Early morning cycling – The beauty, the benefits

Cycling and skinny dipping. Beats triathlons. I am not a morning person. I awake with a snarl not a smile. Talk to me if you wish but like letters to Santa, do not expect a reply. Each day I feel born anew, struggling to comprehend the world I find myself in.

Sometimes a whole day, nay week, can pass me by for I am in a state of limbo, paralysed by sleep, living a foggy dream where people talk at me, my brain unable to comprehend. I am sunk, underwater everything is slower, all noise merges into one and I float at the mercy of the current.

Strange it is, that dawn marks the start time for so many of my rides. The beauty of early morning cycling is that anybody can do it, even an early morning zombie like myself, bursting at the seams with the oats I have force-fed myself. Do it once and you’ll either fall for the beauty of the early morn and become a sunrise rider or you’ll hate waking up early so much that you’ll never do it again.

“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.”
Aristotle. Fan of the Kellogg’s cereal fun pack first thing in the morning.

A random number of reasons to cycle at dawn

The road is yours. Once you've overtaken the git in front.

The road is yours. Once you’ve overtaken the git in front.

1) Beauty
The sun peaking above the horizon, the sky black, purple, pink, red, orange, yellow, brilliant blue. A cycling rainbow just for you. An early morning mist clings to the lowlands, the fields still wrapped in their morning blanket. You are the first person on earth to ride this road. You feel amazing.

2) Animals
Damn those furry critters, the four-legged pedestrians of dawn, making our morning rides dangerous beautiful. Who needs safari parks when you’ve got morning rides. No screaming children sat in the back seats, just gasps, your own. Did I just see that? Yes, yes you did, you lucky thing.

3) Isolation
Alone, there’s nothing but the rubber of your tyres rolling across the road to disturb you. Shhh. It’s so early even the birds are yet to wake. You are a zombie, marching on, pedals a’ turning, eyes a’ opening.

4) No traffic
The roads are yours and yours alone. Nobody can cut you up or beep at you for no apparent reason. You can swerve potholes to your heart’s content and ride the lines down the middle of the road should you so wish. You don’t pay road tax and yet the road is all yours. Amazing, this is what it is to be a car driver.

5) Satisfied achievement
We humans are easily pleased. Getting up before the sun is one of those moments. Such feats are rare in our lives thus a dawn rise makes us feel special, proud, so much so that we wouldn’t say no to a sunrise badge if somebody offered to sew one onto our jersey sleeves (don’t get any ideas Rapha).

6) Live two lives
I know this may seem odd, but yes, whisper it quietly, there is life beyond cycling, a normal world void of cranks and bottom brackets. Friends, bed partners, children, pets, you know the sort of thing. Life I believe they call it. Riding early is for time crunched cyclists who can return home without the wife and children even noticing they have been on a magical voyage of sunrises and lung busting hills.

7) Beat the heat
Up and out early in the summer, the morning is your own personal air con unit, hours of refrigeration before the sun rises high to scorch the earth.

8) Science claims it is better for you. Perhaps.
Exercising in the morning is said by some to burn more fat because you are riding in a fasted state, assuming you skipped the English breakfast with extra sausage. The science behind this looks a little fragile, but I’ll leave that up to you. As humans we’re all guilty of believing what we want if it helps us to get out of bed in the morning. I do not recommend cycling on an empty stomach for any great length of time.

9) You’re old
You have no idea what everyone is talking about. You’ve been awake for hours, 5 am isn’t early, it’s late!

A random number of reasons why you don’t cycle at dawn

Meet us at 4.30am, they said. B*stards.

Meet us at 6:25 am, they said. We’ll be there, they said. B*stards.

1) Winter
Dark, cold. Why, why would anybody get out of bed before the 10 am sunrise of December? Certainly not me.

2) Bed warmth
You’re not human if you can ignore the wonderful feeling of being cosy and warm in bed. You cannot move, foetal position fixed, the slightest of movements reminds you that the world outside is a cruel and cold place. Might as well stay in bed.

