Baptism of Fire

The definition of a truly epic ride is not universally agreed upon. To my mind in order to qualify for the accolade at least two of the following criteria must be met.

  1. Bad weather – Extreme heat, Snow, Rain and/or block headwinds.
  2. Equipment failure – Mechanical problems or GPS going on the blink.
  3. Climbs – At least one thats over 20%
  4. Distance – 1o0 km minimum on a road bike.
  5. Suffering – Preferably conducted whilst tired from a previous ride, or if you really want to push it there’s always the hungover option.

Over the past six years I’ve done a fair few of these, ones that stand out include last years birthday century, the third stage of the 2016 Tour of Wessex and my foolhardy MTB trip in the snow this spring. Last Sunday such a ride unexpectedly took place. Here’s the lowdown.

I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’d planned this ride with a Uni friend which meant driving down to Exeter. Despite driving carefully due to having my best bike in the back of the car I succeeded in having a minor collision with a bus about 500 feet from my destination. Attempting to put my left wing mirror back together with gaffer tape in a car park wasn’t my idea of a fun evening.

Not for the first time I cursed the weather forecasters for lying to me the following morning, a cloudy but dry day had been promised. Waking up listening to that telltale sound of raindrops on the window that every Cyclist learns to dread sent a chill down my spine. This wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Matters were further complicated when I managed to get lost on the way to meet my friend at his house, despite having lived in Exeter for the best part of two years I have yet to learn how to successfully navigate it.

Following the obligatory pre-ride coffee we set off. I must admit to having had a few misgivings about planning a ride on Dartmoor. The weather up there is notoriously unpredictable even at the best of times and more often than not there are tricky hazards to negotiate; cattle grids, cows and ponies in the middle of the road, lanes that haven’t been resurfaced in twenty years and some very steep and narrow sections that you can’t afford to switch off on.

Anyway, with this ride long overdue we weren’t going to give up that easily. Getting out of the city was straightforward enough and soon we were heading out on the road to the moor. The B3212 is one of those sections of tarmac that I have something of a love/hate relationship with. It’s good fun on the way out, mild climbs and some wicked descents, yet on the way back on legs that are inevitably tired that road has nearly killed me many a time. On this occasion it was pretty neutral, we rode at talking pace and admired the spectacular Devon scenery that really comes into it’s own at this time of year.

The first stop came 15 miles into the ride at the town of Moretonhampstead. Clouds were looming overhead, ordinarily this wouldn’t have worried me but when it comes to Dartmoor rain showers tend to be accompanied by very high winds. Rather foolishly I’d opted for deep section wheels which can be very tricky in those conditions. With a growing sense of dread that I tried my best to conceal from my companion I broke out the packable waterproof.

Sure enough things soon turned… interesting. Within five miles we were riding along in driving rain accompanied by a relentless headwind. This served to remind me that despite it’s beauty Dartmoor is a place that demands caution and respect. It’s no wonder they built a prison up there. By mile 25 I was seriously considering turning back. Had I been riding alone I probably would have done just that but as it was we soldiered on, preying for the turning that would take us out of the wind.

Fortunately the rain stopped very soon after we’d turned off, the road was more sheltered and we no longer had to fight the wind. My thoughts now turned to the hard climbs that we were soon to encounter, Dartmoor contains four of the top 100 climbs in the UK and this route took in two of them. We started off with Dartmeet, beginning with a brutal 20% section with a bit of a false summit this climb can play some nasty tricks on you. I decided to bend the truth a little at this point, telling my friend that none of the climbs still to come were going to be as bad as this one. I decided not to try for a PR and instead save my strength for the rest of the ride (best excuse ever for setting a really slow time that one).

It was only a few miles later that we encountered Widdecombe. This climb always brings back a few memories, two years ago it came up at mile 70 of a 100 mile ride and I don’t think I’ve ever found a climb so unpleasant as I did on that day. In all fairness this time round it could have been a lot worse, my Scott climbs very well and rarely have I been so grateful for it. I did my best to keep up my “worst is over” charade, knowing full well that the real suffering was yet to come.

After some flattish miles we came back into Moretonhampsted. We treated ourselves to a cafe stop, the caffeine hit a very welcome boost after having survived trial by rain and hills. Unfortunately this resulted in an unexpected problem, my Garmin threw in the towel. Rarely does that device let me down but when it does it’s a serious nuisance. That meant I was going to have to navigate the next few miles by “instinct” which in my case really means “haven’t got a bloody clue”. You won’t be surprised to hear I took a wrong turning and lead us up an unnecessary climb that we then had to come back down before heading up another similarly unpleasant hill to get to the correct turning. It’s a wonder my friend has since agreed to go for another ride.

A few mercifully easy miles followed, if you discount the particularly treacherous lane on the way to Kennik Reservoir, those potholes could swallow a man whole unless carefully avoided. That particular rant is for another day. We soon began to descend, this should have bought joy but I must admit it was bittersweet. The upcoming climb would have been challenging at the very beginning of the ride, eight miles from home it was going to be a killer. And kill us it did. On the flat you can hide from the fatigue to a certain extent, once you’ve built some momentum sustaining it is relatively straightforward. When it comes to steep climbs it’s another matter. This one was especially cruel, going up in short but very steep increments with flat in-between. Three times I thought we’d reached the top, there’s nothing more demoralising than a false dawn.

Finally we reached Haldon forest, the point at which we’d turn for home, it was a mutual decision to go with the slightly more direct route, we’d both had enough pain for one day. Returning to the outskirts of Exeter bought a big sigh of relief, we’d survived. It was then that I decided to deem this ride epic, having met four of the five criteria above it was worthy of the title. I ought to mention here that it was the first properly long ride my friend had ever done, I’m slightly in awe of his level of mental toughness. This was truly a Baptism of fire into the world of Cycling.

Thanks for reading.


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