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UK Cyclist: Long-distance and leisure cycling in the South-west and elsewhere

Words: Mark Hummerstone

Although I am told that this is one of the hardest 600s in the diary, I found it a very enjoyable ride. Route directions were good on the whole and it went through some beautiful countryside. Two of the controls were at people’s houses which was most welcome.


Prologue:

This ride was my swan song for my first year of Audax rides (2006) and my first and last chance to achieve the SR series that year.

Mrs H had come to the end of her patience with the amount of time spent away from home and to be honest, I had reason to question whether putting the time into doing this sort of event was feasible. I DNFd on the Bryan Chapman because of work pressures and had lost my chance of a gold National Series.

The DNF on the Bryan Chapman had shaken my confidence and left me with a nagging doubt – ‘what if I can’t manage a 600 after all?’

With this in mind, I felt like I had something to prove and the K&SW 600 seemed like a good event to test my mettle.

My original plan was to travel down the night before, stay at a friend’s house, arrive at about 8ish in Exeter, be tucked up by 10 and get a good night’s kip without being tempted by the brown nectar of the Gods.

If I told you that I turned the car around (within 10 miles from home) because I’d forgotten the case of beer, you can fill in the gaps as to what actually happened the night before the ride.

Report:

First bit, 372k, Exeter to Bude – Looe – Penzance - Newquay then back to Bude:

allezallez.jpgThe start of the ride was at the Quay in Exeter at 6am. To my surprise, only 11 people had entered the event and only 7 turned up at the start. Various causes for poor attendance were cited including: Pam’s Denmead Double Century, the impending heatwave, the World Cup, and perhaps for some, sanity had prevailed.

I eyed up my fellow riders. Each and every one looked like hard-bitten, dyed in-the-shorts-area Audaxers with (probably) 1000s of miles under their bottoms. They probably laughed in the face of saddle sores and for them, Hell was a night not spent in a phone box/village hall/bus shelter/grit bin. As I talked to the other riders it transpired I was one of three for whom this was their first 600km event and as I’ve found to be the case with the longer rides, my companions in pain were all jolly friendly and unassuming fellows.

My chum, Keith, wanted to ride some of the route with us but didn’t fancy the whole event (“It’ll probably kill me Mark”). I warned him that we were likely to be slow compared to the speed he’s used to. How wrong I was. Within a few miles after Credition we were travelling at a slightly alarming pace. The field spread out and when Keith left us at Hatherleigh we seemed to go even faster. There was a strong tailwind but even so, we covered off the rolling ride to Bude (our first control, 88k) at an average speed of 29kph. This meant that three of us arrived about 30 minutes before the control was due to open. Luckily the controller had just arrived at the café (as had the owner) and was happy to stamp our card, sending us into the fleshpots of Bude to find succour.

To backtrack slightly, have you seen Hitchcock’s “The Birds”? I did at an early age and like the Daleks, Cybermen and Jenny Agutter waving her torn petticoat at a trainload of passengers, it left a lasting impression on me. Imagine then my horror to discover the legend of a psycho Buzzard that preys on cyclists on the the Bude/Holsworthy road!

My two fellow riders seemed quite unperturbed. They pulled ahead of me outside of Holsworthy as I nervously scanned the skies for an attack. ‘Fools’, I muttered to myself. ‘You will scoff on the other side of your face when you sample first hand the terror of the winged beast of Holsworthy and he has sated himself with your man-blood!’ Of course, they weren’t attacked.

No, it was I, un-helmeted and moving at a fair pace down on the drops that was whacked behind the head and scratched by the creature’s fearsome talons. I am only glad that I was not sporting the Yellowed Thong of Ambition otherwise it may have been snatched away and lost forever. All I can say about the episode is that I will be OK after the course of counselling and it’s good to know that others have suffered a similar fate.

From Bude, I was in a group of three riders; Pete from Manchester, a rather fit ginger haired 600k-virgin (I hope the hyphen makes that work – I have no idea about his sexual achievements) and Martin Lucas, a member of the Willesden clan and riding companion of Paul Stewart.