3) Unnatural
Snooze mode time. Circadian rhythms and your body’s natural clock will always fight the evil alarm clock. You wake when you’re ready and damn anybody who tells you any different. Once we were programmed to fall to sleep come dark and awake with the sun. Now we fall asleep when we’ve run out of things to do and rise only to beat the 11 am McDonalds breakfast McMuffin deadline.

4) You have joined a cycling club
Watches are synchronised and a time is set. You all meet at the same time, same place. You’re ready. Everyone that is except Dave. Every club has a Dave. He’s late again, making you stand and shiver whilst you wait for him because he couldn’t find a sock or, quite possibly, his bike. This is why I ride alone.

5) You don’t know what you’re missing
One early morning ride is motivation enough to get up and repeat. Just try not to pack too many early mornings into your schedule. Sleep is an important part of recovery.

Tips for riding first thing in the morning

Well if the GPS says Straight Ahead, then...

Well if the GPS says ‘Straight Ahead’, then…

Even the most committed sunrise rider needs help. I know I do.

  • Get an early night. You are not a hero because you can semi-function on four hours of sleep like some kind of Margaret Thatcher robot. The former UK prime minister was famous for sleeping little but then she was often caught talking gibberish and making ill advised decisions.
  • Take it easy on the caffeine. I love coffee as much as I hate getting out of bed. However I prefer a slow introduction of caffeine into my system for early morning rides, especially if I have a long day ahead of me. There’s nothing worse than coming down from a caffeine high half-way through a long ride. I wake up to a cup of tea and take a caffeinated sports drink on the ride that I begin to sip close to the half way mark, thus measuring my energy boosts for the duration of the ride.
  • Alcohol and cycling don’t mix. Avoid this cocktail of misfortune as you do not want to be cycling with a hangover. Hungover, I can barely function let alone cycle. Sure, have a drink with your meal, just be sure not to binge and wobble your way through the morning ride.
  • Dress accordingly. You don’t need me to tell you it is going to be colder in the dewy frost of dawn than at noon. Do you? That said, come summer here in the UK you can get away with just a jersey and shorts, for you and the scorched earth will both warm up quickly. Autumn and spring make cycle clothing decisions a little more difficult. I prefer to overdress and be too warm when the temperatures rise rather than freeze for the first few hours of the morn. Winter? I wear my duvet and stick to my bed.
  • Eat breakfast. Another obvious one, right? However this tip is easier said than done. At 5 am the last thing my stomach wants is food. Force feeding myself porridge is not a pretty sight. Remember when you was little and your mother would make you eat the cabbage and you would heave, convulse and wretch? That’s me eating breakfast at dawn. Try to find something you can swallow easily but will still provide you with enough energy to fuel your ride. I’m still looking for such a breakfast so do let me know what you manage to eat early in the morning! And remember not to eat too much, you don’t want to be digesting food for half of your ride.
  • Don’t linger. I aim to be out on the road within 30 minutes of getting up, 15 minutes if possible. The longer I faff around or start reading the news, the less likely it is I’ll want to leave my cosy house for the great outdoors.
  • Prepare your kit the night before. This little ritual will save you the hassle of trying to clamber into inside-out Lycra when you are still half asleep or the panic of trying to find your lucky cycling socks. I always get excited when prepping my kit, like a child the night before Christmas. I lay out my clothes in a pile ordered by how I will need to put them on come the morning. Everything is prepped. Kettle filled with water, teabag in cup, bowl and spoon out ready for breakfast. Now is the time to be obsessive compulsive.
  • Squeeze out the number two. Sorry for that image, but this tip is important unless you enjoy searching for large leaves and pooping behind hedgerows. A hot drink will help. If not it’s time to grit your teeth and pray. Just think of all the extra weight you can er, dump.
  • Start slowly. Your body probably still thinks you’re in some kind of cycling nightmare rather than actually preparing for a 100 mile ride. Spin an easy gear gently and work your way into the ride to prevent injury. In the old days, exercise nuts would recommend warming up pre-activity, not any more. Do not stretch a cold body, you’ll only risk injury.
  • Take your shades. Nobody will see you looking cool but at least you’ll see the road when the sun is low in the sky.
  • Wear dark clothes and put your lights on. I hate high viz clothing. Some studies suggest your visibility may actually be reduced when riding into a low sun wearing high viz compared to if you are wearing darker colours. Accidents happen so when a driver is blinded by the sun you want to make sure they see you. I’m not entirely sure about the dark clothes thing but at least make sure your back light is on, bright and blinking.
  • Take your camera. It’s beautiful out there.
  • Don’t brag. Too much. People will not think you’re hero for getting up before them. You know the truth however.
  • Don’t plan an active day post-ride. You’ll be fit for bed perhaps but certainly not for operating heavy machinery.
  • Take a post-ride power nap. Some swear by it but I can never seem to fall asleep following a ride. Back in my running days when I was training for the London marathon I would return home after a long run and literally pass out as my body recovered. Not sure that’s too healthy either.

