Wednesday, 28 March 2012


After a few days R'n'R in Hayle (we're talking long walks, a 50 mile ride with Selene to Lands End, and generally gorging on great food), the time had come to get back into the saddle and finish off the climbs in the South West - this meant a ride from Tavistock to Sidmouth, crossing Dartmoor and finishing up on the South coast.
Eating the monster from the deep
- yes, lobster does make you go faster
We had been watching the weather forecast intently to try and pick the best day for the ride - so waking up to a freezing cold spring morning, with views of thick fog wasn't exactly what we had in mind. The drive up and over Bodmin was so foggy that progress was slow, and I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of my tiny LED lights being the things keeping motorists from ploughing me down on the highway. On arrival, the usual 'get changed in a public carpark' routine kicked in - once again, putting on leg-warmers (or, as Selene refers to them, 'lyrca suspenders') when you're a lone cyclist amongst a bunch of 'normals' is an undignified process. But we soldier on...

Straight out of Tavistock was the road into Dartmoor, and instantly the road kicked up the Rundlestone climb. A strange beast, this is rated 7/10 by Simon Warren, and probably would be a killer climb if it didn't have a strange descent in the middle of it. I had forgotten this part of the profile map, so reaching the first 'summit' thought that the climb was over. After a short downhill section, the road went upwards again in a similar manner - again, nothing too difficult although I could have done without the headwind.
A slightly exaggerated view of what a
Dartmoor pony looks like

The view from the top of Rundlestone
After the first climb, the road headed generally down which offered a great opportunity to admire the views and the wildlife - in particular one intriguing specimen which appeared to be a cross between a sheep and a pony:
Sheep (left) and horsey-sheepy (right)
Unfortunately, all to soon the fog closed in over the tops, and I was plunged into visibility of less than 10m. Not ideal conditions to be cycling in, but fortunately the earlier sun had warmed the air up enough that it wasn't freezing as well as foggy. Before the next climb (Dartmeet), I did stop to take a picture, although I didn't check it and I think it came out a little on the drunken side of clear, making it look even more dense than it was:
Foggy, but not that foggy
Climbing Dartmeet in the fog was an experience. With no way to tell what lay ahead, it was a shock to run off the descent, over a cattle grid, and straight into a 20% climb - my gears certainly weren't prepared for that shock (climbing those kind of gradients in 53x12 is not recommended). Somehow the fog makes everything still, and going uphill felt like climbing in a bubble, making me very aware of my breathing and every squeak and creak from my bike. It also meant that I couldn't see up any of the turns up the climb, making it hard to gauge my effort, so I ended up pushing fairly hard throughout.

After Dartmeet, there was only a small distance to cover before reaching the pretty village of Widecombe, complete with over-size church and inviting-looking cake shop. Unfortunately, cake is on the 'banned' list for Lent so I pushed on up the 7/10 rated Widecombe climb. Similar to Rundlestone, this was fairly manageable once out of the the saddle and in the right gear - with the added bonus of being arrow straight, and with great views both up and down. I had agreed to meet Selene at the top for a bite of lunch so I set down in the car park waiting for her arrival. Unfortunately, Selene had been held up by the driver in front of her carelessly running over some livestock (the animal was unidentified, but apparently it was too big to be a sheep and to small to be a horse - I can only home that the horesey-sheepy I had spotted earlier hadn't thrown himself in front of a car in a fit of angst at his lack of identity). There is very little mobile signal in the middle of Dartmoor, so after around 20 minutes of waiting with no clue as to the hold-up, the car emerged over the brow of the hill and I jumped in to warm up and chow down on some delicious Tavistock market food.
Instagram view from the top of Widecombe

Undignified instagram self-portrait. Smile, man!

