Coming in hot - Two ride reports for the price of one, and a little journey back in time to earlier in July 2021 when Band of Climbers were back on the road again running another ‘Toughest UK Group Ride’ event. This time it was a double bill weekender – Saturday 3rd saw us in South Wales and Sunday 4th in Exmoor, two days, two different countries, one disappointing weather system. My nice white socks may never recover from the trauma, but my shoes have just about dried out now so it’s time to reflect on the weekend and scour my memory for the highlights. You will probably know by now that my write ups are usually 10% to do with cycling and 90% obscure, stream of consciousness rambling. Fortunately, a more concise report of the day is already up on the Band of Climbers site, covering the important bits, therefore giving me licence to ramble (well – I’ve given myself it really).
Part One - Wales
I’d been really looking forward to both rides, having never done any riding in either area, and the prospect of riding some new roads is always an attractive one for me. The Saturday ride in Wales was following a course plotted by BoC ambassador, multiple UK hill climb champion, YouTube sensation Ed Laverack. A route that had a bit of everything – just no Ed unfortunately after his jockey wheel gave up the ghost about 5km into the ride and the star of the show was forced to abandon. Such a shame and not what anyone wanted. On the plus side, Ed has really helped with the launch of my new catchphrase via his YouTube channel. Cycling eh!
The problems started for Ed early on, when at the ride start point of Coaltown Coffee Roasters, we had one of those flat tyre situations that seems to be unnecessarily complicated and where everything that can go wrong, does. I had to withdraw myself from the melee of cooks spoiling the broth and entertained myself by looking through the window at the fascinating set up inside Coaltown, which struck me as having a bit of a Jules Verne, steam punk aesthetic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to sample a coffee, or ask them inside if that’s the vibe they were going for, as the place wasn’t open yet. Later I told myself, take a mental note.
The rain had been depressingly heavy on the drive up to the start but thankfully, just as we were rolling out, the clouds parted, and things dried up. Fantastic, I thought, and once again fortune favours the bold - it was going to be great ride! Just not for Ed sadly, as his second and final mechanical struck. Whilst Dean, Ed’s clubmate Josh, and I waited for Ed to get picked up and taken home the rest of the groups cracked on, and by the time we got moving again, enough of a gap had formed to ensure that we never saw the rest of the groups for the duration of the ride. As we rolled along in our small grupetto we picked up a few similarly detached riders who joined our merry band, and whom I annoyed by asking daft questions about Simply Red, for the purpose of the video diary I was making.
The main event of this ride was undoubtedly the Black Mountain, the very name of which sounds epic. It instantly became one my favourite hills in the UK, one of those that feels like it takes you on a real journey. We tackled it from the western approach 5km at 5.3% average gradient. There is also a longer way up the same side of the mountain which adds on a further 2km, but our route took us up the road less travelled. The rain had firmly re-established itself by this point, and the visibility wasn’t great, but the views we could see were spectacular. If anything, the weather just made the whole thing that much more atmospheric and was concordant with the foreboding nature of the mountain itself. Parts of it reminded me of my own beloved North Pennines – the ghostly, overgrown imprints of its industrial past visible in the unnatural curves of the landscape, creating an otherworldly feel.
The descent of the mountain was horrific, with some of the stingiest rain I’ve ever experienced, lashing down like pin pricks on my face. The shades came off and we just had to squint our way down. At the bottom of the hill, photographer Lewis was patiently waiting with the BoC van, and we were able to take on a bit of nutrition and grab a rain jacket for the remainder of the ride. We had around 40km left to go and the small matter of the climbs of Carreg y Dwfn, Betws, Felindre, and Heol y Mynydd, but we were fuelled up, the rain had stopped, and our spirits were good.
We made it back to Coaltown Coffee, which by now, was open for a post ride cuppa, and caught up with the rest of the riders, who all reported to have had an enjoyable ride without incident, apart from one guy who dropped a chain and managed to get it tangled like I’ve never seen a chain tangled before and could only be resolved by taking the thing apart.
After handing out some BoC goody bags, giving the bikes a once over with some baby wipes, we packed up the van and hit the road. Onwards to Devon, to our digs for the night, and to watch England beat Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final. We all know what happened now, and enough has been said already about football. One thing I found odd about this tournament was why ITV was using a clip of a Jeff Buckley song for its theme music. It’s really not the sort of thing that gets me fired up for a game of football, if anything it just reminds me of being a teenager and feeling sad about the girls I fancied but who probably didn’t fancy me back, or the ones who fancied me, but I didn’t fancy back but still got involved with anyway because I was confused and thought I might have fancied them, but really I didn’t fancy them and was still sad about the ones I did fancy and that didn’t fancy me. It was hard being me sometimes.
