Anyone following me on Strava will know my audacious plan for the weekend didn’t work out entirely as planned. I planned for the most optimistic best case scenarios possible, threw in a few ‘that’ll probably work’s and set out knowing there was a very high chance of failure. Working against me were:
- A tight deadline (1,000km in 3 days)
- Unfinished work weighing on my mind and making me keen to be back in time to either work on Monday evening or be up absurdly early on Tuesday
- No hotels available in all of Devon and Cornwall (seriously, there were 65 mile tailbacks on the motorway from all the holidaymakers) and I had nothing pre-booked
- A ‘lumpy’ route through Devon with lots of 10%+ climbs and no granny gear
- Plenty of un-tested kit
Still, better to roll the dice hoping for glory and at worst come away with a good story.
I set out shortly before 4am on Saturday, relieved that the dynamo I’d only set up the night before seemed to be working perfectly. Under street light, I was a touch unimpressed by the B&M Luxos, but as soon as I got away from the towns, it really came into its own. Not the same light cannon I’m used to with my Exposure lights, but plenty bright enough and an amazing beam spread.
I chose an incredibly dull route away from Epsom – racing down the A24 before peeling off into the quieter roads around Newbury, Hungerford and Marlborough as the traffic began to build up. It was mind-numbingly dull and I got a heavy dose of the dozies as the sun came up, but it passed quickly enough once I’d found my way onto the b roads.
My groove was then ruined by a recently chip and sealed road. Several miles of deep, gravelly shite, sapping the strength from my legs, slowing progress and eventually causing a double puncture. The rear tyre went off like a gunshot and sealant flew everywhere – I continued for a few yards, hoping it would slowly seal, but eventually had to stop at the road side to assess the damage. Sitting the wheel with the gash at the bottom let the sealant temporarily create a seal, but this blew out as soon as I tried to replace any air or put weight on the weel. I cursed my stupidity for leaving the same set of ageing tires I’ve been using for weeks and inserted one of my two inner tubes, before cautiously setting back off and taking the remainder of the chip and seal more cautiously. (It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed one of the spokes had also come completely loose)
I could hear what sounded like escaping air every pedal stroke, but assumed it was just the remaining sealant between the tube and tyre or my mind playing tricks on me, only to have to stop a mile or so later when my front wheel became overly springy and I had to accept I was now indeed on my last inner tube and already facing adversity, despite not yet even having covered a hundred miles. I considered throwing in the towel… thought about going home, getting some sleep and doing a few sensible rides over bank holiday, instead of this nonsense. It took a lot of resolve to keep the bike pointing away from home and trust that a bike shop would materialise sooner or later.
But materialise it did, just as I saw signs for a station and could feel my resolve weakening. Three tubes (and £15!) later, I was back on my way. Almost instantly, everything improved. The sun came out, the scenery improved and I found myself tapping out the miles without a care in the world. Before I knew it, I was at Cheddar Gorge and couldn’t fathom what I’d been so concerned about a few hours earlier. Cars were even giving me a wide berth – a theme that would continue all the way to Cornwall; patient drivers sitting behind me on climbs, smiling and waving when I pulled over to let them pass and crossing completely over the white lines to pass. Bliss.
Even Devon, where my knees were destroyed, was a delight to ride. Amazing vistas, bright sunshine and quiet roads. Unfortunately, those roads alternated between very steep climbs and long draggy descents. My speed tanked and my optimistic gearing took its toll on my knees. My right knee felt like it would burst every time I got out of the saddle and I had to really back off on the climbs, often resorting to cadences of 50 and below. I really missed having a powermeter to help gauge my efforts… I’m not convinced it would definitely have saved my knee, but it would certainly have helped.
I popped some ibuprofen and managed to beat the pain into submission for long enough to clear Devon and gradually the hills petered out and I crossed the border into Cornwall. It was getting late, but I felt pretty good and decided I would get to my planned early night stop before deciding whether to push on to Land’s End in one go. Everything was going perfectly as I approached Bodmin Moor around sunset.
But then the fog appeared. Dark buildings loomed out of the murk, the road disappeared from sight and the chill woke up the anger in my knee. My speed tanked – even if I could will my knee to cope with pushing harder on the pedals, I couldn’t see far enough to go any faster. Those final miles were soul crushing and the run into the service station I planned to sleep at took seemingly forever and I could barely unclip for the agony in my knee. The ride was over. My mind shut down and refused to accept that I was still on target for my more cautious schedule, still had plenty of ibuprofen and could always reassess in the morning.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – my mind goes to shit when I’m tired and the odds are turning against me. I walked straight past an open (and empty) storage shed and laid out my bivy at the back of the car park behind some bushes and settled in for the night. I woke up multiple times during the night – so much condensation was forming inside the bivy you could float a small navy and the clearing fog had revealed that I was sleeping almost directly under a wind turbine, creating ghostly noises and scaring the crap out of me every time I opened my eyes.
I braved it out until 5 am, then went and spent a disturbingly long time in the service station toilets sorting myself out. Even this I messed up. Instead of going into the disabled loos, stripping right down and having a proper clean, I popped into the gents and dabbed pathetically at myself with wet paper towels and spent most of my time staring at the haunted figure in the mirror. Misery begets misery – I knew I had failed and was subconsciously punishing myself.
I went and sat the nearest train station, using the 4 hour wait to try to dry my bivy and generally have a bit of a sulk. Fortunately, the sun coming out broke me out of it and I summoned the motivation to cycle to a station on the correct line, just 10 miles away, and get myself sorted out. It was still a 4 hour wait for a train (FGW’s bike booking policy is a shambles), but there was a little cafe and a warm bench to sleep on, so I spent a pleasant enough morning catching up on food and sleep.
Looking back on it, I could definitely have made Land’s End. I suspect I could also have made it back home within my time limit (my return route was much flatter and my knee wasn’t so bad over the 10 miles to the train station). At the very least, I definitely had time to comfortably make it to Land’s End and then Penzance to catch a train home. I’m telling myself I would rather keep the challenge there to be done properly than have achieved it feeling like a fraud.
It wasn’t a wasted effort, however…
- I need to rethink my sleeping arrangements. A foggy, but mild night in the bivy was rough. I need to be bolder with finding shelter and not treating the bivy like a tent. The mountains will be colder, so I may switch out my down gilet for a down jacket and take a half bag to sleep in.
- Foil blankets are AMAZING.
- I need to get my head on straight. I panic about deadlines and turn everything into a drama. I’ve booked enough time off work to cover TCR comfortably, but I’ll need to think about how to keep my mind clear of other distractions.
- I need a mount for my phone. I was going to take two Garmins, but the dynamo makes using my phone for navigation easy and reliable. I’ll rely on the 510 as my primary device, but the phone will allow for re-routing on the fly.
- Don’t be so polite/reserved. Having grotty feet and feeling unclean sucks… get over it and make sure you’re sorted, even if you look like a weirdo doing so.
- Fit a granny gear. Getting up a climb and getting up a climb comfortably are very different.
- Make a decision… then question it. Force your brain to work before accepting the first solution that comes into your head – Don’t be a dummy!