Happy campers

Slightly reluctant to get out of the warm, food-loaded car
Having eating my body weight in fresh olive and sun-dried tomato bread (plus the odd gingerbread man - thanks Selene!), it was lucky that the road from Widecombe was downhill all the way out of Dartmoor, allowing me to use my additional temporary bulk to shoot down at over 40mph. Looping around the moor to Bovey Tracey (this wasn't the wimps way out, rather that the next climb was going in the opposite direction to my destination), the next climb was the longest of the day, but turned out to be by far the easiest: the 5/10 rate Haytor Vale. In blue skies and with the wind at my back, I sailed up the climb without too much of an issue, pausing at the top to take a picture before turning round and heading back off the moor again.
View from the top of Haytor
(conveniently the rest of the hill has been obscured...)
With Dartmoor 'conquered' (crossing Exmoor seemed like a more challenging task than Dartmoor, but that conception might have had something to do with the road and weather conditions), and four of the five 'categorised' climbs for the day done, I headed towards Exeter in high spirits. Again, I had neglected to look closely at the route profile for this section of the ride, and paid the price for optimism as I grinded up the hills of the Old Exeter road towards the town of Clapham. Finally getting into Exeter, I emerged from an innocuous-looking industrial estate into the lovely River Exe park - equipped with traffic-free bike lanes and a great way to traverse the city. Rolling down my armwarmers and packing away my gillet to bask in the afternoon sunshine, it was lovely to roll through the green space nodding 'hello' to other cyclists.

The road out of the city down the coast wasn't so pleasant, being narrow and very busy with cars - climbing gradually again before descending into Otterton (which has a disappointing lack of otters, despite the name). Another sharp surprise hill sent me way up above the town of Sidmouth with a view across to the final hill up the opposite cliffs. After an extremely short and sharp descent into Sidmouth, dodging OAP drivers, I ended up lacing through the town going the wrong way up one-way streets as my Garmin demonstrated once again that it's not the best for town-based riding. Finally making it to the base of Salcombe Hill Road, the last push up the climb was again a tough one (rated 5/10, but in my opinion significantly harder than Haytor Vale). Rising up through dappled forest and past an observatory, there was plenty to distract me from the gradient, and 10 minutes later I emerged over the brow of the hill, where Selene had walked up to. A quick smooch (not sure she appreciated my salt-encrusted face, but I enjoyed it!) and I headed back down to the car for the 'get changed in a car park' routine again. Oh the cycles of life...
Top of Salcombe - with bare arms in March!
Recovery picnic on the seafront

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Day After The Day Before

After a pub lasagna and chips (a heady combination of cheese, mince and potato) plus a pint of the local bitter, it's fair to say that the previous day's activities had me sparked out, and the next morning saw heavy legs for the short trip downstairs to breakfast. Having given up coffee and cake for Lent (extra difficult, considering these are a cyclist's staple), I had to make do with putting on wet shoes from the day before as my morning 'jolt' - although a god-sent airing cupboard meant that a lot of my kit was dry, if not a little gritty from the previous day's roads.

If you have read the previous entry, you'll know that the weather meant that the climb of Crewcombe Coombe was impossible, and so with a stomach still brimming with fried breakfast I set off to tick that one off the list. Conscious sated and ego soothed, I headed back to the B&B to meet to with Clive for the day's ride across Exmoor. From the outset we knew that it was going to be a hard ride, and in Exmoor the road never flattens out. After coming through several showers and dipping down to the coastal town of Watchet and returning back to the busy A39, we turned off towards Luccombe and the hills of Exmoor-proper. The first hill was Dunkery Beacon, which started as a lovely climb through the forest before plateauing out and then kicking back up towards the bleak top of the moor. On the way up, I came across this chap who I chatted to briefly - if you watch the video you can see me at about 2.25, and let's just say I was envious of all of his gears especially on the steep bits towards the top of the hill!
Clive getting to the top of Dunkery
The fabulous descent off the back of Dunkery was curtailed by a steep turn and another couple of climbs (this time 'uncategorised') as we looped around back to the town of Porlock. It was clear that the previous day's efforts had taken their toll, and neither of us had the same 'snap' in our legs - Clive was doing especially well, given that he had been off the bike after an operation for the previous two weeks. Looking at the route map, I had worked out the last climb on that loop, and could see that the rest of the distance to Porlock (where we planned to stop for a Coke - the Red Ambulance) was downhill. Unfortunately, as a crucial turning point, I decided to follow the road sign to Porlock and to ignore the GPS' screaming that this was the wrong way. This meant that, rather than emerging on the A39 in the village of Porlock, we emerged a couple of miles further West and had to descend the climb before turning around to go back up it. This was something of a double-edged sword, as on one hand it was a preview of the steepest and hardest climb of the day, but on the other it did mean that we could enjoy a screaming descent down an absolutely mental road.

