Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Darkmoor 2016 - at a crossroads

There are three big rides I look forward to all year: Darkmoor, the Dartmoor Classic and the Exmouth Exodus. The wily amongst you will have noticed that two of those are through-the-night rides, and I suppose that says a great deal about me, though what exactly it says I have no idea.

Darkmoor was different this year. Oh, the route is still exactly the same, as is the start end finish point (Cap'n Jaspers, on the Plymouth Barbican) but the feeling was different. Early on I got the impression that there wasn't a lot of buy-in this year. Sadly several of the regular riders pulled out too, all for different and entirely valid reasons. I would hate for anyone to feel obligated to ride Darkmoor!

Also, some four weeks earlier I crashed my bike at speed into a car that had pulled out into my path from a side road, and I'd injured my left shoulder, my back and my right calf muscle. Riding some 90 miles over Dartmoor whilst injured was never going to be the easiest thing I've ever done, but I figured I'll use Darkmoor as a test to see if I'd be able to ride the Dartmoor Classic. The thinking is that if my injuries caused problems on a slow, social ride, then they would cause havoc on a race-pace sportive with far more climbing.

When the day of Darkmoor arrived, I woke up just after 07h00. This was unplanned! The plan was to have as long a lie-in as I possible could, to offset the fact that I'd be cycling through the night, but for some unknown reason I was wide awake early, and couldn't go back to sleep.

Early evening my wife gave me a lift to the Barbican - yet another thing that was different, as usually I cycle there. I was early, as planned. There was a chilly breeze blowing, so once I ascertained that nobody else was waiting for Darkmoor to start, I went for a bike ride out to West Hoe and back, just to generate some body heat.

Once back at Cap'n Jaspers, I ordered a coffee and waited. Shortly after the first other rider showed up. He came down from Bristol and would be riding with a friend, David. David was one of the original twelve riders doing the very first Darkmoor, and he hasn't missed one since.

Other riders started trickling in, but the clock was ticking and it became obvious that attendance this year would be disappointingly low. By the time Simon (my friend and co-organiser of Darkmoor) arrived, we were only eight riders in total.

One rider said from the outset that he would be going slow, and that we shouldn't wait for him and it very soon became obvious that he was significantly slower than the rest of the group. We rode on and soon found ourselves on the Plym Valley path, which we followed all the way to Clearbrook where David and I each had a pint from the pub, the Skylark. While we were having our pint, Toby, the slower rider, came riding past and disappeared up the hill.

The leading three riders were setting a much faster pace and had already disappeared some time before and of the four at the Skylark, only David and I were foolish  sophisticated (yeah right!) enough to have a pint.

Anyway, we were soon on our way again, and while I was far from inebriated, I can't deny I felt the effects of that pint! I drink very little and consequently don't have much tolerance for alcohol.

By Horrabridge we passed Toby again. Simon and I were delayed along here for a short bit, which meant David and his friend had disappeared up ahead. Simon was unwell, and his adorable toddler at home has trouble sleeping through the night, so he and his wife are suffering from long-term sleep deprivation (a recognised method of torture!)

As a result, Simon was always going to turn around at Tavistock and head back home. Still, by the time he made it home he'd already done 44 miles, half of the overall distance of Darkmoor. We said our goodbyes as he turned back, and I continued on, realising that I'll be riding Darkmoor completely on my own this year. I'm not scared of the dark and often go on night rides on my own. I would say I genuinely enjoy night rides (hence organising Darkmoor) but Darkmoor to me is and will always be a social ride.

Still, I accepted that I'll be riding solo this year and continued on. As I turned the next corner in Tavistock, much to my surprise I found David and his mate waiting for me. They waited a minute or two longer while I paid a quick visit to some dark bushes to rid myself of some liquid weight and we set off again, up the big climb out of Tavistock.

That climb also forms part of the Dartmoor Classic route, which David and I are both entered into. Once the climb was behind us it was fairly flat (well, for Devon, which means still quite undulating) and soon enough we were descending into Lydford Gorge. There's a short, sharp little climb out of the gorge and with that out of the way we entered Lydford, where the pub was closed despite the lights still being on.

After Lydford we followed the gorgeous Granite Way to Okehampton. David told me he'd never cycled it in daylight, so we started making plans to remedy that, as part of a Devon Coast To Coast ride that Simon and I are planning.

As it did in years before, Okehampton offered the usual bunch of drunks stumbling about and staring gormlessly at us as we rode through the town. Almost every car was a taxi and as per usual, I was stunned by the Okehampton taxi drivers: without exception, they all gave us a wide overtake and zero aggression! Coming from Plymouth, where the average taxi driver seems to think it's fun to skim past cyclists with millimetres to spare, it is such a welcome relief when taxi drivers behave like decent people. Honestly, you have to experience it!

As ever, the next pit stop was at the 24-hour petrol station, where we had coffee and sandwiches. The year before I did Darkmoor powered only by Snickers bars, which proved to be a mistake, and I bonked* with Plymouth almost in sight. Last year I did it using only energy gels, which worked well, but sometimes you just want some proper solid food, hence the sandwiches.

At the petrol station we bumped into a Tesco HGV driver that was visibly shocked when in reply to his question we told him the rough outline of the ride. He offered to load us into his truck, with the bikes in the back, and I think he was only half-joking. Still, he was a very pleasant fellow and it's always good to build bridges with HGV drivers.

The road to Moretonhampstead was uneventful and on one of the climbs I even did something I'd avoided up this point: I climbed standing up out of the saddle. That was a mistake, and soon after my calf muscle started complaining. Annoyingly, we still had the steepest climb ahead of us.

