Paddling.

Devon coast to coast day 3: Wednesday 10th July.

Bridestowe to Down Thomas.

Departed: 11:10

Arrived: 15:45

Total distance: 56.58km

Average speed: 17.1km/h

Maximum speed: 66.3km/h

Total cycling time: 03:18:28

I allowed myself an even later start than day two, and got up at around 10:00. The Dutch cyclist had left early, and I cooked a breakfast of three boiled eggs and a tin of beans before showering and packing away all my gear. It was a nice feeling to set off knowing that I only had around 65-70km to cycle, and was under no pressure at all to rush. As well as being the shortest of the three days in terms of distance, day three was also going to be the least hilly, as I’d got the worst of the climbs out of the way the day before.

There was some hard climbing out of Bridestowe towards Mary Tavy, but then it was downhill almost all the way the Tavistock, where I picked up Drake’s Trail again. The trail climbed steadily all the way through to Yelverton, where I started an uninterrupted, 15km descent all the way along the trail to Plymouth. At the end of Drake’s trail, all that was left was a final 6km back to Down Thomas, which included one final kick in the teeth in the form of a painfully steep hill along Goosewell Road. 

Finally, at 15:45, I finished the ride, having completed a punishing 350km over three days. I parked the bike up, and jumped straight into the paddling pool to cool off. It had been an amazing ride, through some beautiful countryside, but I found it far more challenging than my ride from London to Paris. Had it not been for the heat, I’m sure it would have been easier, but whatever the weather the sheer number of hills was a killer, especially on a loaded touring bike. 

Some advice to anyone looking to do this ride would be to allow four days, which in retrospect would have been a far more comfortable amount of time to take, and would have made it more enjoyable and less exhausting. Also, the route isn’t really suitable for road bikes, as there are some poor surfaces, which at best would make for a very uncomfortable ride, and most likely result in some broken wheels.

Beware though, as the traffic free trails used on this route follow disused railway lines, so these sections climb more gradually than the nearby roads do. If you were to try to plot a route for a road bike, using country lanes, it would almost certainly involve significantly more climbing… You’ve been warned.

 

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After I got back and checked the bike over, I realised that the rear tyre had reached the end of its life, and it was very fortunate it hadn’t disintegrated during the ride. The huge amount of braking on steep downhill section and the rough surfaces had shredded the outer layer of rubber, and it just peeled away when I pulled it.

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Sahara.

Devon coast to coast day 2: Tuesday 9th July.

Ilfracombe to Bridestowe.

Departed: 10:10

Arrived: 19:00

Total distance: 110.58km

Average speed: 17.0km/h

Maximum speed: 59.2km/h

Total cycling time: 06:28:23

I allowed myself a lie in on day 2, and woke up feeling party recovered from the huge ride the day before. I was still aching a lot, particularly my thighs and…er…gluteus maximus muscles, from the hours of standing up on the pedals climbing hills. It was nice not to have the pressure of knowing I had to complete over 170km to get to where I needed to be by the end of the day, and I’d be able to go at a more relaxed pace. However, this would still turn out to be a pretty challenging day, and at over 100km it was still roughly the average distance I’d cycled each day between London and Paris.

I took my time over a decent breakfast (well, a bowl of porridge actually. Decent in terms of fuel, pretty rubbish in all other aspects), and had got everything packed away by about 10:00. I pushed the bike down to the shower block, changed into yesterday’s Lycra, and applied masses of suncream. It was going to be another very hot day, and despite sweating huge amounts the previous day, the suncream had somehow done its job and stopped me from burning.

I set off at an easy pace, aching quite badly for the first few km into Ilfracombe before my muscles had a chance to warm up. It was a series of steep ascents and descents back into town, followed by a very tough, long, steep climb out of the town to join the traffic free path up into the hills. I knew what was coming, and started up the very long, steady climb at an easy pace in a very low gear, making sure I didn’t work myself too hard. This section of the ride actually turned out to be easier than I’d expected, and the descent along it at high speed the evening before must have made it seem steeper than it was. I stuck at the same pace all the way up, not really having to work too hard, and before long found myself at the top Willingcott, where I joined the small roads across the top of the hills.

Again, I knew what was ahead of me, and on (slightly) fresher legs than the day before, the series of short ascents and descents seemed easier, although they were still challenging. Because I’d started later in the morning, by this stage it was already hot, and I hadn’t benefited from a whole morning of cooler temperatures.

The descent into Braunton was fantastic, and it was nice to know I’d got the first part of the climbing out of the way fairly quickly, and could enjoy a relatively flat section along the Tarka trail.

I stopped twice in Braunton, first in the main town for a couple of sandwiches, and then again almost immediately at a supermarket right next to the trail, as I realised I was running low on water. Then I set off along the trail, following the estuary through to Barnstaple, crossing the bridge, and turning to follow the opposite bank heading towards Bideford.

This section, between Barnstaple and Bideford, was really easy going, and with the aid of a slight tailwind I made really good progress. After 15 minutes or so a guy on a racing bike caught me up and pulled alongside me. He said hello, and asked what it was like cycling with panniers, and how they affected the handling of the bike in crosswinds.

We got chatting, and cycled together all the way through to The Puffing Billy just north of Torrington. It was great to have someone to cycle with, and it made the kilometers go by far more quickly than they do when you’re on your own!

My temporary companion was Scott Butler, a firefighter who lives locally but fights fires in Berkshire, and he told me all about some crazy physical challenges he’s got planned. Next year, he’s embarking upon a solo adventure, cycling from the UK to the Black Sea, rowing across it (rowing for two hours, then resting for two hours, continuously for as long as it takes!), and finally climbing a mountain at the end. Apparently the trip has never been done before, so he’ll be setting a world record in completing it.