Reaching the village at the bottom after topping out at nearly 50mph, it soon became clear that nothing was open on a Sunday, so we turned around and headed straight back up. Porlock is a hill to be taken seriously - so seriously that it offers all who dare to climb it an alternative route (via a toll booth, naturally). Heading past the first hairpin (with the smell of burning clutches hanging heavy in the air), the climb just keeps on dishing out the pain with long stretches of 20+% before 'flatting out' to a mere 13% to the top. Fortunately for us, Selene had the forethought to buy up the last remaining sandwiches in Porlock before the shops closed, and we sat under the boot of the car stuffing our semi-traumatised faces to bring us back down to Earth.
Climbing Porlock - so slowly that Selene could take multiple exposures
Clive executing a perfect zig-zag climb manoeuvre in an attempt to reduce the gradient
Turning back off the A39 and into Exmoor, we descended back to the muddy farm tracks of Exmoor, before climbing up yet again, and then descending into Lynmouth. If this sounds like a rollercoaster, that's exactly what it felt like, with the requisite highs and lows. For inspiration, we had repeatedly passed a couple - clearly touring - on regular road bikes and all of their wares in large bags on their backs. Coming up Porlock the girl was going strong and way ahead of her partner, despite carrying an equal size bag and was powering away strong when we passed them again on the descent.

Our penultimate climb was the 'Exmoor Forest' out of Lynmouth - a measly 3/10 and really gentle compared to Dunkery, Porlock and Crewcombe. The gradient probablt didn't get above 10% for the entire length and the sun had even come out so we were able to enjoy the meandering views over the ravine below. Reaching the top (and the highest point in Exmoor apparently) we had a quick pow-wow with Selene in the team car and then pushed on for our final destination on the coast.
Talking tactics
The gradual descent from the top of Exmoor to Woolacombe was interspersed with short and speed-reducing kicks up, and we were also greeted by worsening weather. Stopping to put our wet weather gear on (a rain jacket for me, a DHL delivery packet for Clive), it was clear that Clive had had enough for the day. As we set off, a tractor came past and we picked up the pace to try and draft it for a while. We didn't make the tractor (which probably tells you something about the state of our legs by then) but at the end of his tether, Clive simply kept his foot on the gas and the remaining five-odd miles were done at breakneck speed - including a hair-raising descent down to the sea on wet roads. I'm not sure whether he knew it at the time, but the ride was due to end with the last climb of the day: Challacombe Hill, which goes from sea level to 700 feet in less than half a mile. To say that this hill was painful would be an understatement, and at the time it felt like the hardest hill of the day. To varying degrees of success (one of us fell over, naming no names) we zig-zagged across the gradient at a snails pace before reaching the top, gasping for oxygen.

After that it was a case of get changed, repack the car, drive to Tiverton to drop Clive off on the train, and then drive down to Hayle. The perfect recovery activities! Let's just say that not many of the snacks in the car made it to the end of the drive...
Clive on his last legs

Finally reaching the top of Challacombe

The epic

Rising early on a Saturday morning is not alien to me, but to be driving around the lanes of Surrey at 6a.m. it did feel strange to not be on two wheels. Nevertheless, Selene and I had loaded up the car after a long week at work and driven across London to pick up Clive from his place in Chertsey. After a boisterously friendly welcome from Rooney (his Jack Russel, who looked disappointed not to be joining the trip), and squeezing a third bike into an already jam-packed boot, we set off on the drive to Bath. Selene very quickly lapsed into her usual car mode (eyelid-inspecting), and after a quick stop at a service station to fuel up on breakfast, we arrived in a leisure centre car park in the middle of Bath.

