The Exmouth Exodus was started as either an alternative or an addition to the Dunwich Dynamo, with the Dun being the original through-the-night bike ride.
I've only cycled the Exodus once before, back in 2014. In 2015 life got in the way, so I was determined to ride it again in 2016. Towards the end of May I crashed into a car that suddenly pulled out on me from a side road and I injured my back, as well as ended up with a partially torn calf muscle.
My back still hurts, though oddly enough the most comfortable it can be is when I'm cycling, when my back isn't hurting at all. Sitting upright, or even lying down results in it hurting, but at least I can ride.
My calf muscle is a different story: for starters, I cannot climb while out of the saddle, and that makes a huge difference. I pulled out of the 2016 Dartmoor Classic as I know I wouldn't be able to finish, let alone finish in a decent time, and overall my average speed has nosedived. Sadly, between cycling far less (in the first few weeks after the crash I drove to work, and I've yet to do a full week's cycle commuting) and cycling far slower, my fitness level has dropped too.
In view of this, I had some serious apprehensions about riding the Exodus. After all, 108 miles is a long old way, and I had no idea whether or not my calf would hold up. From the outset, the plan was to take it easy and aim for a social 12 mph average pace.
As I live close to Plymouth, I set my mind on driving to Exmouth, then leaving the car there. From Exmouth I'd cycle the 12 miles to Exeter to board a train for Bristol. Once in Bristol, I'd cycle the 16 miles to Bath.
In my plans all this would've happened under gorgeous clear blue skies as we've been enjoying until very shortly before the Exodus, but the reality was somewhat different: the forecast was grim, with rain and gusts of up to 50 mph.
I followed my plans and drove to Exmouth, arriving with time enough to eventually find parking and cycle to Exeter St David's train station. I got to the station early enough to have a coffee before my train arrived. On the Exmouth Exodus Facebook page another cyclist, from Exeter, asked if he could join me cycling from Bristol to Bath and I met Richard on the platform.
I had cycle and seat reservations and had a small run-in with an unsavoury character who was sat in my seat. I'd booked a window seat to be next to the electrical socket, and he took exception to me asking him to move. A few words were enough to quieten him down and soon enough the train arrived in Bristol.
Richard and I set off, with me navigating. Bearing in mind I've never cycled from Temple Meads station directly onto the Bristol-Bath railway path, we took a slightly circuitous route before getting onto the proper path, but from there it was easy-peasy.
I'd never cycled all the way to Bath, so I studied maps and Google Streetview to find the easiest route to Green Park Station (which hasn't been a train station for a long time) except again things didn't go according to plan: we were meant to follow the tow path, but at some point it was closed and we were forced onto the roads. Which I didn't know. After a few wrong turns we consulted Google Maps on Richard's phone, and soon enough got to the start. Early of course, but that genuinely was planned.
In the week or so before my appetite's taken a nosedive and all I had eaten all day was a bowl of Crunchy Nut (I was out of porridge!) and a packet of M&M's - this is NOT how to prepare for a ride like this! I bought a large bar of chocolate and shoved that in my backpack.
And then the next problem started: I use a Garmin Edge 500, which can do turn-by-turn navigation, but only if you prepared a route in TCX format beforehand, and saved that to the device. I'd added loads of points to the TCX file, telling me to turn left, right, etc. some distance before I got to a junction and felt I was well-prepared. Except my Garmin wouldn't load the file!
Dave Atkinson, from online cycling magazine road.cc, is the organiser or the Exmouth Exodus, and he very kindly allowed me the use of his computer to re-download the TCX and copy to my Garmin. This time it worked - phew!
Richard has gotten talking to two other cyclists, another Richard and Dan and at 21h15 we set off as a group, with 5th cyclist whose name I never caught riding along. Richard Nr 2 is a serious Audaxer, and as we were riding I learnt that he'd done Paris-Brest-Paris last year. He regaled us with many stories of his Audax adventures during the night.
Dan was more quiet - apparently he'd never cycled further than 30 miles before and I think he was a tad nervous. He's a very friendly fellow though and I don't think he once stopped smiling.
My calf muscle was holding up (though I was being careful and not once did I climb out of the saddle during the whole ride), the rain wasn't very heavy - though constant - and the wind wasn't much of a bother. Yes, it was far more windy than any of us would've wanted, but it was mostly a cross-wind, and nowhere near as strong as the forecast suggested.
The miles were flying by and after a while the rain eased, then stopped altogether. It would stop and start a few more times along the route, but the majority of the ride I'd say it wasn't raining. In Langport we stopped for a bit while Richard 2 adjusted his luggage rack, when a car full of young lads pulled up, asking if we indeed cycling to Exmouth. When we said we were, they asked why and were we doing it for charity. They really couldn't accept we were doing this for fun.
