I scurried away from home like a mouse leaving the nest after winter. Blurry eyed and still a little drugged I headed for the lanes that would lead me towards the north coast of Cornwall. Immediately after leaving the close where I live a short hill provides a jolt, reminding me that this particular ride would not be a cruise in the sunshine. Why I had chosen to head along these lanes I don’t know. It’s tough when you are fit and far harder when you feel you have hardly ridden at all.
But choose it I did, wanting to see the sea again, yearning for some views of the ocean from Devon hilltops. I kidded myself that I would be checking out a section of the National Cycle Network route number three (NCN3) to make sure it was all in order prior to the Easter masses arriving on their bikes. But in all honestly I think I needed to test myself a little to see where my riding was prior to a busy summer of activity.
For the first five miles the road behaves like an oversized big-dipper, climbing high above the valleys and then plummeting down into the dense undergrowth of lanes where I would scurry about before climbing skywards again. The hills are typical of Devon. They begin steeply, using all your legs can muster before easing to a more gentle, but seemingly never ending gradient.
The Totleigh Barton road used to be the proud owner of NCN 27 signs as part of the Devon coast to coast. More recently it was stripped of its honours for being too hard in the eyes of those who decide where these routes will go. I can see their point as it is tough going but the panoramic views it holds are now lost forever to those beetling their way from Ilfracombe to Plymouth along NCN27 with its meanderings around Hatherleigh, the town where I live.
Faced with these hills I can only muster walking pace so there’s plenty of time to look around and absorb the views as I go. Well I would if that were possible but the first hill is initially enclosed by steep Devon banks, forcing your direction of travel as if you’re in a tube being slowly squeezed upwards. The hills on this road always hurt. They used to hurt when I rode upright and they still do despite the bodily comfort that Kermit provides. Some things never change.
There are three climbs with gradient arrows in the first five miles (15%-20% gradient). The joys of cycling! After that they just keep on coming. The only fun is the feeling of being released as you beetle upwards into the light from the darkness below. When you stop gasping from the effort of climbing the hills you gasp at the beauty of the scenery that suddenly presents itself to you and that always feels like a fair swap to me.
When I got up this morning my mind had sighed. Another day was here already and it didn’t feel like going for a long ride. I told it that I didn’t care. I felt like going for a long ride so it would have to lump it and shut up. The three A’s: angst, anxiety, and agitation take lots of energy to live with and this was my way of getting a little respite from them. I hadn’t had a day where I felt anything other than dog-tired or mega-anxious for weeks but determination drove me out of the door with the intention of seeing the Cornish coast under my own steam for the first time in what felt like an age.
I arrived in Sheepwash all sweaty and breathing hard. A man was up a ladder washing his porch in readiness for a coat of paint whilst another delivered pasties to the local Post Office shop from a lorry. I needed to stop for a breather so having talked briefly to the man with the lorry and pies I pedalled over to say hello to the other man who was celebrating spring by treating his house to shiny new paint. He looked puzzled when I said I was cycling to Bude and then back. “What today?” he retorted when I confirmed my intention. Yes today,” I replied. “Both ways?” he asked, expecting that he had heard wrongly the first time. I reassured him that all would be well and then left to get a few more miles under my tyres and to hopefully lose a few millimetres from under my belt. You can’t explain cycling to the uninitiated, however hard you try. They see pain where you see pleasure and never the twain shall meet.
At least Devon is honest. You go up or down. The roads know no other way. There is no straight and true, let alone straight and level. Narrow is easy but not straight and narrow and any notion of contouring was forgotten when the leap was made from canal to road building. It was simply too much to ask. Even the railways don’t manage flat for very long once you escape the coast. The steep, winding, narrowness conspires to make it all but impossible to charge downhill whilst any thought of charging uphill is a distant memory, for me at least.
I kept telling myself the same things. Pick an easy gear and spin it out. Inevitably, I still kept running out of gears before I really wanted to. This is a cycling affliction that we all know. Whatever gears you have they never feel low enough. “Walking pace is fine,” I told myself as another hill close to 20% passed ever-so-slowly under my wheels. It felt endless today as it always does when you haven’t done a long ride for a long time and you feel you are crawling along. The difference between normal riding and uphill crawling is so marked that you feel like you have all but stopped moving. It’s an illusion and one that’s exacerbated when you have three wheels as you aren’t concentrating on balancing and the like.
