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John Smith: Kettering to Paignton – 20/08/11 (I must be mad!)
Posted on 23/08/11 01:53PM

An itch that had to be scratched; for as long as I’ve had family living in Torbay, I’ve debated the merits and sheer logistics of riding to Devon from Kettering.

An itch that had to be scratched

For as long as I’ve had family living in Torbay, I’ve debated the merits and sheer logistics of riding to Devon from Kettering.  Speaking to Jack recently confirmed that this was a goer; a one hit ride to Torbay from Kettering.  In his words, “Anyone can ride a bike all day, even us!”

I mulled it over and over, and also recalled Dave Loveday’s epic ‘I’m just going to visit my parents’ ride to Yorkshire.  I spoke to Alison about it at the start of last week and, holding my fingers a millimetre apart I told her that, “I’m this far from riding down to Torbay this weekend.”

“Well, you’re just going to have to do it then,” was her response. 

That was the final green light I needed to put the wheels in motion, so-to-speak.  I also approached James Singlehurst (RFW 100 miles TT expert) about doing it.  He was quite envious that I had the opportunity to do so, and explained that he takes on 3 or 4 audax type 400km rides a year.  He was very eloquent and left me in no doubt that I was going to do something stupid this weekend.

ImageReady to go

Plans and logistics

I dwelt on fuel and water; I didn’t want anything weighing my own body down to minimise saddle pressure but I still wanted enough space to carry everything.  The bike was a no-brainer; I used my faux Boardman (CardBoard) carbon road bike.  I strapped a supplementary bottle cage to the top tube ensuring it didn’t catch my legs.  I put a saddle bag on and hung a bottle from under that too, allowing 4x750ml to be carried at any one time. I planned to visit the supermarket for energy/breakfast bars, and dug out a load of energy gels from the cupboard (only a little bit past sell-by, ahem!).

 Ali vetoed the bars by coming up with a box of Clif bars – it often pays to have your wife work for a food importers.  Back to the bike, Bob Mitchell came in for a ‘bar mounted bike bag, but I wanted to keep my tri-bars on and this bag wouldn’t fit around them so I strapped three bum bags under my tri-bars.  All set, ready to go – I just needed to get home from work on Friday afternoon in plenty of time so I could snooze and rest beforehand…

ImageBreakfast Sub

The Ride Starts

 12.04 am will be forever one of those moments that define my experiences and memories for that was the time of day I left home to head South West.  As the whole idea matured in under a week the one crucial thing I hadn’t had time to do was programme the Garmin with routes or waypoints but armed with some handwritten notes and the Garmin’s street map I felt confident to get there.  Originally I planned to take the Walgrave Road but the A43 was so quiet at this ungodly hour it was just as easy to go this way.  The revellers and town centre life of Northampton made me happy to be out riding and my cycling kit made a fine contrast to pub-goers’ glad rags.  Already I needed a stop for comfort relief and a bit of food.

I pulled up at Kislingbury to do the necessary and also customised the Garmin’s training page to show altitude and mileage in addition to the functions already shown.  Out from here it went VERY dark indeed.  Soon the glow of Northampton was left behind and I could see the orange glow of Milton Keynes far off to my left.  A half Moon lent a grey glow to the road ahead and looking up Jupiter was keeping the Moon for company. 

The A5 was crossed and now I really was in totally new and unknown territory (to me at least), and I mused on not being able to see more than so many yards ahead with my lights.  This meant I wasn’t to be phased by that huge hill ahead, but I might not be able to take advantage of the following down grade as I wouldn’t know where the road went. 

ImageCanal Boats

Wrong Way, oops!

A fox trotted across my path as I negotiated Maidford, and another life form loomed ahead in Adstone.  A deer?  No, try a sheep, and another, and another.  A flock of sheep was wandering around the village at 1.30 in the morning showing no concern at all for my passing!  After Moreton Pinkney I came across a crossroads and not one of the four direction arrows pointed to places I wanted to go or needed to be.  I tried to consult the Garmin, but my street map just didn’t want to play.  Ah hell, forwards! 

