Exmouth Exodus

Prologue:

I have so far been unreasonably lucky with the weather on all my recent rides. Inevitably my luck would run out. And it has run out, in the form of Hurricane Bertha, heading towards the UK from over the Atlantic and due to shed its load on SW England at exactly the same time as I, along with hundreds of other nutters, will be riding 104 miles south (into the wind) from Bath to Exmouth. I’m writing this first bit on Saturday afternoon, T minus 6 hours. The weather is warm and gloriously sunny here at the moment, but according to the forecast that is all about to change by the time I get there.

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>95% chance of rain! I didn’t even know the rain likelihood scale went that high! I’m just treating it as 100% anyway.

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The nature of this ride, combined with the forecast has resulted in much more preparation than usual. I have decided to take the Giant Defy, because I know the mudguards will fit that OK. I decided 25mm tyres would be better so I switched my Campag Shamals onto the Defy. Weirdly the rear wheel wouldn’t slot fully into the rear drop-out. After a bit of research (resulting in nothing!) I filed the sides of the drop-out very slightly to allow the wheel to fit. Then I fitted the mudguards. These are a really tight fit with the 25mm tyres and there is just the merest gap between the tyres and the guards. Thinking of taking a few more supplies than normal I decided to violate and fit the largest of my saddle bags. I also decided to use my new torch (Nitecore EA-4) and found that, to mount it, a recent purchase from China fit the bill nicely, reinforced with cable ties. I’ll probably do a post about that torch later. I’m also taking my Contour Roam video cam (helmet-mounted).

Epilogue:

I left for Bath at 17:45. There would be nowhere to change when I arrived so I drove down in my cycling gear. I made sure I had enough petrol so that I wouldn’t need to get out of my car! The journey was fine and I arrived at a back street in Bath (that I had previously picked out using Google streetview) at about 20:35. The really excellent news at that stage was that it wasn’t raining! There’s nothing worse than starting a ride in the rain. I got all my gear on and rode to the start, about 1.5 miles away.

The start was Green Park Station, a former railway station, another unfortunate victim of Beeching, now used as a sort of indoor market. There were probably 30 or so riders milling about when I got there.

It was a much friendlier and less ‘corporate’ atmosphere than exists at most sportives. In fact this was not a sportive. There were no timing chips or medals involved here. I phoned my friend Alan who I was due to meet there, and who had got me into this in the first place. He was just up the road and arrived shortly after. There was no reason to hang about so we set off with a handful of other riders.

The first challenge involved getting out of Bath! We knew that the route used some disused railway tunnels but finding the entrance proved tricky. At one point my Garmin indicated that we should turn down a dark alley, but the consensus was resistant to that idea so we cycled on, but our Garmins seemed to be getting confused. At one point they suggested we should go straight on where there was no straight-on, just a row of houses. Then it dawned on me that our gps thought that we were already in the tunnel and there probably was a ‘straight-on’. So we were right above it! While the others went off in all sorts of directions, me and Alan decided to backtrack to where we first got lost. With the aid of advice from a local, we found the tunnel entrance in a park. Needless to say we should have turned down that dark alley we first saw!

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The tunnels just added a bit of interest to the ride. They were a lot lighter than the video shows.

The first hour or so of the ride was completely dry and not too windy. So that was a nice surprise. We two had teamed up with another rider and were making good progress through the night. Then it started raining as we climbed gradually to the top of The Mendip Hills. By the time we started the descent into Cheddar Gorge it was raining steadily. There followed five miles of downhill, starting with a gradual gradient, but getting progressively steeper as we rode down through the gorge, culminating in the steep hairpin bends that this road is famous for. The conditions made for a hair-raising experience. Imagine descending the steep, continually twisting road into Cheddar in pitch black while it’s hammering down with rain – you can hardly see out of your goggles, your brakes don’t work that well in the rain, you’re not sure how much grip you have on the wet surface and you can’t see what the road looks like round the bend ahead because your torch only illuminates straight ahead, and to top that, my torch kept slipping down on the handlebars. Several times I nearly over-cooked it on a bend and ended up riding on the gravel at the edge of the road.

Eventually, that little glimpse of hell was over as the road levelled out through the village. I was really cross that I hadn’t video’d the event, but in hindsight I don’t think it would have come out that well because the low-light performance of the Contour Roam is not that good. Lots of riders had stopped in the village to recover their senses.

Just after that was the first food stop of the night. Volunteers were manning some sort of clubhouse, and there was plenty of home-made cakes and tea and coffee on offer. For some reason I decided to have two giant lumps of cake.

The next 40 miles were flat as we rode south-west across the Somerset Levels. Even better, shortly after we left Cheddar it stopped raining, and continued mainly dry until about 4 AM. 30 miles from Cheddar was the main food stop of the night – the village hall at Fivehead, about 5 miles east of Taunton. It seemed really strange to think of us brightly-lit weirdos riding through the dark, silent, sleeping village at 2 AM to arrive at a fully functioning and bustling village hall.

