For anyone who doesn’t live in the UK, there’s a popular challenge going around at the moment. The idea is straightforward; run 5k, donate £5 to the NHS, and nominate 5 people to do the same. Of course, in an ideal world our health service would be funded properly and such things wouldn’t be necessary, but you’ll be relieved to hear that’s not to be the subject of this post. I was nominated twice and had to decline due to an annoyingly persistent foot injury. Having seen some of my less athletically inclined friends struggle through the run, I decided to do something as a forfeit that would provide me with an equivalently gruelling challenge and hopefully raise some funds in the process. This came in the form of three consecutive century rides in deepest, darkest Devon.

Throughout my cycling career I’d completed a few multi day trips and events. A couple of forays to the alps, some training camps in Mallorca, Land’s End to John o’ Groats and of course the Tour of Wessex. What I hadn’t yet attempted, was a fully solo adventure. Due to the lockdown, these rides would have to be completely self supported. That meant carrying enough water, carefully planning a nutrition strategy and stocking my saddlebag with all the tools I’d need to fix any mechanical problems. Add to that the task of planning the routes, and there was quite a lot of work to be done in the 5 days between coming up with the idea and the planned start date.

As anyone who knows me might expect, I still left most of it till the last minute. The day before the first ride was mainly spent making industrial quantities of chicken korma, my favourite recovery meal. After that, I turned my attention to bike setup. If you’re not a cycling geek, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.

Day 1: The calm before the storm.

I toyed with the idea of doing the rides on my trusty Specialized, but eventually decided that speed was more important than comfort and went with my Scott Foil instead. Ordinarily there’d be a few places to stop along the way and refill water bottles, thanks to the lockdown that wasn’t the case this time round. I went with a 950 and 550 ml combination, giving a total capacity of 1.5 L. Ideally I’d have carried more, but the weight weenie in me couldn’t face making the bike any heavier. Having not been organised enough to order energy gels, my on bike nutrition consisted primarily of jelly babies, with a few granola bars thrown in.

I will admit to having had several moments of paranoia the day before the first ride, each leading to another ‘essential’ addition to my saddlebag. Normally the thought of a chain breaking or a cable snapping wouldn’t have crossed my mind, I’ve had both happen to me once in 7 years of riding. Yet, if something were to go wrong on one of these rides there was no support van. For obvious reasons, I wanted to reduce the risk of needing to be rescued as much as possible. In the end I bought the following.

  • Hand pump
  • Spare inner tube
  • Tyre levers
  • Tyre boot
  • Multitool
  • Rubber gloves
  • Quick link
  • Chain tool
  • Quick link pliers
  • Sticking plasters
  • Spare gear cable
  • Packable waterproof
  • Arm warmers

All in all, I was equipped to deal with anything excluding a catastrophic mechanical failure of the kind that would probably result in a trip to A & E. Unfortunately, all these tools added rather a lot of weight and the massive saddlebag didn’t exactly improve the look of the bike. My svelte race machine had been turned into a packhorse, which wouldn’t be especially helpful on some of the climbs.

Whilst I could very easily dedicate an entire post to each ride, I have an MSc thesis that I should probably be writing instead, so here are the highlights.

Day 1: Dartmoor

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I decided to tackle the hardest of the three routes on the first day, the idea being that it would be best to complete it whilst feeling relatively fresh and enthusiastic. In other words, I wanted to get it over with. Dartmoor is a beautiful place to ride, however, as in most spheres of life, great beauty is accompanied by great risk.

The day started out well, I even managed to leave the house on time, having wolfed down a massive bowl of porridge accompanied by a strong coffee. It was perfect weather, bright sunshine with a cool breeze. The first 20 miles were relatively flat and mostly on quiet roads, on an aero road bike it was a piece of cake. I was bought back down to earth upon scaling the first major climb of the day. Haytor Vale is one of those that lulls you into a false sense of security; not especially steep for the most part, but dragging on for a good few miles, with a couple of false summits thrown in for confusion. My instinct was to push on and power up it (Okay, it wasn’t, until someone overtook me halfway up the climb), but I restrained myself, knowing that worse was to come.

