I’m not sure how I stumbled across Darkmoor, I think it was probably on Facebook. It is a 90 mile night ride running for the second year. It runs the same model as Dunwich Dynamo and the excellent Exmouth Exodus – i.e. semi organised, free to participate and unsupported, if interested more info can be found at http://www.darkmoor.co.uk.
Riding through the night has a unique draw. It’s ever so slightly masochistic, but I really like riding overnight. The roads are quite and the silence can be deafening, but it also offers challenges. Gauging your efforts on the climbs is much more difficult, as the road ramps up you have little idea how far up into the inky sky it goes, it also has an effect on you speed – it’s far harder to keep pushing during the witching hours.
Having ridden the Exodus a few years ago, and planned my own ride from Plymouth to Swansea earlier this year, I’ve done this before but the chance to do this type of ride from where I live, and the opportunity to find some new local and not quite so local roads, was too much to pass on. After a quick chat with my Dad, who did both the Exmouth Exodus (100 miles, 200 odd people) and Bontride (247 miles, just the two of us for the most part), I had a partner in crime.
The weather forecast had been rather favourable, light wind, little cloud cover and just some light showers forecast at 4am, which makes kit choice relatively easy – jersey, arm warmers and packable jacket, done. After a bit of faffing we arrive at Cap’n Jaspers on the Barbican with about 2 minutes spare. I had no idea how many people were planning to take part, but there was about 15 or so likeminded cyclist, surrounded by hundreds of Saturday night revellers. We left a few minutes past 9pm, and our mini peloton picked its way out of the Barbican pub area and out of Plymouth along the NCN route 27, which goes from Plymouth all the way to Ilfracombe on the North Devon Coast. As we make our way out of town our little peloton stays together as we stop at lights and make sure everyone takes the right junction and so on. As we get to the traffic free cycle route we begin to splinter into smaller groups. We push on with the hope of getting to the public toilet in Yelverton before they shut, we didn’t.
While we were stopped at Yelverton a group of three passed us, and as we tried to find the next leg of the traffic free route the main group caught us. After a few kilometres we were on our own again. The surfaces on these sections of the cycle path are excellent, and being old railway lines they are fantastically engineered with gradual gradients so it was easy to keep the pace steady. We get to Tavistock and begin to pick our way around the back streets to the next stint of traffic free riding. We pass the three guys that passed us at our stop, to be fair to them they had stopped too, which makes us first on the road. I know it’s not a race, but it’s still nice to be first. We pass through some parks, as the sky darkens a round of firework light up the sky; it seems Darkmoor is a big deal in Tavistock.
We come out of Tavistock and hit the first real climb of the night, the 8% gradient of Old Exeter Road gets the heart rate going, the gradient levels off and we are onto rolling back roads. After a short spell on the road we are back on the traffic free route. I have covered a decent amount of these traffic free cycle paths with my kids, and it was really nice to link them together. These early kilometres are ticking by nicely, as we gradually climb pretty much all the way to Okehampton.
We arrive at the train station at just gone midnight, At the station I load the second half of the route onto the Garmin, and after learning from a guy sat in the car park – his was waiting for his son who was doing it – we are now 4th and 5th on the road (plus 3 who started from Okehampton) I instantly ask “How far ahead?” without really thinking – 10 minutes. Off into the night we go again, we ride out of Okehampton and over the A30 as the road rolls for a while before we descend into Moretonhampstead. We then turn off onto the B road and head for Dartmoor, and the biggest climb of the ride. The road climbs up with the occasional dip for about 10 km, it ramps up into double figures a few times but it is by no means a beast. As we gain altitude, we enter the mist. Dartmoor, at night, in the mist. It just seems right. We drop out, and climb into the mist all the way across the top of Dartmoor. While in the mist the wildlife becomes an issue. With visibility reduced the sheep sleeping in the road cause some concern, but not as much as the ponies that, unlike the sheep, make no effort to move or change their direction and just stubbornly continue on their planned route leaving us to brake and move around them.
As we pass Postbridge we pick out the tell-tale flashing red lights of bikes against the contrasting dark hills and the explosion of light on the horizon coming from the prison, that 10 minutes at Okehampton isn’t 10 anymore. Did I mention I’m quite competitive? We begin to dig in a bit more as we climb into Princetown and out the other side. Once out of Princetown there is a series on dips and climbs and we slowly gain on the group ahead. We reach the top of the final little rise and regroup. I know this decent well and I’m pretty confident I can catch them here, even in the dark. Just hope Dad can keep up! He does, he just let a little gap grow then followed my light. We catch them just before the bottom and have to put in a real dig on the short climb up to Yelverton. Can’t go passing people on the decent to then get done on a climb, there is probably a “rule” about that.
We get into Yelverton and rejoin the cycle path we came out on. The 3 we just passed continue down the main road, so we stop for a banana and a pain au chocolat. While demolishing the banana two of the lads who were in front from Okehampton pull up, having done a couple of laps of the reservoir to make up the mileage – we would never have caught them without their detour. After a quick chat we decide to ride together and tackle the final climb as a four. Breakfast pastry stowed in pockets and we roll. I have never climbed this last one, despite it only being half an hour from home, I usually come from the other side and I’m interested to compare the two. As we hit the bottom I soon realise why we weren’t catching them. They set off at a decent rate from the bottom and I have to put in a spurt to catch onto the second guy’s wheel. After holding him, I go after the guy up front, who is flying up (on a 29er, embarrassingly). I manage to close in, a little, and then I just try to hold the gap as much as possible. I think I’m panting heavier than I have all night as I really work to hold that gap. We top out and the three of us regroup. I then notice Dad has just joined the autobus and taken it easy on the climb and hasn’t caught up yet, so I go and scoop him up, by which point our companions are gone.
We continue along the common, and I decide to eat my pain au chocolat on the fly. Which I find isn’t as easy as you would expect. As I breathe, while chewing, a large flake of pastry hits the back of my throat, causing a coughing fit and a bit of a wobble. A quick gulp of juice and all is good again. Think I will be more careful with my chewing in the future. We stop for a moment and I take my only picture of the night, looking down over Plymouth and the Sound, not that you can see more than the city lights. We set off again and make our way back into Plymouth, via the china clay work and its short climb back out.
As we ride into the city there is something surreal, almost post-apocalyptic about the city scape. There is a warm early morning glow, as the sun just begins to fight its way over the horizon, it is uncharacteristically quiet and the few people about are all looking dazed from either the remnants of the night before or the effects of an early wakeup call (or even both). We pick our way through the city, caught by surprise when the odd car passes and arrive back at Cap’n Jaspers at about 4:45, finishing 3rd and 4th (I know, I know, it’s not a race). The good people of Cap’n Jaspers opened early and we take advantage of their tea making expertise, too early to be hungry even after cycling through the night. After our second cup of tea, we say our goodbyes to our weary companions and make our way home, taking in a detour to take it up to 100 miles.
The little detour around the seafront and then along my usual commute home is hard, getting the legs to turn over having stopping is not easy and they complain having assumed their days work was done, but we make it.
There is something magical about leaving for a ride at dusk and returning at dawn. Be it an organised, even semi organised, with 200 cyclist, with 15, or even just a few mates with a sense of adventure if you have the chance to ride through the night, take it. You won’t regret it (once you’ve got some sleep).