Words: Chuffy Simmonds
I have spent the last two hours staring at the arse of a man with a flashing red biscuit on his saddlebag. It is bitterly cold. The hills are getting longer by the minute. I’ve been circling the drain for 10 of the last 16 hours and have spent almost the entire day praying for a poo. Welcome to the Old Roads 300k, this is my tale.
Having carb loaded on home-made carbonara the evening before, had a very early night and eaten two Muller Rice for breakfast I’m feeling confident that my ride prep is good and I’m going to be set for the day, despite the 6am start. However, something isn’t quite right. I don’t know about your pre-ride routine but mine always involves a brief sit down, preferably with a copy of Arrivee to hand. Today, nothing is happening. The train is most definitely not pulling out of the station…
The field is select but I recognise a few familiar faces. Julian (Nonsteeler) is there on fixed and I feel a momentary pang of guilt for having not offered him a lift to the start. Then, of course, he is both younger and half my weight, so perhaps the 25 mile penalty will just serve to even things up. My ride companion for the day is Big Dave Atkinson from Road.CC. We don’t have a plan as such but we’re wearing matching Road.CC tops and socks so riding together is pretty much obligatory. It’s going to be like the Duo Normand but with extra cake.
After paying a fruitless visit to the Tourist Information Centre loo it’s back outside for the start. My preference would be for a flowery speech, sweet maidens in traditional costume carrying elaborately plaited bread and a 21 gun salute, but Mr Hennessey is organising and favours a more low key approach. If memory serves we were dispatched with the glorious and inspiring phrase ‘you might as well go then’. Mind you, on the Glastonbury 100 miler it was ‘go on then, bugger off’.
Being a small bunch we set off en-bloc and settle into a fastish pace out of Honiton. Come the first hill and Pete Marshall drops off the front, back through the pack and that’s the last we see of him until the finish. Apparently he carried on until Barnstaple and then hacked back. Nothing in the legs, so he just did 200k. Hardcore…
The sun is up but it’s still cold, so I’m muffled in legwarmers, vest, merino jersey, woolly jacket, long gloves and waterproof. After a few miles things are starting to warm up, so I stop to lose the waterproof. It’s the start of the world’s longest, slowest and least alluring striptease culminating in Dave and I de-vesting by a roadsign on the A361. Had it got any warmer I’d have been down to bare cycling shoes and a thong by the end, but happily it doesn’t and I don’t, which is why I’m here to write this instead of being banged up on a charge of impersonating Mr Hummerstone.
The road to the first control is long and cruel, a steady grind up the old A30. Having been physically pushed up this road on a recent club run I know that it can be a right leg sapper and has a nasty false flat that pushes you into trying harder than is wise. The swoosh down from Sticklepath is a hoot though and we get to the Little Red Rooster café in good spirits. A bacon butty later I venture upstairs to see if things are happening. Nope. The train is still in the station but now has an extra carriage. Great…
The leg from Okehampton to Barnstaple is where things start to get lumpy. This is proper deepest, darkest Devon. Narrow lanes, perfumed with the malty smell of mature silage and lumpier than an unmade bed. I’m not feeling at all great and don’t like to suffer in silence. Fortunately Dave is a parent, so the stream of childish grumbles from behind just flow round him, like floodwater round a great big rock. “I’m knackered. My legs don’t work. I need a poo. Dad, are we there yet?” etc. The headwind isn’t helping and it doesn’t let up until we get to Barnstaple. Nor do I.
At the station café we bump into Julian and a few others who are ahead of us on the road. They finish their snacks and head off while we settle down to refill bottles, have a coffee and visit the loo, again, to no avail. Ian arrives and comments that we’re going well. ‘Like a sack of spuds’ is my rather churlish reply.
