It’s a rare occurrence that I get nervous about going cycling. I’ve ridden so many miles over the last five years that it’s become an integrated part of my life and recovery. I try to maintain a status quo that sees me riding a few times a week when I feel able to do so. Although this hasn’t proven possible for most of 2014 the recent good weather has seen more consistency in my day-to-day energy, allowing me to venture out a little more frequently again. My rides have naturally become longer and my confidence to complete them has improved, especially since the advent of the surprise wasp sting allergy that halted me in my tracks for a short while.
Last week’s journey into the labyrinth like centre of Devon was a joy and a celebration. It was by far the most challenging route I had ridden this year and I made it using my Azub T-Tris trike. Surprised how well it went I began pawing over maps, my eyes drawn to Dartmoor and the upland wilderness it holds. For a long while I have wanted to ride the newly signed Dartmoor Way around its perimeter but my health at the present time made me put that idea on hold until I’m feeling stronger.
Dartmoor sits high above the landscape of fields that makes up most of Devon. The rolling hills of the county pale into insignificance when placed next to its lofty moorland landscape. From where I live it appears as a gigantic raised area that runs from horizon to horizon. At its highest it only reaches just over 600m above sea level but it has its own persona, that of a giant sponge. Often hiding behind veils of mist and cloud, and rarely clear for more than a couple of days, it absorbs huge quantities of falling rain.
Despite its modest size it catches out those who venture onto it by its complex nature and ever-changing weather. It’s inspired books like The Hound of the Baskerville (Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle) and anyone who has spent time on its flanks and moors can readily relate to the reasons for such a grisly tale being based here. With little protection from the elements it can batter you with strong and often unexpected winds. The moors are covered in mires and bogs deep enough to lose a human being in without trace. In short its a place that demands respect from those who seek out adventure away from the few roads that cross it.
Most of all it has a wild and untamed atmosphere that doesn’t in any way match its size. When you are up on the moor it feels like a vast and empty wilderness, unique in the South West of the UK. Granite Tors rise eerily above its surface like some strange kind of sculptures or monuments. These are oddly shaped, rounded and softened by the passage of time and weather. To the untrained eye, it appears as a moonscape of wild tufted grasses, and heather, with few signs of life as we know it.
Needless to say that tourists are drawn here in their droves. They come to experience something completely different from their usual haunts and the places they live. To be anywhere high on Dartmoor awakens primal drives and heightens senses, leaving the observer acutely aware of their vulnerability as a fragile human being. It has a way of leaving you feeling fearful of a hidden kind of danger that is intangible and intriguing at the same time. It may be that it just reflects and amplifies what you are already feeling inside. Whatever the real reason for its seemingly mystical qualities, stories abound of strange happenings in its environs. Myth and legend are associated with everything, from the tors and moors, to the stone circles, standing stones, and ancient dwellings that are scattered widely across it’s surface. Perhaps that is why I felt nervous planning a ride that would take me there, powered only by my legs.
It’s more likely that my own fears were based on less ethereal things. My map told a story of hills and more hills. Most were steep and some were long and steep. The fringes of Dartmoor are no place for the feint-hearted. You ride upwards and downwards with little in between these two extremes. Two of my friends have recently ridden the Dartmoor Way and both described it as both beautiful and tough. My route would follow this using one of the hillier sections before abandoning it for the long climb up onto the high moor from Chagford. I would traverse the moor from east to west and after dropping off towards Tavistock I would pick up Sustrans national route number 27 which would lead me back to Okehampton (now shared with the Dartmoor Way) where I planned to start from the railway station. It’s worth noting that The Dartmoor Way’s creators also advises those who want to ride it to travel anti-clockwise as it’s perceived to be a little easier.
My stomach was jumping on Wednesday morning. I felt more anxious than at any time this year. I struggled to eat, preferring to sit and look at the pre-packed equipment that lie in wait for me to pick it up and leave. I had even laid out my cycle clothing beside my bed the night before in the vain hope that when I put it on I would feel like a cyclist and therefore have to go out. This was the strange kind of ritual that I used when I left to cycle around Britain and to be replicating those kind of patterns and emotions for a day ride felt odd to say the least.
