Monday, 5 August 2013

The Century that never was

There are some milestones in a cyclist's life that, while of absolutely no importance to anybody else, nevertheless can be looked upon as something special by the cyclist that accomplished them.
One such milestone is a Century ride, or put more simply, to cycle 100 miles or more pretty much in one go.

Now some people also measure a metric Century, which is 100 kilometers, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. The reason why I decided to aim for an old-fashioned 100 mile Century is because I have in days gone by already exceeded 100 kilometers in a single ride.
While I have no GPS evidence of that ride, I still have fond memories of it and I clearly recall it was 74 miles. Best of all, I did it on a cheap, full-suspension "mountain bike"!

Physically I didn't think I'd have any problems riding 100 miles or more, and with a few days becoming available, I set about planning a ride that almost goes around Dartmoor.

On a Monday morning that was trying to decide what mood the sky should be in, I rode through Yealmpton to Ivybridge. Though nearly engulfed by battleship-grey clouds, the roads were dry and the wind relatively light and in no time at all I made my way through South Brent.

Here it seems that Monday had decided not to be grumpy after all, and the weather improved markedly, with the sun putting in regular welcome appearances. As the forecast for the day hadn't been good, I was rather relieved at this point.

I was following NCN 2 in a mostly north-easterly direction until I reached Ashburton, where I turned off NCN 2 and headed for Poundsgate, crossing the river Dart (which gave its name to Dartmoor) soon after. Almost immediately after crossing the river there's a Cat 4 (fairly steep-ish) hill and it was while riding up that hill that Monday proved just what a fickle beast it could be.

It had clearly changed its mind about what weather we were going to have and opened the sluice-gates, resulting in some very heavy downpours. When you're cycling and you get caught in torrential downpours, you have very limited options: you can take shelter, if any is available, and wait it out, or you can shrug and keep on cycling. With the sort of mileage I was planning on doing, I couldn't afford the luxury of waiting to storm out as I'd lose too much time. Also, even though it wasn't a cold day, the combination of of cycling shorts, a paper thin rain coat, heavy downpours and strong winds could soon lead to hypothermia if you're not moving to keep generating body heat and you cannot escape the elements altogether.

As a result, I shrugged and continued cycling along my route. The trouble is, I was now riding on roads that I've never been on before. I'd mapped the route out digitally, and transferred that to my Android phone, on which I was running an app called OSMAnd - sat-nav for cyclists, basically, complete with offline maps so I wouldn't be affected in the likely event of having no mobile phone signal.

OSMAnd is simply brilliant, and of course I was also running GPS logging on my phone, in the shape of Strava and as backup, Endomondo. Strava sometimes isn't reliable, hence running Endomondo in tandem. As it happens, that was a good strategy as Strava had a hissy-fit along the way and stopped logging the ride, while Endomondo was as reliable as ever.

Of course, using GPS on a smartphone hammers the battery and there's simply no way my phone's battery could've lasted for the entire trip. To this end I have a small bag that straps onto my bike's top-tube and inside that I have an extra battery pack. That pack takes four 18650 4000mAh batteries and a standard USB cable connects it to my phone, thus assuring I could run full GPS for 12 hours or more. Of course my phone also goes inside the little bag, which has a clear flexible plastic insert, through which I can operate my phone's touch screen.

Except, the bag wasn't up to coping with the deluge that kept falling from the sky and started letting moisture through. This forced me to move my phone out of the compartment with the see-through insert, deeper into the bag where it won't get wet. And where the screen also cannot be seen, and the voice guidance from OSMAnd cannot be heard above the sound of the rain and the wind! My phone was thus reduced to a GPS logging device and of no use as a navigational device at all.

From this point it became inevitable that I'd go off route at least a few times, and so I did. I had memorised enough of the route to know I was mostly on track, but still ended up riding down hills only to discover I was going the wrong way and had to turn around and ride back up that hill, cursing as I go.

And still the rain fell.

