Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Exmouth Exodus 2014

I'll admit it freely: I do like cycling in the dark and I do like through-the-night bike rides, so it's no wonder I signed up to ride the Exmouth Exodus.
For those that don't know, the Exodus is a 108-mile ride that starts in Bath (it used to start in Bristol) and ends in Exmouth. It is loosely modelled on the Dunwich Dynamo, the through-the-night ride that started it all.

I have to fess up to also having ulterior motives for doing the Exodus - as co-organiser of the Darkmoor through-the-night ride, I wanted to see how bigger and well-established rides do it.

I had a partner-in-crime for the Exodus, the lovely Philippa Davey, a Plymouth City Counsillor and Cycling Commissioner for Plymouth. Philippa picked me up from Yealmpton, an easy 5 mile ride from my home, and drove us to Exmouth, where we left her car overnight. What followed next was a treat - a casual ride along the Exmouth estuary cycle path, which is flat and gorgeous (and obviously popular!) to get us to Exeter St Davids railway station, from where we would catch a train.

There were a few other cyclists catching the same train as us, and they were heading for the Exodus, too. The train journey was uneventful and soon enough, following one changeover, we arrived in Bath and soon afterwards we located the starting point. There were already two other cyclists there, who arrived WAY too early and gradually others started arriving in drips and drabs.

I was well-prepared, with an external battery pack to keep my phone topped up (I used it during the Dartmoor Classic and ended the race with a fully charged phone, despite having run GPS all the way), I had a 6-cell battery pack for my triple Cree T6 headlight and I had a single Cree T6 light, with plenty spare batteries, as backup. Finally, as emergency, I had a small LED light and of course my tail light. The 6-cell battery pack for my main light is actually from my 5 x Cree T6 light, but I chose to bring the triple T6 as it would last longer before draining the battery pack.
On my phone I have an app called OSMAnd, which does digital navigation rather brilliantly. Basically, you feed it a GPX track, and it will guide you to remain on that track.

Now as Lennon put it so succinctly, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, and life certainly happened!

I discovered that my external battery pack had died! That meant I couldn't use my phone to either guide me, or log my ride. That was rather annoying, though not absolutely the end of the world. After all, we had paper-based route sheets, so what could possibly go wrong?

Just after 8pm Philippa and I set off, together with a small handful of other riders. One of these riders had a Garmin, so we all decided to follow him. That didn't work out too well, as he took several wrong turns while still in Bath. There was a woman with plastic-wrapped, large-print route cards attached to her handlebars who turned out to be far better at navigation, so we all ended up following her.

She was riding at a faster pace than most of the group, and soon was way out in front, so I raced to catch up with her. The idea was to ride with her until we came to a major change of route, then wait for the group to catch up and point them in the direction she had gone. As the route follows the Two Tunnels cycle path, quite soon we were riding through the tunnels, and she sped up significantly. When I commented on her increase in speed, she told me she was a bit claustrophobic and just wanted to get through the tunnels and into open air again. Considering that the longer tunnel is over a mile long, that couldn't have been pleasant for her, but soon enough we were out the other side.

Given that the Two Tunnels path is quite new, I was disappointed to find that it had been surfaced with "self-compacting gravel", which is a cheap-skate botch favoured by local authorities who don't want to splash the cash to tar the path. It is a vastly inferior surface, certainly not suited for cycle paths and it becomes potholed and muddy quite quickly. Potholed and muddy would be an accurate way to describe the part of the Two Tunnels path that isn't tarred.
Update: I've been asked to point out the the un-tarred section isn't actually part of the Two Tunnels path. I really have no idea where the official end of the Two Tunnels path is - presumably right where the tar ends.

A couple of gates later, our navigator had long since disappeared over the horizon, and we were reduced to our paper route cards. Worryingly, Philippa was riding slowly due to an injury to her foot, something she tried to keep quiet about. She soldiered on despite the pain, and the two of us watched the rest of the group disappear in the distance.

Mostly I was riding with my main light on low, though in a number of places, where the road surface seemed dodgy and also on some descents I went to full power, and also switched on my other light. At around midnight my triple T6 light finally ran out of battery power and I switched to my backup light.

