Monday, May 13, 2013

On the Levels

First order of business: I have stuck a few photos in the "Two Down, Too Much Up" entry, but none in the "Hairy Hands" one, and I have realised how few photos I have taken so far. I have yet to work out a good system for having the camera quickly to hand, what with waterproof bags and sheer exhaustion getting in the way of a creative moment, but I intend to sort that out soon, particularly as I am regretting the lack of visual evidence of my trip. That said, there will be two photos in this entry. Aren't you lucky?

I'm not sure exactly when I left Cornwall and entered Devon. It must have been around Tavistock of course, but I missed the signs. I hadn't realised what a difference leaving Cornwall behind would make to the riding I faced, but let me tell you, things have been getting easier.

On the one hand, it was sad to leave behind the friendly little villages, the tiny lanes with ramshackle farms which suggest you would either be welcomed in like a prodigal son, or welcomed in like a prodigal son before you become the star in a shotgun wedding, or your face got made in to a mask. This kind of thing happens, I've seen it on the telly...

Dartmoor, as I have said, was a breeze, quite literally. Exmoor, however, proved to be a whole other kettle of fish. For a start, I faced a 63 mile day around to the Quantock Hills, a distance which in itself was a tad daunting. The wind had dropped a little (a good thing), but shifted, and not in my favour (a bad thing), and there were some horrendously steep sections en route. Despite (or maybe because of) powering across Dartmoor the day before, I left Moretonhampstead feeling a bit weary, and this wasn't helped by the long, relentless climb out of the village right at the start of the day. Nothing like an energy sapper just before a 60 odd mile ride!
The road to nowhere...or everywhere?
After that climb, things settled in quite well, though. I stuck to my 'hour on, 10 minutes off' routine, and even slipped in an opportunistic break in a tiny village hall which was advertising a coffee morning! I joined the senior village reps for a mug of tea and a custard cream for 20 minutes, which took the chill off, and then trundled on to Dulverton. As I crossed one of the big A-roads, I spotted a greasy spoon cafe which, at 11.30am and after 4 hours of riding, was life saver! One plate of sausage, beans, bacon eggs and toast later and I was feeling energised again - which was just as well because Dulverton was on the edge of Exmoor, and had a run of steep surprises in stall for me!

I thought I'd left the soul-destroying climbs behind in Cornwall, but it seems there were a few left over in Somerset, courtesy of Exmoor, and it seemed like I'd managed to find them all simply by choosing the smaller lanes! Thankfully, at the bottom of one and just before the next, I found a tea rooms and a huge piece of dense fruit cake, that kept me ticking over til I made it to the top of the last big climb. Once there, it was mostly downhill to my campsite although, as my GPS had been misbehaving, I was convinced I still had 9 miles to go even as I was approaching the campsite!

I wish I could find more to say about the daily rides, but these first few days have been a massive struggle due to the terrain and my lack of match fitness. The hills take so much effort to get up, and the downhills are over so quickly, that I haven't had time to look about and take much in.

Since leaving the moors, however, I have discovered that it is, in fact, possible to ride at a consistent speed and find a rhythm. It was tough moving at 6mph upwards for ages, then 40mph down for the blink of an eye, with no benefit from momentum. Once I got over the Quantocks on Saturday, however, I found the roads more gently undulating, which allowed me to build up some speed and maintain it. Cruising at about 18mph is much more rewarding and, indeed, effortless (despite the constant pedaling it requires), than slogging away up hill just to have the down hill speed sapped by the next hill. Suddenly, after struggling to finish 40 odd miles in 8 hours, I was knocking off 50 odd in 4 1/2 hours! Even with the first touch of rain for the trip, cruising along the Somerset Levels was purely enjoyable. The only thing missing was the wildlife I'd been hoping to see, but which was hiding from the rain. Sensible wildlife.

I'd hoped to have company on Sunday, for at least part of the ride from Wells to Thornbury, via Cheddar Gorge. Mark Lavis - he who got me started on this with his invitation to the Alps in August - had said he'd join me for the morning, but during a frankly show-offy 80 mile training ride he did on Saturday, he 'broke' his back wheel. If he didn't think he could manage another ride, he should have just said. Nonetheless, I soldiered on, and Somerset once again proved lovely to ride through. I have spent a lot of time in these parts over many years, and it was nice to be riding through familiar landscapes. All of the UK is familiar, of course, but this part felt more homey.
The bottom of the gorge. Two bends later and I had to have a push.
Cheddar Gorge was one of 2 challenges for the day, which I was enthusiastic about when I plotted them in, but was having second thoughts about now, with aching legs and the thought that I could easily have found a flatter way! As it turned out, there was one very short section on an early hairpin bend that proved too steep for me, but after that, I stormed up the rest of it at a very respectable pace for one loaded down. A screamingly fast down hill towards Chew Magna Lake cost me my back light, when it was dislodged by a rough bit of road. Rather it than me, and I didn't even bother going back to look for it.

The last biggie of the day was the road up to High Ham - a treat I put in out of a misguided sense of nostalgia. As kids, we would go to Ham Hills and run about and get exhausted, so I plotted in this detour, and once again almost regretted it. Pedwell Hill was long and tiring, but ultimately not too steep to beat, and I felt pleased I'd not chickened out of it. From there, it was an enjoyable level-ish ride around the bottom of Bristol, through some rural tracts and up to Thornbury, where I am taking my second, harder-earned rest day of the trip. Tomorrow will be a short hop to Cheltenham, before I embark once more on the some challenging ground as I head to Wales. The Brecons are beckoning, and Snowdonia is thumbing its nose. I know who my money is on, and I hope yours is too! Thanks once again for all the donations - the running total is £600 or so, about 38% of the total. Keep on spreading the word, you've been great :-)

And now I must eat something. Its at least an hour since a large breakfast, and I'm starving again already!

1 comment:

Jess said...

Great writing and riding Stevo xxx hang in there xxx