Before long we started the descent down Cheddar Gorge. It wasn't raining at all, but the road was very wet. The wind, however, was something else! The gorge was a huge wind tunnel and we were being battered by the wind. I was doing 20 mph down there and my bike was quite literally shaking under me from the wind. And the next minute Richard 2 came flying past me, going quite a bit faster than me! That man is fearless.
On a good day, in the dry and with daylight to guide you, lots of people can go much faster than 20 mph down Cheddar Gorge, but we did it at night, in viscous winds and on very wet roads. I already thought I was pushing limits and wasn't nearly as brave as Richard 2, so I let him go and only caught him up at the bottom. Dan's grin was even bigger than usual when we got to the bottom and he simply said "That was intense".
No time later we were in Cheddar Scout's Hall having coffee and cake. And a banana, in my case. Our 5th rider had decided to leave our group and continue at a more sedate pace, so our little group was reduced to four.
Leaving Cheddar and the Mendips behind, we knew crossing Somerset wouldn't involve all that much climbing, though of course there are still hills in Somerset. It wasn't very long before we approached the second stop for the night, at Fiveways village hall. Now the hall is a bit off the main road and as we were about to turn some lowlifes in a 4x4 drove by and shouted something along the lines of "Get a car" which caused much laughter amongst our group.
At Fiveways one of Richard 2's Audax club mates had a snapped gear cable, so Richard 2 helped him out, after having enjoyed very delicious vegetable curry. I really must get the recipe! I also scoffed a fair few jelly beans, and soon enough we were on the road again.
The route goes very close to Taunton and we saw the town's lights dead ahead before turning further south once more. At this stage everyone knew what was ahead: Blagdon Hill. Now all truth be told, Blagdon's really not bad. At under two miles long and with a max gradient of 10% I can think of far worse hills.
Hill climbing is best done at your own pace, with the unspoken rule being you wait for everyone at the top, so when we hit Blagdon that's what I did. I didn't go hammering up the hill, as I was nursing my calf, and besides, my fitness isn't quite where it ought to be.
I could see the light of another cyclist just off to my left, and I thought that was Richard pacing me up the hill. When I got to the top I turned and told him we'll have to wait for Richard 2 and Dan, only to find it wasn't Richard at all, but some other cyclist.
A short while later we regrouped at the top and set off again, knowing it wasn't all that far to Luppit Common, where the last stop for the night was. Richard 2 said he wasn't stopping and we said our goodbyes as he cycled on while the rest of us stopped for a much appreciated hot drink.
Day was starting to dawn as we set off again and Dan's smile grew bigger still with realisation that the end was near. Not very long after we were rejoined by Richard 2, who said he was feeling weak and had stopped to eat first.
Reunited, our little group cycled on, heading for the last climb of the ride, Woodbury Common. And then I bonked. My poor diet had caught up with me, despite consuming seven gels during the ride, as well as some food at the stops. Richard wanted to stop too, as did Dan, but Richard 2 rode on, having agreed to meet his wife in Exmouth. I devoured almost an entire large slab of chocolate, as well as my last gel, a caffeine one. Just a few minutes later I felt either the gel or the chocolate kick in and I was ready to ride again.
By now it was daylight and we no longer needed lights and my Garmin kept us on track. Along a very narrow lane, with no houses anywhere nearby in sight and no cars parked anywhere close, we passed a solitary woman sitting on a gate, who cheered us on and said what we were all thinking: "Almost at the end!"
I'd prepared the TCX file my Garmin was using to navigate to tell me when we were halfway up Woodbury, and when we've reached the summit, then it was time for that lovely descent into Exmouth. At a roundabout, where I'd obviously failed to enter instructions into the TCX file I took a wrong turning, but Richard, who knows Exmouth, soon got us back on track.
In no time at all we were riding along the Esplanade, with stunning sea views to our right, and then we reached the Harbour View Cafe, where we found Richard 2 halfway through his breakfast already. His Bristol Audax Club co-member who he helped with the broken gear cable was there too - he was going to cycle back to Bristol!
After a good fry-up and a steaming mug of coffee, I bade them all goodbye, mounted my bike and cycled off to where I left the car some 136 miles ago.
There is some uncertainty about the future of the Exmouth Exodus, as the Harbour View Cafe is to be demolished as part of a big new development. Time will tell what will happen, but it certainly will be a very sad day if the Exmouth Exodus came to an end.
Being an optimist, I'm planning on the ride just having a slightly different end and I've already made up my mind to ride it again next year. See you there!