Gradually we made progress, with Philippa suffering more and more with her foot and we were glad to glide down Cheddar Gorge, knowing the first food stop is around the corner. What we could see of Cheddar Gorge was stunning, but the experience was marred by the lunatic convoy of boy racers we encountered!
Still, soon enough we made it to the first food stop. After having sampled lots of the delicious cakes and reinforced with a mug of coffee, we set off again.

Philippa said she'd see how her foot was holding up (she was seriously suffering by this stage) and mentioned that she might have to pull out at the next food stop, at Fivehead. Sometime before the food stop, we made a navigational error and ended up riding up a fair old hill that apparently we could and should have avoided, and we came upon a police car stopped next to a car embedded sideways in a hedge. Apparently it was a suspected drink-driver, who walked off seemingly unhurt, but it also highlighted certain downsides to night rides. Soon enough we were back on track and made our way to the food stop.

After a hot drink, Philippa decided (quite bravely, I thought) to pull the plug and bail out. Her plan was to try and organise a ride to Taunton station, less than 10 miles away, from where she'd train it down first the Exeter, then to Exmouth, where I'd meet her again. She also lent me her Garmin GPS watch, so I'd have a GPS log of the ride, and I set off again.

I rode for a fair few miles with somebody Philippa knew and we navigated by looking at our paper sheets at almost every junction. Given that it was raining on and off, the sheets of paper were slowly getting soaked. The ink was running and the paper was disintegrating. I was in a hurry, as I knew the remains of tropical storm Bertha was due to hit soon, and wanted to spend as little time as possible in that.

Soon enough we hit Blagdon Hill, which really was described by some other cyclists I'd spoken to as equivalent to Everest. Blagdon isn't very steep at all, though it does go on for a while, and I overtook a fair few other riders along there. When I got to the top, I didn't want to stop to look at directions as I didn't want a small group of cyclists I'd just overtaken to think I was being annoying by overtaking and then having to stop to catch my breath.

As a result, I cycled on, focusing on a cyclist's tail light I could just see way off ahead. That then became my navigational strategy: using other riders' tail lights as a bread-crumb trail and while not the most advanced stategy ever, it worked surprisingly well. I did miss one turning, purely as I didn't have any tail lights ahead of me at the time, but very soon realised my mistake and turned back.

Not long after I made it to the tea wagon at Luppitt (visible from space because of a VERY bright strobing light!) where I wanted to change batteries on my light. Only to find that I couldn't get it to work again, At all! That was VERY annoying and I really didn't fancy trying to complete the ride using my emergency little LED light.
At that moment, a sizeable group of riders set off again, all with decent lights, so I tucked myself into the group and relied on their lights. This strategy worked, as I could see where I was going, but the downside was they weren't very fast, and of course I didn't have a chance to east some of the flapjacks I'd baked to power me along the ride.

When it was light enough for me to not have to rely on their lights, I sped off again, and was followed by a rider who later told me he was from Launceton. He was quick, and more importantly, he knew the way, and we rode on together. Very soon after, the storm broke around us, with at times heavy rain and with strong winds that were to last all the way to the finish. Around Yettington he made a navigational error, but I can't complain at all, as he'd most probably saved me from making lots of navigational errors. Nevertheless, we ended up off route by a fair few miles.

By the time we were back on track and riding through Woodbury Common, I started to bonk and had to stop and demolish the last of my flapjacks. Fortunately, due to my secret formula (treble the amount of golden syrup the recipe calls for) the sugar soon enough kicked in and I was off again.

Very soon after I descended into Exmouth, a town I really don't know. I followed signs for the seafront, then simply followed that around until I found the Harbour View cafe, where the ride ended. If I hadn't been soaked by the driving rain by then, the waves crashing over the road certainly would've soaked me.

As I queued up for coffee in the cafe, I felt a tap on my shoulder, followed by a cheeky "What took you so long?" I turned to look, and there was Philippa, who'd been given a lift straight to Exmouth, from Fivehead, by some kind stranger.

All in all, despite the many things that went wrong, and the poor weather, it was a great ride, and I can't wait to do it again next year.