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)


10 thoughts on “Cycling and climbing in Dartmoor

  1. You are absolutely spot on. I have just spent a week on Dartmoor going out each evening for say 20 or so miles. I rode up Haytor, that was ok, Rundelstone was tougher and then Dartmeet, that had me wheezing and blowing.

    I then moved on to Exmoor for a night and tried Crowcobe Combe, I thought it would be here that I had my first heart attack, but no, absolutely shattered at the top I found that I had forgot to switch on my Garmin, my wife suggested that I go up again with it on. Is she after the insurance money?

    What a fantastic place, but a warning to all, check where you are going to stay, I chose Milton Combe a lovely hamlet with three roads out. Two are three quarters of a mile at 15% and the other a third of a mile at 25%, that got my hamstrings screaming and me shattered within the first mile.

    But I will be back as there are so many hidden jems, one I found was a route that after a couple of miles climbed for a mile at 15%, slight dip then quarter of a mile at 20%, level for a few meters then another quarter of a mile at 25%. Had I known before hand I would probably have backed out.


    1. Ah yes, the pain of not recording a hill climb is almost as great as the pain of climbing! I went up Crowcombe Comb with two fairly heavily loaded panniers, one of the hardest climbs of my life. The descent was also my max top speed at 56 mph!

      Top tip on location. Some places can be a little cut off too so if you don’t have a car you need to stay near a town. A week on Dartmoor. I envy your rides and pity your poor legs!


  2. With panniers? Bloody hell that must have been torture, I was on a carbon road bike and thought I may fail or quit. But the idea of stopping on that hill with road cleats on and the consequences that could follow, i.e. sliding backwards down the thing, kept me going.

    I stayed in Monksilver on Exmoor and that was a myriad of unnamed lanes, if I hadn’t had O.S. maps with me I would still be riding around there, lost.


  3. Just looked at your Strava route, if all that was with panniers then its an awesome ride. Our top club boys would only be a fraction quicker on road bikes.


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