Devon coast to coast day 1: Monday 8th July
Down Thomas to Ilfracombe
Total distance: 176.16km
Average speed: 17.6km/h
Maximum speed: 57.3km/h
Total cycling time: 09:59:43
I set off from Down Thomas at 06:10, and took a quick detour down to Wembury bay so that I was actually starting from the coast. From there, I set off towards Plymouth, and made quick progress to the first of the cycle paths along the route, Drake’s Trail, which is a traffic free cycle route leading from Plymouth all the way up to Tavistock. The majority of this section is uphill from Plymouth, although there are no steep climbs at all, due to it being an old railway route. It climbs steadily out of Plymouth, crossing a number of pretty impressive viaducts and going through some old railway tunnels.
As it was so early in the day, it was still pretty cool, and the climbing was really easy. I arrived at Tavistock having cycled 40km in just over two hours, and stopped by a river for a second breakfast. There were some short, tough climbs out of Tavistock, followed by more climbs and descents all the way through to Lydford where the Granite Way, the second of the day’s traffic free cycle paths, began.
The route was fairly flat along this section, as again it follows the route of an old railway track, and there was a short section of climbing before a steep, fast downhill section all the way down to Okehampton. This next section from Okehampton through to East Yarde was very challenging, and by this time the temperature had risen to at least 30 degrees in the sun. I spent what seemed like a lifetime fighting my way up unbelievably steep hills, which were rewarded by lovely fast descents, but immediately followed by more punishing climbs.
For the first time ever, I used the lowest gears on my bike, and stopped half way up a hill. I never stop half way up a hill… After this gruelling section of the ride I finally joined the Tarka Trail at Petrockstowe, and the terrain levelled out to a gradual climb. Although it was a huge relief to have the repetitive steep hills behind me, the Tarka Trail wasn’t a great riding surface. The previous trails had been either sealed surfaces or fine gravel, but the Tarka Trail was a rough, stony, bumpy surface. I climbed gradually until I came to a fantastic little place called the Yarde Orchard Cafe and Bunkhouse, where I decided to stop for a rest and some food.
I sat down at a table outside, next to a Dutch woman who was also touring the area by bike, but traveling in the opposite direction to me. She was having a day off as she’d had a couple of tough days, and we chatted for a while over our drinks. She told me how she’s done some amazing trips all over the world, and started out on short trips like the one’s I’ve been doing recently. She’s toured in New Zealand, all over Europe, and has even crossed America, which is right at the top of the list of rides I want to complete. It was really inspiring talking to her, and it showed me that it’s well within my capabilities to achieve the goals I’ve set myself, and I just need to get on and do it.
After 45 minutes or so I said goodbye, and she joked that we might bump into one another when I was on my way back down the following day. I set off along the Tarka Trail, and soon came to a long, gradual descent, which made coping with the rough surface a lot easier. This descent took me all the way from East Yarde through to Great Torrington, and on to Bideford without any significant climbs at all. The route follows the river Torridge downstream all the way to the point at which it becomes a tidal estuary at Bideford.
At Bideford the river opens out gradually into a wide estuary, and route 27 hugs the edge of it all the way through to Barnstaple. This was another energy sapping section, and it seemed to take forever to reach Barnstaple. Despite it being completely flat, it was still very hot, and I was battling into a headwind all the way from Bideford to Barnstaple, with tired, aching legs from the earlier climbs.
At Barnstaple the route crosses the river Taw and then continues for 5km or so along the opposite side of the estuary, in the opposite direction from the previous section between Bideford and Barnstaple. Fortunately this mean the headwind turned into a tailwind, and I made quick progress down to Braunton, and arrived with a renewed energy. I was now within the final 25km section of the day, but knew that the section between Braunton and Ilfracombe was going to be the most challenging riding of the whole day.
As soon as I got out of Braunton the land rose very sharply, and within 5km I’d climb around 200m in two very steep, hard sections. There was little relief at the top, as despite the fact that the route profiles show this to be a flat plateau, in reality it was a series of rolling hills, with numerous short, sharp climbs followed by equally short descents. Finally I arrived at Willingcott, absolutely exhausted, and was able to enjoy a long descent all the way into Ilfracombe.
Unfortunately, the campsite turned out to be further out of Ilfracombe than I’d anticipated, and the coastal road heading east out of the town was a series of yet more very steep ups and downs. By this point I was totally out of energy, and all I wanted was for the day’s riding to be over.
It’s really difficult to get this feeling across in writing, and the above account doesn’t do it at all. The combination of physical exhaustion from climbing over 1000m in 30 degree heat all day, and the toil it had taken mentally, had left me with nothing. I finally arrived at the campsite at 19:30, having been on the go since 06:10. I was elated to have completed a 100+ mile ride, but far too tired to face cycling back into Ilfracombe to find somewhere to eat supper.
The campsite didn’t have any mobile signal, so in order to let Mum know I wasn’t dead or in hospital, after I’d set up my tent I had to cycle up to the top of a nearby hill so that I could use my phone (2.29km / 13.2 av. / 42.8 max. / 00:10:28), and I watched a beautiful sunset before going back to the site, eating an entire tube of Pringles, and going to bed.
By this point I’d already decided that there was no way I could complete the return leg down to Plymouth in one go the following day. Had the weather not been so hot, I think I’d have been able to do it, but I couldn’t have completed another 176km the next day in the same conditions. I decided that I’d split the return into two days, camping somehwere half way. This would allow me to enjoy the trip much more, and not have to constantly be thinking about getting as many kilometers done as possible.
Day 1 was by far the most challenging day of cycling I’ve ever done, and surpassed all of the challenges I faced on the London to Paris trip. Exhausted and aching, I collapsed into my tent and didn’t bother setting an alarm.