Still, I skirted Widdecombe-in-the-Moor and soon was going downhill past Haytor, where the Devon stage of the Tour of Britain finishes in September 2013. At Bovey Tracey I turned almost due west, towards Manaton and continued on until I reached the B3212.

My original route called for me to turn right here and head to Moretonhampstead, which was about two miles away, and from there on to Okehampton. Except the skies around me were almost black with angry clouds, and thunder & lightning was introduced into the heady mix of heavy rain and very strong winds.

I stopped at the intersection for a while to think things through, while eating some more of the peanut-butter flapjacks I had made especially to fuel me on this ride. It was getting late, and if I turned right and followed the original route I'd have many hours of cycling still ahead of me. The shorter route would be to turn left, but that would mean crossing the open moor and would include a fair bit of climbing in the process.

There was at least in theory a third option - turning around and go back the same way I came, but I didn't fancy regularly going off route again and having to double back all the time, so I rapidly dismissed it as a realistic option.

With a brave but foolish "Sod it!" I turned left and set off for the heart of Dartmoor, straight into the wind.

And still the rain fell.

Getting back from here was, navigationally at least, a simple affair: just follow the B3212 all the way to Yelverton. In practice it was a bit harder: 18 miles riding directly into the wind, with heavy rain pelting me so hard it actually hurt.

Still, I had no real alternative and kept plodding along, and plodding along it was. Aside from having a two-wheeled vehicle in common, there was otherwise virtually no similarity between the popular image of a Tour de France racer gracefully speeding by and me struggling along that lonely road.

With just the charm that may be had from low, black storm clouds as company it felt like ages before I passed by Two Bridges. The wind and the rain eased up a bit between here and Postbridge and I passed two roadies going the opposite direction. They hardly had to pedal and were simply blown along by the wind and I must admit I felt rather sorry for myself. Using the excuse of needing to eat, I pulled over in a semi-sheltered layby and had some more of my super flap-jacks. I knew I couldn't stop for long as it would have been very hard to get going again with cooled down muscles, so a minute or two later I set off again.

The climb into Princetown was very slow and just as I entered the town I was rewarded for my efforts by a black Mercedes driver that overtook me so closely I still don't know how his mirror didn't collide with me. Communicating clearly with the driver in international sign language I let him know what I thought of him and continued through Princetown.

Monday wasn't done having fun with me yet, as I discovered on the downhill towards Devil's Elbow, where I pedaled as hard as I could on the fairly steep downhill, yet only just managed to get up to 11mph due to a ferocious headwind.

A few uphills later I was on what I knew to be the last hill on Dartmoor, as the road skirted Sharpitor and it was with great relief that I crossed the cattle-grid and found myself cycling on a road shielded from the wind by trees on either side.

Downhill all the way to Dousland was a doddle and soon after I climbed the rise into Yelverton, where I stopped to eat the last of my super flap-jacks. From Yelverton I took Drake's Trail, which is a gradual downhill into Plymouth and indeed before too long I found myself cycling under clear blue skies in Plymouth, with only a light breeze for company.

I made it home following the route I cycle as my daily commute and six hours and 50 minutes since I set off I returned home, having failed to cycle my planned 100+ miles and instead only succeeding in doing 82 miles. I had climbed 2 394 meters (7 183 feet) and burned 4 500 calories and despite all the negatives of the ride, I still enjoyed it.

I've learnt a few lessons from this trip, though:

  • I have the physical and mental resolve to fairly comfortably cope with a very unpleasant situation and at no time did I consider bailing out and calling for a rescue lift
  • Peanut-butter flap-jacks are an excellent cycling food for me. It was all I ate since starting the day with a bowl of porridge
  • I need either a different top-tube bag, or I need to find a way to 100% waterproof the one I have
  • Never underestimate Dartmoor, and
  • Never, ever, ever think Monday will ever get enough of making your life difficult
Next up, I have to find time to do a Century ride. Let the good times roll!