Aero tucked in, easiest gear, giving it full beans but crawling along at walking pace on top of bleak moorland I was seriously thinking “what an idiot I am”!
When I started taking mountain biking a bit more seriously and ventured into the world of competitive endurance stuff I have tried to set some sort of winter challenge for myself. As happens with these things the anti ups as another challenge is picked off. Last year it was the South Downs Winter Double which was pretty tough but this year’s effort was a different beast entirely!
I’d always fancied trying to do a ride that took in both Dartmoor and Exmoor. I knew some of the awesome stuff around Exmoor and had heard of some epic trails around Dartmoor. I stumbled across Aidan Harding’s mad EWE (England Wales England) bike packing route and being a GPX route freeloader thought it saves me the job of route plotting by following the first part of the EWE.
Looking at the route across the Dartmoor and Exmoor I was weighing up whether this was a one or two-dayer. After spotting that if I just carried on a bit further I could cross the Quantocks and be a bit closer to getting back home I thought 180 miles over two days would be the job. So that was three big moors to tackle with a train from Bristol to Plymouth and Bridgewater back to Bristol at either end.
I’m not really one for bike packing, I can sort of see the appeal but for me I want to focus on riding more than the adventuring, plus I can’t imagine sleeping in a bin bag is much fun in winter. Hot shower and a bed for me please. Helpfully I spotted that my old buddy Charlie from up in Newcastle had moved down to Barnstaple way a few years back which was 100 miles in to the route. Charlie was quick to answer the lodgings appeal stating he’d look forward to sharing in my misery! I set the date for late March thinking the trails would have dried out a bit by then.
Looking at the route map there seemed to be quite a few stretches of National Cycle Network in amongst some well surfaced paths so I imagined travelling light that a 10mph average should be doable. Oh boy did I underestimate this one. Things didn’t start off brilliantly with a two hour train delay from Bristol including being stranded at Exeter for an hour, I used the time to shovel in a second breakfast before another train eventually turned up.
I’m pretty organised with these sorts of big rides which I get from 24 hour racing. I figure if I can be 1% more comfortable or faster by just getting the right kit and the right plan in place why the hell wouldn’t I?! I plotted water stops and even streetviewed key junctions where I could to help with navigation. I wasn’t going to rely on food being available, I carried all my energy stuff with me. What I totally underestimated from the map was the condition of some of the trails on the route. Granted we’ve had a lot of rain in the last few weeks but factoring in a massive headwind all the way made long sections a slow struggle whilst bursting blood vessels just to keep going in the right direction!
The route starts with a nice gradual railway path out of Plymouth so I was zipping along nicely, still with a headwind but bright skies kept the spirits high. Things start to winch up properly for the first time around the spectacular Burrator Reservoir before getting on to a lovely winding bridleway up to Ingra Tor. It was at this point the wind started to grind into me. There were a few walkers further ahead but I knew I was in trouble when I didn’t seem to be catching them. The gradient was nice and gradual but I was in easiest gear giving it 110% to crawl along. I looked at my Garmin which said I was only 17 miles in so I took a minute to get some snaps with the help of some walkers and caught my breath knowing that I couldn’t carry on at that pace all day. To add insult to injury some cheery div went past on an ebike. He could have offered me a tow!
Sweeping down to Princetown was a short relief but I was still cranking downhill to try and keep the pace up. A steep climb on the road up to Combestone Tor gave a bit of shelter with the banked moorland roadside creating a wind break. I got to the top of one climb with an awesome view but I could hardly stand up with my bike in front acting as a sail as I got some walkers to take a picture. A fast grassy descent followed by a short techy woodland drop spat me out at Dartmeet, however I was faced with a river crossing. I thought I had gone wrong, this was meant to be a bridleway, but after a short mooch about and sign check the route was indeed straight across the river. There were some decent sized stepping stones but the distance across was quite far as were the gaps between the steps if you’re carrying a bike. Those things in themselves would present a bit of a challenge but all the rain we’ve had meant it was totally flooded with many of the stepping stones having raging torrents across them and a slimey green coating for good measure. I considered wading across but it looked at least waist deep in parts so I reckon my pockets full of kit and supplies would have been washed downstream at best or along with me at worst. Shit.