Unpacking the bikes got us a few funny looks from the parents dropping their kids off for swimming lessons, but this was nothing compared to the stares and stifled giggles that came from the waiting area when two gents emerged from the changing rooms in full lyrca and tottled out, trying their best to walk on cleats. Cyclists really don't look normal without a bike.

Ready for the day - or so we thought...
After several false starts, trying to work out exactly which way the GPS wanted to take us (they really aren't made for city navigation - trying to negotiate traffic while simultaneously also trying to look at the computer mounted on your stem is a recipe for going head first through the back window of a car) we made it to the base of Weston Hill. Rising out of the suburbs of the city, it starts innocuously enough but then gets steeper and steeper until your legs are screaming for the summit. It's on a busy road out of town, and the noise of car engines in first gear help amplify the magnitude of the hill, if taking something away from the views when you do reach the top. Even if those views do give you an idea of what the weather was going to offer that day...
Clive summiting Weston Hill
Heart rate to 180bpm, 20% gradients and 700 feet of climbing: all in the first 4 miles. What a way to warm up the legs. Descending back into Bath (Weston climbs up North, and we were heading South) we soon hit the small lanes of Somerset and soon discovered that this was truly farming country. Road surfaces were terrible, and also covered in mud, which was manageable until we came to a dairy farm which had decided that the road a mile either side of the farm entrance would make an ideal slurry pit. With liquid cow shit several inches deep covering the tarmac, we had little choice put to push through, wheels slipping all over the place and just praying that we didn't end up on the floor - the next 90 miles would not have been pleasant...Needless to say, when we emerged on the other side, our bikes and kit were an absolute state, including having almost zero brake function thanks to the strange properties of the muck which made it both incredibly sticky and slippery at the same time. The picture (or the under-stated road sign) really doesn't do it justice.