David's mate was flagging a bit by this stage and we slowed the pace to accommodate him. I have to be honest here and point out that if we didn't slow the pace for him then I certainly would've had to slow the pace for myself as my calf caused me some suffering.

The big climb out of Moretonhampstead starts just as you pass the miniature pony centre, but we took it slow and steady and soon enough that was over. Those of you that know the route will know what follows is called the three steps - as the name suggests three noticeable climbs follow in succession but it wasn't long before we passed the Warren House Inn and started the descent towards Post Bridge.

Post Bridge flew by, as did Two Bridges and then we were climbing into Princetown. A nice descent into Devil's Elbow followed, but of course what goes down must go up when on Dartmoor. The climbs weren't too bad though and we briefly caught sight of flashing tail lights on the last climb on Dartmoor itself. That climb up Peak Hill was followed by the fast descent to Dousland. It was on that descent, during the 2014 Dartmoor Classic when I set my personal speed record by hitting 54mph.

Day was certainly dawning by this point but it was still quite dark and I'm chuffed that this time round I still hit 50mph down there, despite the poor light! Towards the bottom a soft drizzle started which would last all the way into Plymouth.

We passed through Yelverton again and were surprised to meet the leading three riders there. It was their tail lights we'd briefly seen flashing near the top of Peak Hill. We set off as a group of seven and breezed down the hill past the Skylark to hit the climb out from Meavy. Once at the top the day was getting brighter.

All that remained were the climbs from Cadover Bridge and past Lee Moor and pretty soon we rode into the eastern edge of Plymouth with silly grins on our faces. The route is flat from that point onwards and we made good time on almost completely empty roads.

Riding past the Thistle Park Tavern, we were subjected to bleary-eyed stares from drunken revellers who'd stepped outside for a smoke break as we rode past and minutes later we saw the welcome sight of a lit-up Cap'n Jaspers. Darkmoor was over for another year. Well, after some much-needed coffee and a bacon, egg and cheese bap it was all over.

Riders started saying their goodbyes and we all set off on our own directions. For me that meant mostly following the route of my daily cycle commute, except I kept to the main road out of the east of the city.

My calf muscle was complaining quite loudly at this stage and I was faced with a choice: take the longer route with the less evil climb, or the far more direct route with the brutal climb. In the end I just went for the shorter option and suffered up that category 4 climb.

When I finally made it home at 06h00, I changed out of sweaty kit, put on PJs and fell asleep, to only wake again at almost 14h00.

I've had some time to think about Darkmoor, and the future of Darkmoor. It's no secret that Darkmoor is modelled on the Exmouth Exodus, which in turn is modelled on the Dunwich Dynamo.

The whole idea of Darkmoor is that it in essence becomes "community owned". That it belongs to the people that ride it. I'd love to get it to the point where we can organise feed stops, like they do on the rather excellent Exmouth Exodus. That would require the number of riders to grow significantly though.

The first Darkmoor had 12 riders, which I was happy with. Up to that point it could just as easily have been just another of my mad ideas (though personally I blame my mate Simon for being a bad influence!) Once the other riders started showing up, Darkmoor was real, and I've met some really nice people as a bonus.

The second Darkmoor had around 28 riders - a huge increase! There were some familiar faces from the first year, and plenty of new faces.

Then there was Darkmoor 2016. We had a total of just 8 riders. Eight. Three quarters as many as the very first year. That was very disappointing.

I have no idea where things went wrong this year, or why attendance was so poor. Some regular riders guiltily explained why they couldn't ride it this year, thereby missing the point: nobody should have to ride Darkmoor and if we had sufficient numbers overall, having ten or twenty people pull out wouldn't matter. Nobody should ever feel guilty about not riding Darkmoor, even if their reason was simply because they just felt like pulling out.

Some people suggested reducing the length of Darkmoor. That simply is never going to happen! As it stands, Darkmoor is shorter than I'd ideally like - I'd prefer it to be at least 100 miles. Those that want to do a shorter version is welcome to start in Okehampton, reducing it to around 50-ish miles.

Clearly I'll have to get far better at marketing, and find ways of attracting riders from further afield. Darkmoor isn't and shouldn't be just a Plymouth ride, despite starting and ending in Plymouth any more than the Exmouth Exodus should be just a Bath ride.

I don't expect the around 2 500 riders that the Dunwich Dynamo attracts (we can only dream!) and I'd be perfectly happy with a few hundred. Except this year we had eight.

So the question is, where to go from here? Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results all the time. While I'll never claim to be completely sane (a little insanity is a good thing, in my opinion) I'm certainly not stupid enough to not realise that things have to change.

I talked this over with Ross, one of the riders who did Darkmoor this year, as well as last year and he came up with one great suggestion: changing the month that Darkmoor is in.

The original method of picking the date was simple: It had to be in June, to get maximum daylight as that impacts on how long battery packs powering people's lights last. It had to be on the Saturday nearest the full moon and it had to NOT clash with the Dartmoor Classic (purely selfish reasons, as I ride the Dartmoor Classic and don't want to miss out).

Sadly there are two other events that appear to follow the same criteria: the St Luke's Midnight Cycle, which is a mini sportive and the Dartmoor Ghost, which is an Audax event. The past three years all three events took place on the same night, despite efforts to try and avoid a date clash with St Luke's.

The easiest way to avoid a date clash is to move Darkmoor to July. There'd still be plenty of daylight and no other night rides in the general are that I'm aware of.

Marketing will have to change, too, though I'm adamant that Darkmoor will never need a dedicated PR department. If that's what it takes to keep the ride going then I'd rather stop organising it.

And that's the other option. There will be a Darkmoor 2017, but what happens beyond that will depend on how many riders we get. Ending Darkmoor altogether remains an option, albeit one I'd prefer to avoid.

Any ideas you can share will be much appreciated!