick ceremonial dip of the wheels in the water and we were off up the hill and on to the former railway line heading south.

Wheels wetted.
The ride was to take in as much off-roading as we could along the route to Plymouth following the Sustrans national cycle-route 27 with the majority of the 100 mile ride (about 70 miles) being covered on day 1 we were aware that we needed to make good time, so we eagerly pushed onwards.

Just follow this sign for the next 100 miles & we'll be ok!
Following the old railway bed, I found us retracing the steps of my last marathon, before we turned-off and headed for Woolacombe via Mortehoe, where on the descent through the village we were held-up in a traffic jam of holidaymakers in vehicles too wide to pass a road in opposite directions causing the blockage, before weaving our way round it and continuing.

Rolling downhill to Mortehoe.
A lovely downhill section in to Woolacombe and again we rejoined the North Devon AONB marathon course, where we hit the sand-dunes next to the beach and the coastal path where disaster struck for me… I had fitted my bike with panniers to carry my luggage on this journey, but the bouncing over the dunes had caused a screw thread from the luggage rack to strip out of the aluminium frame, cause the rack to twist, the pannier to shift with it and become trapped between the wheel and the frame, tearing it all open and scattering the contents over the ground.

Approaching Woolacombe.
Cramming everything in to the other side of the pannier and accepting Dean’s offer of a cable-tie, the rack and panniers were bodged together enough to be able to continue the journey towards Georgham and an MTB section only of the route. It was soon apparent why it was marked as MTB only with how slippery the steep rocky muddy uphill section was that had us all losing grip and having to put our feet down or push the bikes through insufficient traction to pedal in a straight enough line.

The effort to get to the top was worth it though as the downhill that followed was quite fun and off the back of this hill we rolled all the way in to Braunton, with our path passing directly through the centre of the town. I took the opportunity whilst here to track-down then nearest hardware store and bought a roll of duct tape and taped the pannier back together so as to be able to continue the journey with an evenly spread load.

Within the next mile I had to stop a further 3 times to adjust the setup of the rack and panniers as they were continually slipping and I became acutely aware that my mechanical issues were really dragging the rest of the guys back… Once moving again, with the mechanical issues resolved, the real problems started for me:

For breakfast I had only eaten 2 slices of toast, and with a combination of the bike weighing what felt to be an extra 20 kilos with the luggage rack, panniers and their contents (I had deliberately overpacked on repair tools etc.) and the drama of the breaking of them, I had neglected to eat anything since about 8am and I really was beginning to bonk.

Pedalling hard I managed to catch-up with the others as I crammed a Cliff bar into my mouth in an effort to get some food in to the tank, but with this section along the flat path of the estuary from Braunton through Barnstaple to Bideford, it was a real struggle to keep my legs moving at all. Once all grouped together upon crossing the bridge over the estuary in Barnstaple we decided that to make as good a time as we could we would ride this long flat section as a peloton, with each of us taking a turn on the front for a mile with the others drafting off the leader, before dropping to the back.

Even with the assistance of drafting, I was struggling to keep my legs going and stay in touch with everyone, but I lasted till it was my turn on front, and looking at my Garmin the whole time I hammered the pedals as hard as I could for a mile and a half, maintaining the speed needed before I dropped to the back, then really struggled to hold on to the rear of the ‘train’… From this point the others were really being slowed down by me, so it was a relief to finally reach Bideford where we stopped for lunch in a cafe overlooking the river.

The view from the cafe... And a bold statement on the digger's arm!
After a restful stop fortifying ourselves with coke, sandwiches and chips we mounted our trusty steeds and continued south, soon leaving the river behind and heading upwards and further inland. This next hour I found as hard as the last one before lunch as my legs were still dead through the fuel tank still registering empty. I even resorted to trying to persuade the guys to carry on and let me catch them as I had the directions on my Garmin so all I needed to do was follow the arrow and I would get to the pub where we were spending the night… Naturally the guys refused, so I plodded on as best as I could at the back of the 4 of us. About an hour in to this afternoon session, something amazing happened: all of a sudden my legs began working again and I was able to keep up with the guys and begin to enjoy the riding once more.