What I should have done was add a note to my handwritten notes to say I would be crossing Banbury Lane, the B4525.  Instead of going straight over I turned right onto it towards the South West, a victim of the salubrious attractions of its night-time illuminated cats eyes.  All the time along I was thinking, “This isn’t quite right.”

Yep!  I got to the A422 near Banbury and realised the major error I’d committed.  A quick lap of the roundabout and I was heading South East towards Farthingstone and back to route.  A look at the Garmin showed 140bpm+ so I was using valuable energy at higher speed than I should have been travelling at.  The feeling of elation to be back on the right road allowed me to ease back and relax.  Charlton, Aynho, Clifton, Deddington and Hempton went almost without incident. 

An owl hooted as I went under its tree and I nearly jumped off my bike in surprize.  My heart rate was still trying to recover to near normal when something jumped off a steel bar gate as I passed.  I whipped my light around to look, only to see a rattling gate and no culprit in view.  I looked over my shoulder for many yards after in case this phantom gate rattler wasn’t satisfied with just giving me a jolt of adrenaline and was chasing me to give further treatment!

ImageClimbed to here

False dawn

I turned left for Nether Worton and as it by now well after 3am I wondered if a glow on the far horizon was the first sign of Saturday proper.  No, it was perhaps the glow from Bicester off to my left and I continued on in the unchanging blackness.  My handwritten notes called for a right fork in Sandford St.Martin.  Eyes on stalks or not, I still missed the turn and sailed straight past the green next to it.  I doubled back a few metres later, and took the correct track.  Not a road, not this piece of tattered tarmac with a central ridge of soil and grass.  I swore at myself for not doing more homework to prevent myself groping around blind in the wilds of the Cotswolds edges.  I prayed for the time when the sun was up and I didn’t need to point my light at road signs, and I didn’t have to tap my Garmin to light up its internal maps.

ImageCows at Dawn nr Fairford

Dawn for real

Once I’d crossed the A44 near Enstone, Charlbury and other Oxfordshire towns I’d never heard of beckoned.  I caught sight of light over my right shoulder and this time it was no mistake, finally I’d be able to see more as daylight encroached.  A canter over the roof of the Cotswolds followed, and some gathering clouds and just a hint of drizzle soon put paid to any ideas of a glorious sunrise; fantastic roads though.

It was still quite dark and fully 65 miles from home when I reached Burford.  Shops on the steeply graded high street lay dark and locked, but one lit up and shone into the gloom.  A newsagent ran by a couple of South Africans, and their faces as I rocked up just after 5AM were sights to see. 

“There’s a bloke on a f*cking bike outside,” I heard as I pulled up.

“Morning,” as I breezed in, as if seeing a cyclist in team kit at 5am was a perfectly normal apparition for these two shopkeepers to take in. “How far is Chippenham from here?”

“Over 40 miles,” was the Southern Hemisphere twanged reply.

3 litres of water and I was back outside to make up my water bottles with SR3.  They were intrigued as this powdery substance appeared from my saddle bag to be mixed and shaken, before I departed on my way up the steep hill. While I was shopping, the morning had properly begun to lighten. It was just a quick spin along the A40 before turning off for Westwell.  A herd of cows here, a couple of buzzards there, a pair of hares elsewhere lifted my night-time spirits and gave me reason to look forward to the day ahead.  I texted Ali just before Fairford to affirm I was still alive (“not before 6, I’ll be still be asleep” were her instructions) and took a pic as I left town.