Things improve with the eastbound leg. The road from Barny to South Molton through Swimbridge is glorious, swoopy, almost traffic-free and with a stately castle type-thing at Stags Head. It’s bright, sunny and rather lovely so we put on a bit of pace, taking turns at the front and generally enjoying ourselves. Even the wind is being less of a pain, coming from the left instead of head-on. Passing through South Molton we endure a brief scurry along the A361 before stopping to remove vests and re-apply suncream. It’s getting hot and I’m grateful for my stash of electrolyte drink as without it I’d be cramping like a camp bed with broken springs. Re-mounting we enjoy the endless descent to the A396 before riding through Bampton. Again, the roads are almost completely empty, just sheep and deer eyeing us suspiciously from the fields. Crowded island? Not round these parts. We’re heading for Wiveliscombe and I’m starting to feel properly ropey again. Realising that I’ve not eaten much, partly because I don’t want to chance it with things being a bit static in the bowel dept and partly because I’m an idiot who should know better, I break open a packet of Jaffa cakes and shove one in. It’s delicious, I’m obviously starving and cram in another and then another, all of them grabbed from the Carradice as we ride along. Within a mile I’ve eaten the whole packet. The elastic snaps and suddenly Dave is up the road while I’m pedalling octagons in a sugar coma. I have to stop for a breather, all the while trying not to think about the hill up ahead. It’s as grim as my imagination can make it but eventually we roll over the top and drop into Wivvy. Surprisingly we don’t seem to have lost all that much time, because there in the square is Julian having his lunch. I’m in a pretty desperate state by now, so Dave and I adjourn to the White Hart for beer and a sit down. While Dave bodges his phone and portable charger together using the magic of zip-ties I investigate the facilities. Still nothing. I’m getting pretty stressed now and consider packing at Taunton. Nothing I eat is being absorbed so it’s essentially like riding through a very long, drawn out bonk. Cheery barman asks where we’re going (Cheddar) and gives us the traditional response of the committed non-cyclist - ‘What? How far? Cor blimey’ etc. It’s a ritual that never seems to change. Still, he’s friendly, lets us eat our Co-Op pasta meals in the pub and fills our bottles. I drop the lid of mine on a spot just below a pigeon roost. I don’t care, right now I’d welcome a dose of botulism.
Now, regulars on the Dunkery Dash and other rides in these parts will recognise the name of Cothelstone Hill and shudder. It’s a real brute and I’m absolutely dreading it. No surprise, I have to deploy the 24” gear as soon as we hit the lower slopes, while Dave winches himself slowly upwards. While I do the walk of shame I give myself a bit of a talking to. Once we clear the Alpe D’Cothelstone we’ve got the Levels to come and they’re flat, so things have to get better, don’t they? Amazingly they do, somewhere just before Bridgewater the Jaffa cakes finally kick in and we’re flying. Track sprinting in an unsuitable gear away from roundabouts, head down on the dual carriageway and full gas onto the A39. It’s around here that we come across Ian’s favourite instruction – SO @ T. I’m intrigued, what does the puckish little scamp have in mind? I want a magic hedge that parts when the faithful ride into it at speed. What I get is that old staple, R@T (actually straight on). Oh Ian, you wag.
Heading into Cheddar we pass several other riders on their way back, which is heartening. Control in Cheddar is a busy pub which is heaving with people who would be more likely to appreciate the exhaust on a Citroen Saxo than the fine lugwork on a vintage steel frame, so Dave and I down pints of Pepsi before heading off. We also cross the path of incoming riders and exchange cheery waves. Despite being strung out like pearls on a cheap necklace there’s a definite sense that we are all together on the road. It’s all very pleasant.
Leaving Cheddar we’re expecting to be blown across the Levels by a mighty tailwind. After all, it only seems fair after battering our way into it on the road north. Ah ha, so wrong and so presumptuous! The capricious mistral that blows across the Levels had switched direction while I stared at another toilet wall so it’s a side/headwind again. We criss-cross various bits of the Exmouth Exodus route, salute Glastonbury Tor as it pops up in the distance and pass through the village of Muchelney, which is stuffed to the gills with beautiful stone houses and abbey buildings. It’s a glorious place, although the flooded fields just beyond are a reminder that the Levels are land reclaimed from Nature. One day she might just decide to take them back. The Nutty Nuns 200k passes along these roads and a fortnight ago the hardy few who turned out on the foulest day of the year found themselves bottom bracket deep in floodwater. I DNSed. Lightweight.