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We were not allowed to wear our cycling shoes on the polished wooden floors of the hall so we left them at the door. That’s when I realised, much to my surprise, that my feet were soaking wet! They had felt so warm and comfortable that I had assumed they were dry. Inside the hall were plenty of tables to sit at. Again, volunteers had generously given up their cosy beds to come and feed us weary travellers. Unfortunately there was no food that you could really get your teeth into, just lentil soup and other ‘hippy’ food. I still had some to keep me topped up.

The ten miles after that stop were a bit lumpier as we approached the foot of The Blackdown Hills. There followed the biggest climb of the ride. Not too steep, but a five-mile slog up to about 900 feet. Then 10 miles across the top, during which time the wind picked up quite a bit and it started raining again. So we were pleased to find that yet more volunteers had elected to come out on this miserable night to provide tea and coffee for us. Exmouth exodus 003rThey had set up a marquee down a country lane just off the road we were on. So we stood around in the rain drinking coffee and taking photos of each other, presumably for the purpose of looking at them later to confirm a positive answer to the question “Did we really do that?”

 

Two miles after the coffee break, with the rain increasing, the road plunged sharply down off the Blackdown Hills by way of Stafford Hill, a steep (15%), twisty, narrow and slippery lane. That gave our weary brains something to focus on for a while.

Gradually it started getting light, albeit only in the sense that the sky changed from pitch black to very dark grey. There would be no glorious dawn on this morning.

Riding through the small town of Ottery St. Mary, known as “Ottery”, we were greeted by the sight of a beautiful floodlit church.

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St. Mary’s church at Ottery. The town takes its name from the River Otter on which it stands, which in turn takes its name from the animal, which furthermore takes its name from … ? Ottery is the birthplace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of my favourite poem of all time, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an evocative narration of which is read by Richard Burton, now available on YouTube.

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In The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, the ship initially runs into a fierce storm, and that is exactly what happened to us; the intensity of the rain and wind increased as (what was formerly) Hurricane Bertha approached.

For the next eight miles the route followed close by the River Otter all the way to Otterton (presumably also named after the river which is named after the animal, etc!), not that we caught many glimpses of it. During this stretch the skies lightened as the rain became heavier and heavier. I’m sure the route would have been quite scenic in any other conditions.

At one point I got fed up with struggling to see through my rain-soaked glasses, so I took them off. I couldn’t believe how much better I could see things. There was a negative consequence of their removal though; a few miles later, on a fast descent, I could barely look up for more than a spilt second at a time because the rain was piercing into my eyes like needles. The combined speed of the bike and the wind meant that the rain was probably hitting my eyes at 30-40 mph. (Later in the day when it was time to drive home my eyes were really sore and bloodshot – I could hardly keep them open).

Eventually we reached the outskirts of Exmouth, and we knew that soon it would all be over. The wind was now very strong.

When we reached the seafront we turned straight into the gale. Our pace slowed to a crawl as we struggled against the wind, desperately trying to remain upright. I have never ridden in winds as strong as that.

Ultimately, we reached the café at the end of the ride. We were among the first 10 or so to make it. It was great to get in out of the rain. I couldn’t resist ordering a full English breakfast, although it was actually too much to eat. The café gradually filled up with cyclists. The owners of the place did an amazing job to put up with us lot with our gear sprawled all over the place – the floor was soaked.

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Alan left around about 7:30. I had booked a seat on the coach and now had 3 hours to wait for it to even arrive. I stayed in the café until about 9:30. By then, the weather was beautifully sunny, though still breezy. So I spent the next hour waiting outside. If I ever do this ride again I’ll get the train back to Bath. Really, the wait for the coach made for a boring and anti-climatic end to this event. It’s a good job it was such a nice morning. I won’t even mention the fact that the coach had parked in a huge puddle in the flooded car park, so we were unable to board the coach by the usual front door. “Why couldn’t the coach move forward 3 metres so that it was no longer in the puddle?” I hear you (and everyone else there that day) ask. “Because that would constitute an additional journey, and then I would have to have another 15 minute rest” came the seemingly ridiculous answer from the coach driver. It wasn’t Health and Safety gone mad, it was actually Health and Safety gone bad, because we all had to enter the coach via the rear emergency exit (or in this case ’emergency entrance’) which entailed scaling the side of the coach by reaching up and grabbing the leg of a seat and precariously placing our cycling shoes in small foot-holes and climb up through a door, the bottom of which was at head-height! We could have broken our necks! Talk about bloody stupid!

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The bikes travelled back, carefully stacked, in a furniture lorry. I got some fitful sleep on the coach. When we arrived in Bath there was more waiting about for the bike lorry to arrive! When it did turn up I had to cycle back to my car and it was only then I realised the mistake of parking at the top of a hill – I had some unwelcome climbing to do just to get back to the car. I changed into some dry clothes and made the journey back home in one go. My eyes were stinging and at one point, after massaging my knees, I developed an intense aching pain in both knees. It was so bad that I had to scrabble in the glove box for some ibuprofen and swallow them without any liquid being available. Eventually the pain eased. I don’t know what caused that but can only assume it was something to do with the damp.

This video shows the whole ride in a nutshell. Notice the clock at top-right is GMT, so one hour behind.

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No European Posterior Man-Satchels.

Saddle bags have no place on a road bike, and are only acceptable on mountain bikes in extreme cases.

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