I had packed a range of snacks and lots of water the night before. My medication and epipens sat in the Ortlieb Compact handlebar bag, along with my glasses, map, route card, phone, keys, money, and wallet. In short I could leave as soon as I felt able to drive. My senses at that moment were telling me to expect a hard ride, something close to my limit, and my emotional reactions were similar to those of the young athlete I once was waiting to compete in a big event.
It was a case of caging the chimp which was trying to run rampant in my head: The Chimp Paradox: Dr Steve Peters. Given free-reign this little monkey would have destroyed my day through irrational fears and reasons to not go out. My pre-preparedness meant that I didn’t need to think or dwell on its mind games. I had learned this skill many years ago when fear and anxiety would threaten to overrun my attempts to climb at my limits and I find it’s one of the most useful tools in my armoury of tricks that help me to overcome moments like this.
I only managed a banana and coffee, a poor combination, and any thoughts of porridge, or even bran-flakes, was too much. I had enough food that I could eat as soon as I got going when I knew this state of mind would evaporate, turning into something a little more pleasant. Telling the chimp to shut-up I fetched the car and loaded in my trike and gear. It was 0830 and time to go. Driving provided a great distraction and for twenty minutes that was all that filled my thoughts. It’s unusual for me to take myself off somewhere else to start a ride. I would usually ride from home but in this instant I felt it would be a bridge too far to pedal the extra thirty-something kilometers it would add to my journey.
More ritual followed. It began with the unfolding and preparation of my trike, Kermit. Next my bags were placed on rack and my Ortlieb bag clipped to the seat before the final check of brakes and quick releases was made. After locking the car and zipping the key into my pocket I sat down and relaxed. The chimp had lost its fight as I headed down the hill into Okehampton. I imagined it jumping up and down inside the locked car as I left it behind for the day. It was now down to my legs and body to perform, time would be the telling element here.
From Okehampton the road rose steadily for some miles. I headed off the main street in order to avoid traffic and began to enjoy the sense of freedom that only comes from knowing your will be out for hours. Trikes are different when it comes to uphill riding. You cannot stand-up to aid your efforts and its easier to select a low gear and to spin the pedals. From the outset this ride told me its intentions. The further I went from the town centre the more the lanes narrowed and the higher the intensity of the effort I was making. And this was only the beginning.
Picking up the signs for the Dartmoor Way and following them I eventually arrived, via some tiny roads, in Belstone. It’s a charming village that I have ridden to many times from other directions. It sits on the flanks of Dartmoor which rises impressively in the background. Nobody was around and it felt like a ghost town. I slid silently by without stopping picking up a steep but narrow downhill that would lead back to Sticklepath where I would briefly follow a much wider and smoother road. I was now in the ride, nothing invading my peace of mind other than the joy of riding and the effort of the hills.
Turning away to follow the lanes to Throwleigh and beyond memories began to bound around in my head. I had lived here for eighteen months after my breakdown. It had been a hideaway of tranquility where I could ride the worst of the storms that raged in my mind. Dark days and darker nights that seemed to last forever was what I remembered now but there was a balancing feeling of having being held by its peacefulness. I passed the lane leading to a series of rock pools on the moors side where in the summer children and parents would slide into the waters that had been warmed by the sun, giggling and hollering as they went.
I reached the centre of the tiny hamlet where I had lived to find the village pond completely dry and a shiny VW surf wagon parked outside the single bedroom cottage where my life had been lived in a nightmare format. There were good memories as well but these had been buried by the avalanche of emotions that governed the early days of my breakdown. Almost opposite my old cottage I found the Post Office to be closed down. It had provided me with a small sanctuary, a place where I could talk to another human being when I escaped briefly from the confines of my home.
Continuing past the Northmoor Inn, a place from which I had regularly staggered home, I wound around the steep lanes trying to remember who was who and who lived where. It all felt hazy and distant to my memory. Rounding a corner I met an old lady that I had regularly spoken to at the time I was local. She recognised me and commented on the trike. She made me smile by saying that her husband would love the trike and that he would be ninety next month. Despite her years she was still full of life and energy, something we all hope will be true of ourselves as we age.