Ernesto Colnago would be turning
in his grave...
Doing some basic cleaning to the drive trains and brakes with the best tools at hand (grass, twigs, and a muddy puddle) we pushed on and fortunately came across a garage owner who kindly power-hosed the bikes for us. His eagerness to clean was unusual and gave off the aura of a bike-hating driver who was too polite to turn down our request for help. Such was the gusto which he gave the bike the hose, not only was all the mud removed, but also all of the chain lube and the owner of the bike also got a soaking at the same time.
Clean bike; wet feet - Clive does his best to stay dry
Heading steadily West, we made our way past Chew Magna reservoir and feeling peckish stopped off in the town of Axbridge for a spot of lunch (early starts do play havoc with your body clock). Having demolished a couple of enormous beef pasties, we headed towards the second 'categorised' climb of the day - Cheddar Gorge.
Nom nom nom
On the way, we discussed the error of our ways in loading up with some heavy, starchy foods (not to mention the extra weight that a hefty pasty can add) just before hitting a big climb. I'm pretty sure that discussion was fairly short lived - the pasties were excellent, after all. Passing through the tourist shops of Cheddar, I noticed Selene perusing shops on the side of the road, and she took a few pictures on the way up before driving to the top to meet us.
On the way up, past one of Cheddar's famous Cheddar Caves
Team 100 climbs sport a Merc B-class as support car
The Gorge presented a tough initial gradient, but after getting past this it flattened out to a more manageable 10+% allowing for a nice seated climb taking in the view of the cliff-sides. It's eerily quiet between the cliff walls, with little wind and not much else except for the odd car and the skwarking of ravens - add in to the mix a number of climbers hanging by ropes off the tops and you have one of Britain's more unusual hills. A quick mechanical stop at the top (having a 'support car' is AMAZING!) and we were on our way across the top of the increasingly blustery Mendips. The descent down the ridge was hair-raising (we were both glad we didn't have to go up it) and the combination of gravel surfaces, 25% gradients and blind corners was reminiscent of the Belgian classics - earning it the name of the Muur du Mendip. The following flat section crossing irrigation canals and farmland, into a blazing headwind, was equally Belgian - proper head-down-and-chew-on-the-handlebars type stuff. Unfortunately, it was on the approach into Bridgewater that the weather took a turn for the worse (having been showery and blustery all day) and we were caught in a tropical downpour that soaked through both of us and had us shivering in our booties. Bridgewater is an uninviting looking town, so we were grateful that on the road out we spotted somewhere advertising hot tea and butties. At this point, not only did the rain stop, but the chef offered us free roast potatoes and pork crackling that was going spare from the day's roast. After 60 tough miles this was probably the best thing that could have ever happened and we gorged on warm greasy food while trying to regain feeling in our fingers and toes.
Hot tea in bidon = instant hot water bottle
(Greasy) Happiness in a tray
Still very wet, we continued on to smaller and smaller roads, similar to those we were on after Bath, and skirted around the South of the Quantock Hills. The last climb of the day (Crewcombe Coombe) was also the hardest rated and so I have deliberately planned the route to give a bit of rest bite before heading up, rather than taking the most direct (but hillier) roads. That said, we didn't have much option but to get up the climb at some point, as our B&B was directly on the opposite side of the range.
The Quantock roads had left me with
 plenty to take home...
Approaching Crewcombe, the rain had set in again, and we were both pretty cold. Stopping briefly at the foot of the climb, we set off to be confronted by a steep, steep, steep hill which didn't look like levelling off at any point. Not only that, but the rain got heavier and heavier, before turning into hail and bouncing painfully of everything it hit. Normally at this point into terrible weather I tend to have a little chuckle and push on to get to cover as quick as possible. Unfortunately the temperature meant that the hail was settling, and my 23c slick rear tyre wasn't too keen on gripping the road surface. This isn't too unusual for a steep climb and it's normally a case of trying to stay seated to grind your way up with as much traction as possible. However, when a car descending the road started to skid sideways towards me, I decided that enough was enough and I was going to have to walk this one. The mile and a bit walk up the road was painful (not only on the legs but also to the ego - I don't think I've walked up a hill since I first hit the Peak District as a wide-eyed fresher) and pretty difficult in cycling cleats. However it was probably the right choice, as all the drivers trying to get down the road cut their losses and left their cars on the roadside, instead opting to walk down the hill. The sight of shivering cyclists pushing their bikes up a steep hill in settling hail elicited less odd looks than the walk of shame out of the leisure centre changing rooms earlier that morning - I can only assume it's a common occurrence around those parts.
The view from the top - note the skidding tyre tracks
A brief stint of walking across the top of Quantock Common was enough for both of us to decide that the fading light and freezing temperatures were enough incentive to get back on the bikes and brave the ice. Not for the first time that day, we faced a steep and hairy descent, this time into the town of Nether Stowey. This probably wasn't helped by numb fingers, shaking limbs, and my brake-blocks being on their last legs (or, to put it more accurately, of f**k-all use!). One 'highlight' was speeding past Clive completely out of control, only for him to shout "watch out for the cattle-grid" followed by "aim for something soft". Making it down in one piece, we stumbled into the B&B to be welcomed with warm towels, a lovely rainbow (weather is always great when you're indoors) and Sally Lunn's World Famous Buns (see picture). Someone should tell Sidi to invent a 'cold finger' eject button for their shoes - those clips really aren't good when you are dexterously challenged...