Early bird or night owl?

I love the taste of sun warmed electrolytes in the morning

I love the taste of sun warmed electrolytes in the morning

So what about you? Are you an early bird or a night owl? And just how do you eat breakfast so early in the morning?

Images courtesy of 1) Unknown 2) Rod Mclean 3) my-bicylce-and-i.co.uk 4) Unknown 5) Unknown

Cycling at night and the Dunwich Dynamo

Cycling at nightCycling in the dark, our fragile minds play tricks on us. With darkness comes fear. Is that a pack wolves on my tail? We hear noises that are not there or we sense an unknown evil at every corner. Or a pothole. Rational by day, come night we’re a gibbering mess, a child hiding beneath the bedsheets afraid to move for fear of the bogey man.

Many a cyclist retreats to their cave come nightfall, not too dissimilar to the times before electricity when people were reluctant to go out at night for fear of thieves stalking the shadows. If not robbed, people got lost or fell crippled into ditches.

Such fears plague the night cyclist too but if we can conquer such primal fears there is much to be discovered cycling beneath moonlight.

Cycling in the dark

Follow don't lead if you have no bike lights

Follow don’t lead if you have no bike lights

The world is a strange place, even in daylight. Come nightfall we see new dimensions and, alone on a quiet country lane, the cyclist’s world is reduced to little more than a narrow beam of light. We miss much yet we discover so much more. It was with such anticipation that I decided to tackle the Duwnich Dynamo once again, an unorganised, 200km ride through the night and early morning hours, arriving at the beach for sunrise (and a fry up).

A few thousand caffeinated cyclists / mentalists meet casually in Hackney before slowly filtering out towards the sea one by one, bats leaving the colony for the night. There is no official start time. No starting fee. No marshals. No charities. No chest beating.

The fact the ride is semi-unorganised is brilliant in many a way. One, that it actually happens. Two, it’s free so you can skip a punishing night if the weather is looking a little iffy and three, you don’t have that foreboding sense of competitiveness you get with most sportives. Oh and four, it is actually very well organised with a feed and drink stop half way through, coaches to get you back to London and an open cafe at 4am at the beach.

The usual weather watch begins a week prior to the big night. You’re a meteorologist analysing isobars, looking for continental cloud patterns, searching every weather source in the vain hope one of them will give you the weather you desire rather than the foreboding black clouds and three rain drops. They don’t. A long night awaits.

Riding the Dunwich Dyanmo

Look out for laser beams on the Dunwich Dynamo. They burn.

Look out for laser beams on the Dunwich Dynamo. They burn.

Riding to Dunwich on the east coast of my tiny island is quite a feat at 200 km (or 120 miles for us imperial types). In total my route was closer to 160, by far the furthest I’ve ever cycled. I even out endured my Garmin, the battery struggling to record my first 150.