The lanes in these parts are lined with granite blocks, rounded by weathering and softened visually by the bright green mosses that grows on their flanks. The stones lie in wait for unwary motorist and should you hit one it’s not a contest, the stones always win in my experience. Meeting a lorry while travelling up a steep hill on one of these lanes is never good and while he reluctantly reversed to a space where we could pass one another he didn’t look happy about it. I didn’t care, grinning and waving thanks as I continued. On reaching a narrow bridge at Chagford I stopped watching the stream burble past as I ate. From here I would climb directly up onto Dartmoor via Jurston to pick up the Post Bridge road. The road reared up in an ugly manner at around 20% gradient.
As I stood contemplating the biggest climb of the day three cars came down. I thought for a moment that it must be used as a rat-run by locals but it seemed to quieten as I set off. Running for several kilometres with three steep sections, and one that I found less difficult than the map suggested it ought to be, it reminded me of the long climbs in the Pyrenees. I’ve always enjoyed long hills in an odd kind of a way. They have a rhythm that short hills seems to destroy. Although initially steep this hill was on the right side of desperate meaning I could pedal steadily up enjoying the change of scenery as I progressed. The pressure I placed on my seat told me the intensity of my effort as I pushed back hard against it to aid my pedalling on the steepest sections.
Slowly I was released from the confines of the lanes as the moor began to open ahead of me. The dry-stone walls cease at this level and the views were spectacular across open and wild moorland. The moor displayed an array of purple, green, and brown, colour from its autumn foliage. The challenge of riding here on Kermit added to the situation. I joined the Post Bridge road knowing it would be busy. With two lanes of relatively smooth tarmac I also knew the crossing of the moor would be easier than anything I had ridden already. I was briefly scuppered by road works, but pleasantly surprised that they held the traffic back for me to ride through. Being on a steep slope it took me a while but there was no pressure to get out-of-the-way of oncoming traffic as is often the case when traffic-lights, which are geared for cars, change green for oncoming traffic before you clear the area.
Once I crested the hill, and with the aid of a following wind, I took off like a rocket passing the isolated Warren House Inn as some speed. Shortly after I stopped to absorb the scenery, tranquility, and space. I tucked myself behind the remains of an old building with only sheep for company. This ancient and unchanged natural environment felt so refreshing after the man-made lanes of the last couple of hours. Surrounded by wilderness with only sheep, a few wild ponies, granite, heather, and marsh-grass, for company, I felt at home. Spectacularly wild, despite its small size, it left me wondering why I had taken so long to bring a cycle up here. The cold wind required me to wear a jacket for the rest of the crossing and aside from a chat with two retired bikers, who were out for a ride, the only person I saw to speak to was the lady in the Post Office at Post Bridge.
My legs began to tire on the climbs around Princetown and Two Bridges but the lunatic downhills gave me wings enough to manage them. Keeping an eye out for sheep and ponies, they run wild here on Dartmoor, I must have hit speeds of 60kph. The transition from that to crawling up steep hills at something close to walking pace is a strange one that I’m still getting used to but it isn’t so different from my bike. Perhaps without the need to think about balancing you just have more time to notice it? From pedestrian relaxation to jet pilot in a few seconds, what a brilliantly mind-blowing piece of engineering Kermit is.
Over the cattle grid and free of sheep I let Kermit have the free rein. Stable as a bus he tore down the hill pulling away from the classic motorcycle that followed us. The motorcyclist stayed behind until the road straightened enough to overtake, which he did with his leg hanging out in salute to my efforts. Slowing and turning off the roller-coaster ride I was immersed again in lanes. I made my way slowly on tired legs to Peter Tavy, an exquisite village where the road runs out at a pub only to be replaced by a rough and lumpy track. The pub was enticing but my legs wouldn’t do too much more so I kept on a little and stopped to eat a pre-packed pasty but the stream at the end of the fun-fair ride that is this small piece of Sustrans National Cycle Network.
From there to Lydford was hard going due to diminishing resources of muscular endurance. By the time I reached the old railway cycle route that would take me the last ten miles to Okehampton I was dog-tired. It didn’t matter, for this had been a spectacular days riding. Despite all of the rampaging of my inner chimp I had almost completed a classic ride. From Sourton the trails runs slightly downhill and we purred along, eyes full of spectacular scenery, and mind full of the joy of life. The trail provided a perfect end to a perfect day allowing me to relax completely and my legs to breathe a sigh of relief. On reaching the car there was nothing left to say, think, or do. I simply packed away with a manic grin and headed home feeling tired but fullfilled.
Until next time………………………………..