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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day 13

In-depth
22 Sep 2021
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Arriving at the penultimate stage means our ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End is almost over, but the savage grades of Dartmoor mean the hard work is far from done

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

The doubts roll around my mind like a bag of spilt marbles. For the first time in close to 2,500 kilometres I am having serious doubts about my ability to reach Land’s End.

Over the past few weeks I have ridden a rollercoaster of emotions in conquering some of the steepest and toughest climbs Britain has to offer, and yet here I am, a few hundred kilometres from my final destination wondering if I have the mental or physical wherewithal to carry on.

Admittedly the 30% gradient sign my bike is leaning against isn’t helping my state of mind, not least because I hadn’t for one moment imagined today to be so relentlessly tough.

False hopes

On another occasion – one where I wasn’t so fatigued from riding the best part of 200km a day for 12 days – I might have recognised the warning signs earlier.

Instead I set off from our campsite in Somerset naively expecting to get back on route quickly, buoyed by the prospect of a gentle downhill saunter towards Cornwall and the promise of enough pasties and ice cream to last me the rest of summer.

The reality is painfully different. Yesterday I veered 15km off route to find a campsite, and this morning that little detour has somehow translated into an extra 43km and 1,000m of climbing to get back on track.

It’s hardly the best way to start what was, in my head at least, going to be a fairly straightforward day in the saddle.

As I labour up roads that seem to suck me back down as fast as I can propel myself forward, my mind whirs with a cacophony of chastening words. ‘How could you have been so foolish?’ ‘You should have checked the routes one last time.’ ‘It’s your own fault you’re suffering now.’

It’s only when I eventually rejoin the official ride route that a relative sense of calm and quiet returns to my thoughts, although even that is short-lived. No sooner do I pass the village of Dunsford, crossing into Dartmoor National Park, than the first of a series of signs warning of steep gradients appears.

I must admit that before this trip Dartmoor was an area of Britain I knew little about, but it soon becomes etched into my mind and legs for eternity through a series of punishing inclines.

My plan to stick to the smallest roads was in theory a sensible one, based on the reasoning that the closer to Cornwall I got, the busier the roads would be unless I stuck to small country lanes.

What the plan didn’t factor in was the state of the aforementioned roads, several of which I am now discovering would be more accurately defined as what the Spanish call pista de cabras, or goat tracks.

One particularly unsavoury stretch forces me to ride tight to the hedge to my left, where nettles sting my leg and brambles tear at my arm.

Avoiding the stinging and scratching means riding on a strip of lush green grass running up the middle of the road that, combined with the loose gravel, makes it almost impossible to maintain traction on the 20% slope.

Moors the pity

I pass a craggy outcrop of granite rocks known as Hound Tor, which according to mythology was created when a mighty hunter called Bowerman interrupted a coven of witches with his hounds, prompting the witches to turn the hunter and his dogs to stone.

With my own legs feeling increasingly as if they too are made from rock, I have reason to believe there’s still a hint of the witches’ magic lingering in the air.

It’s at this point that the combination of stifling heat and narrow, suffocating roads becomes too much and I find myself – ironically given the deluges of Scotland and soakings of northern England – longing for the greying clouds above to shower me in a cool mist.

No rain is forthcoming, but there is at least an exhilaratingly fast descent to act as a cooling mechanism, although it almost proves costly when upon rounding a corner I encounter a car inexplicably stopped in the middle of the road.

I swerve to avoid hitting it, thankful for the lack of oncoming traffic as I catch a fleeting glimpse of the driver sat looking at something on his phone.

Moments later the road kicks back up into the village of Widecombe in the Moor and with it the chance to dismount and take on much-needed fluids. There’s a time and a place for sports drinks, but there are also times when nothing short of an ice-cold can of Coke will do. 

The local church, known as the Cathedral of the Moors in recognition of its impressive 120-foot tower, dominates the old-fashioned village, and I linger for a while on a neatly mown patch of lawn before forcing myself back on the bike.

