South East: urban, traffic heavy roads, concrete backdrops, potholes, small climbs (in hindsight!). It was time for a change. @PedHard_PedFast (Ali aka @RouteSurreyUK has had a twitter change, major operation was involved and she/he has a new alias!) had urged me to seek new ground to play with, get out of the city and see what else our beautiful British Isles have to offer. His suggestion was the surroundings of Exeter. I am not aware of this part of England but the odd drop into a conversation of the hills of Dartmoor I've seen makes a grown man tremble (could be the weather, it is getting a bit cold now!).
It was also Ali's birthday weekend which he failed to tell either myself or Josh who was along for the ride so he's now a proud owner of some Le Col winter socks (apologies for the plug which you can grab here). The drive west from London was surprisingly quite quick although me telling Ali about my life updates nearly ended up with Ali falling asleep at the wheel. A 3 hour drive including one underwhelming stop at a service station which misinformed us there was a Costa open when it was being refurbished and it was a pour yourself machine. Avoid these where you can, tasted like the machine had rust disease. The only things I knew about Exeter was that they had a decent rugby team and that there was an unfortunate fire in one of the old hotels which has decimated a few buildings. Our post walk into town included grabbing some gels and bars for the weekend at a great little store called the Bike Shed. Now my bike is 3.5 years old now, I would love to upgrade or get a weekend bike to thrash around but just not in the financial position to buy one (I'll more than happy accept a Cervelo or Pinarello as a donation if anyone has one spare?!). Wandering around the store I saw the range of tarmacs hanging on the rack but standing out at the rear was a bright red frame. No it can't be?! My bike was still being sold and for a hefty price knowing how old it was and the spec it came with. £950 I thought was a very ambitious sale. What holds its price is the frame as its the same one throughout the whole price range of that year but the components especially the Sora groupset is very dated when comparing specs of bikes of modern times and in the same price range. Good luck with that one guys! Venturing outside again the atmosphere had been engulfed with the char smell from the burnt out hotel. A sad sight to see especially with the cathedral adjacent to the now gutted shell of the hotel.
Our plan for the day was to have a spin out down to the coast and around before the light faded on us. Now to give you a little background on Josh as you will come across many occasions myself lagging behind on the hills during this tour. Josh is a triathlete and has represented GB in the under 23 duathlon championships if I'm not mistaken so to say he's decent on the hills is like saying I don't mind the odd burger or 2! Josh also brought along Sam for the day, a local who is apparently a KOM expert in the area. Great! There's me and my little red bike who commutes to work and back and I'm in the company of some serious talent. Ali would be my marker for the climbs but even he can power up the steep inclines. I prefer the long drags as it allows me to settle into the climb and I can measure my energy levels more effective whether I can push on further of hold back. Stick me on a climb like Whitedown and its one pace all the way up!
GoPro on and we were off and rolling. I am normally quite good at getting my bearings where we are but I was clueless as to what direction we were heading. Exeter is at the bottom of a valley a few miles from the coast. Every time the road had risen up, I was expecting to see the sea on the horizon but we were surrounded by fields and their inhabitants. I did think for a moment had we even left Surrey and its other green neighbouring counties?! Now the first real climb hadn't presented itself until 8 miles in but even the small rises on this undulating route kicked up in gradient. Hence the name of this blog. For every rise in elevation, a little voice at the back would ask 'Is this a climb?!'. So when we began the climb out of Woodbury, I kinda expected that they would all make a break for it just to get away from that nagging voice! Sam and Josh had sprinted away but as I didn't know these climbs, I had held off and knowing that Stage 2 was the main challenge for the weekend, I wanted to hold something back. Put it this way, the climb was 1.4miles long, the 2 whippets up front had finished a minute ahead of myself and Ali.
The descent down to Exmouth was great fun. Road surface decent, not too many sharp bends and I had overtook Ali and had Josh in my sights. This would be the only chance of 'having him' (he also had this really unhealthy relationship with Ali this weekend so 'having him' was really a term suited for these 2!). Averaging 30mph on this 2 mile descent, you get the sense of how quick it was. And there it was. The English Channel. We were lucky with the weather and it was a calm day. The view across the bay was stunning and I made sure we had stopped for a photo opportunity. In the summer, I bet it's a very popular place to come but for this time of year, it was full of dog walkers and anyone brave enough to experience the cold breezes off the sea. Our photo stop turned into a bit of a think tank meeting as Sam and Josh were discussing the next part of the route. Now it could be the teacher in us but we like to utilise our Garmin by having the route ready so there's no delays.
My faith in our pro's for the day was restored as we snaked our way through the now little damp countryside and Josh brought his treats out. Ali had given us all an area of responsibility for the weekend. His was bars, mine was gels and Josh was to make something. He didn't disappoint. The quality of his sausage rolls would impress the likes of Mary Berry and no they didn't have a soggy bottom. His mixture of pork meat and apricot complimented each other and with the pastry a slight crust but with that puffinness you are looking for in a sausage roll (just to reinforce, yes you are reading a cycling blog still!). I have only just recovered from a serious bout of flu which included 3 days of just sweating on the sofa not being able to get up. So my climbing legs didn't have any kick in them and when the group picked up the pace, I did struggle to keep pace so now and then I dropped back just to spin my own rhythm.
A climb out of Tipton St.John led us down to the airport and the 3 amigos had created their own chaingang so I was just making sure I could keep them in sight as I had no route downloaded and hadn't a clue where we were! But it could of been down to the sausage rolls (they were seriously good!) but I felt a second wind coming on. I eventually caught up with the wheelers but our progress was stopped in our tracks literally as we had stumbled across a local farmer moving his huge herd of cattle from his field into the barn across the road. I was definitely not in London anymore although the scene was probably not too unfamiliar to rush hour at Picadilly Circus! Moooving on.....Sam was approaching his home so we bid him farewell and for sure after I had checked strava, his name pops up on literally every top 10 and he doesn't even race! But before we had returned to Exeter, Josh had thrown in another climb in the form of Church Hill. Ali at this point had started to feel it so I tried hanging onto Josh's wheel who was just doodling along making a mockery out of the whole ascent. But no one told me that once at the end of the road, it kicked up again so my little win over Ali was short lived and despite his huge frame, Ali pulled away only to be reeled in again when after a quick dip down, the road rose sharply and the clunk of the gears changing echoed around the observing trees.
The daylight had started to fade but we had timed it well to be back before we became basically rolling shadows. Legs were a little drained and that was due to the undulating terrain. The climbs were nothing spectacularly hard but it was the bumps in between and trying not to lose touch so much with the front 3 which was the cause of the aches in my upper glutes. I knew though tomorrow's stage weren't going to be pretty and it would be just full of climbing. Luckily the night's entertainment was in the form of the famous Old Firehouse Pizza, a huge 9 slice carb' loaded monster which we all managed to wolf down. But Josh's chilli and lime chicken pizza (we had all shared each others, the bond was now close!) was to have a huge and devastating effect on our digestive system with one area in particular. That night with all of us sharing a room, the level of flatulence contributing to the hotels atmosphere must of had the night manager speed dialling the nearest Hazmat unit to come quarantine the room. We were all expecting in the morning for the room to be covered in plastic sheeting and men in white overalls to be taken air samples with red warning lights going off with every square foot covered! We just hoped that our rear ends could recover in time for the next stage's demands!
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”