Distance however was only part of my worries. Add to that the dimension of cycling overnight through biblical rain storms and arriving at the beach before sunrise and you have a ride internet folk younger than I might call Epic. Or Awesome. Like, really.

Yet numbers and words do little justice to what is a beautiful ride. Sublime. The route covers many of the same Essex country lanes I tackle on my regular Sunday rides and yet at night, beneath a full moon, the corn fields and narrow lanes feel alive (although this year was very dark with cloud dominating the sky).

Bird song is replaced by an occasional owl hoot, car traffic shushed in favour of the steady rhythm of rubber on tarmac. You follow a conga line of red blinking stop lights. Stop falling asleep they warn. Here and there, the tsssk of a can opening, liquid energy, nitro, taurine, guarana, glucose, ginseng, caffeine, Haribo tea, whatever we can get our hands on to keep the wheels turning and our eyes open.

Sleep deprived, our mind plays trick on us. Bends become difficult to see in the dark, our eyes slow to focus, our reactions equal to that of a hungover sloth on diazepam. The strangest sensation is encountering a hill climb in the dark, for we do not see the gradient change we only feel it when the angle of our bike changes, our cadence slowing, breathing quickening, the summit an equal surprise.

Onward we ride, a silent zombie peloton pushing ourselves to the limit. From the darkness, a hushed voice. We’ve missed a turn. There’s no swearing, no sighing, just the recognition that we must get back on track, worker ants following their trail, our only job to reach the coast awake.

Occasional light houses in the dark empty sea of the blackness glimmer at us, a kind soul voluntarily on duty in their garden with hot tea and bacon sandwiches for the riders. We see their smiles even in the darkness, feel their warmth. Hungry for energy but we’re so tired we can barely chew. We think the snack tastes good but we’re not entirely sure, we are a car refuelling, kilojoules and calories all we acknowledge.

Not much further we mumble to ourselves, an eye on the horizon, looking for the sun, for we must be beat it to the sea. Hours later we arrive, but it could have been days, weeks perhaps. We remember not when we last slept and we’re not even sure we’re awake now. Wheels no longer turning, eye lids heavy, they crash at every opportunity. Micro sleeps. Jolts. Coffee, thick and black, oil for the weary motor.

Some sleep on the beach, others eat an English breakfast, some turn around and pedal back, iron will, steel calves, lead head. I’d recommend the ride back to Ipswich train station which is beautiful, even if the thought of an extra 30 miles whilst half asleep is not very appealing (beats waiting for the coach).

Dunwich Dynamo 2014

Follow the snake. A data visualisation of the Dunwich Dynamo from Strava

Follow the snake. A data visualisation of the Dunwich Dynamo from Strava

This year there seemed to be far fewer cyclists than my first DunRun in 2011. The wise no doubt stayed tucked up at home to avoid the forecast of heavy rain. Although most riders I spoke to were lucky and missed the rain altogether, others less so. I was one of the others. Bah.

The heavens opened and a biblical storm struck two hours into the ride. The remainder of the night was damp to say the least. Fortunately there were jovial locals lining some of the streets to hand out high fives, along with an amazing fireworks show that lit up the skies as if to celebrate our endeavours. Even though the dazzling pyrotechnic show had nothing to do with us, each rider smiled, for it was ours more than it was anybody else’s for few could have taken such pleasure in the sight as the weary cyclist.

When the heavens closed, we rode through low lying mist, a ghostly peloton haunting the narrow lanes. Approaching the coast, the sky lit up for a second time, this time Mother Nature’s impressive light show. Lightning. Eerie.

Would I recommend the Dunwich Dynamo in the wet? Maybe, if it was your first. It goes without saying it’s much more enjoyable (and safer too) in the dry. In addition to wet corners, you are also robbed of moonlight, which makes some of the lanes very dark indeed (my front light was so weak I was actually able to see more of the road courtesy of other riders’ rear red lights!). But with the event being free and semi-organised you can easily be the boss and decide exactly when you will ride the Dynamo. For you must ride the Dynamo.

