It’s not often I return to an event or race. London Triathlon and L’Eroica Britannia are great examples of races/events I have done – and loved – but have little intention of going back to do again. Some races I do intend to do again, Battle on the Beach for example is high on my to-do-list for next season – but that is mostly down to a mechanical related DNF.
Darkmoor is different. It keeps me coming back. I have now returned and ridden three of the four years it has been on, having missed the first one. This year was a little different. A new route meant that it is now the full 100 miles, so no more extra loops to top it up (If you’ve been up all night riding 90 odd miles you may as well keep going for another 30 minutes). Also the company I was keeping had been added to. I still had my go-to wingman with me (my dad) but also had an old friend, Kash, joining me.
For the first time, we actually arrived with a bit of time to spare – which is an unusual occurrence in itself. We set off at just after 9, and as the swing bridge that represents our easiest way away from the bars and pubs in the area is closed for repairs we have to pick our way between the drinkers and the quayside. Once we break free and are on the open road we make our way to, and then through, Saltram House grounds on our way to the Plym Valley cycle path – which forms part of the national Cycle Network. This part of the ride is wonderfully easy as I ride next to either my dad or Kash chatting away in the middle of the peloton barely having to do a pedal stroke. This continues for most of the first stretch of traffic free path.
At the end of the first stretch of traffic free path we find two more Darkmoorites (I have just made that up, and I’m running with it) outside the Skylark pub just outside Yelverton. As everyone dismounts and heads inside for a cheeky pint, the ‘older limbs’ express concerns about having just got warmed up, so we make our apologies and head off into the night alone, forming the nights breakaway. We make our way across Yelverton and onto the second stretch of traffic free route to Tavistock.
I ride this section of the route a lot less than I ride the earlier section, for no other reason than logistics – I tend to ride these routes with my children and if I’m going to load the car and drive to ride our bikes we may as well go somewhere more exotic than Yelverton. It feels like it’s mostly downhill from Yelverton to Tavistock (where this section ends) with a beautiful viaduct and a Victorian railway tunnel along the way.
The first real climb of the night comes as we leave Tavistock. The steepest section comes early on – as we go under a railway line – it’s never a brute but enough to get you out the saddle. Its second ramp goes over 15% in places but soon drops off to little more than a false flat. One of the advantages of going at an easier pace is that you notice more. A startling example of this was that I noticed the chapel on the top of Brent Tor. Just to emphasise, that’s a chapel on the top of a rocky outcrop, on its own and it took me three years to notice it.
After around 6km of climbing and false flats, the road drops away – bar a short raspy 10% bank – towards Lydford, and then we start climb again. Its kicks off with a short sharp ramp – touching 20% – before easing to a drag before turning off for the last traffic free section up to Okehampton. I have ridden this section in the daylight a few times and section of it really are pretty – the viaduct at Meldon, with views of the Dam to your right, being a case in point. Being an old railway means that the miles tick away with minimal fuss. Its all good quality surfaces, with the exception of about 200 metres off permissive path – which is basically a track cutting through some trees. Having decided to ride my cyclocross bike this section is great fun carving through the trees, with the dark giving a false sense of speed.
We leave the traffic free route for the last time, and drop down into Okehampton. We ride through the town as the night’s merrymakers begin to make their way home – I assume they are heading home. One thing that seems to catch me out every year is how long the climb back out of Okehampton is. It isn’t steep, nor that long, but every time you think the top is approaching it just banks up again. The climb finally finishes as we cross the A30, and we reach our ‘breakaway’ goal of getting to our coffee stop before being re-joined. We stop for about 30 minutes with a coffee and a few bits of flapjack – what more does a man need when out on a bike at half one in the morning 60 odd miles from home.
Once we are sufficiently re-caffeinated we shock the legs back into action and head for Moretonhampstead. The road to continues to climb for a while before dropping back down again. Moretonhampstead is the last town before we head on up onto Dartmoor proper. The climbing starts just before reaching Moretonhampstead and we chat away as we spin up the easier lower sections where the gradient is only up to about 4% at its steepest. When we reach Moretonhampstead the climbing begins to get a bit more taxing. As soon as you reach the other side of town the climb ramps up. The climb is essentially three banks at over 10% stitched together by false flats and dips. On the steeper sections, we can’t really ride together, we just have to tap it out at our own pace and regroup at the top.
