In the depths of post plantar fasciitis diagnosis self-pity I made a decision, a conscious decision to enter the Plymouth Gran Fondo. Then I did nothing. Well next to nothing. I did some training, went on holiday over the summer, and then did no training other than the half an hour each way to work. To say I was under cooked was a bit of an understatement, relying on muscle memory – if that even exists.
In the final few weeks my riding companion changed from a mate who lives nearby to the old faithful, my go to partner in crime, yep my dad. A bit of last minute admin work getting the number transferred and we are all set.
Up at the unholy hour of 5:30 on a Sunday we operate in stealth mode, getting caffeinated, dressed and breakfasted without waking anyone, only to wake my daughter as we are about to leave – no major drama and the added bonus of a quick hug before she goes back to bed and we depart into the early morning gloom. We roll across a post-apocalyptic feeling Plymouth, with the odd battle hardened reveller still at it, to the plush development at Royal William Yard. As advised we arrive just before 7 and promptly freeze while waiting for the pre ride brief.
We set off a little after the 7.30 start time, and ride across the city in a neutralised peloton to the grounds of Saltram House where the Gran Fondo starts for real. I had been a bit pensive about riding in an early hour’s amateur peloton, but after a few red lights split it up a bit there was far more room than I had envisaged. As we exit the grounds of Saltram House we wind out way through the suburbs and make our way towards Dartmoor – without actually entering the national park. These are roads that I know well, which comes with a pit fall. Knowing the early roads means we ride them like I normally would – essentially a bollocks to the wall, I’m only out for a few hours type effort. Thankfully we manage to curb this before too much damage is done. The early climbs are mostly longer more sustained efforts with the odd little dig. The first brute of a climb comes at Denham Bridge, about 45 km in. It’s a beauty, even if only in the eyes of its mother. You know what’s coming from the tight, steep decent just before it and as you cross the bridge you have to try to negotiate the tight left hander while carrying as much momentum and dropping into your winching gear. At this point it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. I have a little glance back and my dad is chugging away quite happily – as I hear him tell the rider on his wheel “it’s OK for you, you have a compact.” So, I just need to concentrate on myself, get up the hill and them we can regroup. The steeper section lasts for about 500m followed by about 1.5km of false flats and banks over 10%. It’s along this section that I become conscious that as I catch the rider in front I am essential chasing her up a hill while panting heavily. In an attempt to make it feel less weird, I ease off a touch and have a little chat while Dad catches up. That just leaves the long sweeping decent into Gunnislake before the rolling climb and final decent to Cotehele for the first rest stop.
Bidons topped up, bladders emptied, biscuits scoffed and bananas pocketed we head back out onto the road. This part of the route is largely new to me, but it continues in the same vain as the earlier part of the route, if you’re not going up you’re coming back down again. After the initial climb out from the feed stop, just what is needed to kick start the legs again, it’s rolling country roads for quite a while – well 15km to be a little more precise. After that the biggest climb of the day, in the form of Pensilva Down. It’s not an alpine monster by any means – 4km long at a 5% average – but it is a test. It is a beautiful climb and the views from the summit are wonderful, not that I had the presence of mind to take any photos. Once back down the other side we cross the A38 and head for the seaside. This is where the wheel began to come undone. On the last climb before the final feed stop it goes wrong for me, get dropped unceremoniously by my dad, and begin to feel very sick. At this point I have to do the unthinkable and stop before the top of the climb. I got about three quarters of the way up just as it starts to level off, and I just have to sit in the grass for a minute. I’ve never felt so thirsty, finishing what I have left and the remainder of my dad’s too. This seems to do the trick and after a couple of minutes I feel better again. Luckily there are no real climbs between here and the rest stop to test how much better I actually am.
We arrive at the rest stop at Seaton and carry out the usual tasks of filling up water bottles, and grabbing a few biscuits, but we also pop in to the beach front café and get a cuppa tea and a cake. This had always been pencilled into the days plan, but with the weather this nice it was too much to resist. We sit, chat, and drink tea while adsorbing far more vitamin D than you could hope to expect on a Septembers afternoon in England – even down in sunny Cornwall. As we chat I happen to glance over at the bikes and notice we are the only ones left, I then check the time and its coming up to 2 – we have been sat there for over an hour! A quick chat to the guy at the feed stop and the cut off is about 30 minutes away. Hastily we get our stuff together, make a quick toilet trip then head off up the hill. Thankfully I do feel better as we attempt to hold a decent pace over the rolling coastal roads of East Cornwall. We reach the cut off with 10 minutes to spare and continue on the full route before the marshal has a chance to divert us. After a short stint on the main road we are back on the coastal road with all the associated views. This final section of coast road is quite tight and windy, which with the constant ups and downs makes riding two abreast rather difficult. As a result conversation a bit thin on the ground as we climb at our own pace and regroup where we can.
I’m rather pleased to report that normal service had been resumed and I feel better on the climbs, not great but much better. That was until cramp bites into my left thigh half way up a climb. I dive into a turning and stretch it out and take on some fluids. I quickly jump back on – before walking has a chance to enter my mind – and climb to the top, or what I thought was the top but was just a levelling out as we re-join the main road. I stop again to give it another, longer stretch. I decide to try and stretch out my other quad and as a result give myself crippling hamstring cramps. Note to self: if it’s not broke…
After finishing the climb we drop down to the waterfront and there is a whole 2.5 km of flat, but not to make things too easy it’s into a block headwind. After a bit of up and down, we finally climb away from the Hamoaze and into Torpoint and over the timing mats at the ferry terminal. After a few minutes chatting we are ushered onto a ferry, and cross over the Cornwall-Devon border, back into Plymouth. We disembark and make our way back to Royal Willian Yard, where it all began.
On reflection, the route for the Plymouth Gran Fondo is tough, but also beautiful and most definitely worth the effort to get to Plymouth for – and if you live further away than Bristol it really can be an effort of ball-aching proportions. I’m lucky enough to live down here and have all this beautiful countryside on my doorstep, but doing an organised event so close to home has been wonderful. All these climbs that I have ridden for the first time can all be revisited with only minor preparation and planning. At the time I said this was the toughest day I had had on a bike, and it may well be, but it was certainly worth it and I would ride it again without hesitation.. I just might train properly beforehand.