"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Steve Coates Memorial Blackdown Grimpeur, April 19th 2019

After around a month with no riding - for various reasons I don't feel I need to go into - I was back in the saddle on Good Friday to attempt a ride I hadn't had a go at before - the Steve Coates. At 120k and 2.75 AAA it was a step up from my last couple of rides and came after a week of jet lag, tiredness and not much in the way of sleep. With a cut off time of 10 hours it looked like I should make it in 8 so that became my arbitrary target. Have to have a target, right?

I parked up in the medium stay carpark near Tesco and nipped in for a receipt to get started - time stamp, 07:40. I was a bit uncertain about the route sheet so a quick google was required to ensure I set off in the right direction. This first section was entitled "The Easy Bit" so I was expecting flatness. What I got was only relative flatness. There were plenty of ups and downs before the 26k mark came around, that first control being the Post Office in Hemyock. It was a bustling shop where the lady behind the counter seemed to know every customer (except me) very intimately. The sun was shining and everyone was being pleasant to each other and smiling. It was a kind of english heaven - perhaps this is what always happens when a bank holiday is blessed with sunshine, but as it happens so rarely we forget.

Section 2 soon boasted more hills, winding lanes taking me deeper into that borderland of West Somerset and East Devon that I've passed through many times, but rarely stopped to explore. Goldfinches flashed past me from the hedgerows and everywhere Spring was blooming with all its late April urgency. There was very little traffic and not much sign of human life at all on the rough, remote roads that are so typical of the Audax world. In some ways it's a timeless world, taking you on to ancient lanes that are poorly kept because they are little used. There's a kind of oddly untouched feeling to these gorgeous corners of the countryside. I don't know if organisers are specially initiated into a mystic art or simply look for the right kind of roads on the map, but somehow they seem to take you somewhere special every time.

I hunted for the info control in Blackborough for a while but eventually found it. The next little stagette took me through Gittisham to another info control at a junction then I was riding through a tunnel of rhododenrons - not in flower yet but somehow still fragrancing the air. More climbs and some steep descents brought me to a fast, flat road along the exquisite valley to Otterton, a delightful town with beautiful old houses and shops and the control at Otterton Mill. The queue was long in the cafe so I settled for ice cream to get the receipt, then carried on. I hadn't eaten or drunk that much but I just wasn't in the mood for a long wait in a crowded cafe, even at such a nice control.

From the mill I headed for Sidmouth on the section entitled "The Tough Devon Coast" and it proved tough enough for sure. A nice lane climbed and climbed to the edge of Sidmouth then a steep descent with dramatic views over the sea took me into the town. The route ran along the seafront then inland to a ford I had visited before - on Coast Roads and Coach Roads maybe? This time it wasn't closed as it had been then so I slowed down, ensured I took a straight line into the water with the bike perfectly upright then went for it. Immediately the wheels went from under me and I was off the bike. This was my first fall since 2013! Fortunately I was going slowly so I unclipped before I landed and most of my momentum was forward rather than downward. It was not an over-the-handlebars job, more an embarassing sitting-down-and-sliding with my bike towards the river. My bottles fell out and started floating downstream but a helpful couple of kids who were  paddling in the ford ran down and grabbed them for me. Are you all right? Yeah, fine thanks.

I waded the ford which was only 6 inches deep if that, then put my chain back on, washed my hands in the river, wiped them on the grass then rode on, undaunted, to tackle the 20% climb to the Norman Lockyer observatory. I must find out how to ride through a ford without falling in the water - it's happened twice now. The climb was testing as I was short of calories and out of condition - at one point my left shoe came unclipped and I had to put both feet down as I was too tired and unco-ordinated to clip straight back in. A few seconds breather and I started again, which is never easy half way up a 1 in 5 slope.

Plenty of ups and downs got me through Salcombe and over the headland to Branscombe - a cluster of houses around a truly ancient castle-like church in a hidden valley leading towards  an isolated pebble beach. This time the route didn't go all the way to the beach, just to an info control at the village hall and a 16% climb out of the valley. Another ford provided me with a test of confidence but this time there was minimal water and the road wasn't slippery like ice, so I stayed upright. The last control came in Northleigh where there was nowhere to buy food so I ate my remaining rations (2 mace bars), drunk half my remaining drink and layed down by the verge for 10 minutes to recharge my exhausted limbs. It was hot now and the air felt like the thick, heat-filled air of late summer with flies buzzing around me as I reclined on the warm tarmac. Once I felt ready for "The Sting in the Tail" I got up and steeled myself for that 4th and final section. I spotted at least one 20% climb on the routesheet and hoped that would be the finale.

In fact that 20% climb came very soon and went on for a while. I'd struggled a little on the Norman Lockyer climb and the same was true here, but 10 mins inactivity had got some juice back into my legs and I was able to prevail in my lowest gear and reach the top. I was moving pretty slowly now. Looking at the route sheet I saw a 25% climb coming up - how had I not seen that when I scanned the sheet before? I didn't think I was going to make it up, but it turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads of the day and I made it with the last vestiges of my energy and inspiration. My back was in pain, my legs were starting to tighten up and I was hungry and thirsty, out of food and out of drink. In that state I limped the last 10k and arrived in Ilminster after 8 hours 10 mins. Not quite the time I was aiming for but who cares - it was a testing, uplifting, exhausting and illumining ride.

That's 9 down and 3 to go.

Sacred Steps Home