And so onward to the final control at Ilminster. By now it was starting to chill down, our burst of post-Bridgewater pace had tailed off and the light was going, so the sight of a Costa machine in the garage was very welcome. The mocha was sickly sweet and utterly disgusting. God it felt good. The young lady at the counter was friendly too, which always helps, even if her opening words were ‘are you doing that mad ride?’ I grunted in the affirmative and apologised for being incapable of saying much more. As we drank our coffee I watched a car pull up. A greasy little tick with a rockabilly haircut stepped out, turned to the passenger in the back and growled ‘stay there’. The passenger in the back (and there was no-one in the front seat) was a young woman. It all seemed very sordid and charmless. I briefly considered flinging the rear door open and crying ‘flee, flee to a better life my lovely!’ while Dave sat on the greasy tick’s head but the moment passed, I pocketed my Snickers flapjack, Dave lit up his fiery Blackburn Deth Beacon and off we went into the night.
For most of the last 200-odd kilometres we’d been on pretty good roads. Roads that you could pick out on a road atlas. That changed as soon as we dropped off the A358 and wandered like weary sheep on trackless lanes that meandered up, up, and ever up onto the high ground of the Blackdowns. The temperature plummeted too. It was proper cold, my 200k bonk had taken its toll and I was having to climb off on anything steeper than a speed hump. Dave was still going strong and the glowing red eye of Sauron hanging on his spanky tweed Barley at least kept him in sight and gave me a reference point as I schlepped up yet another modest incline. The hill out of Yarcombe was the real heartbreaker. It’s very long but with a gentle, almost Alpine gradient. I walked the whole damn thing. I found the Snickers flapjack I’d bought earlier. It was the nicest thing I’d ever eaten and I almost cried because I didn’t have another. From the top we had an almost clear run into Honiton along the A30. According to the routesheet the Devon Desgrange had planned one final deviation, just one waffer theen hill but we looked up the road, muttered ‘not bloody likely’ and carried on to the finish. We weren’t the only ones. Pippa Wheeler, PBP ancienne and general audax hero, did exactly the same, so we’re in good company and feel no shame.
Honiton is a small town famous for lace and tearooms, so the crowds of excitable young people in unsuitable clothing spilling out of a noisy bar are a bit of a shock. At the control Ian is dispensing wisdom, like a lycraed Yoda, Pete Marshall is relaxing after his gentle stroll, Jamie (Vorsprung) Andrews is checking cards and yes, that man Mr. Julian is again ahead of us and looking unreasonably fresh. Another young chap is also there, tired after his first 300k. Not bad seeing as he later tells me that he’d barely had any sleep and had driven up from Liskeard in the morning.
Curt and manly greetings duly exchanged I staggered into the kitchen where the glorious figure of my wife (Baggy) was heating soup and bracing herself to tend to the broken piece of human wreckage that she’d married. I’m still not quite sure why I do these rides, but the sheer relief of collapsing into a warm embrace and being welcomed back is probably one of the better reasons.
Thanks to Big Dave for offering me the shelter of his mighty arse for most of the ride and putting up with my whining. The pictures are his too. Ian H for organising. Jamie (and of course Baggy) for manning the finish. I’m told there will be a special Exeter Wheelers SR Series badge. I just need to finish the Kernow & South West 600, the Avalon Sunrise 400 and the Valley of the Rocks 200. What could be easier?
Incidentally, having been offered a lift back to Exeter Mr Julian politely declines and rides home instead. That’s a mere 60-odd kilometres that he’s added to his day. I wonder what the barman at the White Hart would make of that?