Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Tour of Britain 2013 - the Devon Stage

Just to pre-warn you, this post deals more with getting to and from the Tour of Britain than the event itself.

Last year (2012) I cycled out to Merrivale with my friend Simon and his wife, to go see the Tour of Britain. Merrivale is a hill between Princetown and Tavistock, on Dartmoor, and is an easy cycle to get to from Plymouth.

This year, I was again planning on going to see the ToB, except quite a number of things had changed. Starting with the least important, the route for the Devon stage is totally different, with the nearest point being Haytor on Dartmoor. I've also moved house, and no longer live in Plymouth itself, but rather some distance to the East of the city. Most importantly, Simon and his wife were expecting their first baby, and the due date was the 20th of September 2013, exactly the date of the Devon stage.

Leading up to the day, I had to make two sets of plans. The first plan would be to ride to Haytor on my own, while the second one would see Simon & I cycling up together. Time would tell which plan was to be used.

As it happens, Simon's gorgeous baby girl decided to make a slightly earlier than expected appearance, which increased the likelihood of Simon being able to make it to the ToB. Simon is a member of a local cycling club and they arranged a group ride (anybody welcome) from Coypool in Plymouth, via Yelverton, Princetown and Widecombe-in-the-moor to Haytor and I decided to ride with this group, in case Simon could make it.

To be honest, I've never ridden with a club before and I was slightly nervous. On their web site, the club's expected timings indicated that they were planning to ride at quite a furious pace and I did wonder whether or not I'd be able to keep up!

As I knew I'd be using my phone to log my ride via GPS and that I also wanted to take photos, I charged up the external battery pack I use. In the past this allowed me to run full GPS functionality of my phone - normally a battery killer - for over 8 hours and still have 100% charge in the phone's own battery. As added peace of mind, I had a second phone battery, too, so I wasn't even slightly concerned about power.

On the day, Simon let me know that he would be cycling to Haytor and I set off from home. Except I needed to pump my bike's tyres and the floor pump picked that moment to act up, which meant I had to rather quickly fix it. Sod's Law certainly came into play!
On the bright side, though it started off a bit overcast, the weather had massively improved on the previous day's incessant rain and before long patches of blue sky were showing.

I had previously removed the mudguards and rack from my bike (it's used mostly as a commuter) and when I got going I set off in a hurry as I was running late and had to ride 11 very hilly miles just to get to the starting point. Along the way I popped into a petrol station and bought two multi-packs of Snickers bars, figuring that'd keep me going until the afternoon and that I'd buy more food along the way.
The group ride was due to leave Coypool at 10am sharp and I got there at 10h08 to find that they've already left.

Cycling up the Plym Valley path, part of Drake's Trail, it wasn't long before I encountered the group where they were stopped so one rider could fix a puncture. I waited with this quite small group, and was told that the bulk of the riders had proceeded to Yelverton. Before long we were on our way, though I must admit I was surprised by the considerable number of cyclists we encountered going the other way, towards Plymouth.

Soon we were cycling through the tunnel, and shortly after we encountered the first real uphill, where we left the Plym Valley path to ride on the road towards the top of Clearbrook. Those of you that have cycled this way before will remember that hill as thankfully short, but rather steep.

Once in Yelverton, we joined a group that was now quite large. So much so that we were split into two separate groups. Simon joined us in Yelverton, and he and I were in the second group. This allowed me plenty time to top up my water bottles while we were waiting to set off.

From Yelverton it's uphill almost all the way, until the road reaches Sharpitor - the first Dartmoor tor after the cattlegrid - and I discovered that daily cycling up steep hills whilst laden with heavy panniers does help. I was in no danger at all of being dropped by the group and indeed gradually made my way up the line, overtaking slower riders.

Dartmoor is simply stunning and is one of my absolute favourite places in the world, so I had a big grin on my face when I crested the hill and admired the view as the road started going downhill. A few small hills later we were descending to Devil's Elbow, before starting the climb up to Princetown.

In Princetown I discovered that we had caught and overtaken quite a number of riders from the group that left Yelverton before us. I hadn't expected that to happen. We waited for a while for the group to gather up again, then set off towards Postbridge, via Two Bridges. With Princetown being quite high, there were no serious climbs and soon after Postbridge we turned off towards Widecombe.