The view from the bridge leaving Bideford.
A popular route with the locals!
Inky black waters.
 We were now in open countryside, passing from hamlet to hamlet going up and down hills via farm and woodland. Everything was pretty uneventful, barring a near collision between Rob and a car driving on the wrong side of the road crossing a bridge in the wonderfully named Sheepwash. Ascending to Highampton we could now see in the distance Okehampton with Dartmoor beyond it. Pushing on along the ridge to Hatherleigh we had our last sapping climb of the day through the village - with its imaginatively named ‘High Street’ and a little way up the hill ‘Higher Street’, before our final lengthy descent in to Okehampton, which suddenly appeared around a bend from out of nowhere!

Dean with a distant Okehampton & Dartmoor behind him.
Through the town and across the golf course and we were at our resting point for the night out to the west of the town, Betty Cottles, where we all showered, ate heartily and drank a few beers before hitting the sack completely cream-crackered but with 70 miles chalked-off.

This way home (Hook)... I think?
Next morning we all had our ‘full English’ to start the day and were turfed-out with the doors locked behind us before I had a chance to fill my water bottles! Fortunately a stand-pipe was located in the grounds so I could use that to fill-up.

We made our way under the A30 and onto the former railway line that was forming the cycle path here and rode the first mile till we arrived at Meldon Viaduct, stopping to admire the view where over to the South we could see the Meldon reservoir dam.

The viaduct from the side.
Just past here Rob and Dean had found a bridleway that would take them up on to Dartmoor for a spot of proper off-roading and decided to detour on that, rejoining the path about a mile or so in front. With my bike not being in a state to follow on even if the rider was willing, Stu and myself just carried on along the route and waited for them outside the church where the two paths met once more.

Skirting the moor.
From hereon the morning’s ride was a trip around the edge of Dartmoor, with Dean and Rob detouring on another occasion, as we all soaked-up the scenic vistas and rolled the miles under our tyres.

Beats riding round a town centre.
Towards midday as we turned and left the moorlands behind we found ourselves next to a delightful stream that was supplying the local hydro plant and stopped to relax by the water’s edge before continuing on to Peter Tavy where we knew a pub to be for lunch. This knowledge was courtesy of diligent research by Dean and Rob as we were navigating using routes plotted on the mobile app Viewranger by them which helpfully included 'waymarks' of pubs in areas where we might likely be come lunch/ rest times.

The cooling stream under the trees.
Heading down to the hydro plant.
Approaching the village, we bounced our way down a narrow trail strewn with rocks, where upon bottoming-out on one of them I could feel the tyre begin to deflate as I picked-up the groups one and only puncture of the whole journey. Hoping it was going to be a slow one, I broke the news to the guys that I would be able to nurse it to the pub and repair it whilst we had lunch, to find we were right outside the pub - As poor a fortune as getting a puncture might be, it couldn’t have happened in a better place.

Dean was so hungry he even ate the garnish.
Filled with our lunch at Peter Tavy we journeyed onwards to Tavistock, taking the elevated route through it that looks down upon the town from a viaduct. Whilst stopping on the bridge to admire the view I commented to Stu about there being a mobile mast on the horizon off in the distance at the top of a big hill, and how knowing us we’d end up climbing to it… Dean and Rob just carried on, the ones who had planned the route which should have been a clue as about an hour later after climbing up what seemed to be an eternity along a 1 in 2 gradient we found ourselves by that self same mast, rinsed-out by the effort!

Looking down on Tavistock from the viaduct.
Shortly after this there was a cracking downhill section on a country road that was so steep that with our unfamiliarity of the road combined with the narrow nature of it we could not just let ourselves go and roll at maximum speed, so brakes were employed the whole way down… Employed to a level that they really had to work overtime to scrub off just a bit of speed. Soon with the extreme heat you could feel radiating off our discs, all of us began to experience brake failure in the latter stages of the descent, where no matter how hard you pulled the brake levers nothing more was happening. Fortunately at the bottom there was space to ‘run-off’ into and come to a halt - where Stu’s curiosity got the better of him by wondering exactly how hot his brake discs were and giving himself a bit of a burn - and he’s the one with a degree in physics!

Ascending the fiendish hill.
Now at the bottom of a hill we had to get up the next - over a very rocky path just as steep as the one we had come down. This was akin to something I have to tackle on one of my trail marathons so I was perfectly happy just pushing up the hill whilst Dean and Rob made determined attempts to at least cycle a few metres here and there along the path.

