Choosing a permanent to ride in August I kept feeling drawn to this one just because of the name - Valley of the Rocks! It's just irresistible. It meant an hour and a half's driving before and after but with the long summer days this was the time to go for it. Also my lieu day fell on a Friday so a long day wouldn't mean a struggle the next day at work - plenty of recovery time.
It was a cool and slighly misty morning when I found a car park in Honiton and rode to the High Street to check in at a cash machine to record my start time of 8.33. As soon as I turned right at the lights to leave town I was out into deepest Devon and well pleased that I'd made the effort to get out into some unfamiliar landscapes. I was expecting a flat start, a mountainous middle section then a flattish run in, but those 4 AAA points were going to have to come at some point- that was going to be the most climbing I'd ever done in a day by a long way. The hills started straight away, a series of short digs to get me up on to a ridge from where the view would have been fantastic on a clearer morning. I was in a bit of a tired state and hoping to shake off that physical and mental lethargy once warmed up but it didn't seem to be happening. I did spy a deer in a misty field though and couldn't resist a quick photo stop! You might have to zoom in on that one....
The distances on the sheet seemed to be all understated, though of course they weren't. Once in Uffculme I felt a bit better but a closed road meant I had to restart my phone and get GPS to work out a way around to the next village - that added quite a lot of time and it wasn't until 11am that I sat down in a cafe in the gorgeous town of Dulverton to refuel. Tea and a massive slab of treacle tart did the trick and I was able to get stuck into the long, winding climb from the river valley up on to the dome of Exmoor.
Once over the cattle grid and into the big skies and wide open spaces of the moor there was plenty more climbing, very little flat, so once again everything took longer than I hoped. The scenery was awesome though and the weather exceptionally kind, so I was in good spirits and enjoying every mile. After a long haul I made it to Simonsbath then more climbing over a second stint of moorland before I was descending into the famous Lynmouth Gorge, well known for the catastrophic floods that have swept down from Exmoor and carried all before them towards the sea. It was a dramatic landscape and much wilder than the gentle hills around Bristol where I usually train. In Lynton I found my way easily to the turn for Lynmouth and the much anticipated Valley of the Rocks, but one signpost I hadn't been expecting was the 25% warning at the bottom of the climb. I was at maximum effort not to mention max heart rate getting up that one! What made it especially tough was the recent rain shower that meaning it was too slippery for me to risk standing up out of the saddle (I was sure I would get wheelspins) on the wet sections of road while riding in the saddle was causing me to wheely! A tense time but I made it to the top, just, where I could pause to check the routesheet for which way to turn at the T (think I would have paused anyway, I was pretty finished).
After that a short roll through the seaside town brought me to the Valley of the Rocks, where drivers have to pay 2 quid to get along the scenic clifftop road but bikes go free. In Mother Meldrum's cafe I noticed my heart was still pumping at a very high rate even while I queued for soup - that hill had been the most intense workout since last Autumn's South Bristol CC at Burrington. Fuelled again after some quick service in the cafe I was conscious of time still ticking by, so I was back out the door and on to the toll road within a few minutes. The road was single track and that meant the occasional stop to let a car come past the other way, but there were only a handful on the road and it was quiet enough to stop here and there to take a photo and soak up the views over the sea. I was in a hurry but I couldn't resist stopping a couple of times to give the landscape the appreciating it deserved. The course was still very hilly but I was expecting that from the routesheet and I'd eaten enough to keep the legs working OK. Nothing proved as challenging as the 25% at Lynmouth, even though the climbs came thick and fast. Quite a few signposts had been removed and this meant some uncertainty about the route, so I reckon I went a very long way round in the end to arrive at Combe Martin with 6 and a half hours on the clock. It was going to be a late night!
There was time for a plastic coffee from a machine in a post office, a croissant and a can of lemonade then came the long, long drag up the main road out of town which wasn't too steep but seemed to last forever. By now the sky had cleared of all but a few fluffy white clouds, the traffic was only sporadic and I felt the peace of quiet exertion in a truly beautiful place. The routesheet took me along an A road that used to be classed as a B road, so apart from the odd impatient truck wanting to get past it remained pretty mellow. After a while it dropped down into a valley and the going was easy into South Molton. Here the drivers clearly don't know what a cyclist is - one cut me up pulling out of a turning I was trying to steer into, then another stopped across the junction to let a second driver out, blocking me completely. Strange as I was done out on full hi-viz jersey and gilet and it was a clear & bright sunny day. Oh well...
From South Molton it was back into the lanes and more ups and downs, the afternoon dragging on towards early evening with silence and sunshine blending to make it idyllic out on the road. I passed woodlands with buzzards circling lazily above them on the rising thermals, cattle the colour of melted chocolate, meandering rivers and babbling streams. One by one I counted down the villages on the routesheet - Drayford, Black Dog, Kennerleigh - then I was in Crediton, the last control of the day. The Somerfield mentioned on the sheet was now a Morrisons and they provided kitkats and sprite as well as lucozade as my stomach felt fine and I was able to consume a year's supply of glucose to finish the last 40k. I ate and drank for a couple of minutes in the car park then headed out on the last section, expecting more hills. Fortunately it was no worse than "undulating" and the evening light was exquisite as it fell gently over the golden fields and high banked hedgerows.
In places the canopy of trees darkened the road so much that I needed lights, but essentially the route was still quiet and untroubled by traffic. Thatched cottages, farm yards, coppices and fields slowly passed and soon I was on the last section hunting for Honiton on a rather tortuous cycle route with some pretty random signposts. Surprisingly, considering my half way timing, I finished in just a couple of minutes over 12 hours. Another wonderful ride in a glorious summer, more than paying me back for the hard miles in rain and darkness back in January and February that got me started on this RRtY. Late summer and Autumn still to come!
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