Miles 25 to 50 were pleasantly uneventful, mostly downhill from the summit of Haytor to the town of Ivybridge. This being day one, I’d adopted a very conservative pacing strategy, by which I mean I was more concerned with taking decent photos than increasing my average speed. After a week of being cooped up in the house, it felt great to be out on the road again.

10 Miles before my sense of humour failure.

The climb out of Ivybridge didn’t turn out to be as bad as I’d feared, it was a long drag but the gradient was very manageable, especially with an 11-28 cassette fitted. At the top, I noticed a slight crosswind but didn’t think much of it, after all it was much more fun to consider the prospect of tucking into the banoffee pie I had sat at home in the fridge. A few miles later, things started to get harder. After a couple of short climbs I reached the highest part of Dartmoor, fully exposed to the elements. If you want a road that can challenge your fitness and bike handling skills in equal measure, look no further than the B3212 on a windy day.

There’s no hesitation before I say that in 7 years of cycling I’ve never encountered a stronger headwind. It was incredibly demoralising, looking down at my garmin and seeing that whilst putting out what I’d estimate to be around 300 W on a flat road, I was managing a speed of 7 miles per hour. Worse still, there was no chance to rest on the few brief sections of road that weren’t heading straight into the wind. With my bike sporting 45 mm deep rims, the crosswind threatened to blow me over several times. I sometimes think that the weight training I force myself to do twice a week is a waste of time. On that day, I was beyond grateful for the extra upper body strength.

With 35 miles to go, I stopped and considered my options. My legs were hurting, the cold air hadn’t done wonders for my lungs, my garmin was low on battery, and I was facing at least 10 more miles of that evil headwind before the next major turning. Borrowing a phrase from my late Grandfather, I looked up at the sky and shouted “GODFORSAKEN BLOODY WEATHER”, to nobody in particular. After a few minutes of venting my frustrations in a similar manner, I resolved to carry on.

The last leg of the ride seemed to take forever. Despite the last 20 miles being relatively easy, the physical and mental fatigue was really taking it’s toll. Tiny rises that I’d barely notice on a normal ride might as well have been mountains. As Chris Boardman would put it, endurance sport is the art of trying to keep going with an engine that gets smaller and less powerful as time goes on. I’d like to think that at the beginning of the ride, I had a decent V6 with a performance air filter, by the end it had been reduced to a diesel two stroke.

Day 2: Exmoor

Like day 1, but better.

I woke up at 5AM, it felt as if someone had come along in the middle of the night and tried to put my legs through a meat grinder. I seriously considered taking a rest day, but eventually reasoned that it would be better to at least attempt the second leg in good weather rather than wait until later in the week when it was forecast to deteriorate. After treating myself to a double breakfast consisting of porridge followed by eggs on toast, I set off with a great sense of foreboding. Luckily, the ride was heading in the opposite direction to the previous one, as far away from Dartmoor as possible.

Inevitably, my legs felt sore and stiff at first, the short climb out of Exeter was harder than it should have been and I questioned whether carrying on was a sensible idea. Fortunately, after the first 10 miles I began to feel better, much better in fact. The sun was shining, the road was flat and refreshingly traffic free, and I was making good time. I had another 15 miles of relatively easy terrain before the first big ascent of the day.

I knew that miles 25-50 would be very slow going, once you get onto Exmoor it’s all up and down. Well, mostly up judging by my average speed over that section. I’d edited the route so as to take in Dunkery Beacon, a contender for the title of hardest climb in the UK. Having lived in Exeter for four years and never gotten round to riding it, the time was right. In the absence of the headwind from hell, I could properly relax and enjoy some of the scenery in the run up to the climb. I knew that this was the calm before the storm, but that failed to detract from the serenity I felt on those moorland roads. It might as well have been different world up there, far removed from the depressing headlines that have characterised the past few weeks.