Part Two - Exmoor
The déjà vu was coming thick and fast. Another early start in a way too hot hotel room, another breakfast in a popular fast-food chain, another rainy drive to the start village, praying that the weather gods would relent and grant us some sunshine. As we arrived in the lovely little village of Dulverton our prayers were answered as it began to dry up and steadily more and more riders started to assemble. We rolled out in three groups, and I was full of optimism and once again giving it the biggun about how fortune favours the bold and all that. If only I’d known the hellishness that awaited.
The highlight climb of today’s ride was the Porlock toll road - 6.5km with an average gradient of 5.6%. I probably sound like I say that every new hill I ride becomes my new favourite hill, but this would be wrong – I was not immediately taken with some of the stuff in the North York Moors or Peak District. Savage, unforgiving 33% ramps, which offer nothing other than the relief you feel once they’re finally over, and hopefully that’s as soon as possible. Porlock, however, is a climb you really want to savour and enjoy. Certain climbs in Britain are often touted as, “As close to Alpine, or Pyrenean, as you can get in the UK”. I wouldn’t say there is anything particularly Alpine or Pyrenean about Porlock, but on the lower slopes it sort of reminded me of climbs I’ve done in Provence or maybe Majorca, with a certain kind of Mediterranean feel about it. A lovely climb. They hold an open hill climb race up here which BoC ambassador Ed Laverack had won the year before, setting the course record in the process. I just fancied an easy day, so Ed’s KOM was safe for now.
Towards the top of the climb the rain reappeared and grew heavier. I didn’t think it could get much worse than the descent from the Black Mountain, but this was utterly hellish. Hardly any visibility, and again having to squint through eyes that were half shut, to protect them from the stinging rain.
As we arrived into the beautiful seaside village of Lynmouth, I recalled descending the Col du Lautaret into Bourg d’Oisans a few years earlier in torrential rain, and having never been as cold or as wet on a bike in my life. This was nowt, I tried to tell myself, attempting to hold on to some consolation. Lynmouth was near enough the half-way point of the ride, and designated feed zone for the day. The BoC van was such a welcome sight. I climbed in and peeled off my sodden jersey and wriggled into a dry one, then stuck on a fresh rain jacket and an extra gilet for good measure, before going to huddle under the awning of the opposite café with an assortment of shivering cyclists nursing hot drinks.
My cup of tea went down so well with a few OTE flapjacks, and it if it hadn’t been for the slim boost to morale they provided along with the dry kit, I would probably have been thinking of excuses for sacking the rest of the ride off. I’m pleased I didn’t because the climb out of Lynmouth was great, a nice gentle gradient weaving under the trees and up the East Lyn Valley.
What happened next was altogether less pleasing. A classic navigational blunder and wrong turn leading us up an additional climb, additional descent, and then back again once we had realised our error. None of us could get the route to sync with our Garmins, and I felt bad for the guys who had been faithfully following and repaid with an extra 30 minutes and few hundred meters of elevation added on to their ride. Everyone was cool about it though and we worked well as a little group to get back to the finish just as the rest of the BoC crew were wondering at what point they should contact search and rescue.
The run in back to Dulverton featured my second highlight of the ride, seeing a plant with giant leaves. I don’t think I told anyone at the time but I was absolutely buzzing (on the inside) about it. I’ve since googled plants with massive leaves, and think it’s something called a Gunnera Manicata, and it looks like it belongs in the prehistoric land of the dinosaurs or something. Quality. Apart from the abysmal weather, the only lowlight of the weekend was being stuck on the motor way back up North and being stopped next to a small animal transport trailer with some pigs in. They were right on my eye level and inevitably I looked into their sorrowful eyes. I wish I hadn’t looked and so saved myself from the sadness I felt. I resolved to never eat pork again. Except for sausage rolls maybe. Sausage rolls are safe because the pastry shields you from the horrific reality of what you are consuming.
I thought back over a fantastic weekend, meeting great people, and exploring new roads. Some of those hills were instant classics, despite not being able to fully capitalise on the descents due to the rain. I hate being cheated out of a nice enjoyable bit of downhill but that’s cycling I suppose – you take your chances with the weather. You could even say, “Cycling eh?”