By Week St Mary it became obvious that they were in a different league to me. “You go on” I said, “I’ll only hold you up”. As I said it, I realised I sounded like some poor sap in a film who has broken his ankle whilst the group he’s in is trying to escape the pursuit of a vicious band of redneck Badgers. I should have added “Save yourselves, it’s too late for me”. “No, you’re fine” said the noble Martin, “600k is a long way to cycle on your own” and with that, they were gone in a cloud of dust at the next hill. I didn’t mind as it’s important to ride at your own pace. Also, in non-cycling Hummersland, I am so rarely on my own that I quite welcome the space.

Tip of the day: Should you undertake this route, do pay attention to the route sheet. If it says R @ T, (sp Canworthy Water) it means precisely that. Not R when you fancy it and see any sign to CANWORTHY WATER (see what I did there with the capital letters). I realised my error when I arrived, 5 miles later in a place I was never supposed to pass through. Looking at the map, I engineered a route back to the route although not without climbing some massive bloody hills into a headwind in the process.

More hills followed on the rollercoaster that is the Launceston to Looe road and I was glad to see the control at Kellys Café. According to the lady at the counter and despite my detour, I was still in 3rd place. Mind you, she did try to stamp my card twice when I asked for water so her short-term memory was not above suspicion.

Another chap turned up at the café as I was leaving. ‘At last, a riding companion’ I thought but alas, he had decided to pack at St Awful. (ND: this is not a Microsoft Word auto-correction).

I set off alone and promptly got lost on the way to Fowey, losing more time as I tried to retrace to the route and navigating some unfeasibly muddy lanes to get to the ferry.

In contrast, the stretch from Fowey to Connor Downs was hardcore, military grade, A class road. On these roads you just hope to God that the driver in the car haring up behind you at 80mph has:

a) not just fallen asleep
b) is not reaching down to tune into Pirate FM
c) not trying desperately to recover the cigarette they’ve dropped in their lap
d) not just succumbed to an act of oral love by their passenger

On these roads, I try to imagine myself as very thin yet highly visible object that repels all other metallic objects travelling at high speeds. Mind you, on the pull up from Truro there were times when sudden death would have been a merciful release.

Not a moment too soon, the route left the A road and a delightful stretch from Connor Downs to Penzance ensued. A long and sometimes interminable climb through rolling countryside was followed by a long downhill stretch with panoramic views that seemed to last from Four Lanes to Marazion.

At Marazion, I shunned the pleasures of the A30 in favour of the NCN route along the sea wall to Penzance as we had followed on LeJoG, three years before. ‘Why didn’t the organiser think of this?’, I wondered. I soon knew why. It is hard to imagine a more bike-unfriendly collection of surfaces mustered into one section of ‘cycle path’. There was gravel, rocks, hexagonal blocks (that I can only describe as tank traps) and when wet, mud. Oh how I yearned for the good old days on the A39 just outside of Truro.

By Penzance, I was definitely ‘tank out’ and any reserve was nearly depleted. The toasted tea cake I’d had earlier in Looe and two Snickers bars consumed along the way were not enough. I needed food, proper food – and fast.  Too cap it all, jubilant football lovers were all too eager to share Ingerlands victory with me. Not even my ‘bugger off and leave me alone or else’ face worked as a deterrent. I was starting to feel faint, it was cold, spitting with rain and I was struggling to read the directions for the control. Oh hold on, the control was someone’s house. This was a novelty!

Don and Jane were hospitality personified. I must have looked grim as I was told to eat some cake immediately. I could tell I was babbling too and stuffing food in my mouth stemmed the embarrassing tide of drivel. Slowly, normality returned as Don’s soothing tone reassured me that the route to Bude was not too bad. In fact, according to Don, the rest of the ride was a cinch bar one section – the last one.