Looking at the map it would be a bike hike back up to the road then quite a big diversion around. So off I set tentatively crossing. By the time I was in the middle the water was flowing up towards my shins and the bike wanted to drag me downstream with its bastard floating tyres happily ready to plunge me along with them downstream. It wasn’t until I was halfway across I thought what would happen if I fell in, thank god my phone was in a waterproof case and there was a house on the other side to retreat in to. I eventually crawled across in what seemed an age. A postman popped up on the other side who had a wry smile as he cheerfully said good morning looking down at my drenched lower half. Luckily despite the wind it was relatively warm and I got going again to warm up and dry out pretty quickly.
Not long after I came across another crossing, the water was only over my feet this time so it felt relatively easy. I was trying to think back to all those Ray Mears programmes where he tells you about survival skills as I thought they might come in handy on this one! Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the advice on river crossings so just hoped for the best and was glad my phone was in a waterproof case. Charlie had said he would come and pick me up if needed, at less than 30 miles soaked and tired I was considering it.
After a refill at Bellever Forest using the taps marked ‘DON’T DRINK’ the surfaces improved a bit and I shovelled a load of food down and cracked on. There were some amazing views on top of the moors but I had to force myself to keep looking up as I hunkered down over the bars to get out of the wind and watch the average mph continue to fall. Fast road descents were a relief when offered down to Chagford where my family used to visit as a kid. I had planned to stop there and reminisce but time was ticking so onwards I went.
Just outside of Chagford was yet another river crossing it probably wasn’t as big as the first but after placing a foot on the first greasy stone and doing the splits I knew I had ridden my luck big time already. Sod that. Instead I went rogue and jumped in to the grounds of a nearby hotel, passing some posh people playing croquet and quaffing tea and scones whilst my bike tyres made a mess of their nice lawn. I considered joining them but somehow I don’t think the hotel staff would have taken to kindly to my trespassing. I took a diversion round the river and felt like I had dodged a bullet.
From this point I knew I had one big up and over to go then one other road climb. Time was getting on and the sun was setting as this point. I looked on the map up which showed I could really easily skip out going up to Cosdon Beacon just to come back down again. I had a word with myself and said its moments like this that you draw from in 24 hour races, DO NOT GIVE IN. So up I headed in to utter misery (there were stunning views at least).
A steep rocky climb turned in to a moorland exposed trudge following sodden tracks where submersion in some sort of bog was unavoidable no matter how wide a line you took. The terrain eventually dried out a bit towards the top, probably down to the wind that was now gusting enthusiastically in my face again. I spent about 10 seconds at the top getting a quick snap and admiring the awesome view but this wasn’t the time to hang around as the sun fell from the sky.
A long but hard work descent down the steep moorland gave the arms and core a good workout before the relief of dropping down to civilisation and the welcome stop off at the off licence for a water top up at Okehampton and a much needed moral boosting Mars bar. I made up loads of time after that on the back roads that were mercifully more sheltered but I knew I was running late and Charlie had promised a curry so decided as it was getting properly dark that 90 miles would be sufficient for the day as Charlie’s house was just off the route before getting to Barnstaple. I zipped along the railway path in pitch black with my lights booming and chugging along at a rate of knots knowing that the promised land of a hot shower and curry wasn’t far off.
As it turns out arriving at Charlie’s house he’d prepared two whole pots of curry so I proceeded to tuck in to three helpings worth and a well earned pint. Just before bed I realised that the clocks changed leaving an hour less in bet – bugger!
The slightly nearer finish left me short of Barnstaple and the original plan was for Charlie to come and pick me up from there and drop me back to start the next day. So I decided to skip the railway path between Bideford and Barnstaple as if the trails were anything like as tough as day one I would need the full day to get to Bridgewater.
I woke up feeling none too bad and after a good feed Charlie dropped me up the road in Barnstaple. My ass was a bit sore after stupidly falling off on the road on my mountain bike of all things the weekend before leaving me a pretty hefty bruise. The car journey can’t have been pleasant for him with my stinking kit from the day before.