Time drips thru my fingers

I was getting quite concerned about the amount of time I was spending roadside instead of actually riding.  By 7am my Garmin said I’d put less than 6 hours riding in, but on reflection it wasn’t a race and I had lots to do beside actual riding; comfort breaks, map-reading, mixing drinks, taking pictures, sending texts etc. etc.  It surprized me how much time these reasons for stopping took up still.  My original route was from Fairford to Cricklade but closer inspection of maps had made me realise that a blat along the A417 dual carriageway would be required – not what I fancied or recommend. 

Plan B and a slight re-route put me over the A417 at Cerney Wick, then a skirt around the lakes near Ashton Keynes.  Divided into lots of little hops the trip wasn’t going so badly.  I was now just surpassing my previous longest ride as long as time in the saddle goes, but still with less than 85 miles clocked up I guessed I had to pull my socks up a touch.  I’m sure there was an hour stretch in the night somewhere where I didn’t cover 10 miles.


Great Western territory

For the uninitiated my third love behind my wife and cycling is railways (I have to put these in this order in case the good lady reads this!).  Passing Minety reminded me that the Cotswolds route from Swindon to Cheltenham passes this way, shortly followed by the South Wales route at Brinkworth, and the Brunels Bristol route at Dauntsey.  These are all classic GWR routes, and confirmation that I was an awful long way from home in time if not a gigantic mileage, yet.  It was far enough though, and the excuse to stop for pictures or anything else was taken greedily and readily.  I sent a pic of Christian Malford’s sign to athlete work mate Luke and asked, “Not Christian Malcolm?” (the sprinter).  Luke appreciated the gesture.

The road to Chippenham stretched onwards and it was with a celebratory pic that I hit town, just before 9am.  Food, need food; Subway, excellent!  I sat alone watching people walking to work and found it amusing as they shot sideways glances at my fully laden bike outside then spying me watching them.

ImageGoodbye Wiltshire


After asking a taxi driver for the best way out of town I was soon taking a canter down the A4 to Corsham then hanging a left onto the Bradford on Avon road.  Does nobody know how good a Breakfast Sub is for rejuvenating a tired cyclist?  Pretty soon, all pretentions of holding back and saving myself for the road ahead were thrown in the bin, my heartrate sailed over the 140bpm mark and miles whizzed under my wheels.  Another pic was called for as I entered Somerset, and long straights on the B3109 perhaps point to a Roman history, does anybody know? 

With energy levels still high and a long descent into the Avon valley I was really enjoying myself.  Frome, and my headlong flight was cut short.  This lump of Somerset is built across a valley and two hills and did I know it?  Not only that, but its road signs are not conducive to accurate navigation.  I fancied sending a text to my spouse; no signal.  I’ve got to get out of here, but which way?  I eventually stumbled across the A359 and set off South West.

ImageHello Chippenham


The projected rain finally arrived with a vengeance.  For the whole ride I’d been against a gentle SW wind but at my pedestrian rate of knots it wasn’t too much bother.  Driving rain and gusty winds battering up against the SE corner of the Mendips on the other hand…my day just got a whole lot less savoury.  Once I’d adjusted to the rain and got a shower shell on I made steady progress and things looked up as I once again got some speed worked up towards Bruton and Castle Cary. 

Once more it was water stop time, and I was glad of the roadside shop at Lydford.  A very pleasant young lady took my money and took no notice as I mixed in the rain outside.  Getting going again the rain seemed to ease somewhat and I passed a guy walking, “I’d give you a lift if I had a spare seat.”  He laughed.  Soon I was through Somerton and Langport, and heading almost due South for Ilminster.  The rain had by now returned with renewed vigour and I got soaked through.  I thanked my shell for its windproof qualities if not waterproof!