It was almost too comfortable in their dining room and I eventually left 1¼ hours behind Martin and Peter. Apparently, all but one rider behind me had packed and judging by the time, there was no one remotely close to catching up with me. Just as I left (and I can’t remember why), Don picked up the back of my bike. “Blimey” he gasped, “I normally take the kitchen sink but that’s very heavy”. A concerned Don waved me off as I rode off into the darkening and damp evening.

Penzance to Newquay was a bit of a blur. I called into see a family friend at Cambourne just as night fell but from Newquay to Bude, it was mile after mile of a dark, quiet and undulating A39. There was one milepost for Bude, “Bude 35 miles” then nothing for a very long time. I used the mileage to Camelford as a countdown and just kept grinding away in the darkness. The night was warm and close. Up on the fringes of Bodmin Moor, a fog settled creating mesmerising stripes of light shooting up from my Lumotec lamp. I was bored out of my mind and found myself slowing down – God how I longed to see that Bude turn off.

At Wadebridge, a group of young lads in a Chavmobile stopped me and asked for directions to Bodmin. Rather than just tell them that they needed to go to the roundabout and turn right, I found myself telling them that Bodmin was a pit and lecturing them as to why they should be going to Newquay where there was totty on tap. I was rambling again but this time I was stroppy with it. Time to shut up and move on, I thought.

Relief, when it came, was in the form of the WI hall in Bude. Whispering angels appeared before me at 3am; ministering to me and providing scrambled eggs, tea and rice pudding. Martin and Peter had made up time and had arrived at midnight – a whopping 3 hours in front of me. They lay on lilos on the hall’s stage like chrysalises in polyester mix cocoons. I reckoned that at least they’d had some sleep before my clonking feet and stage whispered conversations about rice pudding (with a kindly but somewhat deaf helper) in the hall rendered sleep impossible – and this was before I started snoring (probably).

I’d made my sleep stop by 3:00am which afforded me 3 hours ‘rest’ and an estimated 2 hours spare for any unforeseen eventualities the next day. Bursting with scrambled egg and beans, my last act before succumbing to sleep was to climb under a blanket and gingerly try to take my shorts off without flashing my rather sore and sweaty undercarriage to the control helpers.

Second bit, 243k, Bude – Taunton – Yeovil - Seaton then back to Exeter:

cest moi.jpgPeter and Martin were up at 4:30 and by merit of the fact that in an empty hall, everyone can hear you ask for jam, so was I. Without being really sure, I must have only been asleep for an hour but it felt like the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages. I also dreamt that another rider had come in after me but as I left at 6:00am, no one else had turned up.

Just as I left the town centre, I saw the 4th rider just coming into the one-way system. He was either 3 hours behind me or had kipped down somewhere else and was checking in and out again. I hoped for his sake that it was the latter (historical note: it wasn’t either - he had already packed).

The weather started off muggy and overcast. A fast stretch retracing the road to Hatherleigh (sans Buzzard this time) and a revisit to the hill and memorial I’d slogged over on the 3 Moors 300 the week before gave way to more rolling roads to Tiverton through some beautiful countryside.

Slowly but surely, the temperature started to rise and before long, it was strength sapping hot. By midday at Taunton Deanne services, it was saddle melting hot and for the first time, I considered packing. There then followed a bizarre audible argument, with myself, that left motorists and coach loads of OAPs passing by in bewilderment. There was the Hummers who was blistered, sore and tired arguing with the Hummers that realised that he was still 2 hours up on time, was on the last 80 miles and that as long as he kept up the fluid intake would finish the damn thing.

The latter prevailed and off I set through the Somerset ‘Levels’, taking solace in the fact that I was no longer cycling away from Exeter.

From Crewkerne to Raynonds Hill, their followed (for me) the grimmest section of the entire ride. The B3165 snakes away from Crewkerne up over a massive whale backed hill through Marshwood. It’s not particularly steep – just long. My arse was in agony and so were my feet. The only way I could get any respite was to get out of the saddle and clench it’s nose between my thighs – relieving pressure on both my feet and arse for as long as I could hold that position.

After what seemed like an eternity, the A35 came in sight and marked the start of the downhill to Seaton and the last stretch home.