He’s also planning on entering the Marathon des Sables, which is considered to be one of the most physically challenging races on the planet. It involves running the equivalent of five and a half marathons in six days, across the Sahara desert, carrying your own food and water. Quite why anyone would be crazy enough to even consider taking part in this is beyond me, but it was pretty inspiring talking to Scott about it all, and made me see that I can definitely achieve the challenges I’ve been dreaming of doing.

Scott said he’ll be blogging about these adventures at the time, so I’m going to keep an eye out for it and track his progress. I’ll post a link to his blog when he sets off!

We’d made really good progress along the Tarka Trail, and arrived at The Puffing Billy, which is a small railway themed pub located at the old Torrington stationg. Scott turned back and headed off home, and I stopped for lunch. Despite the fact that it was now probably about 28 degrees, for some reason I chose the chilli con carne, but fortunately it wasn’t too hot. I sat outside, and after a few minutes a couple on a very impressive looking yellow Thorn tandem arrived, and I talked to them while I had my lunch.

I set off again after lunch, and began the gradual climb up to East Yarde, where I’d stopped and met the dutch woman the day before. It was hardly any time since I’d had lunch, so I carried on past the cafe without stopping, and before long found myself at Petrockstowe. This meant that I’d enjoyed the last of the nice flat riding for the day, and ahead of me lay a series of gruelling climbs all the way through to my target for the end of the day, Bridestowe.

For the next few hours, it was just a case of getting my head down, trying to get myself in the right frame of mind, and taking each set of hills as they came. The ascents were extremely tough in the heat, and my legs were still aching from my efforts the day before, and hadn’t stopped hurting once I’d warmed up.

I pushed on through to Okehampton, and enjoyed the steep descent into the town, then psyched myself up for the final series of tough climbs, and set off on the final 10km of the day through to Bridestowe. I arrived at the beautiful Glebe Park at around 19:00, and was greeted by a really friendly site owner, who instantly made me feel welcome. He showed me to the area reserved for tents (the site is primarily a caravan park, and is nicer than it sounds), and I wheeled my bike over to find one other camper, with a small tent and a bike… the Dutch woman I’d met at the Yarde Orchard Cafe the day before!

It was nice to see a familiar face, and we chatted while I put up my tent and sorted out my gear. She’d recently finished reading a book, and had been waiting to find someone to pass it on to, so very kindly gave it to me. It’s a novel set during the Iraq war, and looks really interesting, so I’m looking forward to reading it. I told her I’d pass it on to someone else once I’d finished with it, so I’ll have to make sure I take it on my next cycling adventure in case I meet someone!

Once I’d set up and had a shower, I cycled down into the village and had a big meal and a decent couple of pints at the local pub, before cycling back to the campsite and going straight to bed. I was pretty worn out, but nothing like as much as I had been the night before!

Splitting the return leg into two days was definitely the right choice, and although it had been another very tough day, with lots of challenging climbing, I’d enjoyed it a lot, and it had been nice to know I didn’t have the target of 170km looming over me the whole way.

My sea view on the morning of day 2…

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The Puffing Billy, just north of Torrington on the Tarka Trail…

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Perfect pitch at Glebe Park, Bridestowe…

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Heat.

Devon coast to coast day 1: Monday 8th July 

Down Thomas to Ilfracombe

Departed: 06:10

Arrived: 19:30

Total distance: 176.16km

Average speed: 17.6km/h

Maximum speed: 57.3km/h

Total cycling time: 09:59:43

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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.

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Century.

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In 7 hours I’ll set off on my Devon coast to coast trip. I’m cycling from Wembury on the south coast of Devon, and following a 100 mile route, 70 miles of which are on traffic free sections of the National Cycle Network, all the way up to Ilfracombe on the north coast of Devon.

I’ve never cycled 100 miles in a single day, so two 100 mile days in a row is definitely going to be a challenge. I have come close to 100 though, and it’s probably more of a psychological thing than anything. I know I’m fit enough to achieve it, and I think the key will be to pace myself, and not concentrate on my average speed or how far I’ve gone or got left.

I’m getting a really early start in the morning to make it easier to go at a steady pace all day and not have to worry about it getting too late. I aim to be cycling by 06:00. This will also mean I can have a whole morning of cycling before it starts to get too hot. We’ve had some absolutely fantastic weather this week, and this looks set to continue for at least the next couple of days. So whereas I was battling through torrential storms on day three of my London to Paris trip, the biggest challenge of this ride (apart from covering 200 miles in two days) is going to be coping with the heat. The route is very hilly, and I’ll be climbing a total of just over 1000 metres each day. Day three was the biggest day of climbing during the London to Paris trip, and only involved a total ascent of around 600 metres!

Lewis, my sister’s boyfriend, has let me borrow his GoPro Hero 3 camera, and we’ve mounted it to the handlebars of my bike. It’s a fantastic little digital camera, designed to be used for extreme sports, and shoots high definition video and still images. The quality of the footage is incredible, and I’ll be able to use it to record some of the more scenic parts of the ride, and any fast downhill sections!

Lewis and I went out on his off-road motorbikes earlier (my first off-road riding, and so much fun), and shot some footage using the GoPro, and the results were fantastic. I’ll be uploading some footage from the trip when I get home.

Right. Big day tomorrow. 100 miles and a lot of challenging climbs in the heat! I’d better try to get some sleep…