ImageHello Somerset


After Ilminster my route called for zig-zagging across the A303 – one road I did NOT want to actually use.  From Donyatt, I turned right through Crock Street and found a whole new meaning to single track road.  The rain had washed every type of dirt, mud, gravel and road rubbish onto the road itself and these little used roads just held it ready for me to ride through/over/round etc.  Consulting a road map beforehand showed an almost straight unclassified road from Beetham to Hemyock – great.  Er, not so great actually.  Don’t ask me to find a route for you if you don’t like hills, this cross country route had the profile of saw teeth and I imagined several times that this was like a mini version of a Pyrennean stage in Le Tour.  My Garmin warned me at Ilminster it was on its last legs, and upon reaching the far side of the Blackdown Hills it cried enough.  I think the strain of recording all the altitude change finally did for it, but it did tell me I’d done 12h4m in the saddle and accumulated nearly 2800m of climbing to that point.  Happily by now the rain had stopped and I was beginning to dry out nicely.  The same couldn’t be said for the money in my bag, ahem!


Hemyock Road

Devon villages

By now I’d had enough of picture postcard villages now that the border from Somerset was crossed.  These places, such as Hemyock and Culmstock look lovely on the front of a box of biscuits but my appetite for them was seriously blunted.  It was now after 3.30PM and I needed some more food, not just another Clif bar.  The road to Cullompton joined the same valley as the M5, and I enjoyed hearing the noise and bustle after the relative silence of the previous 20 or so miles. 

One food outlet was open in Cullompton, and a 1/2lb cheeseburger was mine to consume at leisure.  The guy who served me was a touch nonplussed when I also asked for three bottles of water…I mixed my drinks sitting in the sun watching Devon town traffic, an old couple sitting on the next seat observing and nodding to each other.

ImageIs my road bike too long

Knees (not Christian again?)

The one thing I couldn’t allow for before the ride was whether my body would give out, and now it decided that now was the time.  My left knee, which is quite worn out after carrying me through a broken right leg historically, started to have a conversation with me.  It went something like…

Knee: you’ve gotta stop, this is quite unreasonable behaviour.

John: sorry, no can do

Knee: okay, have some pain

John: I notice the pain, but we’re carrying on

Knee: how do you fancy some more pain akin to someone trying to prise off your kneecap with a blunt screwdriver

John: ouch!

What had bothered me slightly leaving Kettering were the remains of a saddle sore, I’d soon learned to shift about on my saddle and by now it was no worries.

The B3181 parallels the M5 all the way into Exeter and but for my knee it would have been a most enjoyable ride.  I rattled through the East side of Exeter and found my way to Countess Wear interchange, and turned left for the coast road towards Kenton and Starcross.  Strangely I found that by pressing harder on my legs the knee pain was alleviated somewhat, only to flood back when I eased off, what a quandary?

ImageNever ending climb

Them Devon banks

This was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, but perversely the part I also dreaded.  I’ve ridden these roads a number of times and the hills are not for the feint hearted.  Also, a fully loaded road bike with 23-11 across the cassette doesn’t really help.  The first lump is encountered at Dawlish, each side of this beautiful corner of Devon are some fearsome grades.  I hauled my sorry butt up the first but swore at whoever decided to build the road straight across the next three hills before the drop into Teignmouth


ImageNot Christian Malcolm
Across Shaldon Bridge, the last but really nasty climb out of the Teign valley lay up ahead, up being the operative word!  It hurts, but I plugged away and each bend reached was a prayer that the uphill would stop.  It seemed not to but finally I got into the switchback around Maidencombe, and mixed it with the traffic heading for Torquay.  On the descent towards Torbay I had an Alpine stage moment, catching and trying to pass the van that had overtaken me at the top of the hill. Soon my speed was back to normal, and Ali rang as I dropped into the Harbour (not literally) at Torquay.  I’ll be with you in 15, and I was; it was 19.18 and I was all done.


Office, at speed

Distance recorded: - 236 miles

Elapsed time: - 19h14m

Time in saddle: - 16h22m

What hurt: - knees, soles of feet, bottom (duh!), shoulders, neck, heels of hands, ears.

What didn’t hurt: - my ego – I’d just ridden from Kettering to Paignton, happy boy!


Roman Road

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