As I look back on one of the ramps I notice lights in the background, it would seem our day in the breakaway has come to an end. As we regroup atop the second bank the lights in the background become two fellow Darkmoorites, they stop for a quick chat before they push on. Once regrouped we carry on at our group pace, continuing to climb out our own pace and regrouping when the gradient eases. This formula continues all the way to Princetown, except when the excitement gets too much and a little bit of racing ensues, the last one of these is ended abruptly by a few sheep stepping out in front of my dad and I – luckily for me as I was starting to run out of gears and watts as we raced up a false flat.
We reach the town square in Princetown to find two Darkmoorites already there. One is a member of the duo that passed us on the climb onto Dartmoor (his riding companion had gone home), the other is a rider who passed us riding long the top, not too far from Princetown. After a short while the solo rider headed off – planning to cut back to Plymouth along the cycle route. The other guy was waiting for the main peloton to see if anyone was planning to ride the full route, and at his point we weren’t sure what the plan was, so we continued confident the others couldn’t be far behind.
Just after we leave Princetown I have to stop to put on my waterproof – there are a few quick descents off this side of the moor and you can feel a chill on the warmest of summer afternoons never mind stupid o’clock in the morning. I catch up with Kash in time to see my dad racing off into the gloom. After being given my leave by Kash, I drop the hammer and try to wheel in the old man. I reel him in over the series of rises and drops, and annoyingly he sits up just before the last little bank before the biggest part of the descent into Dousland. We regroup – again – at the top of this bank.
I genuinely love the descent down to Dousland, its steep enough to get up a decent lick without being so steep that you must constantly be on the anchors. It also has a few well engineered sweeping bends to throw your bike around (Mum, if you’re reading this I don’t go any faster than 10 mph, honest). Dousland represents the split point – turn left for the full hundred miles, straight on for 85miles. We barely make eye contact to confirm, we are taking the left-hand turn.
The route now takes us away from Plymouth again, as we head for Burrator. I do love a lap of Burrator, even if you’re being generous its only rolling but you are on the pedals the whole way around with three laps pretty much making 10 miles – which is great to test yourself. The route takes us three quarters of the way round before we turn off and ride into Sheepstor. Once through the hamlet, we approach the climb up towards Cadover Bridge. I will admit I had a little trepidation about this climb. I had never climbed it, but I have climbed the road it joins further up, and it’s a brute, and I assumed this would be the same. It’s not, it’s a beautiful climb. It’s at its steepest at the bottom, but after crossing the cattle grid and taking a right the gradient drops as the road contours around the hill. It is at this point the sun breaks free of the horizon and we are bathed in glorious sunlight. With views to my right of Burrator reservoir and Sheepstor, it was a wonderful place to see the sun rise.
Once we get to Cadover Bridge I’m back on familiar roads, and we roll past Lee Moor as we make our way to Lee Mill to cross the A38 and into the South Hams. The South Hams makes for beautiful cycling, with rolling climbs and patchwork fields – it’s the rural England of your mind’s eye.
Daylight is a funny old thing. The limbs that were struggling to get up the climb out of Moretonhampstead are now power climbing 10% banks in the big ring. The bloody big ring. Where were those climbing legs in the early hours of the morning?
By this point I have had to turn off the navigation on my Garmin Edge 800 to try to preserve the battery. The downside to this is that although I know where I am and how to get back to Plymouth, I don’t know the official route. As a result, we take the main road back into Plymouth and head towards Cap’n Jaspers (where it all began all those hours ago), but there is not a soul there – in lycra anyway. We decide against a cuppa tea – based on the both our attire and our odour. Due to missing a dog leg on the road back into Plymouth, so we do a couple of laps of the Hoe and the Barbican to get the mileage up to the full 100 miles.
Writing this has taken a bit longer than I thought it would, but it feels appropriate that it did. When cycling overnight time seems to change. Minutes become longer, hills become steeper, but the satisfaction becomes greater. I’ve said this before, but try it at least once. Try an overnight ride with hundreds of people, tens of people or on your own, but try it.