I did remember to stop, eat, and drink though, stretching my increasingly weary limbs each and every time. I would then return to cycling slightly begrudgingly as my legs complained that it surely couldn’t be spring yet, could it? I took another demoted part of the National Cycle Network in order to pass Holsworthy, a place often dubbed Hillsworthy by those passing through. This time the old route was dropped to accommodate a new section of cycleway called the Ruby Way, named after Devon’s Ruby cattle and the colour of the soil.
The local country roads that have been called into action as part of the National Cycle Network have taken a pounding over the last few years. Caution is need in many places, not for the odd pothole, but for sections where the roads surface has been all but destroyed. Deep enough to break wheels or cause a loss of control great care is needed in negotiating these lunar-like surfaces. With three wheels it takes some concentration to miss them all. Thankfully the 2.2″ Big Apple Plus tyre on the rear acts as excellent suspension.
Once on the minor lanes leading to Holsworthy I found the same problem. Three wheel pothole dodging became the order of the day once again although they were never as fierce, deep, or frequent as those on the previous section. I had a rhythm but it always felt a little strained. Perhaps the notion of effortless spinning is a virtual memory, one that gets us out under false pretences. It would have been easy to get bogged down in this negative thought pattern but instead I took to looking at the sky, the trees, the buzzards that seemed to be out circling skywards at every turn, and the squirrels that ran around madly trying to remember where they hidden all those nuts in the autumn. If they are anything like me they will find them in the fridge and the milk will be in the laundry cupboard or similar.
The Devon Banks were lined with daffodils, primroses and other flowers that had escaped from people’s gardens as well my memory as far as their names were concerned. Through the park I rode, passing a school where all the kids seemed to be playing that old favourite of jumping on the smallest boy while the teacher blew a whistle in a vain attempt to stop it occurring. Over the viaduct where the branch line once held a steam train and people now cycle and walk. The bridge that it forms saves a steep hill in both directions and it felt like a real privilege not to have to follow the contours for a change.
The next village is called Pyworthy. I’m sure it is very worthy although there are no pies to be found anywhere at all. To get there you leave the rail-trail via a steep slope that takes you back to the road up above. Onwards and upwards and downwards and upwards the road continues, killing your legs and leaving you suddenly remembering you have to do it all the in the other direction later on. Reaching and passing Bridgerule you climb again before the road swoops away towards Marhamchurch from where you can literally smell the ocean.
You fly down here because you can safely do so. Without a thought for the return journey a grin crossed my face, but just a mile or so from the aforementioned Marhamchurch the road dives down steeply to a stone bridge, the kind that might be hiding a Troll It then rears up in the ugliest manner one more time. Down the gears and up we go, on achy legs now. I ride through Marhamchurch deciding that Bude will have to wait. I’m a little concerned that at 25 miles out I won’t have enough light to get home. Those dank lanes hold a large degree of dark matter once the sun goes down and I didn’t want to be caught out, even with lights.
I had also reached my turn around time, the time when I need to do just that and head for home. I always try and leave enough time to allow for a puncture or mechanical incident in my turn around time but it’s a useful tool to use when light is still of a premium and you are unsure of how quickly (slowly) you are travelling. Even so I felt a little reluctant to head home without dipping a toe in the ocean. I guess that provides a reason for returning once the clocks have jumped forwards an hour next weekend.
Settling on the bench, between and a pretty church and the ancient looking Celtic stone that has been incorporated into the war memorial, I eat, rest, take in the view and smile smugly at the fact I made it here at all given the past few weeks of mind games. I knew the return leg would prove to be a real test but having ridden here there was little choice but to undertake it. Once home I would be smiling at completing my first half century of the year, not wincing at my tired legs and mind. And with that thought I set off into the vast space that constitutes rural Devon, leaving dreams of the coast behind for those of a long hot soak in the bath.