While stopped in Widecombe I discovered that my external battery pack wasn't working and at this point I shut down my phone, switched batteries and started logging the ride again. We were very close to Haytor now, which was to be the summit finish for the Devon stage of the ToB, with only a small* hill in the way.

*NOT small! Rather steep & painful!

More than any other part of the ride, the climb up to Haytor showed me that having a stupidly expensive bike doesn't guarantee you fast times and I overtook quite a number of riders, some on bikes with pedals worth more than my entire bike.
Annoyingly, there were also a small few that overtook me as if they were on a downhill and unlike me they weren't puffing like a steam engine at all. Clearly I need to work on my fitness level. Clearly they need to learn to have the common decency of at least pretending to also be suffering as they breeze on by!

There were already loads of people at Haytor, but Simon and I managed to find a really good spot 100m away from the finish, from where we also had a good view down Haytor.

The atmosphere was incredible, with a palpable sense of excitement in the air. The big screen was facing away from us, but we were being kept up to date via the PA system. As the riders came nearer, the crowd grew in numbers and we had to stand our ground to avoid some people pushing in. Why do some people think it's OK to behave like that?

Pretty soon, the lead riders swished past, a meter or two away from us. I've ridden up Haytor before and I can assure you my pace wasn't anywhere near the mad speed they were laying on. Simon Yates put in a spectacular sprint in the last 100m to win the stage by a very comfortable margin, and the crowd went wild.

Bradley Wiggens wasn't far behind in the golden jersey, and there was a significant rise in cheering when he came past, though nothing like when Mark Cavendish came past. Riders that achieved/retained podium placings remained at the top, while the other riders turned around and descended Haytor again. You could follow Cav's progress purely by the cheering that spontaneously erupted whenever he was nearby! That man is incredibly popular.

We stuck around for the podium ceremony and then started making our way back to the road. Unfortunately this involved a great deal of carrying our bikes through the gorse as we didn't want to wait for ages and we ended up with loads of scratches, but we were soon enough descending into Widecombe, where I topped up my water bottles again for the ride home.

A missed turning meant Simon & I weren't following exactly the same route back, but instead ended up following a number of riders from Certini. Being a semi-pro group, I think they took exception to us overtaking them and soon they came sailing past. After a while we were pacing them, keeping them in sight. A long climb through Belever saw us rejoining the B3212, which we followed all the way to Princetown.

I wanted to have a pit stop in Princetown, as I couldn't buy anything to eat in Widecombe due to only having a bank card, but no cash on me. Simon was a bit worried about the time and wanted to get back to Yelverton, to his wife and their week-old baby. As a result, we pressed on, though for me this turned out to be a mistake.

Halfway between Princetown and Sharpitor I bonked and I simply had to eat. Fortunately Simon still had a Mars bar, which I demolished in a second or two. A minute or so later we set off again, though I was seriously suffering up the long climb to Sharpitor. Towards the top the Mars bar started kicking in and I even managed to drop Simon for a short while. Once we crested the hill though he was off and gone and I struggled to keep up with him.

We were soon in Yelverton, where I got to meet his baby girl for the first time. This was undoubtedly the best part of my day as she is simply adorable. Simon's wife fed me more chocolate and a peanut-butter sandwich, washed down with coffee and by the time I said goodbye to them I was ready for the last 20 miles home. My phone had made it this far and I also used the stop-over at Simon's to charge the battery a bit.

From Yelverton to Plymouth is almost entirely downhill and fortunately the Plym Valley path was deserted, so I made good time. From Coypool I cut through Saltram and was soon climbing Elburton Road out of Plymouth. Given how I'd bonked earlier, I was expecting to suffer on the last, hilly stretch home, but surprisingly my legs felt strong enough to go ride to Haytor again and it wasn't long before I was home.

I had an excellent ride there, and (ignoring the part where I bonked) an excellent ride back, I got to see world-class riders perform super-human feats up Haytor and I got to meet a gorgeous brand-new baby. Despite the power issues I had, I still managed to log the entire ride with GPS, even if as separate segments, and I had no mechanical issues with my bike at all.

Life is good!