Dunwich beach. Made it.

Dunwich beach. Made it.

Fact: Bob Dylan rode the Dunwich Dynamo

Where else did the inspiration come from for his song, Not Dark Light Yet? I found myself singing an adapted version of this Dylan classic for pretty much the last 50 miles. Excerpt below.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to Dunwich
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there

Dunwich Dynamo GPX route

Don’t get lost! Here you go, this is the Dunwich Dynamo gpx route for your Garmin, courtesy of some tired legs. This includes a tired ride back to Ipswich.

Benefits of night riding

Spot the cyclist

Spot the cyclist

  • Fewer cars on the roads
  • You can wear your Team Sky kit without taking abuse
  • You can finally use the orange lenses that came with your interchangeable sunglasses
  • Ditch the turbo during the winter
  • You always feel like you are travelling faster at night!
  • It is surreal

Tips for cycling at night

Zombie cyclists await at night

Zombie cyclists await at night

You don’t have to ride throughout the entire night to enjoy pedalling on the dark side.

  • Get to know the route in the day. Know thy enemy! Note potholes, sharp bends and the narrowing of roads
  • Get yourself a super bright spotlight for the front bars. The more you see, the less you’ll hit. Invest in a decent front light set. Or follow somebody who has.
  • Dip that headlight. Don’t blind other road users, cyclists and drivers alike. Make sure your front light is pointing at the road and not my eyes – same goes for your rear light! What is it about people using radioactive rear lights? Blinding.
  • Wear reflective clothing. I’m not talking high viz here, which won’t help you a great deal in the dark. Some strips of reflective clothing will attract the light of approaching vehicles (rather than the bumper of passing vehicles). You could also invest in some reflective tape for your bike – readily available from eBay and not too unattractive by day.
  • Watch out for animals. They like roaming at night when most of us pesky humans are tucked up in our warm houses. You may well startle them which means they’ll startle you.
  • Check your light batteries. It’s a long slow ride home with no front light and a dangerous night with no rear light. Take spare batteries if need be.
  • Avoid roads with too many obstructions, unless of course you’re practising slalom.
  • Take your glasses off when it rains. Wet specs are useless in the glare of headlights. Similarly, wear a peaked cap to keep the rain out of your eyes.
  • Maintain your machine. Bike maintenance is difficult enough in a fully lit garage let alone in the dark of a lonely country lane.
  • Become a werewolf. Ride on moonlit nights. Follow the full moon for better vision and an ethereal glow on once familiar landscapes.
  • Be afraid, be quick. Yes, there is a particular brand of killer who rides carbon and stabs steel. He’s after your blood, so up that cadence and topple that Strava KOM before they get you, you paranoid freak!
  • See the unseeable. Stare into the blackness and marvel at how once familiar surrounds now look and feel so different.
  • Slow down on descents. You never know what awaits and just because you’re out at night doesn’t give you cat-like reflexes.
  • Shut one eye if you think you might be dazzled by an oncoming vehicle.
  • Ride in the middle of the road to avoid the majority of potholes and drains.
  • Follow that central white line to avoid getting familiar with the near side bushes.

Dunwich Dynamo video

This stop-start time-lapse video captures some of the magic of the ride. Without the lactic acid in the legs and the bags beneath the eyes. There’s no climatic beach scene which is just as well, because you have to the ride the Dynamo for such pleasures.

Images courtesy of 1) Frank Patterson 2) 9W magazine 3) James Medcraft 4) Strava 5) haulingmycarcass.com 6) Unknown 7) Unknown

The Grand Depart: On being a Tour Maker

Chris Froome - Tour Maker fanWith the world’s greatest annual sports event racing through my neighbourhood, I signed up to become a volunteer flag marshal for stage three of the Tour de France in London. I had a duty. I could not let those dastardly traffic bollards bring our heroes down (they can do that just as well themselves).