P.S. Not to be defeated (and having a night to sleep on it) I decided that I would have to go back and climb Crewcombe after all. It was as hard as it looked, but it always helps forward momentum when your tyres are gripping the road properly ;)

Monday, 5 March 2012

Climbing Through the Smoke

London is a wonderful city. It's a place that keeps on giving, full of interesting people, hundreds of events going on, and plenty of new places to explore. Such is the scale of the city, I'm sure you could ride round for years being constantly surprised by different areas. Unfortunately, surprise isn't always a positive emotion, and new areas aren't always places that you want to return to...

Setting off early on a sunny Saturday morning, the route planned was a forty mile loop heading over my old commute into Blackfriars, up past Kings Cross to Highgate, over to the Epping Forest and then back down via Mile End and Tower Bridge. There's certainly a romanticism attached to cycling through cities (as propagated via the fixed-gear scene and classy-looking black and white images published by a certain high-end cycling-attire retailer). The reality is slightly different. Despite leaving at 7 a.m., the roads were by no means quiet, and the large amount of construction work seems to have taken the air pollution levels to a new high. Oh, and the road surfaces seem to have been imported straight from the third world, being often covered in debris, and strewn with gaping holes. Not to worry though, positive mental attitude, and all that (not sure how far PMA gets you when a pothole gives you a double blowout in the pouring rain).

Passing through Camden it wasn't long until I got to Swain's Lane (and the first quiet road of the morning):
Swains Lane from the base...
...And from the top
A good little climb, Swains is popular with cyclists as it offers something of a gradient in a City dominated by flat roads. Nothing too difficult but it does have you out of the saddle and breathing hard by the top, so great for hill repeats. Alas, this wasn't my plan for the ride and I continued North through Muswell Hill (no sightings of Michael McIntyre or his racist baby unfortunately). At Ally Pally I stopped for a quick photo op which shows quite how murky a morning it was:
View through the gloom
Heading up White Hart Lane (where, bizarrely, the famous football ground is not based) and then through Tottenham, it was here that I realised why I had never been to Tottenham before: because it is less than scenic (a dump!) and full of not-so-friendly characters. Of note on the high street to Edmonton was this particular 'restaurant', complete with giant copper statuette of a doner kebab:
Yoda didn't look impressed with the Doner
And people sneer at South London! Heading further North still, it wasn't long until I came across my second surprise of the morning: London's hidden reservoir and wide open green space within the M25. Further up was the turning into Mott Street, the second categorised climb of the day.
Blue skies and green countryside - inside the M25

Street signs, sponsored by Instagram

Going up
The Mott street climb could have been in the middle of the countryside, with its tree-lined road and farmland to either side - quite a contrast to the busy A112 where it starts. Again, the climb itself wasn't too testing but did go on for a bit before levelling off into the Epping Forest. Getting a bit carried away with the smooth-surfaced roads and finally some peace and quiet from the traffic, I promptly put my head down and missed a turn before realising and back-tracking a mile or so. Bizarrely the roads were lined with a number of 'Beware Cattle' signs. I didn't come across the slightest whiff of beef, so I can only assume that these are there because of some kind of a nightmarish plague involving 'vampire cows'. Either that or it's a warning for motorists to be aware of fast-moving kamikaze bovines. It's the only rational explanation.

An uneventful ride back through my old stomping ground of Victoria Park and Mile End saw me home through the traffic and over Tower Bridge. The all-important recovery was based at Bermondsey's local raclette stall (yes, that's right, Bermondsey has it's very own cheese) which was as delicious as it looks (that is, very) and full of all the cheesy-potatoey-oniony-goodness that a cyclist needs:
The French were really on to something
when they thought of this
Finally, the post-recovery party ended up in the Piccadilly Institute, packed full of under-age, under-dressed, and over-intoxicated individuals, as well as one very sweaty, very dancy 30 year old and a soundtrack of 'classic' 90s dance music. Suffice to say that I didn't end up going on my planned ride on Sunday
The neon dancefloor...

John was suitably unimpressed with
the 'pass the sweaty hat' game