Enjoying life on the long and winding road to Dunkery Beacon.

After a rather scary descent on roads that should probably have been reserved for the gravel bike, it was time to tackle that famous climb. The first section was very manageable, steep but nothing out of the ordinary and soon levelling off. However, the latter half was a different ball game altogether. Rising up out of a wooded section, it started off steep and only got steeper, with no sight of the approaching summit to motivate me until I at last came around the final corner. At the top, I decided that I’d never ride up it again. Having now seen the appallingly slow time I posted, I’ve reconsidered and resolved to tackle it again someday, at a more respectable pace.

Don’t think anybody told these guys about social distancing.

The last 50 miles of day 2 were probably the nicest of the three day venture. Having paced the climb carefully, I had enough in my legs to raise the tempo a bit. With a nice tailwind I could, quite literally, breathe easy in the knowledge that the hardest part of the ride was over and done with. In the end, I even had enough left in the tank to put in a good effort on the final climb back into Exeter. In sharp contrast to the previous day, I arrived home in good spirits, confident that I’d be-able to manage the upcoming final leg of the ride.

Day 3: The Blackdown Hills

By Devon standards, this counts as a flat route.

“I thought you’d been very organised this morning”. My housemate remarked, as I prepared to leave set off on the final stage of the journey. I had, except that I’d completely forgotten to charge my phone overnight. Unwilling to take the risk, I had to delay the start by half an hour. With the temperature set to rise to an unusually high 22°C in a few hours time, the wait wasn’t ideal. When I’m tired from consecutive rides, I’ve found that the heat can be a real killer.

I’d left the easiest route until last, less spectacular scenery was an easy price to pay for well maintained roads and far fewer climbs in comparison to the previous two days. With no ride planned for the following day, I didn’t have to worry about saving my legs and could adopt a faster pacing strategy in the name of trying to set a decent time. Honestly, my main motivation to speed up could be found in the prospect of being able to order the takeaway pizza that I’d been craving all week upon getting home.

One last climb.

The standout moment came at mile 20. Having briefly stopped at the outskirts of a small village to take on food and water, I happened to glance to one side and see a noticeboard. My eyes were drawn to one particular headline, written proudly in bold were the words: “Have you seen the asian hornet?”. Reading further, I learned that a few had been spotted in the surrounding area. I should mention that following a childhood incident, I have an extremely strong dislike of anything that flies, buzzes, and stings. I looked up from the article, and was greeted by something small and yellow that appeared to be making a beeline (please excuse the terrible pun) for my face. In a brief moment of panic, I frantically tried to bat the creature away, loudly uttering something unrepeatable in the process. Once I came to my senses, I realised that all the fuss had been directed a completely benign fruit fly. Let’s just say that the next few miles were ridden rather quickly.

Thereafter, things settled down and my legs found their rhythm. It was quite possibly the most painless century I’d ever ridden. No mechanical issues, strong headwinds, muscle cramps, navigation problems, unexpected climbs, or dodgy drivers. Practically unique. When I reached the top of the last big climb with 35 miles still to go, I began to wish that I’d picked a longer route. Despite this, I decided to put the hammer down in the pursuit of pizza. Aero bikes really come into their own when you want to go fast on rolling roads, it might only be about 10% easier to maintain a given speed but it makes a very noticeable difference. For the last 25 miles of that ride, I was grinning from ear to ear.

It goes without saying that I was happy and relieved to arrive back in one piece that day. However, another part of me was sad that it was all over. In the midst of so much uncertainty, planning and completing those rides had given me something concrete to focus on. In cycling, I’m lucky enough to have found something that never fails to keep me sane. In the words of John F. Kennedy, nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.

I’m going to end by thanking everyone who provided messages of support during the challenge. A few words of encouragement can make all the difference when the going gets tough. I’m not sure how much money was raised in the end, but thank you if you donated.

Thanks for reading.

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