Firstly a disclaimer. I’m not the volunteering type. I’m a miserable misanthrope and thus even a smile is usually beyond me. Growl? That I can do. At a stretch I can muster a smirk when I’m really, really happy. So why did I volunteer? I am a Tour de France fanatic. No, that’s not it. The Tour is entertaining but I’m certainly no fan boy. Maybe I quite fancied a free uniform. Nope.

Did I want to help people? See disclaimer above. How about bagging a good viewing spot on the route? Not really, I could think of easier ways to get a decent pitch. To write a blog about being a Tour Maker? Hmmm, no. So why? Quite simply, I wanted to be a part of the Tour de France 2014, to be a part of something special.

The big day

Was that a pair of sideburns I saw?

Was that a pair of sideburns I saw?

Did my day as a Tour Maker in the Tour de France deliver? No, not really. I had a heck of a lot more fun watching the two Yorkshire stages on TV. Why? Well, I went into this experience knowing full well that cycling isn’t the most rewarding of spectator sports. This much I learnt watching the Olympic Road Race. It goes a little like this:

Wait, wait, wait…
Interlude of more waiting for many an hour.
Oh, here they come.
Excitement, noise.

Whooooooooooooosh.

Gone.
Right, shall we head home then?

Today was more or less the same but instead of being stood behind a barrier, I was literally in the middle of the road. Eeek! For all of the waiting, it was quite a moment. Literally, a moment. I was lucky in so much that I was stationed in between a left, and then a right hand bend, meaning the peloton needed to cut across the road right in front of me in order to take the racing line on each of the corners.

As the dodgy camera phone video below shows (no, it wasn’t a night race!), the peloton came so close and was riding so fast that the turbulence knocked my phone from the bollard and onto the floor (hence the lack of sound and the picture cutting abruptly – well I was busy blowing my whistle and waving a flag above my head!). Blink and you miss it! The noise was incredible, even Dolby Mega Double Surround Sound couldn’t do that justice. And yes thank you, that is some top whistling you can hear from yours truly.

The famous Tour caravan of freebies

I was expecting a carnival atmosphere for the promotional caravan that precedes the race. What we got was about 15-20 cars speeding past as if they were about to miss the last Eurostar train. Very disappointing. The spectators had to be quick to grab the freebies, of which there were less than ten. Tough times.

Training to be a Tour Maker

An entertaining Orientation Day. That's right, nothing to see here, move along now.

An entertaining Orientation Day. That’s right, nothing to see here, move along now.

First, it’s worth acknowledging the size of the task facing the organisers. It was almost as big as the uniform they gave me (more on that later). Training 7,000 volunteers to marshal an estimated 3-5 million spectators over three days. Quite the challenge.

Unfortunately the whole process sucked me dry of enthusiasm. First there was some online training (thumbs up), followed by a day spent at the Olympic Park in the Copper Box, where we endured a very long day of bureaucratic, corporate speeches and scripted interviews. Most of my fellow tour makers stared at their phones throughout the event, probably reading the small print of their volunteer programme. Still at least there were plenty of mentions of ‘road furniture’, a phrase that always makes me smile.

Orientation day was followed by an equally uninspiring training day cooped up in a corporate room at the Allianz Arena where we learned how to wave a flag. Combining the two training days would have been a much better use of everybody’s time. All was not lost, or so we thought. For many, the excitement of training was the collection of the Tour Maker uniform. The buzz was quickly quashed with a 30 minute speech not quite apologising about some balls up with the uniforms in which everybody would be getting oversized uniforms. Thanks Asda!

The great Tour Maker uniform farce

My Tour Maker uniform arrives

My Tour Maker uniform arrives

When applying, Tour Makers were asked for their clothing sizes. I asked for a small t-shirt and got a large. I asked for a small waterproof jacket and got a large. Like the peloton, I could only pray there would be no strong winds on the big day.