I arrived in Seaton at 6pm rather chuffed with myself. According to the Brevet card, the latest I could be here was 20:20 so despite the heat and distance, I was still 2 hours 20 minutes up and I felt like celebrating with a portion of cheesy chips. I didn’t need them you understand. Originally, I wasn’t going to even stop in Seaton, I just felt I deserved them. Yes my friends, I'd switched to dawdle mode.

But the cheesy chips were a long time coming and a sea mist had spread over the coast. I started to get cold and agitated. Then, when I looked again at the route card, to my horror I noticed two things:

i) Rather than climb out of Seaton up to the A3052 and follow this to Exeter, the route went through Branscombe. This meant climbing out of Seaton, climbing out of Beer, and finally climbing out of Branscombe. Some big hills but more importantly, more time would be consumed than I had allowed for.

ii) As a BRM, the official finish time for the event was 22:00 (40 hours), not 23:00 (615 divided by 15kph) leaving me 3½ hours to cover 23 hilly miles.

Now, if 3½ hours to cover 23 miles sounds like an odd thing to panic about however it’s worth remembering that anything can happen on an Audax. I might miss a turning, not be able to find the finish (someone’s house in this case), be knocked off/come off or suffer a mechanical failure of some sort. I also had to cover off a rather hilly 23 miles (after a fair few hours in the saddle) which was likely to take me at least 2 to 2½ hours. Still, there was nothing to be gained from worrying about it, I just had to ride.

After the pull up from Beer, I found myself poised at a physical and metaphorical crossroads. To my left, the white knuckle ride downhill to Branscombe. To my right, a flatish road that meandered towards the A3052 back to Exeter. “Oh bugger it, in for a penny” I thought to myself as I headed off down the hill towards the Mason’s Arms with my brake blocks smoking.

From Branscombe, the road climbed steadily up to meet the A3052 and the final leg to Exeter. For me, this section along the A3052 was the most perilous stretch of road of the whole event. It’s not a dual carriageway and at times you’re moving very slowly due to big hills. It was also very busy with cars that with little room for manoeuvre, passed exceedingly close. On the final slog up over Woodbury Common from Newton Poppleford, a twig lodged itself squarely in the spokes of my rear wheel, wrapping my mudguard stays into the wheel. I hurriedly twisted my mudguard out of the way and set off at a snails’ pace to drag myself up the hill and out of danger. Like I said, anything can happen on these rides and the time you thought you had can vanish.

The feeling of relief when I finally saw the sprawl of Exeter before me was indescribable.

Epilogue:

Sat in the kitchen of the finish control (another house), I took stock of myself. My arse was jolly sore, my feet were numb and I was suffering from the heat but overall, I felt pretty good. I found out that I was only 3 of the original riders to finish and was only 2¾ hours behind the first to finish (Martin) and 1¾ hours behind Pete. Not bad seeing as they’d started an hour earlier than me that morning. It had been a great ride and an achievement I shall not forget.

The conversation turned to the 2007 PBP. Not for the first or last time, I was reassured by an organiser that if I could complete a ride like this, the PBP was well within my grasp.

 head tit.jpgHowever, the 2006 SR series had put considerable demands on my time, family, work, marriage and pocket (let alone my arse).

PBP? We shall have to see what 2007 brings on that score.

The Yellowed Thong of Ambition was duly stamped and off I went to the pub for some much needed isotonic Sharps Doom Bar with my mate, Keith.



Long-distance cycling under AUK rules is often (though inaccurately) referred to as audaxing. Mudguards are not required for any of these events. Use whatever bike suits you. If you don't want to follow a routesheet then download the GPS file. You will need to be fit and self-sufficient. Most of these events, especially the longer ones, are hard. You should be an experienced cyclist with both fitness and stamina. There is a minimum speed of 15kph for all the events of 200km and above. Don't worry about the maximum speed of 30kph, you won't get near it. Prepare your bike and yourself carefully for any of these events. If you do all the distances, you become an Exeter Wheelers Super Randonneur.

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