Although the cycle route out of Barnstaple was an easy-ish warm up and with the sun booming, my spirits were lifted and I thought that today might not quite be such hard going. I had it in mind that if things started taking too long then I’d cut out potential trudge sections. The night before I looked up any river crossings and immediately spotted one I could easily avoid as my luck was definitely used up on that front. Once at Challacombe I spotted an easy route round on the road to avoid a long straight of moorland. Don’t whimp out I told myself as I headed through yet another gate (they seemed to be endless and usually with an unavoidable swamp attached). So upwards and along I went. Oh god this was even worse than before, it was like are armada of tractors, horses and motocross bikes had ploughed along making the main path a push and anything off route a swampy push. The ground was so soft I thought I constantly had a puncture. The final insult was eventually coming across signs that warned about bog depth, I wish they said that at the start of the hill… At one point, in a daze, I started swearing quite loudly. I was literally in the arse end. Get me to a road, quick as possible please.
After struggling to find the way up and down a valley to a small river crossing resulting in following some sheep tracks and hike a bike up and down a steep banked hillside I saw a car. A car means road! Popping up on to the road I took a seat which I would normally never do on any solo ride whether it be 2 hours or 24. I needed to gather my thoughts. I had averaged 6mph and that included roads and some fast bridleways earlier on. I looked across the road at the next section which was another long moorland hike up towards Dunkery Beacon. I peered over the gate and could just see black lines dug deep in to the moors. The aim of the adventure from the start was to enjoy it and get two big days in the saddle. The former was being put into question so I took the decision to follow the road past the beacon and re-join the route further along.
I’m glad I did as the road route wasn’t exactly flat but gave some relief. Strangely my legs were actually feeling quite good as previously I just wasn’t able to exert any real energy with terminal velocity maxing at about 5mph whether I pedalled hard or not.
The road gave me a nice chance to take in the amazing views and really appreciate what a stunner Exmoor is. I rode parallel to the range that Dunkery Beacon sat on and I was cringing at the prospect of being up there. I re-joined the route and although feeling disappointed I didn’t get to ride up to the Beacon I started to relax a bit and enjoy the scenery more. A lovely bit of forest trail singletrack followed where I bumped in to a woman whose dog just wanted to chase me and for once not in an aggressive way so I took the chance to get her to take a photo of me enjoying the nice woodlands. And then it arrived, the sort of singletrack that no matter what a ride has thrown at you it makes it all worthwhile. A glorious sweeping fast flowing trail through the woods and roots on to a fast gully besides a stream that seemed to go on forever down to Monksilver where I quickly located the pub for a refuelling stop.
I wanted something different to the energy stuff I had been shovelling down for hours so I think I just asked for ‘food’. They only had a packet of crisps and some nuts but human contact was quite a nice change for the bleak moors. They did look at me like I had just stepped out of a war zone which didn’t feel far off. The route over towards the Quantocks was mostly grand although there was one final insult in a farmers field where his cattle shed and entire surrounding fields were one solid mass of cow slurry with no alternative route. Trudging 30 meters shin deep in shit it was then. By that point I wasn’t really bothered. My arse was starting to ache a fair bit as well but that didn’t really slow me down too much.
Knowing the Quantocks were the last real up and over and having ridden there a bit I knew what to expect. A really good climb took me up to the top of the ridgeline which is great on a clear day. The wind had eased a bit and then followed a glorious descent down to Holford firstly on moorland sweeping rutted singletrack before plunging down into the woods and following the stream down.
Then it was call the wife time to arrange pickup as my planned train was now bus replacement only. I time trialled it back along the A39 after I missed a turning that would have taken me a quieter backroads route in to town. Arriving at the rail station was a relief although after some dodgy characters started hanging around looking at my bike clearly sensing my weakness to put up a fight at this point I grabbed my stuff and pedalled to the nearest shop to load up on chocolate and wait for Sarah. Mega wife points to Sarah for bringing pizza along for the journey back!
Reading back over this I guess it reads like a bit of a horror story. In truth without the wind and if the route was broken up with bivvy stop overs, pub stops and in drier weather it would be a descent adventure. It is not however one for an XC racer who wants to travel fast and clock miles and craps themselves at the sight of a river crossing.