It seemed the organisers wanted us to feel great, be ourselves, feel confident, and smile whilst looking like we’d dressed ourselves in a six man tent. Apparently Asda had ordered the uniforms in advance and hence you had more chance of getting the correct size clothes by raiding a charity clothing bin. Oh dear. Fortunately my girlfriend is a whizz with a sewing machine and so adjusted my shirt to allow me a semblance of respect on the big day. Well as respectable as one can be dressed in high viz.

The organisers did eventually realise their mistake and ordered new t-shirts. Brilliant. Except they waited until the very week before the Grand Depart, which meant some people’s new clothes arrived on the actual day of the Grand Depart. When my cheap replacement polo shirt did arrive fresh from a Chinese boat, it was still the wrong size. D’oh! And let’s just say they didn’t exactly pull out the Dulux colour chart when trying to match the two very different blues of the replacement and original uniforms.

Happy to help?

The Tour is one of the world’s most spectacular, gruelling and compelling sports events. Volunteering was a little like this. A moment of excitement, a feeling of pride for having been a part of it, plus the gruelling slog of waiting around and worse still, the training, which was as tedious as a flat stage in the Tour prior to the big sprint finale in the last kilometre.

My advice? Don’t volunteer unless you really, really, really get into the volunteering spirit unlike a curmudgeon like me. Also don’t expect too much if you are a spectator watching a flat stage. It’s rubbish (and I like cycling!). Find a hill, camp out there and enjoy a slightly slower peloton climbing up the beast.

Better yet, forget all hopes of being a spectator and be a competitor. Well almost. Take your bike and ride the route on the morning a few hours before the pros rip up the freshly laid tarmac. This is my regret. Alternatively, stay at home and watch live cycling on the TV.

Still, I came, I saw, and I blew my whistle. My legs ache more than when I cycle and on the plus side, I avoided something like the video below (not for the faint hearted). A big hello and well done to all my fellow Tour Makers, the organisers, Yorkshire, London and last but not least, those sheep up north who allowed themselves to be painted yellow. My own anti-climax aside, it was the grandest of Grand Departs. Chapeau.

Cycling and climbing in Dartmoor

Cycling in DartmoorThe moors. England’s true natural wonder, so named because once you’ve experienced their bleak beauty you’ll want more, more, more. The grass tightly cropped by the gnashing of wild animal teeth, a brilliant green lawn lies in stark contrast to the brooding dark grey skies above, the road disappearing when you’re enveloped in a low hanging mist, the sound of rubber on tarmac all you can hear as you ride through the eerie calm like the last man on earth. This is cycling.

An occasional rock formation. The odd shrub. Purple moorland flowers. Wild(ish) ponies, sheep and cows tend to the manicured baize. A smooth singletrack road heads straight to the sky, up, up, and away. You, the cyclist, the masochist, burn through three sets of lungs on a devilish climb that delivers you to the peak. And breathe. Admire the view, for you suffered hell for this vision of heaven.

The wonders of Dartmoor

Why we cycle

Why we cycle

A recent trip to Dartmoor reminded me why I love cycling for I have a lust for the great moors of this fair and green land that goes by many a name. United Kingdom, Great Britain. England. So great they named it many a time to confuse even the locals. Forgive the patriotism. Cycling can turn even the most dreary of places into something to be admired, to be cherished, be it your home turf or some far flung adventure in lands unknown. Like Belgium.

Back to the uplands of Dartmoor. The senses are overwhelmed, purple heather, lush green pastures punctured by occasional flecks of granite that form these famous tors. Shrouded in mist, you leave the world behind and enter a mythical world of wild ponies lining the winding roads, the sharp bends surprising in the fog as if somebody is wilfully changing the direction of the roads as you approach them, cartoon style.