At least with the miles ticking down there was the certainty that this was going to be the only remaining climb of note and on the back side of this we joined the Drakes Trail and skirted back on to Dartmoor again, passing some of the wild ponies along the way and the side of Yalverton, the last town before the finish.

Wild ponies.
From reaching here we knew the route was now pretty much a downhill path to the finish and just as the road began to noticeably descend we reached Clearbrook, where we could see a conveniently located pub, which we took advantage of, before the final section of 10 miles or so in to the finish in Plymouth.

Chilling at the final stop before the end.
Out of Clearbrook and the cycle trail was once more a former rail-bed, this time along the side of a valley, with lovely views across the other side through the trees, and the occasional tunnel to traverse where you could feel the temperature drop as you entered their dark mouths. This entire section was pretty much rollable to the outskirts of Plymouth, where we hit the flat… As we pulled alongside the estuary the latest mechanical misfortune beset me - I could no longer get one of my shoes to clip in to the pedal, minor I realise but one that was bugging me, but at least it did not prevent me from cycling.

The easy roll down hill to Plymouth.
In to the city centre and we were pretty-much there, only delayed by an enforced wait for the swing bridge to open for us with shipping traffic needing to escape Plymouth, we rolled through the throng of tourists on a beautiful sunny evening in to the middle of town, finding an ideal spot by the water’s edge in to which we dipped out bike’s wheels.

Wetting the wheels at the end.
100 miles on MTB’s in 2 days done!.. We booked-in to our B&B and showered before hitting the nearest pub for celebratory beers and a hearty meal. As we sat outside enjoying our pints we watched as an ambulance pulled-up to the pub and paramedics went inside.

About 30 minutes later as we were inside and waiting our food, we found out what was the matter: A fellow patron had collapsed in the ladies toilets, so we were all hoping that we had not ordered what she had been eating!

At least we weren't staying at the 'Quality Hotel'!
After a few more beers we retired back to the B&B where we all slept soundly, before waking and enjoying another full english. The weather was miserable with it pouring with rain, so we made our way to the station as quickly as we could and loaded our bikes on to the train for Exeter before changing on to the local puffer there to take us to Barnstaple.

Whilst on the train I discovered the problem with my pedal - it was the metal plate in my shoe that the cleat attaches to had bent so far it blocked the cleat so was now useless!

The ride from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe was found to be tough by all of us and I think we were all glad to have ridden north to south rather than the other way round, but eventually we managed to drag our sorry saddle-sore arses back to Rob’s parent’s house where a good lunch was awaiting us.

An uneventful drive home passed and as soon as I unloaded the bike from the van I removed the pannier and the luggage rack and tossed them in the rubbish. Looking at the rear tyre, the tread had completely disappeared over the 100 miles. The front wheel was still barely worn but the back was now a ‘slick’, which goes to show how much of a weight the rack and panniers were bearing down upon the rear of the bike. The cycling shoes followed the panniers into the bin with them being unrepairable - basically all the new kit I bought for the ride ended up broken and jettisoned at the end. During the rides I was chastised by my comadres for my choices where it was pointed out that ‘you get what you pay for’ and I was a fool for buying cheaply off eBay, but hey, you learn from your mistakes, adapt and move on.

Overall the route is a very enjoyable ride through the changing scenery of the countryside, covering everything from coastal road to remote moorland. The second day was a very easy one by comparison to the first, so it certainly makes sense to ‘break the back’ of the route on the first day before resting at Okehampton.

I would have loved to join Rob and Dean as they went off up on to the moors a couple of times, but the bike really was not up to it… Its safe to say that I’ve learned my lesson for luggage next time: hydration back pack, a beam rack with a small bag on top and to hell with the notion of cycle touring: ‘put all the weight on the bike and not you’. I did not like it this way round and found it uncomfortable!.. Also I will spend a bit more on the components in future and ensure everything mechanical is sound before embarking on the ride rather than 'winging it'.

Whilst in the pub the previous night after successfully finishing, our minds began to focus on next year’s expedition and it looks like it will involve another crossing of some sorts… Time will tell :)

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Ride far.

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