I feel a pang of jealousy as I pass a queue of tourists waiting to be seated for their cream teas, while the only thing on my own menu is another serving of steep climbs as the road dips in and out of every contour in the land.

There’s only so much I can take before, at the foot of a 30% pitch, I lean my bike against the warning sign and sit down, half in protest, half in defeat.

Less than two days ago I had been full of the joys of life, drinking coffee at my parents’ house, believing the hard work was done, and now I find myself on the verge of throwing the towel in.

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On your feet, soldier

After indulging in my own misery for rather too long I remind myself there’s a ride to finish – come what may – and that I need to keep pedalling. A quick check of the route tells me that once over this impending climb there’s a long downhill to Tavistock, which is just about enough motivation to get moving again.

Five wearisome minutes of climbing later and I’m freewheeling, glad to see the back of Dartmoor and vowing to never ride my bike here again (although on reflection it’s so exceptionally beautiful that I know I’ll be back).

Through Tavistock and approaching Gunnislake, a ‘Welcome to Cornwall’ sign greets me to provide a timely boost of optimism and signal that, after umpteen hours of pedalling, I’m within touching distance of the end.

Yet in keeping with the day my joy is quickly extinguished by a 2km climb that averages 12%. The county may have changed but the punishment remains the same.

Traffic lights at the top bring me to a halt where, slumped over my handlebars, I’m brought back to the present moment by an unexpected warning. ‘Look out on your bike, mate, the drivers around here are shit,’ comes a jovial voice from a van just as the lights change and he pulls off into the distance.

It proves to be sage advice when, not long after, I find myself approaching a car on the narrowest of lanes. I slow down, expecting the car to do the same, only to find the driver intent on continuing as if I wasn’t there. At the last second I have little choice but to fall into the hedge to avoid being hit.

I look back and offer a few choice words to express my anger, before continuing on with an extra degree of caution. Moments later I hear a horn honking aggressively behind me and, to my surprise, see the same car coming back along the road right behind me.

It’s only now that I notice the driver is an old gentleman, with his wife in the passenger seat, both of whom are spewing forth a tirade of abuse informing me I have no right to be on the road.

I’m so shocked by the vitriol coming from this elderly couple that I am completely unable to respond, and before I know it the OAPs have turned off at the junction and disappeared in a cloud of road rage. My mind is taken back to the sign I saw in Scotland that had judiciously advised: ‘Always expect the unexpected’.

Once I regain my composure, I suddenly remember I need to make one final stop along the route, otherwise I definitely won’t be making it to Land’s End.

It’s one thing to ask your wife to spend her birthday driving a motorhome across the south of England; it’s quite another not to arrive at the campsite with a token of your appreciation. Which is how I come to ride the final 10km dragging a selection of birthday balloons by their strings attached to my bars, with a piece of cake squashed into my jersey pocket.

With just one day to go until the finish, the champagne will have to wait a little longer.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

Mapping powered by komoot

Komoot Tips to stay on track

No13: Follow the local experts

Komoot’s army of local experts – aka Pioneers – know all the best rides in an area, so you can follow their routes or replan them easily by selecting ‘Replan this Tour’ or ‘Change Starting Point’.

Essential JOGLE kit

No13: Reboots Go recovery boots set, £824, reboots.de

While the pros can look forward to daily massages from their soigneurs after an arduous day on the bike, the rest of us aren’t so lucky. However, on my JOGLE ride I had the next best thing.

These recovery compression boots from Reboots are like giant socks that slip over your entire leg and use a variety of different air pockets that inflate in order, controlled via computer. The sensation is like a gliding massage that helps to eliminate lactic acid and other waste products in your legs, helping you to recover faster and get back on the bike quicker.

Are they worth it? Well, they’re not cheap, but I did feel that they really helped to speed up recovery. At the very least, they forced me to sit and do nothing, which is no bad thing after eight hours in the saddle.

Thanks

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.