Thin slivers of roads take you up hills at speeds approaching stop. The descents are marginally slower, the slopes offering little rest so treacherous are the twists and turns of these rarely used roads. Fingers clinging to brake levers, it is not long before your arms begin to ache, whilst your eyes remain locked to the road ahead, your mind blank, for you see and feel everything.

“The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (based in Dartmoor). Written in 1902. Still true today.

Dartmoor cycling climbs

Head down, that'll be me

Head down, that’ll be me. (Simon Yates wins in Dartmoor)

A mere 621 metres at its peak, don’t let Dartmoor’s lack of height lure you in expecting an easy ride. Without planning you can climb 3,000 metres within 40 miles should you so wish for the land is lumpier than a track cyclist’s thighs.

Amateurs and pros alike hit and love to hate these hills. The Tour of Britain regularly tackles these rugged slopes, which includes a King of the Mountains climb from Bovey Tracey to Haytor. Dartmoor is also home to three climbs in Simon Warren’s original book, The 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, although a wrong turn in any direction will see you wheezing up less famous climbs of equal incline.

Of the big three climbs, you can choose from Dartmeet, Haytor Vale and Widecombe. Each offers a stiff challenge but should be manageable even for the least likely of mountain goats amongst us. So long as you take it easy. Don’t go hell for leather if like me if you’re not quite in hill climbing shape. Half way up Dartmeet something in my back popped and a sharp pain shot through my writhing body. I looked up through tears at the remainder of the climb. Half way there.

Only just did I avoid clambering off the bike and lying down on the floor, back flat. It is rare on a hill climb when you don’t feel the agony in your legs or chest. Searing pain in your back will do that! Two weeks on, an echo of the pain is still there. That will teach me to neglect my core strength.

The remainder of the climb was somewhat of a docile affair and the rest of the route turned into a rehabilitation run rather than a king of the mountain show. Widecombe passed in a blur so much so I’m still not actually sure I climbed it, whilst the long brute that is Haytor was certainly a challenge with 50 miles already in my heavy legs.

For all their might, the hills of Dartmoor are enjoyable and testing, yet manageable. They’re certainly no match for the cliff faces cyclists fear up in north Devon, such as the likes of Crowcombe Combe in the Quantocks and the leg breakers that are Porlock and the beautiful but brutal Dunkery Beacon in Exmoor.

The pursuit of loneliness

Fixed gear in Dartmoor. Never again.

Fixed gear in Dartmoor. Never again.

Hills aside, the pleasure of cycling in the moors is the sense of isolation, especially if you happen to be cycling on one of those days when mist shrouds the lonesome tops. Which is most days.

Cycling has always been my great escape. Even more so given I live in the people-opolis that is London. Sure I can lock myself in a room to escape but only cycling provides both the escape and the freedom. On the moors you can cycle for miles without seeing another human, car, or house. You are charting new landscapes, no other eyes have seen what you see, you are an adventurer, alone, passed occasionally by a blur of Lycra perhaps, or a pony.

Dartmoor bike routes

Dartmoor is for the rouleurs, the grimpeurs, the mountain goats, the inexhaustible, the mad. Every route will leave you with a saw-toothed elevation profile that will rival your post-ride heart rate graph.

Choose any given route to criss-cross your way through the uplands, just be sure to pass through the beautiful downhill road that sees you zipping past the tranquil Venford Reservoir, the calm water surrounded on each side by beautiful purple and green shrubbery. Serenity. My route was a (just about) manageable 60 mile slog up 2,300 metres of tarmac.

For those less inclined to well, inclines, there’s the Dartmoor Way, a 95 mile loop circling the moor. Described as “quiet, some hills” and “enjoyable as part of an energetic day trip or a full 7 day holiday”, this route will take it easier on your legs but at the cost of your eyes, for thou shall not see the inner beauty of the beast that is Dartmoor National Park.

Go. Go now.

Images courtesy of 1) Unknown 2) Helen Dixon 3) Paul Hayes-Watkins 4) bikes-n-stuff.com